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Ukraine’s 30: prominent Ukrainians who changed the country and the world. Part 3: Literature

Ukraine’s 30: prominent Ukrainians who changed the country and the world. Part 3: Literature
In celebration of 30 years of the Independence of Ukraine we publish a series dedicated to 30 prominent Ukrainians who changed Ukraine and the world they lived in. Part 3 is dedicated to well-known figures in the literary community, from Hryhoriy Skovoroda, a philosopher who preached self-examination and self-knowledge to internationally acclaimed writer and civic activist Serhiy Zhadan.

On August 24, 2021, Ukrainians celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Independence of Ukraine, a landmark date in Ukraine’s nation-building journey.

On July 16, 1990, the new Ukrainian parliament adopted the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine, which established the principles of self-determination, democracy, independence, and the priority of Ukrainian law over Soviet law.

On December 1, 1991, Kyiv held a nation-wide referendum whereby over 90% of the population expressed support for the Act of Independence… and August 24 was officially adopted as Independence Day.

But, what is required for a country to become an independent state? One might argue the following points, but four main factors contribute to state-building: a people, a territory, a government, and the ability to conduct relations with other states on a sovereign basis. Ukraine has all of these, although some territories – Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts – are currently occupied by Russia.

People are one of Ukraine’s most valuable assets, and today we focus on 30 prominent Ukrainians who, in one way or another, contributed to the transformation and development of Ukraine and the world in their relevant fields. You may argue that some were citizens of the Soviet Union, others left Ukraine and gained fame and fortune in another country. However, they have one thing in common – all were born, raised and educated in Ukraine and contributed at some point to changing the course of human history.

The list is not exhaustive, of course, and you may want to argue with our choices…

Today, we look at eight personalities of the literary community.

Hryhoriy Skovoroda, Ukrainian Socrates, philosopher and wanderer

Hryhoriy Skovoroda (1722-1794) was an outstanding Ukrainian philosopher, theologian, poet, nomad and Christian humanist. After his studies, Skovoroda taught poetics, ethics Greek and syntax in Kharkiv College. After his dismissal from the college, he decided to spend the rest of his life wandering about eastern Ukraine, especially Slobodivska Ukraine, and devoting himself to reflection and writing.

Skovoroda had a profound mind, a phenomenal memory, and played several musical instruments. Along with Russian and Ukrainian, he was fluent in Hebrew, German, Latin and Greek, and translated works of Cicero and Plutarch from Greek into Ukrainian.

Often called the “Ukrainian Socrates”, he had a significant influence on his contemporaries and succeeding generations, while his works contributed to the cultural heritage of modern-day Ukraine. “Know thyself”, he preached, proclaiming that only through self-examination, self-knowledge and hard, natural work can one finds one’s true calling and lead a truly happy and satisfying life. To pursue one’s task regardless of external rewards is to be happy, while to pursue wealth, glory, or pleasure through uncongenial work is to be in despair.

Skovoroda preferred to use symbols, metaphors or signs instead of well-defined philosophical concepts to convey his meaning. Moreover, he delighted in contradiction and often left it to his readers and followers to find their way out.

A mystic and a free spirit, Skovoroda requested that the following epitaph be placed on his tombstone:

“The world tried to catch me, but could not!” (Світ ловив мене, але не впіймав)

Taras Shevchenko, Bard of Ukraine, symbolic leader in Ukraine’s fight for human rights and freedoms

Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) is known as the “Ukrainian Kobzar”, the “Bard of Ukraine”, a man who spoke and continues to speak to Ukrainians everywhere. A former serf, Shevchenko became a recognized poet, prose writer, playwright, artist, ethnographer and public figure.

But most of all, Shevchenko wrote and dreamed of a time when his country would become an independent sovereign state, when Ukrainian history, language and culture would be respected, and when Ukrainians would unite in action and thought. Shevchenko’s stand was unequivocal, and he exhorted all his compatriots to stand together:

“Love  your  dear  Ukraine,  adore  her,
Love  her . . .   in  fierce  times  of  evil,
In  the  last dread  hour  of  struggle,
Fervently  beseech  God  for  her.”

Shevchenko holds a unique place in Ukrainian cultural history and in world literature. Through his writings, he laid the foundations for a fully functional modern Ukrainian literature. His poetry contributed greatly to the growth of Ukrainian national consciousness, and his impact on various facets of Ukrainian intellectual, literary, and national life is still felt to this day.

Shevchenko is one of the most published authors in the world. His poems have been translated into more than a hundred languages, even Esperanto. Over 1,400 monuments to the Ukrainian genius have been erected in 35 countries. Throughout the Revolution of Dignity, as well as during Russia’s war in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Taras Shevchenko, along with Lesia Ukrainka and Ivan Franko, has been implicitly present as a symbolic leader in Ukraine’s fight for rights and freedoms. In his majestic poem Kavkaz, he states:

“Fight on – and you shall prevail!
God helps you in your fight!
For fame and freedom march with you,
And right is on your side!”

Nikolai Gogol, one of the greatest writers of the 19th century

Mykola Hohol (Nikolai Gogol) (1809−1852) was a Ukrainian writer who wrote mostly in Russian. Born in Sorochyntsi, Poltava Governorate, Gogol travelled to St, Petersburg in search of fame and fortune. His first stories and novels were not received so well, so he left Russia in 1836 and lived abroad, mostly in Rome, until 1849, when he returned to Russia.

Gogol wrote colourfully, dramatically and playfully about Ukrainian life and reality, and his early works, such as Evening on a Farm near Dikanka, Myrhorod and later Taras Bulba, were influenced by his Ukrainian upbringing, Ukrainian culture and folklore.

Writing to his mother, who lived in a distant Ukrainian village, Gogol asked her to tell him about forgotten traditions, rites and customs, which he later used in his St. Petersburg period of creativity.

Although Gogol basically wrote in the Romantic style, his use of metaphor, hyperbole, and ironic grotesque is truly masterful. His satiric portrayals and sharp, biting tone are especially interesting in The Inspector General and the Dead Souls.

Gogol was the first writer of the so-called Ukrainian school in Russian literature to employ lexical and syntactic Ukrainianisms, primarily to play with various stylistic levels from the vulgar to the pathetic.

Gogol’s works have been translated into many languages. He is one of the greatest writers of the 19th century, a master of the Romantic genre, especially Romantic grotesque, and also a preeminent figure of Romantic realism in European literature.

Ivan Franko, prolific writer and Renaissance man nominated for Nobel prize

Ivan Franko (1856–1916) was a writer, scholar, political and civic leader, publicist, and like Taras Shevchenko and Lesia Ukrainka, one of Ukraine’s greatest creative thinkers and national symbols. In 1916, Franko was nominated as a candidate for the 1916 Nobel Prize in Literature, but he died before the nomination materialized.

In the forty years of his creative activity, Franco published eleven poetry collections, hundreds of short stories, and ten dramatic works. He became the first Ukrainian writer to earn his living by writing.

Franko was arrested three times, once for belonging to a secret socialist organization, then for supporting the peasantry and finally for “socialist agitation”. In 1890, he was one of the founders of the first Ukrainian political party, the Ruthenian-Ukrainian Radical Party, and in 1898 became its first chairman.

As an ethnographer, Franko organized many volumes of folklore, published several important works on the literature, history, economics of Ukraine.

Ivan Franko was a great poet and prose writer, and in his works, he resolutely promoted national pride and identity. The themes of his literary works were drawn from the life and struggle of his people. He is, therefore, considered one of the architects of the Ukrainian nation.

“I am a son of the people. I was nourished on the hard bread of the simple peasant. That’s why I feel it’s my duty to devote my life’s work to those common people. I have placed the emphasis on universal human rights, for I know that by achieving such rights, a people also wins its national identity.”

Lesia Ukrainka, feminist poet, whose dramatic poems reflect her indomitable spirit and will to live   

Lesia Ukrainka (1871–1913) was an early feminist poet, playwright, short-story writer, essayist, and critic, a prominent woman writer in Ukrainian literature and like Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko one of  Euromaidan’s leading symbols in Ukraine’s fight for freedom.

Lesia was afflicted with tuberculosis in 1881 and travelled widely in search of a cure. Her early lyrical verse dealt with loneliness and social alienation, but expressed a great love of freedom, especially national freedom.

Lesia Ukrainka enriched Ukrainian poetry with a variety of universal themes and many poetic genres. Her dramatic poems – The Stone Host, A Woman Possessed, Kassandra, Babylonian Captivity – are regularly staged. In these poems, Lesia calls on Ukrainians to rid themselves of apathy and inertia; she abhors compromise and passivity and in her captivating dramatic poem, The Boyar Woman, she proclaims that only through armed struggle can Ukraine overcome Russian imperialism.

Based on national folk songs and fairy tales, Lesia’s famous dramatic poem Forest Song has become a classic of Ukrainian literature.

Lesia Ukrainka was fluent in many languages and translated the monumental Indian classic Rigveda, as well as Heinrich Heine, Adam Mickiewicz, Victor Hugo, Lord Byron, William Shakespeare and Homer.

Despite the suffering caused by her illness, Lesia had a tremendous love of life and strength of spirit, which she translated into the figure of Mavka the forest nymph in Forest Song:

“No! I’m alive, I will live forever! I have in my heart that which does not die…”

Vasyl Stus, unsurpassed poet and eternal symbol of Ukraine’s fight for freedom

Vasyl Stus (1938–1985) was a poet, translator, literary critic, journalist, member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group for the Protection of Human Rights, and an active member of the Ukrainian dissident movement.

Vasyl Stus was born in Vinnytsia Oblast, but his family moved to Stalin (Donetsk) in 1939. For most Ukrainians, the name of Vasyl Stus is linked to the fight for national identity, culture and language. In just 47 years of his short life, he wrote an enormous number of works in verse and prose, translated world classics into Ukrainian.

Stus took a strong pro-Ukrainian position under the totalitarian regime of the USSR, which resulted in his dismissal from graduate school and two prison terms. The poet spent 13 years in Soviet prisons. He was not allowed to meet his relatives; his poems, letters and manuscripts were confiscated; he was tortured and psychologically abused.

“In fact, I was convicted of striving for national justice. My love for my native land, my concern for Ukrainian culture, were qualified as nationalism.” wrote Stus in July 1976.

In his trial in September 1980, the state appointed the odious Viktor Medvedchuk as his defense lawyer. As an obedient tool of the totalitarian regime, Medvedchuk frankly admitted Stus’s “guilt”. As a result, Stus was sentenced to ten years in a maximum security camp and five years exile.

Vasyl Stus was exiled to a prison camp in Kuchyno, Perm region. He went on a dry hunger strike and on September 4, 1985 was found dead in his cell. The probable cause was hypothermia and physical exhaustion.

His death was concealed until October 1985, and the body was hastily buried in the prison cemetery. Relatives were allowed to rebury his remains in Kyiv at the Baikove cemetery in November 1989.

In 2005, Vasyl Stus was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine.

Lina Kostenko, Ukrainian dissident poet termed “conscience of the nation”

Lina Kostenko 17.03.2005

Lina Kostenko (born 1930) is a prominent contemporary poet, one of the earliest and most outstanding of the Shistdesiatnyky (Sixtiers).

Lina Kostenko’s first poems were published in the early 1950s, but she made her real debut in the circle of the Sixtiers. In 1962, Soviet censors banned her collection Zoriany Integral (The Stellar Integral), labelling it as ideologically harmful and lacking in socialist realism. However, her poems found their way to the West and were published in 1969.

In 1965 and 1968, Kostenko signed several open letters protesting the arrests and secret trials of Ukrainian intellectuals and dissidents. In 1973, due to her public activities, she was included in the “black lists” of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Her poetry was not published in Ukraine again until 1977.

Kostenko’s uncompromising stance led to many years of persecution and prohibition by the Soviet authorities. Despite such difficulties, she did not stop working, in particular on her most famous dramatic poem – Marusia Churai, where she depicts the tragic fate of a semilegendary figure in Ukrainian history against the background of the Kozak-Polish war (1648–57).

Lina Kostenko has written over 20 poetry collections, a historical novel in verse and a poem. Her poems have been translated into many languages. Her prose novel Notes of a Ukrainian Madman, which was published in 2010, became a Ukrainian bestseller.

“And you thought that Ukraine was so easy to understand? Ukraine is great. Ukraine is exclusive. Throughout history, others have bulldozed through Ukraine. Ukraine has endured endless trials and tribulations. My country is tough. In today’s world, that’s priceless!” one of her many famous quotes.

And another prophetic citation:

“…the worst is not that everything might change, but that everything remains the same!”

Lina Kostenko lives and works in Kyiv. For her active artistic reaction to moral issues, she is often called the “conscience of the nation”.

Serhiy Zhadan, internationally acclaimed writer and poet, civic activist

Serhiy Zhadan (1974 – ) is an internationally acclaimed poet, writer, essayist, musician and translator. His novels, dramas and poetry have been translated into many languages, German, English, Estonian, French, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, etc.

Born in Starobilsk, Luhansk Oblast, Zhadan is a strong advocate of the Donbas. Thanks to his writings, many people have come to know this eastern region, with its coal mines, slag heaps, industries, steppes and love of freedom where, as he writes in one of his poems: “everything that passes through your conscience beats in time with your heartbeat”.

Zhadan’s verses revolutionized Ukrainian poetry and his novel Voroshilovohrad, published in 2010 and titled after the old Soviet name for the city of Luhansk, was considered a manifesto of Ukraine’s 1980s and 1990s generation. This book won the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in Switzerland, BBC Ukrainian’s Book of the Decade award and the Brücke Berlin Prize.

Since his student days in Kharkiv, Serhiy Zhadan has been actively involved in political movements. He took part in the 2004 Orange Revolution and joined the coordination council of Euromaidan Kharkiv, part of the nationwide Revolution of Dignity in 20013-20014.

Zhadan’s creative world is permeated by themes from Ukraine’s eastern regions. He describes all aspects of the war and life in the Donbas, from its bleak landscapes to its desperate people living on the fringes and drifting refugees deprived of their homeland.

“We will never return to our late-night stores.
We will never drink from dry wells.
We will never again see familiar faces.
We are refugees. We must run in the night.” 

Serhiy Zhadan lives and works in Kharkiv.

Read parts 1 & 2:

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