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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Aristocrat of the Spirit, Or Olha Kobylianska’s Blue Star

30 April, 2002 - 00:00

Ukraine has presumably decided to embark on the road of European integration. Granted: the strategic course is set, future vectors of progress ascertained. Europe, however, means not only politics and economics, but also a vast continent of spiritual values, whose history is over a millennium. Ukraine must enter the European space also spiritually. Here declarations, however impressive, will not suffice. We Ukrainians must realize that we have always been a part of European culture all the way from Prince Yaroslav the Wise to Hetman Sahaidachny to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Evidence of this is found in the names of dozens of outstanding Ukrainian cultural figures whose creativity matched every European and world standard. Among them was the charismatic, inwardly dramatic (outwardly reserved in quite the European style) figure of the celebrated Bukovyna writer Olha Kobylianska (1863-1942). Her stories and novellas are excellent proof that Ukrainian literature was capable of reaching a truly European level of psychology, aesthetic perfection, and humanistic principles even a century ago. Let us take a closer albeit brief look at the life and creative heritage of that “Bukovynan enchantress,” thus receiving an important lesson for ourselves.


How can one not sympathize with a talented, spiritually endowed girl who, since early childhood, played the piano, painted, and acted in amateur performances so well, and simultaneously conscious of her talent, was always painfully aware of her own solitude, isolation from the venues of world culture? (Olha was born in Hura-Humorului, a provincial Bukovyna town, currently in Romania.) To understand the atmosphere of the Bukovyna backwater province at the time, towns like Kimpolung, Siret, and others where young Olha lived (administratively in the east of Austria-Hungary), one must read the future writer’s diary.

This is what she wrote on December 29, 1884: “Oh, God, I am doing my utmost not to let the current of local cultural life pick and carry me along... It is horrible to be alone, to have no one to share ideas about things that interest you... Horrible. Why isn’t there a single intelligent individual here?” And an interesting excerpt from an early story titled “A Little Picture from the Life of Bukovyna,” which is biographical in many respects. The heroine thus describes the “cultured” public of the town of Kimpolung: “Literature, music, and other serious topics that have such importance for women, or any other problems refreshing one’s mind or capable of showing women a superior guideline – there was no trace of all this in Kimpolung. All those worshipping obsolete concepts and views filled with superstitions seemed to have joined in a conspiracy, selecting Kimpolung as their habitat. Eating, drinking, sleeping – such was the life motto of all those happy people.”

She had to live like that year after year: boredom, dullness, a wasted life... Youth was slipping away, yet the craving for lofty ideas and feelings only increased. But what lay ahead? Olha, then 24, polishing her literary mastery, wrote in her diary (this time in Ukrainian, not German as she had done as a young girl – and we will discuss that significant spiritual turning point later): “We are calmly observed by the mountains. They are so beautiful! Up in the mountains it is quiet, sorrow seems to slumber under every pine, every fir, and the forest holds its breath lest that sorrow awake. Here at the foot of the mountains people’s hearts are heavy with grief...” And later on, a cry from the heart of a writer grown mature in many ways yet constantly haunted by self-doubt: “Oh, my writings! My heart is torn at the thought of how consistently everything is being done to kill my talent. There are moments, hours when I think I am going mad. I must put aside all creative work and do nothing but believe like a devout nun... What will become of me? A nun? I don’t want to be a nun. There are many of them all over the world.” (Diary, 03.12.1891) Where did that woman with a fragile, vulnerable soul find the strength to become a great writer, a gem of not only Bukovyna, but also Ukrainian literature? What made her become what she did?


In her three autobiographies (1903, 1926, and 1928 editions) Olha Kobylianska introduces us into the atmosphere of childhood and adolescence. It was a large family. Their father was a small-time government clerk working in a half-German, one-third-Romanian environment. “I studied for a while, learning to write and to read; not much grammar. And then I quit; the family could not afford my tuition,” she recalls. “There were older brothers in the family and their study at high school had to be paid for, so the gate of knowledge was closed to the girls.”

The only thing that kept Kobylianska afloat was the shining image of her mother, staying with her all her life, without whom she would have never reached her creative summits. “What our father failed to instill in his children with his taskmaster’s attentiveness... was bestowed by our mother’s calm intellect, gentle prodding, stroking our hair in approval and encouragement – and everything was suddenly easy to do. She was soft spoken and deep thinking, seldom opening her pure lips... And just as quietly and effectively she helped our father raise their children. He worked like a slave, being a junior clerk at his bureau. And she was always there, all those 45 years, toiling without days off and holidays, staying up nights, so her children could at least glimpse the bright world of spirituality and culture.”

What made that girl, growing under the tangible influence of German culture (she adored Goethe, Schiller, and Heine, knew their works by heart – in the language of the original – and wrote her first stories in German), turn into a real poet of the Ukrainian word, a master that would spend years polishing here brilliant short stories (“The Battle,” “The Uncultured Woman,” “ Valse Melancolique...”), feeling every word with the tip of the needle of her intellect and breathing life into it with the radiant warmth of her heart? Young Olha met Sofiya Okunevska- Morachevsk, one of Bukovyna’s most educated women and a Ukrainian patriot. This acquaintance played a very important role in the process. Kobylianska recalls that Sofiya told her, then an 18-year-old girl, “I hope you will not want to write in German all the time. After all, you are Ukrainian and you should write in Ukrainian. Don’t tell me you don’t know the language. You speak good Ukrainian and you will improve your knowledge by reading more Ukrainian books.”

We hear now and then cynical allegations about the Ukrainian national idea having exhausted itself, that it can no longer be the motive force of social progress. Kobylianska left us her legacy which she created for so long and with so much suffering. Her literary works are the best refutation of such insinuations. Her letter to Ivan Franko (1898) shows just how deeply she was concerned about Ukraine: “It is such a shame! You, me, Lesia Ukrainka, and a lot of other people living in their native land are considered foreigners to each other, because there is no such place name as Ukraine, we have instead Austria and Russia that have torn Ukraine into pieces like an old rag. And we have to beg the intruder that burst into our home to allow us to move from one place to the next.” Olha Kobylianska was a true aristocrat of the spirit, and this is not so much because of her cultural finesse as an ability and decide to surmount obstacles on the road to a lofty objective.

Lesia Ukrainka, her friend and sister in spirit, was keenly aware of this. She wrote: “Who has the strength to walk on sharp stones will always walk the distance required to reach something far more elevated than that which one can obtain after walking a straight and smooth road. And there is someone (that was how Lesia referred to Olha in her letters) that has the strength and ability... That someone does not come from the plebeians but is of noble blood and because of this must temper against fire rather than break apart... There is someone with a spark in the heart and fire in the soul; this may not bring happiness but something bigger and higher than happiness, something which has no appellation in the human tongue.”

Vasyl Stefanyk offered the best description of Kobylianska’s creativity: “You can write so that, after reading your little work, my eyes grow kinder like a baby’s . You conceal in yourself all the sharp angles that could wound others.”