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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

The cross of a great Ukrainian woman

28 February, 2006 - 00:00

Sofia Rusova, nПe Lindsfors, the founder of Ukrainian preschool pedagogy and an outstanding public figure and stateswoman of Ukraine, was born on Feb. 18, 1856, in the village of Oleshnia, Ripkyn district, now Chernihiv oblast. Her father was a Swede and her mother of French origin. Sofia first heard about Ukraine from the songs that her nanny sang next to her cradle. All her life she would remember the abolition of serfdom, the day when their servants’ eyes were literally shining with happiness. Shortly afterwards, her father Fedir Lindfors became a justice of the peace and an honest defender of peasants’ rights. When Sofia was 10 years old her mother died and the family moved to Kyiv, where the girl completed Funduklei High School.

Sofia Rusova went down in history as a prominent Ukrainian pedagogue and author of the concept of national education. But it was not until a few decades ago that her pedagogical works, memoirs, and diary became accessible to the general public in Ukraine. It took a long time for Rusova to gain recognition. Owing to her musical talent she met Mykola Lysenko, and thanks to her father’s activities she became acquainted with Ukrainian patriots and the Starytsky family. After the death of her father, Sofia and her sister Maria followed in his footsteps and set up Ukraine’s first kindergarten in Kyiv.

When the tsarist government launched an onslaught on all things Ukrainian and announced that “no Little Russian language existed, exists, or will ever exist,” the Ukrainian community decided to publish the complete Kobzar in two volumes, including some previously censored and thus virtually unknown texts. This dangerous and honorable task was assigned to the Rusov couple, who were supposed to go to Prague to realize this project: a banned book could only be printed abroad. Professor Fedir Vovk furnished Shevchenko’s manuscripts that were purchased from the poet’s brothers with money donated by well-to-do Ukrainians. This enabled the Rusovs to live for a time in Prague, where they worked enthusiastically on the publication of the complete Kobzar and then illegally sent the book to Ukraine.

When Rusova got an opportunity to study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, she sacrificed her music career in order to serve the people. “I sealed my fate then. I abandoned music and took up schooling. How many times I would later deplore this decision, when routine teaching left me cold, how many times I would quit it and seek solace in literary pursuits, only to find that I lacked talent for this! In all kinds of circumstances life called me back to this ‘pedagogy’,” Rusova writes in her memoirs.

Harassed by the tsarist authorities and unable to work for the Ukrainian cause, the Rusovs had to buy a plot of land and settle among the peasants near the railway station of Doch in the county of Borzen in the Chernihiv region. From then on the Rusovs lived among the common folk, managed their own household, and were engaged in enlightenment activities. Having completed a medical course, Rusova would often offer first aid to the peasants. Meanwhile, her husband’s job as a statistician required traveling on business, and Sofia would often visit him with the children. The couple’s links with the Narodna Volia (People’s Will) revolutionary organization led to their arrest. The Rusovs were jailed on several occasions, and their son Mykhailo soon joined this clandestine work and did not escape imprisonment either. The family lived in Odesa, Kyiv, and then Kharkiv, where Oleksandr Rusov had to move as his job required.

In Kharkiv Rusova headed the revived Literacy Society. The society funded the publication of Rusova’s Russian-language works: Sister Kateryna, The Wanderer Hryhoriy Savvych Skovoroda, and Brotherhoods in South-Western Rus’. Not all Ukrainian patriots were favorably disposed toward this organization and Rusova personally, as they considered her activities as contribution to the Russification of Ukrainians. Yet Rusova was convinced that the Russian language could also serve the Ukrainian people, who had to use this language in Moscow schools because their mother tongue was banned. In her view, no knowledge can be a burden, for it helps to remove one’s blinkers and rouse consciousness in general as well as “a sense of identity of all peoples and every nation.” Mykhailo Drahomanov and his followers adhered to the same principle, while Borys Hrinchenko and Olena Pchilka did not share this viewpoint and called Rusova a Muscophile, which was hardly conducive to the Ukrainian cause in those difficult times.

To keep the Rusovs under better surveillance, the tsarist government made the couple move to St. Petersburg. Ironically, this encouraged not only the enlightenment and publishing activities of this patriotic family. Thanks to Rusova, a congress of the peoples of the Russian Empire was held in 1905, whose participants debated their independent cultural and economic development. The following year Rusova wrote and published A Ukrainian Primer, and in 1910 she edited Svitlo, the first Ukrainian pedagogical journal that existed until 1914, when it was banned. At the same time Rusova devoted herself to her calling — teaching: she taught at the Commercial Institute, conducted a preschool education course at Frebel Institute, and then took part in the world congress of journalists and publishers in Brussels.

The February 1917 Revolution inspired Rusova with the hope that Ukrainian national pedagogy would receive an impetus. She was a member of the Central Rada and headed the departments of external and preschool education at the Ministry of Education of the Ukrainian National Republic. Appointed to head the All-Ukrainian Teachers’ League, in her teaching and literary pursuits Rusova focused on establishing a national system of teaching and upbringing. “The aspirations of all peoples to secure political and cultural independence will lead them to the national school, for it is common knowledge that a nation that has gone through this kind of school will be stronger than another nation that has not,” Rusova said.

In early 1919 the entire Ukrainian government, including Rusova, was evacuated to Kamyanets-Podilsky, and the Ministry of Education was located at the university. In the last years of Ukrainian statehood Rusova worked productively at the Red Cross, saving the lives of many Ukrainian prisonersz-of-war. In Soviet times, this Ukrainian patriot continued to dream about the national development of pedagogy. Rusova was invited to work at the Kyiv-based Borys Hrinchenko Institute. She was disturbed, however, by the changes that had occurred in her colleagues’ mentality in 1919-1920. “We, old friends, held totally opposing opinions about not only political but also moral things. Life seems to have forged two different types of Ukrainians: both are patriotic, but one has already adapted to the hardest conditions of life and even stooped to collaborating with the bitterest enemy, while the other still adheres to the old traditions and the old moral and political credo; he will even accept evacuation or exile in order not to forgo this credo and not to make a compromise with this life,” she wrote. Rusova herself was soon one of “the others.” She went abroad together with her granddaughter Olha. On the third attempt they finally managed to make the illegal crossing of the river Zbruch.

In Prague Rusova founded the Ukrainian Teacher-Training Institute, headed the Ukrainian Women’s Council, and participated in a series of international women’s congresses. In the 1920s Rusova published several manuals, including The Theory and Practice of Preschool Education and Geography: Europe and the Non-European Countries. One of Rusova’s main goals was to propagate the idea of Ukrainian independence and search for the followers of this idea in Western Europe. Thanks to her efforts, foreign countries sent relief supplies to the starving children of Ukraine.

Whoever speaks about Rusova in exile recalls Symon Petliura, who declared he was happy that she could now travel throughout Europe and tell the truth about Ukraine. Rusova was already elderly when she went into exile, and her situation was sometimes so unbearable that she contemplated suicide. Still, the belief and conviction that she must live and continue to work for the future of Ukraine prevailed, and Rusova bore her cross like a great Ukrainian. She was engaged in civic and pedagogical activities until her death. It is she who authored this simple maxim about national education, which was considered “seditious” in Soviet-occupied Ukraine: “Loving his national culture, the child will also respect other nations, take an interest in their life, and learn to seek and find in common human culture the artistic, scholarly, and moral treasures that he can consider his own, for they were not imposed on him from outside but organically instilled in his heart.”

Rusova lived in Prague until her death on Feb. 5, 1940. She was buried at Olsanske Cemetery near the grave of the well-known Ukrainian poet Oleksandr Oles. Residents of Oleshnia in Chernihiv oblast still remember their famous countrywoman. The village has a museum and hosts scholarly-practical workshops dedicated to the birth anniversaries of this renowned Ukrainian enlightener and pedagogue.

By Serhiy HUPALO, journalist, Volyn oblast