Ivan Franko died on May 28, 1916. If you know this, you are one of the few people in Ukraine who do. Franko is not unfamiliar to Ukrainians. But are we aware of the true magnitude of this writer? Do we understand Franko’s mission in life? During the years of independence have we reconsidered his role in the formation of the Ukrainian nation? Did we perhaps offend the dignity of the leader of Ukrainian intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20 century simply by calling him the “stonecutter”?
Ukrainian history is full of people like Franko, underrated or completely forgotten. Having chosen a few historic figures, such as the great Shevchenko or Khmelnytsky, Ukrainians distanced themselves from the others. The impression is that our nation’s love cannot embrace all its heroes. As The Day ’s editor in chief Larysa Ivshyna has noted, “It would be a good idea to institute a day of gratitude to all the great people who contributed to the formation of the Ukrainian people, so that we may recall our heroes at least on that day.”
Last year Ivan Franko National University of Lviv commissioned the Culture TV channel to make a film entitled Franko and the University . The completed film is a small step towards honoring this great Galician. It is shown to all first-year undergraduates during their initiation ceremony. True admirers of Franko’s works watched the film on the anniversary of his death.
In the following article the actor Bohdan Kozak, who is a member of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts, the Dean of the Faculty of Culture and Arts at Ivan Franko National University, and the director of the Maria Zankovetska National Theater of Lviv, recounts how Ivan Franko lived and died.
“It took quite a long time to make the film Franko and the University because the script had to be approved by a committee that included our rector Ivan Vakarchuk, now Ukraine’s education minister. Many Franko specialists worked on the film, and my job was to provide the narration. The roles were played by students from the Faculty of Culture and Arts and actors from the Zankovetska Theater. The actor who played him was the spitting image of the young Franko. This movie is shown to all incoming students when they are taking the oath, so that they will understand the place where they have entered and who Franko was. I was recently told that the film has been distributed in Ukrainian schools in the Diaspora.
“The film is a dramatized documentary, a very popular genre all over the world. It is called Franko and the University because Franko was once expelled from the university because of his political activity. After graduating from the University of Vienna and defending his doctoral dissertation, he applied for an associate professorship in Ruthenian Literature at our university. But he was denied this position, even though all the professors unanimously backed him — the Austrian authorities in both Lviv and Vienna had a different opinion. He applied for this position twice, but the emperor refused to give his consent. So it is only fair that the university should be named after him, because the spirit of Franko is hovering above it.
“He was a very interesting and daring person. When he arrived for his professorial thesis defense, he wore a tail-coat with an embroidered Ukrainian shirt. In addition to breaking the rules, he immediately announced who he was and what he would be talking about: his topic was Taras Shevchenko’s poem “The Servant Girl.” This was Franko’s challenge to society, and the university took a dim view of this.
“It is common knowledge that Franko had a difficult and stubborn character. It was not easy to sway him. When the Poles were erecting a monument to Mickiewicz in Lviv, he wrote a newspaper article entitled ‘Adam Mickiewicz, poet of treason.’ The Polish community of Lviv was deeply indignant, and Franko was fired from all his positions in the Polish press. In another incident, which took place during an upsurge of national feeling, he published a book of short stories in Polish. In the foreword he censured the Ukrainian Galician intelligentsia for inconsistency and spinelessness. This sparked great indignation in the Ukrainian community, and this time it was Ukrainian periodicals that refused to publish his articles. His actions occasionally revealed his bitter conflicts with public opinion.
“Franko used to say that he never wanted to be a writer or a poet; he only wanted to be a man. Today we also lack men, because a man is not someone who flaps his gums but who does concrete things; who works. He considered it his mission to work on behalf of the Ukrainian people. He once said that he had always worked for his people but had managed to do very little. So he wanted those who would come after him to do more for their contemporaries than he had.
“To a certain extent, poets are prophets. Both Shevchenko and Franko were seers. This is a very popular research subject today. Franko experienced visions and prophesies. He could describe scenes that later took place, as well as places, landscapes, and people. Scholars are now beginning to explore the psychology of his works that are built on presentiment and the ability to read the future. Franko possessed a divine gift.
“I would say that Franko was one great knot of pain. There was pain in his private and creative life. Only now are we beginning to grasp the true essence of Franko, a poet who was bestowed on our people not for the duration of a single era but for centuries — for eternity. Franko’s wide-ranging activities in various fields prove that he represents the Ukrainian people’s renaissance era. The nation was reviving and approaching independence in 1917, and Franko was the precursor of this independence. He is the spirit of the nation.
“His life and work are permeated with pain, which you can feel when you read him. Even his poem “Withered Leaves” is not purely lyrical, because he is a tragically dramatic writer. He raised Ukrainian poetry to dizzy heights, and there is heartache and unrequited love in each of his poems.
“When the war broke out, Franko’s son and daughter joined the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen and headed to the front. His wife, who suffered from mental illness, was in hospital. Franko suffered from arthritis and was taken to the Sich Riflemen’s hospital on the outskirts of Lviv. But in the fall of 1915 he heard a voice telling him to go home. His house was on the other side of Lviv. Imagine this sick man walking home across the city in the middle of the night together with his nephew. He arrived at daybreak. Meanwhile, all hell had broken loose in the hospital — nobody knew where Franko was. Once he was at home, he felt better. He then sat down and wrote his final poem:
To Zonia Yuzyzhynska
“Do not keep silent when / Lies clamor proudly, / When envy buzzes like a wasp, / Gloating over someone’s woes, / And slander hisses like a viper in the grass. / Do not keep silent!”
“This poem was written on Feb. 3, 1916. Franko died on May 28 at exactly 4 p.m. A clock in the museum was stopped at the moment of his death. When the residents of Lviv heard the news, his friend Heinrich Wigeleiser told the students at the gymnasium: ‘Go to Franko’s house and see how the dead Franko lies in his coffin. This genius of a poet is simple like our nation and as poor as our nation.’
“Ivan Franko was buried on May 31 at 5 p.m. Several choirs sang during the funeral, which was attended by Sich Riflemen paying their last respects to their Moses, their prophet.”