• Українська
  • Русский
  • English
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

Olena Pchilka, star of Ukrainian revival

8 September, 2009 - 00:00

“How wonderful to see your country’s revival! / How sorrowful to watch the ruins of your dreams …” These lines from the poem Chervoni korohvy (Red Banners) were written in 1918—a sad period in the history of Ukraine — by Olena Pchilka (the pen name of Olha Petrivna Dragomanova-Kosach), a noted Ukrainian author and the mother of Lesia Ukrainka. The lines are surprisingly relevant today, with the same tragic overtones they had nearly a century ago.


Pchilka is a noticeable figure in the history of Ukrainian culture. A poet and prose writer, a researcher and a translator; she was versed in Ukrainian folklore and ethnography. She was also a publisher and mother of six talented children, two of whom became prominent Ukrainian litterateurs. Lesia Ukrainka gratefully and proudly described her mother as the best, wisest, and most talented world-class woman she knew.

Regrettably, this extraordinary personality remained obscure for a number of years in Soviet Ukraine. Liubov Drofan writes that for seven decades “those in power tried to erase all traces left by that lady,” because they could not forgive her uncompromising stand in regard to all things Ukrainian. She was accused of extreme nationalism, anti-Semitism; she was tagged as a bourgeois-liberal author. And all this for the simple reason that she loved her homeland and people, and that she remained true to this love all her life. Dmytro Dontsov referred to her a singular exception among those intellectuals “whose maimed souls… made them scared to defend their nation and culture.”

According to her birth certificate, Olena Pchilka was born on June 29, although her autobiography says July 17. Olha Kosach-Kryvniuk, one of her daughters, claimed she was born on June 17, 1849, to an aristocratic family in the city of Hadiach. The Drahomanov family tree is derived from a Greek who settled in Ukraine some time in the 17th century, joined the Cossacks, and was appointed drahoman, i.e., translator, by the Hetman.

Olha’s father, Petro Ya. Drahomanov, was a graduate of St. Petersburg University Law School and worked in this capacity for Russia’s military ministry. He was also interested in literature and wrote poems in Russian that appeared in print. He fostered in his children a love for science and belles-lettres.

Russian was then the official language, yet the Drahomanovs kept up the old Ukrainian tradition; they spoke Ukrainian at home, sang Ukrainian songs, and marked every red-letter day at their estate and in every serf’s home. It was thus a life-long love for Ukrainian culture and tradition was instilled in Pchilka and her brother Mykhailo Drahomanov.

This family atmosphere should be attributed primarily to Pchilka’s mother, Yelyzaveta Ivanivna. Olha Kosach-Kryvniuk had this to say about her grandmother: “She was the daughter of an aristocrat by the name of Ivan Tsiatska; she was a simple village maiden who could read and scrawl her signature, although she could not write… She was a witty, considerate, and active woman…” The children were tended to and raised by their mother who knew a great many Ukrainian folk songs. She had a beautiful voice and sang those songs to her children.

“She would sew and sing,” recalled Pchilka. “She would tell us folk tales and describe and explain old rites — that was the original source of learning our folkways. How could we have failed to know Ukrainian, considering that it was our element?… Ours was a natural Ukrainian environment.”

As the children grew, their father took over the schooling process. The Drahomanovs had five children, including two who eventually became prominent Ukrainian cultural figures: Mykhailo Drahomanov and Pchilka.

Pchilka received her basic education from her father in Hadiach. When she grew up, she was enrolled, as the tradition of the time dictated, in Kyiv’s Nelgowska College for Girls of Noble Birth, one of the best educational establishments of its time. The five-year curriculum included natural history, physics, history, courses in German and French, as well as literature. At 17 she wrote a humorous story about the adventures of a young lady and her hat on the Dnipro. It was her assignment for her German class, and it was even published by a German-language magazine. This was the literary debut of a female author who became known as Olena Pchilka.


In Kyiv Mykhailo Drahomanov got his sister involved with the Hromada Ukrainian intellectual organization. There she met Mykola Lysenko, Mykhailo Starytsky, Pavlo Zhytetsky, Oleksandr and Sofia Rusov, and other leading personalities of the time. She eagerly accepted the ideas of the “Ukrainophiles” and developed her own literary and aesthetic style.

As a young girl, Pchilka swore allegiance to Ukraine in a religious ritual, undertaking to do her utmost to serve her Mother Ukraine. In her twilight years she would confess that she did so having been influenced by her close friends, the Rashevsky family in Chernihiv, but mostly because of Yelizaveta Oleksandrivna.

Hryhorii Avrakhov, a noted researcher of Pchilka’s life, writes: “It all began with seemingly little things like wearing neat Ukrainian costumes — something her friend knew to a tee. It was in those ‘Chernihiv cultural center’ in Kyiv — the ‘older Ukrainian-type’ family of Opanas Markovych and his friends — that she was fortunate enough to meet Petro Kosach, then a student at the Kyiv University Law School and a Hromada member. They were wed on July 22, 1868, at the Church of the Exaltation of the Cross in Pyrohovo, a village in the vicinity of Kyiv.

Petro Kosach was born in 1841, to an aristocratic Cossack family. After graduating from Kyiv University, he was appointed head of a convention of arbitrators in the town of Novohrad-Volynsk. Olha Drahomanova-Kosach settled there with her husband, and it was there that she spent arguably the best years of her life. There she had her first children, Mykhailo, Larysa, and Olha. There she embarked on her research collecting Ukrainian embroideries, which she published under the title Ukrainskyi ornament (Ukrainian Ornamentation, 1876). Olha (known as Olena in Volhynia) was so enthusiastic about her ethnographic explorations that her husband told her she was a pchilka (honeybee) “because she works as one,” and “Pchilka” eventually became her pseudonym.

In Volhynia young Pchilka became an active public figure. She founded a small public library stocked with Ukrainian books (at a time when Ukrainian printed matter was banned in the Russian Empire). She went on trips abroad twice in the 1870s, including a visit to Lviv where she met Ivan Franko, Mykhailo Pavlyk, and other noted figures of Galicia. In 1872 Pchilka and her young daughter Lesia went to Vienna to meet with the author Natalia Kobrynska, the founder of the feminist movement in Western Ukraine. Pchilka contributed to her almanac Pershy vinok (The First Garland).

Owing to new official postings, the Kosach family moved to Lutsk and then to Kolodiazhne (1880) where they had three more children: Oksana, Mykola, and Izidora. There the family had their house built on a parcel of land they had bought and then another one, which they called the White House (currently the Lesia Ukrainka Museum). In view of Larysa’s physical condition and the adverse effect of Kolodiazhne’s damp climate, they had yet another house built near Hadiach and called it Zeleny hai, the Green Grove, where they would often spend summers.

Pchilka learned from her parents’ experience and paid utmost attention to the upbringing of her children. The Kosach family was dissatisfied with the existing system of education, primarily its bias toward Russification, so they educated their children themselves. Lesia Ukrainka thus received an encyclopedic education, as did her brothers and sisters, without ever attending school.

Avrakhov writes: “Olha Kosach/Pchilka assumed full responsibility for her children’s elementary education and demonstrated a singular pedagogical talent, … responsibility, and competence.” Eventually, her children continued to study at the gymnasium (high school).

In her Autobiography Pchilka wrote: “It seemed to me at the time that school would immediately ruin all my effort aimed at teaching my children using the Ukrainian language. That would be a road leading nowhere; later I saw that children properly raised and taught to speak Ukrainian could not be spoiled by this school.”

Liudmyla Starytska-Cherniakhivska compared herself to Mykhailo, Lesia, and other students their age and concluded that those who had been educated by their mother were “far more serious and better educated than the rest of us. They spoke and dressed differently. Although we also spoke Ukrainian, it was actually a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian we were flooded with at high school. Lesia and Mykhailo fluently spoke refined Ukrainian because that was the language of instruction used by their mother. And they wore a different type of clothes, for as long as I can remember; they always sported quality Ukrainian attire, with Mykhailo wearing the chumarochka gray overcoat and Lesia a jerkin over a Ukrainian embroidered blouse, her light hair always combed and held by a headband.”

Pchilka knew how to influence her children; she directed their education, keeping it on the ethnic basis. It was very hard to accomplish at the time — there was scarcely a textbook available in Ukrainian. Nevertheless, Mykhailo successfully passed all the five-year exams and eventually graduated from the gymnasium with highest honors. Due to her ailment Lesia never enrolled in the gymnasium, but her home education was superb, and she would study to add to her knowledge all her life.

As it was, Pchilka was also a tutor for other Ukrainian children for whom she wrote. In 1882 she published a collection of her translations Ukrainskym ditiam (For Ukrainian Children) in Kyiv. At the time she was among the first and most prominent children writers.

“The future of our homeland,” she wrote, “depends on whether we can raise a child as a friend or a foe of Ukraine, and much depends on what is inculcated in the family.” Pchilka dedicated much of her time and energy to the cause of raising Ukrainian children to “prevent them from becoming turncoats and instill respect for things our own.”

Pchilka was Ukraine’s first female poet to leave a trace in the history of Ukrainian culture. She started by translating Gogol, Pushkin, and Lermontov. In 1883 the almanac Rada published her poem “Kozachka Olena” (Cossack Woman Olena) in which she strove to portray a proud and freedom-loving woman who knew how to defend herself and her people. The book of verse Dumky – merezhanky (Thoughts – Embroideries, 1886) was published in Kyiv and contained her poems written in 1880–85. “The contents of this book are diversified,” she wrote in Autobiography, “including tendentious poems, biblical subjects, tales, jokes, and purely lyrical pieces all heaped together.”

In the second half of the 1880s Pchilka wrote poem “Rusalka” (Mermaid) stressing the impossibility of achieving happiness in society of the time. It was also then she wrote her poem “Orlove hnizdo” (Eagle’s Nest) aimed against tsarist Russia’s colonial policy. In 1898 Lesia Ukrainka wrote in a letter to her mother: “I think this one is the best of your poetic works.”


In the 1890s the Kosach family moved to Kyiv, where Pchilka immersed herself in Ukrainian public life as a Hromada activist. In Kyiv she organized a Ukrainian section of the Russian Literary and Artistic Society and held literary soirees together with Lysenko and Starytsky. She wrote in her memoirs that “at the time it was Kyiv’s only progressively oriented society.”

On Pchilka’s initiative the literary society Pleiada molodykh (The Young Pleiad) was founded in Kyiv in the 1890s. She wrote: “The Young Pleiad was our flesh and blood because some of those young litt rateurs were from our family. You know about Lesia, and there were also Mykhailo Obachny, my son, Starytsky’s daughter, Hrytsko Hryhorenko, and later the wife of my son Obachny.”

Maksym Slavynsky, one of the members, later recalled: “The Pleiad that formed around Pchilka after she had settled in Kyiv was different from student literary groups… She guided her group following a clear-cut plan.” In the first place, she wanted to unite the literary Ukrainian environment and lend Kyiv’s young literary circles a more European character, “thus pulling them away from Russian influence… and she got V. Samiilenko involved in this project,” wrote Slavynsky. She encouraged young men of letters to translate poetic and prose works by European authors of world acclaim, and made every effort to keep these translations on the highest level.”

Another contemporary wrote that Pchilka had become “a public or national mentor, in that she educated her compatriots, awakening in them national consciousness and showing with her activities and conduct an example of how to live and behave. The more conscious Ukrainians referred to themselves as ‘Ukrainophiles.’ She and her family were the first to abandon this appellation and use ‘Ukrainians’ instead, although Ukrainians were afraid to use the word at the time.” She was a spectacular figure in the eyes of Kyiv public and the city’s administration. The latter did not like her, felt a bit wary of her, but sincerely respected her.

Slavynsky recalled a case that showed the authorities’ attitude to Pchilka. He then lived in St. Petersburg and wanted to send a telegram to Pchilka in Kyiv, congratulating her on a landmark date in her literary career. The post office’s employee refused to accept the text that was written in Ukrainian send. Then his manager made an exception for “Mrs. Kosach,” because “even at a reception in the Governor General’s, where we met, she spoke to me in Ukrainian. The telegram was sent, contrary to regulations. There must have more cases of this kind, considering that even the Kyiv police spoke to Pchilka in Ukrainian.

She was a true champion of the Ukrainian cause in the dark Russian realm. She was staunch, uncompromising, consistent, and courageous. It suffices to recall that during the unveiling of a monument to Ivan Kotliarevsky in Poltava (1903), attended by Ukrainians from all over Ukraine, she was the only one from Naddniprovia to address the audience in Ukrainian, despite the authorities’ ban. This commanded admiration among her fellow countrymen and showed that, downtrodden and cautious as they were, it was possible to cast off fears and act in disobedience to the oppressor. In fact, hers was the first speech in Ukrainian delivered on an official occasion in Russia.

In 1905 she and I. Shrah were among the members of the Ukrainian delegation that saw Interior Minister Sergei Witte to persuade him to lift the ban on Ukrainian printed matter (enforced under the Ems Ukase).

As soon as censorship slackened somewhat, the periodical Ridny Krai (Native Land) was launched in Poltava. On the invitation of its founder M. Dmitriev Pchilka came to Poltava, leaving her family behind, and became an active member of the editorial board. At the same time, she published a supplement for children titled Moloda Ukraina (Young Ukraine). She dedicated a lot of energy and time to the publication of works by her colleagues, and she paid for the publication of Stepan Rudansky’s well-known Spivomovky (Singing Rhymes) out of her own pocket.

Pchilka lived at the Ridny Krai‘s editorial office on Krychevsky Street or, rather, the office was at her home. Ridny Krai was actually the only organ of the nationally conscious Ukrainian intelligentsia.

In April 1907 Pchilka became the Krai‘s editor and publisher. In April, as she later recalled, the administration and censors closed it because of its “harmful orientation.” Pchilka, however, resumed its publication in Kyiv, sustaining heavy financial losses, but persisting in her work. She not only edited and published her journal, but also wrote impassioned articles protesting against the trials over members of the First Duma, members of trade unions, and participants in mass rallies. She vigorously opposed atrocious punitive expeditions, and told the truth about the December 1905 tragic events in Velyki Sorochyntsi.

Ridny Krai published poems by Lesia Ukrainka and stories by Panas Myrny, Ahatanhel Krymsky, Liudmyla Starytska-Cherniakhivska, and Mykola Lysenko’s essay on Ukrainian folk instruments. Subsequently, the journal carried the first poems by Pavlo Tychyna and Maksym Rylsky, the first literary works by Ivan Le, Varvara Cherednychenko, Olena Zhurlyva, and other writers.

Pchilka was mostly involved in this weekly journal as a journalist, although she did not neglect other literary activities. As a prose author and playwright, she wrote memoirs and paid serious attention to folklore and ethnography. In 1908 she published a collection of stories and plays titled Svitova rich (Nothing Unusual). She is the author of memoirs about Starytsky, Lysenko, and Drahomanov. While on an expedition to Volhynia she recorded 12 unique carols and other folk songs that later appeared in print as a research article in monthly Kievskaia starina (Kyiv antiquity).


The early 20th century brought heavy personal losses to Pchilka: the death of her son Mykhailo (1903), her husband (1909), and her daughter Lesia Ukrainka (1913). Pchilka moved to Hadiach and moved the Novy Krai‘s editorial office there. In a letter to her daughter Pchilka wrote: “I’m leaving Kyiv and moving to Zeleny Hai, not for the summer but for good… I am taking with me Ridny Krai and Moloda Ukraina; I will publish them in Hadiach…”

She lived at Zeleny Hai, edited the Hadiach Zemstvo newspaper, wrote plays for children, organized an amateur children’s drama group, and published the collection Zeleny Hai. Illustrated Poems and Tales for Children. She also wrote a series of articles and essays on the artists O. Slastion and Ye. Trypilska entitled “The Unsure Way of Myrhorod School,” “The Halahan Home,” etc., that were published by Ridny Krai.

She treasured Zeleny Hai, this mesmerizing locality in Ukraine. In a foreword to Pchilka’s memoir of Drahomanov one finds a masterful description of a view seen from her mansion: “There is a wonderful landscape in Ukraine, rich as it is in scenic localities. You can see it from the top of a high hill in the ancient Hetman city of Hadiach.” This was followed by a portrayal of a landscape of unmatched poetic beauty.

Belarusian composer M. Shcheglov wrote about Pchilka’s residence in Hadiach: “Pchilka’s home was very tidy and likeable, especially her small study with bookshelves and a desk. On the shelves there were prose and poetic works, also many books on Ukrainian history… Talking to Pchilka was a real pleasure. Educated in Europe, this lady was very clever and possessed a broad cultural outlook. She had sharp wits and extensive experience. Her incredible erudition and ability to concentrate on what was being discussed attracted a great variety of people.”

After the 1917 revolution Pchilka, then 68, set about working in a new Ukrainian state with fresh zeal. She proposed attaching a commission to the Prosvita Society tasked with caring for children, because “whether a child grows up to be a friend or foe of Ukraine largely depends on how this child is brought up.”

She was a member of the Committee on the National Ukrainian Theater. The committee opened a Ukrainian drama school for workers in Kyiv, organized training courses for stage directors, an itinerant Ukrainian drama group, and so on.

Even after the national liberation effort was trampled under the Moscow boot, Pchilka did not lose heart or gave way to fear. She did not emigrate but stayed with her people, the way many others did, so as to work for its benefit.

In 1920, when all seemed frozen with horror in the face of the Cheka terror and prospects of being thrown in their dungeons, Pchilka draped a yellow-blue flag over a bust of Shevchenko during the official ceremony marking the poet’s anniversary in Hadiach. After the Bolshevik commissar Kramarenko tore off the flag she raised her hands and shouted, “Shame on Kramarenko!” (This is recalled by Petro Odarchenko, who was a student of hers in Hadiach).

In May 1920 a non-partisan peasants’ conference took place at the People’s Home in Hadiach. Pchilka took the floor, boldly and sharply criticizing the actions of the foreign occupation authorities, urging the peasants to resolutely struggle against the Bolsheviks. After that she was arrested and when after a great deal of effort she was released, she had to leave Hadiach and settle with her daughter Izidora in Mohyliv-Podilsky.

At the end of 1921 Pchilka was allowed to return to Kyiv, where, starting in 1924, she worked on various commissions of the Academy of Sciences. In 1925 she was elected member of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. At that time she wrote ethnographic essays and memoirs.

In 1929 arrests of Ukrainian intellectuals began as preparations were being made for a trial over the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine (SVU). Dozens of Pchilka’s friends and acquaintances who took part in the liberation movement were arrested by the GPU, which had replaced the Cheka. Of course, the secret police could not fail to omit Pchilka, but when they came with an arrest warrant for her, they found her bedridden, gravely ill, so there was no arrest. She stayed that way until Oct. 4, 1930, when the unvanquished soul left her frail body.

No flowers were sent from Ukraine and no one came to pay last respects and thank her for her indefatigable work for the good of her country. All conscious Ukrainians had been swept away to Siberia and the Solovets Islands after the SVU trial, except for a small group of people waiting their turn, and they attended the funeral. From among her friends only Mykhailo Hrushevsky dared address these words to the late Pchilka: “May you have eternal memory in your native land.” She found her last repose beside the grave of Lesia Ukrainka. Pchilka died at the age of 81, lonely but unvanquished.

A memorial plaque dedicated to Pchilka is located in Hadiach on the fa ade of the building in which she worked as the editor of Hadiach zemstvo newspaper Ridny Krai. Poltava authorities tore down the house in which she lived. Interestingly, there were a street and a lane named after Pchilka, but in 1954 all this became known as Panianka. Another triumph of “historical justice,” to be sure, except that there are still streets named after Lenin, Kosior, and Postyshev. No place to immortalize the name of a celebrated compatriot?

Her pseudonym, Olena Pchilka, may be translated as Light-Bearing Honeybee, and she remained true to it all her life.

Anatolii Chernov is the chairman of the Association of Tourist Guides of Poltava oblast.

By Anatolii CHERNOV