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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 Pioneer of Ukrainian Feminism

The 150th birth anniversary of Natalia Kobrynska
5 July, 2005 - 00:00

The outstanding public figure and writer Natalia Kobrynska was born on June 8, 1855, in the village of Beleluyi, Sniatyn district, in what is now Ivano-Frankivsk oblast. No one in Rev. Ozarkevych’s family could have imagined that some day the charming little girl would grow up to be a “hell-raiser,” who would implement her daring and progressive ideas not just as a writer but also as a public figure. Already in her early youth Natalia noted the incongruity, even in Christian books, that women must submit to their husbands. The path to spiritual maturity and full awareness of her goal and principles tested her patience, and it took resilience on her part to ignore the gossip. A study of the writers of the positivist school sparked anxiety in Kobrynska, who realized that, although the social system was in no way indestructible, it was very difficult to change it. Natalia’s life was marked by an inner duality: with other people she expressed certain views, but kept her real thoughts to herself. Among those who fully shared her views was her husband Teofil, but their marriage lasted for a mere six years. The death of her husband was an irreparable loss to Kobrynska, who then moved from Sniatyn to Bolekhiv to live with her parents. She spent her next years living in this picturesque town at the foot of the Carpathians and making frequent trips abroad.

Thanks to her father, Natalia Kobrynska received a good, albeit informal, education. Later, another prominent feminist, Olha Kobylianska, had a similar upbringing. Incidentally, it was Kobrynska who persuaded her to write in Ukrainian rather than German.

Also thanks to her father, Kobrynska visited Vienna, Geneva, and other Western European cities, where she met many well-known men of letters, including Ukrainians. The one who exerted the greatest influence on her was Ostap Terletsky, a political writer and literary scholar, who was a friend of Ivan Franko. In 1883 she wrote a short story called “Shuminska” (later renamed “The Spirit of the Times”) and one year later, the novella “For a Piece of Bread.” At the time Kobrynska believed that her lifelong goal should be to implement feminist ideas through literature. This detail is important as far as Kobrynska’s further pursuits are concerned. Commenting on her political writing, Ivan Franko often emphasized that it could not have as profound an effect on women’s emancipation as her fiction.

An important landmark in Kobrynska’s life was the year 1884, when she initiated the creation of the Society of Ruthenian Women in Stanyslaviv. “We have set a goal to promote women’s ideas via literature, for the latter is the best way to show the bright and dark sides of our social system, its requirements and drawbacks,” stated the program documents of the newly-formed organization. Kobrynska and her associate Ulyana Kravchenko argued that they had founded an effective literary and popular enlightenment organization despite its members’ slender financial means. The Society of Ruthenian Women was to keep track of current literary trends and convey them as quickly as possible to the grassroots so that the people would have a clear picture of the situation of women. This was supposed to produce a far greater effect than philanthropy. In a letter to Hanna Barvinok, Kobrynska wrote about the plight of women: “Since our women have no access to higher learning, the only way for them to improve their knowledge is to read books, which still cannot produce the desired results. For reading does more harm than good not only to Ruthenian but also Polish women because they read indiscriminately, whatever they come across. Our women are still absorbed by the ideas of the Romantic school, and they reject all newer and more realistic things as wicked and immoral.”

The writer lived in Bolekhiv for more than 30 years, frequently traveling abroad and corresponding with well-known public figures and authors, such as Ivan Franko, Mykhailo Pavlyk, and Ivan Nechuy-Levytsky. In 1887, together with Olena Pchilka, she published Pershyi vinok (The First Garland), a journal for women. This literary collection was criticized by various political and cultural figures, including radicals, who objected to the blending of feminist and socialist ideas. The publishers were encouraged by the support of Ivan Franko. Lesia Ukrayinka also published her poetry in Pershyi vinok. Kobrynska entertained the idea of uniting not just the women of Galicia but all of Ukraine. This was a time when Western Ukrainian intellectuals were rejecting the influence of Polish culture, embracing their own national identity, and turning their hearts and eyes to their brothers in Central and Eastern Ukraine. Since popular enlightenment was usually the preserve of priests and their children, education minister Goluchovski instructed theological seminaries to reduce the admissions quotas for Ukrainians. The historic value of this journal lay in the fact “that our women in the vast expanses of Rus’-Ukraine, especially well-educated ones, should feel themselves both Ruthenian and human and be able to defend their national and civil rights.” From the viewpoint of a highly-educated person, this was nothing unusual. According to Kobrynska, this was the duty of a well-bred person, not a prerogative, and it also entailed other responsibilities.

When Kobrynska felt a “shortage of oxygen,” she went to Switzerland for a year, where she attended university lectures. She also dreamed of meeting Mykhailo Drahomanov and Boleslaw Limanowski, remembering her encounter with Ostap Terletsky. In Zurich the young writer was greatly impressed with the lectures on political economy, which were delivered by the distinguished German, Professor Julius Platter.

After returning to Bolekhiv, Kobrynska continued her public activities, launching a petition demanding the right of women to study at universities and lyceums, and submitting to the Galician Sejm a number of proposals on the rights of peasants. In 1893-1896 Kobrynska was engaged in publishing. Her publishing house Zhinocha Sprava (Women’s Cause), issued three volumes of the collection Our Destiny. Lesia Ukrayinka and Ivan Franko had a high regard for this extraordinary undertaking. In order to improve the effectiveness of her publishing venture, Kobrynska moved to Lviv in the hopes that this glorious city would provide better conditions for her to popularize feminist ideas. But the Galician women were deaf to her ideas. The indifference of the women whom she encountered had an adverse effect on the writer, and she returned home. Kobrynska did not write much in Bolekhiv. She was often visited by her follower and protОgО, Olha Kobylianska, and her contacts with local youth filled her with optimism. The writer, who got along well with people, managed to convince many that slavery and ignorance were harmful not only to women but also society. With such loyal followers as Lesia Ukrayinka and Olha Kobylianska, Kobrynska spared no efforts working for the emancipation of Ukrainian women and continued writing.

After the February Revolution of 1917 Kobrynska wrote a fairy tale called “Brothers.” Numerous literary critics have commented on this short story, which is one of her most powerful works. But it is simply ludicrous to claim that in this story the writer was glorifying the October Revolution. Firstly, the fairy tale was written six months before the Bolshevik takeover. Secondly, the tale contains an altogether different prophecy. At the heart of this story is the revival of Ukrainian statehood and deep sorrow for the losses suffered by the Ukrainian people, when brother fought against brother.

“Brother!” A young man in a foreign uniform cried out.

“Brother!” A rifleman cried out in reply. The drawn bayonets dropped out of their hands, and the two men hugged each other warmly. In a moment, two more soldiers of the warring camps came out, guns in hand, and the two brothers were instantly felled.”

After the tragedy, the brothers’ souls soar in the shape of gray doves, and the monster approaching from the northeast is just a certain stage of history, not a manifestation of general human rejoicing. It is also a tragedy when “people voluntarily give up their lives instead of having them ripped away from them by others.” Many readers pointedly disregard the conclusion: “The rosy dawn broke, the sun of resurrection raised high its rays, and three stars flashed in the clear blue. A mighty lion raised its head and a Cossack with a musket appeared. A golden plow appeared in the blue field, and two doves with widespread wings streaked across the boundless sky.”

Natalia Kobrynska died in 1920 in Bolekhiv, where she was buried. Long ignored, she is now regarded as a pioneer of the feminist movement in Ukraine. Humiliated in her lifetime, Kobrynska was only appreciated after her death. Yet this guiding light of Ukrainian thought is still unstudied. In the 1930s one of her followers, the distinguished Ukrainian champion of women’s rights, Sofia Rusova, opened the eyes of many who had failed to grasp the ideas of Natalia Kobrynska, “The emancipation of women is not an act of feminism but the same natural manifestation of political and cultural evolution as was the emancipation of the serfs.” Time has only confirmed the rightness of these words.

By Serhiy BUKHALO, Kyvertsi, Volyn oblast