Friday, February 29, 2008

Women of Ukraine

Saskatoon, SK : Language Lanterns, c2001.

This is the first book in a series (Women's Voices in Ukrainian Literature) published by the small publisher Language Lanterns, based in my home province. They've done a wonderful job of making some of the historical writing of Ukrainian women available to English readers. Many Canadians are of Ukrainian descent, but sadly, like myself, many don't read or speak Ukrainian. So to have this writing available is really meaningful for me. There are 6 volumes in this series, and still other collections they've put together, not in this specific series. Unfortunately they are only available in these functionally bound academic copies, but don't judge this one by its cover!
This volume presents stories by two writers, Olena Pchilka and Nataliya Kobrynska. Fortunately, they've also included brief biographies of these women, to place them in their historical context. Pchilka was the mother of Ukraine's most famous female poet, Lesia Ukrainka (whose work is collected in a later volume). Both women were writing approximately in the years between 1880-1930, and were well known as activists and feminists.

I enjoyed reading this primarily for its cultural significance to me personally; the writing is of course of a rather dated style, and most of it appeared in magazines and papers of the day. I found I preferred Pchilka, as her style was a bit more concise and more universal. Her longest story, The Girlfriends, was quite illuminating in its exposition of female Ukrainian life in the 1880's. I had no idea that there was a burgeoning feminist movement in Ukraine at the same time as there was nationalist fervor among the intelligensia. In The Girlfriends, a group of friends from rural Ukraine, both women and men, go to Zurich and Vienna to medical school. They meet other Slavs, including a girl from Russia, and all become as close as any group of expats at college tends to. It's very modern in ways - and when the main character returns home to her village and begins working as a doctor and midwife (quite naturally and with no great furor), two of her male friends travel to her for a visit and she ends up marrying one of them, by her own choice and simply for love. One of their coterie is a young man from her village; their mothers are close friends, and thus he is presented as the likely candidate for romance, traditionally speaking. But Pchilka plays with this expectation, and the ending is convincing. I was continually amazed by the thoughts and actions of this group of girlfriends; my preconceptions of Ukrainian life were pretty much tossed in the air and shaken around.

Kobrynska writes shorter pieces, and they are more melodramatic, with more purple prose. Many of the pieces gathered here were based on folklore, so are valuable for that reason alone. The prose was not unpleasant, just quite old fashioned. If the stories are not all perfectly constructed, that is likely because they inspired by political motives and written quickly for that reason. Both authors write about the changing spirit of Ukraine, and the upswell in nationalist feelings; they discuss writing in Ukrainian as opposed to Russian or French, they show interest in peasants and folk customs, they discuss changing social strictures on young people. They are writing about and promoting the "Spirit of the Times", the progressive elements arising in Ukraine at that time. Of course, reading it now, in light of the brutal repression to follow under the Soviet Union, is quite a melancholy experience. I'll finish with a quote by Olena Pchilka, describing the changes in society, which seems quite prescient:

The old foundations of community life, of thinking, of taste, broke up like river ice in the springtime and, crushed to pieces, they swirled away, driven by a warm, free current. Something very fresh and very young was in the air. Old hand and heads -- surprised, dejected, stunned -- were lowered, while young ones rose boldly and confidently, diligently seeking vocations. Young people looked with shining eyes directly into the rising light of justice and freedom, without ever thinking that the light could fade...

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