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Ukrainian Literature

The history of Ukrainian written language is thousand-years long. Its origin is ascribed to the times of the Kyivan Rus, but even before the 9th century A.D., the ancestors of Ukrainians had developed an advanced spoken language tradition. The chronicles Account of Bygone Years (Povist' vremennykh lit) is an outstanding memorial that is also a source of historical information, a collection of epic songs, legends and narrations of the Kyivan state epoch. The poetic masterpiece of the ancient literature is Slovo o polku Igorevim. This heroic epic had imbibed the best samples of folklore and has become the common property and pride of the entire Slavic people.

Polemical works of Ivan Vyshensky, Meletiy Smotrytsky, Feofan Prokopovych and others is a distinctive phenomenon of the writings of the Middle Ages. The high water mark of Ukrainian literature of the Baroque period is the writings of Hryhory Skovoroda, 1722-1794), a poet and philosopher. This ‘Ukrainian Socrates’ traveled throughout Ukraine and countries of the Central Europe to get to know the people. Permeating his philosophy is the issue of happiness being treated by him through the revelation of the divine inspiration of a human being, and disclosure of the God endowed talent by finding one’s own true vocation. The words of this seeker of truth “The world kept trying to capture me, but failed” are engraved on his tomb and became further evidence of his preference for spiritual life over vanity and idleness of the world.

The burlesque and travestied narrative poem Aeneid by Ivan Kotliarevsky marked at the end of the 18th century the emergence of the newest Ukrainian literature language and arrival of modern Ukrainian literature. This composition absorbed the gems of Ukrainian humor and reflected the lively folk way of life. Other writers, especially Petro Hulak-Artemovsky and Yevhen Hrebinka, members of the Kharviv group, picked up the witty and satirical tone of Kotliarevsky’s works. Heorhy Kvitka-Osnovianenko, the founder of the Ukrainian fiction literature, who also belonged to this literary society, succeeded in using Ukrainian exclusively in comic genres.

The 19th century was the age of the formation of the Ukrainian national consciousness. Taras Shevchenko’s poetry collection Kobzar that saw the light of the day in 1840 became a declaration of the literary and intellectual independence of the Ukrainians. The writings of Taras Shevchenko defined the further development of the Ukrainian literature in poetry, prose and drama. His poetry became an important stage also in the making of the Ukrainian standard language.

Shevchenko made a synthesis of earlier Ukrainian literature with the living speech and enriching it with Ukrainian elocution. The name of Taras Shevchenko became the symbol of Ukrainian culture in the world on par with names such as William Shakespeare, Johann Goethe or Aleksandr Pushkin, each of whom, in addition to literature, is associated with the culture of their countries.

Shevchenko made a synthesis of earlier Ukrainian literature with the living speech and enriching it with Ukrainian elocution. The name of Taras Shevchenko became the symbol of Ukrainian culture in the world on par with names such as William Shakespeare, Johann Goethe or Aleksandr Pushkin, each of whom, in addition to literature, is associated with the culture of their countries.

The talented writers in the second half of the 19th century were Ivan Nechui-Levytsky, Marko Vovchok, Panas Myrnyi, Mykhailo Kotsubynsky, Ivan Franko, Olha Kobylianska, Borys Hrinchenko, and others.

Variety of artistic trends and individual styles, as well as the use of different genres from epic fiction and stories to novelettes, pamphlets, short stories etc., are characteristic of the time. Many of the writers of this period were active politically and engaged to enlighten people.

Ivan Franko, a poet, prose and drama writer, journalist, literature critic and translator with over fifty volumes of his work collected. The writer had been among the first who began translating the books of the world literature (Johann Goethe, Heinrich Heine, George Byron) into Ukrainian.

With the arrival of a new generation of authors at the turn of the century, the Ukrainian literature was being struck by the influence of European modernism. Most vividly this approach had affected writings of two leading literature figures of the period: poetess Lesia Ukrainka and prose writer Mykhailo Kotsubynsky. Lesia Ukrainka had enriched the Ukrainian creative writing with characters of the world literature and plotlines derived from history and mythology of various times and peoples. On top of her great talent as a poet, she displayed extraordinary gift as translator. In her writing came out the magnificent translations of the Homer, Heinrich Heine, William Shakespeare, George Byron, Victor Hugo, Egyptian and Italian folk songs, Indian epic, etc.

The literary process following the October revolution was marked in Ukraine as well as throughout the entire USSR by specific dramatic character and complexity. On the one hand, Ukrainian literature was in full bloom. On the rich literature palette coexisted various artistic schools, styles ands trends ranging from radical so-called “proletcult”, which theorists advocated creation “of pure proletarian culture by laboratory methods” (Vasyl Blakytny, Hnat Mykhailychenko, M. Khvyliovy), to futurism (Mykhailo Semenko) and even neo-classicism, which representatives directed their efforts at making harmonious art form by mastering classic standards of the world literature (the neo-classics group headed by Mykola Zerov).

The majority representing this wave of Ukrainian revival, however, perished in Civil war, the Artificial famine of 1932 to 1933, and repressions by Bolshevik in the 30s.

During 1938 to 1954, approximately 240 Ukrainian writers were persecuted although many of them were adherents of the Soviet power, fought for it and only made their career as writers after the revolution. Some of them were shot, others perished imprisoned; the fate of others still remains unknown. Poet Maksym Rylsky was arrested and Ostan Vyshnia spent 10 years in labor camp being accused of participating in mythical Ukrainian military organization. Hryhory Kosynka, Mykola Zerov, Mykola Kulish, Yevhen Pluzhnyk, Mykhailo Semenko were all shot. Mykola Khvyliovy, who attempted to save many of his comrades, committed suicide. The experimental theater Berezil was banned while its leader Les Kurbas, the world famous director, was imprisoned and shot.

In spite of the harsh limits reigning under the Soviets, Ukrainian writers managed to make literature that has not lost its topicality even today. Primarily, they are Pavlo Tychyna, Maxym Rylsky, Volodymyr Sosiura, Oleksandr Dovzhenko, Olec Honchar and others.

Thanks to the Khruschov’s thaw of the 60s and the liberalization of social and political life in Ukraine, a powerful artistic movement originated that later became known as “people of the sixties”. They searched for new forms of creativity and attempted to grasp afresh the significance of the national experience under the constraints of totalitarian system. This generation included Vasyl Stus, Lina Kostenko, Vasyl Symonenko, Hryhory Tiutiunnyk, Dmytro Pavlychko, Ivan Drach, and many others.

An active civil stand on human rights brought Vasyl Stus to the ranks of dissident intellectuals. A new wave of mass arrests of Ukrainian literati swept Ukraine in the 70s. Many leading writers were imprisoned in Siberian labor camps accused of ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’; some of them were rehabilitated posthumously at the start of the 90s.

Ukrainian diasporas, ranging from Europe to Australia, created extremely varied and rich literature during the 20th century. Among their most brilliant representatives are Ivan Bahriany, Vasyl Barka, Bohdan Boichuk, and Emma Andriyevska.

Modern Ukrainian literature is being made today by Yuri Andrukhovych, Oleksandr Irvanets, Yuri Izdryk Oksana Zabuzhko, Mykola Riabchuk, Yuri Pokalchuk, Yuri Bynnychuk, Konstantyn Moskalets, Natalka Bilotserkovets, Vasyl Shkliar, Yevhenia Kononenko, Andriy Kurkov, Ivan Malkovych, Bohdan Zholdak, Serhiy Zhadan et al.