For Lesia Ukrainka, Israel is a way to talk about Ukraine’s independence: Olena Huseynova

Literary specialist and author of the book Lesia Ukrainka from A to Z discusses Jewish motifs in the texts of Larysa Kosach.

Iryna Slavinska:  Today we will be discussing a literary topic that is not very typical. We will be talking about Lesia Ukrainka, a member of the pantheon of Ukrainian classics and about the fact that she wrote about the Jews. The period in which she lived was a difficult one, marked by pogroms and complicated pages of Ukrainian-Jewish relations. Helping us make sense of these complex topics will be my guest, Olena Huseynova, author of the book Lesia Ukrainka from A to Z and my colleague from Radio Kultura.

We’ll begin with a question from those who are not in the know: Lesia Ukrainka wrote about the Jews?

Olena Huseynova:  I will quote her: “I love Jewish themes.” This is a quote from her letter to Olha Kobylianska. She did indeed love Jewish themes, and for the most part they were of a biblical nature; the Old and New Testaments. For her this was a serious source of inspiration. She became familiar with the Bible at quite a young age, and she tried to read widely about how it was translated. Her letters to [Mykhailo] Drahomanov reveal that she did a lot of work related to the Bible. These subjects were her favorite.

Iryna Slavinska:  If Lesia Ukrainka writes that she loves the Jewish theme, is it clear to us what the source of this attention is?

Olena Huseynova:  The same as with antiquity. She says: “I love these subjects because they are poignant, passionate, troubling, and complex.” Her favorite aphorism is, “It is better to be cold or hot, but not lukewarm.” For her, this is about life, about relationships with people, and about literature. Elegiac subjects are not for her. She needs an acute moment bordering on masochism or perverse psychological states. To her, Old Testament subjects are precisely these kinds of topics.

Iryna Slavinska:  Is the social theme a poignant topic for Lesia Ukrainka?

Olena Huseynova:  Yes.

Iryna Slavinska:  And what else?

Olena Huseynova:  The absence of home, the attempt to return there. And the always difficult relations with oneself and love. Miriam, whom I think we will discuss today. These are complicated relations with faith, love, and oneself.

Iryna Slavinska:  We have already identified the first heroine. Let’s talk about her, using concrete examples. Where necessary, I will be asking questions that will help our listeners get an overall picture of what we are discussing.

Olena Huseynova:  The twentieth century is a general place for everyone who ever studied Ukrainian philology. For us, this period begins with a poem that was written in one night: Oderzhyma (A Woman Possessed). This is a poem/hysteria. In a normal state you will not write a text in one night, especially one in such a format. Lesia Ukrainka is testing herself as a poet who is attempting to construct her own language by aligning herself with [Heinrich] Heine and the Western European romantics, while at the same time remaining within the bounds of what would satisfy her mother, because she is the one who controls her presence in the artistic world.

Iryna Slavinska:  And, in general, Olena Pchilka is a matriarch not just where Ukrainian literature is concerned.

Olena Huseynova:  There is Ivan Franko, on the other side of the Dnipro River.

Iryna Slavinska:  Or the Zbruch.

Olena Huseynova:  And here she writes a completely different text that goes beyond the limits of attempts to inscribe herself within some sort of literary notions. The history of this text is well known. This is about a wilful act, when Lesia Ukrainka, who had just had surgery, goes away to take care of her close friend, Serhii Merzhynsky, who dies of tuberculosis. When she goes there, everything is clear. And this text appears. It is complex in all senses, but it is the most accessible to read out of everything that Lesia Ukrainka wrote, including the poetry that she penned in her youth. It is challenging to read because you’re practically bored reading it.

This is the story of a Jewish woman who is within the communicative field of Jesus Christ; she absorbs some female images that we know from the Bible. They are present with her at the moment that a decision is made or afterwards, once everything has been resolved. But her relationship with Christ is not based on faith; she goes with Him not because she believes that he is the Messiah but because she loves him as a man. For His part, He decides to continue His messianic story to the end. And to a great degree, this is a betrayal for her. This is a painful dialogue, in which two arguments take place simultaneously: the argument of a woman who wants to have her own voice and the right to something to which a person has no right in principle, and an argument with the way Christianity is treated at the turn of the nineteenth century. And, obviously, this is a biographical story of a woman who cannot halt the termination of the life of the man whom she loves. We don’t know who he was, a friend or a lover. But he was definitely an important figure to her.

Iryna Slavinska:  Why this mask? What does the reincarnation in such a lyrical heroine, a lyrical woman during the period of events described in the Bible, allow one to say something that the mask of a nineteenth-century Ukrainian woman did not permit?

Olena Huseynova:  You know, I’m probably going to start overinterpreting. In her correspondence with her mother during her trip to Egypt, she writes that she is meeting Jewish Zionists, among whom are many women. Of those with whom she is fated to cross paths with in Egypt, she is most struck by the caste of Jewish Zionists. Who were they? Nearly all of them were socialists. They had made a conscious decision to go and build their state on bare ground. They will go to a foreign country that is controlled by the Ottoman Empire, where other people, the Palestinians, live. The intention is very risky. On top of everything else, this is a very free community. The conditions are such that both women and men have to save themselves.

Iryna Slavinska:  It is a very egalitarian society. I remember hearing about the lives of the people on the first kibbutzim, who worked the land together and created a state. This is a society of equality; often with a minus sign, because time and again there is a lack of everything.

Olena Huseynova:  I think that all this very much excited Lesia Ukrainka. She recalls, without naming names, her Zionist woman friend. When the latter was asked why she had left the world of the Russian Empire and come here to suffer so much, she replied [in Russian]: “And who told you that I should be happy?”

Lesia Ukrainka meditates on this phrase. I must say that Jewish women, of whom there were many in the anti-imperial movements, in literature, in the community activist sector, were certainly striking. I think that Lesia first learned about the Zionists not in Egypt, but in Ukraine.

Iryna Slavinska:  If we are speaking about this vision of the future Israel with which the Zionists worked, can one say that for Lesia Ukrainka this could be a kind of metaphor for Ukraine?

Olena Huseynova:  In the majority of the “Jewish texts,” if we don’t include Oderzhyma, Israel is a way of talking about Ukraine’s independence and using this in the metaphorical sense. This also applies to Vavylonskyi polon [The Babylonian Captivity] and a text that could be read on Ukrainian Independence Day: “I ty kolys borolas mov Izrail” [You Too Once Struggled Like Israel]. Clearly, there is a direct parallel. There is a whole array of texts about the forfeited homeland, the ruin, and the Babylonian captivity. And this playing piece is not intrinsic just to Lesia Ukrainka. For example, Franko used this analogy the same way.

Iryna Slavinska:  For Lesia Ukrainka, this Israel—or independent Ukraine—what is it like?

Olena Huseynova:  She does not describe a happy country; she talks about a ruin, about Jerusalem, which does not exist. About the Jerusalem that is remembered.  And the figure of the prophet Jeremiah as a poet appears. He is the one who predicts perdition, which is anticipated. It is interesting that in rereading these texts, you understand that there was no vision of an independent Ukraine. There was an understanding of how to express in an accessible manner to a Ukrainian what was forfeited. Israel and captivity are the best metaphors for explaining what was forfeited.

Iryna Slavinska:  The project of the future lay in images of Israel?

Olena Huseynova:  I may be mistaken, but I don’t see it there. You can hear it better in the letters. There you read about encounters with contemporaries, with Zionists who were natives of the Russian Empire, who sought to build their own country, where it was not yet possible, in fact, to build anything. It comes through there. But in these texts you find longing, nostalgia, and weeping.

Iryna Slavinska:  What other texts in Lesia Ukrainka’s oeuvre are connected with Jewry?

Olena Huseynova:  I think that it’s worth mentioning the Jewish melody in a lyrical text in which you hear how much Lesia Ukrainka loves the “Song of Songs.” This is a love story that may be read in the context of what you and I were discussing. In the context of a story about the loss of the homeland and the temple, and the lover who went and fell in love with a foreign girl; this is a man who leaves you. And this is the land that you are forfeiting. It is precisely here that you can hear clearly that Israel is not just Israel but also Ukraine. To be honest, I don’t remember, in authentic interpretations, the story of the Babylonian captivity and the loss of the temple, and about the circumstances in the country that led to its disappearance.

However, at the turn of the nineteenth century Ukrainian intellectuals were giving much thought to how Ukraine’s foreign and domestic policies had functioned during all the preceding centuries. They discussed not only the aggressors who had come and taken everything away and we are suffering now, but also about how we lived in these territories. What led to the circumstance that there are things that we do not have? For example, two ukases that forbid us to write literary and scholarly texts in the Ukrainian language. Our publishing house has to be based in Geneva, not in Kyiv. At this point the motif of the lover who went to a foreign woman of his own free appears.

Iryna Slavinska:  This is truly a very important theme of betrayal, a meditation on the causes of possible failures. But it also occurred to me that it would be interesting to hear if such notes are present in her texts, and what she thought about the pogroms that were taking place on the territory of the Russian Empire.

Olena Huseynova:  There are her letters to Ivan Franko, which are written right after the Kishinev pogrom. This didn’t happen in Ukraine, but it is one such story. At this time Franko sends three short stories that Lesia Ukrainka translates into Russian, so that they will appear in one of the liberal Russian journals. And this is quite a lengthy correspondence, in which Lesia requests removing the word zhyd [archaic term for Jew now considered pejorative—Ed.] from these texts. She cites the editorial idea, the fundamental thought that one must be very cautious so quickly after this pogrom. You seem to be using this very ordinary word and not trying to say anything. I am not accusing you of anti-Semitism, but right now this may be read precisely that way. And she suggests changing it to kurkul [Ukr. “well-to-do peasant”] or another word.

And she writes to Franko several times [asking him] to write back; can I understand this blanked-out word. And in the last one she writes: “You know, my friend, that silence sometimes implies consent. So that I do not think this way, simply give a reply.” And for quite a long time he does not reply. To be honest, I don’t know how to verify what happened to these texts. If you look at the dates, then the Jewish texts appeared in the 1890s. In other words, it is likely that this emerges in the context of what took place after the pogroms. Because the first wave of emigration to Jerusalem from the Ukrainian territory of the Russian Empire is connected with the pogroms of 1881. And the first big wave consisted of parentless children, and Jerusalem was the only territory where adults could take care of them.

Iryna Slavinska:  But this topic is not formulated in literary texts? We can verify on a calendar that this was a painful topic for her.

Olena Huseynova:  It is probably during this period that Drahomanov reacts and writes his text about the Jews on the territory of the Russian and Austrian empires, in which he explains to the Western reader what had taken place. Lesia Ukrainka supports and repeats his idea in one of her letters, in which she explains Galician anti-Semitism by showing how the presence of Jews in that region and other parts of Poland and Russia is socially constructed.

Iryna Slavinska:  As far as I recall, this is what we talked about Drahomanov’s text before the broadcast. It also puts forward the thesis that can still be read today, if you look at the content-analysis of articles in the media: that anti-Semitism in Ukraine is one of those topics that can be sent into the information space by the empire.  

Olena Huseynova:  There are two explanations here. The social one: Jews and Ukrainian peasants had different social statuses; they earned a living by various means. Most often they ended up in a very specific pairing. The one who brings money and the one who gives it. Even Lesia Ukrainka has with her mother correspondence from Kutaisi [Georgia], in which she recounts a lengthy story about how Lyonya Klyment Kvitka [Lesia Ukrainka’s husband] has to borrow money from Jewish usurers, in order to make ends meet until the end of the month. And this is a long account about money relations, how [money] reaches Lesia, and its return. It is an even more unpleasant account in the stories of an ordinary peasant in Poltava gubernia. But everything, obviously, is built this way according to the laws of the empire.

More interesting to me is Drahomanov’s thesis that simply using the principle of the “Pale of Settlement” was most harmful. The entire Jewish population was concentrated in one place; they did not have the right to choose their place of residence, and Ukrainian peasants could not choose their neighbors. And this conflict is intermixed with [viewpoints of] who is authentically present in this territory in the nineteenth century, when perceptions of what was good and tolerant were completely different, and eventually became explosive. And Drahomanov suspects in this a deliberate domestic policy.

Iryna Slavinska:  Perhaps we have failed to mention some other important text…

Olena Huseynova:  Yes, two dramatic poems: U poloni [In Captivity] and Na ruinakh [On the Ruins]. Everything that we have talked about is there: the idea of a lost Israel, a lost Jerusalem as the desired city. But the text of Na poli krovi [On the Field of Blood] is more important to me. It deals with the theme of Jerusalem—but this is the New Testament—in which Judas works his field that he purchased for thirty silver coins. He attempts to explain why he exchanged his service and commitment to an idea for ownership of his own scrap of land. This story of betrayal may be interpreted in different ways. And to a great degree the image of Judas is very important in the quotidian anti-Semitic perception of the world because this is an image of the Jewish people, who betrayed the One True God. This is an entire poem explaining the history of this betrayal in a complicated and ambiguous fashion.

Iryna Slavinska:  But this context can also be close to the history of Ukraine. Somehow I associatively recalled the historian Serhii Plokhy’s study, Tsars and Cossacks: A Study in Iconography, which discusses how the Cossack officer class constructs its own visual narrative of the Russian Empire, among other things. And suddenly this begins to be embedded in the imperial structure.

Olena Huseynova:  That’s true, too. Lesia Ukrainka is a person who comes from a family in which her father spends almost his entire fortune on the Ukrainian idea, while at the same time working as one of the highest-ranking functionaries in the empire and earning a salary.

Iryna Slavinska:  Is On the Field of Blood a bit like someone who is indifferent to civic affairs?

Olena Huseynova:  I have always interpreted it as “The house is in a place where it cannot be”; where, in order for a house to exist, it is necessary to experience all possible forms of trials, including acquiring these thirty coins, and then you obtain the right to such a house. It is also about the Zionists of that period and their history.

This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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