Lesia Ukrainka shows that there were peoples in the world who were even worse off than we were, but they survived and defended themselves: Serhii Romanov

Jewish influences on Lesia Ukrainka and her works. 

A conversation with Serhii Romanov, Doctor of Philological Sciences and the head of the Department of Literary Theory and Foreign Literature at Lesia Ukrainka Volyn National University, as well as a researcher on Lesia Ukrainka.

Vasyl Shandro: Can we speak about demonstrable Jewish influence on Lesia Ukrainka? Is this a discernible part of her work?

Serhii Romanov: There have been sporadic attempts to reflect on this, and they were made from biased positions. In their publications, such people do not include any source data. Mr. Voieslav Kobza, who is obviously writing under a pseudonym, published a few small books about [Ivan] Franko and Lesia Ukrainka, which tried to show that the poetess was an antisemite. This is comic to those who know her work and her life story. You cannot pose the question from this angle, even though it is relevant.

Lesia Ukrainka and the Jews and Israel is quite a broad topic that is connected not only to the writer's life but also to her work and her convictions. One can speak about this in a biographical way and in the context of Lesia Ukrainka's era and her work, which transcends time.

Vasyl Shandro: As regards creativity, does it make sense to speak about her dramaturgy, which has not been researched as much as her poetry? Jewish motifs in the works of Lesia Ukrainka and influences on her — can we speak about a distinct direction?

Serhii Romanov: If we look at her twenty-one dramas, nine of them feature biblical, Christian, not only Christian, and other topics and plots. Three plays are based on Old Testament subjects. There is a triptych based on the Gospel. There are three dramas in which questions of religion and early Christianity are discussed. If we look from this angle, then we see that the Eastern vector of religion, which arrives in Europe and does what Christianity did, was important for her. In addressing these ancient topics in her writings, Lesia reflects on a problem that has not been ultimately resolved even today: How did it happen that a small sect of Christians living in the outskirts of the huge Roman Empire conquered it and, later, the entire world? For Lesia, this was important. She looks the same way at the circle of Ukrainian intellectuals of state builders, of which there is also just a handful: Does their cause carry weight, will they be able to count on victory? For her, this is a historical parallel, an example of how people supercharged by an idea can achieve a noble goal.

Vasyl Shandro: We will return to dramaturgy, but now is the time — and the chance — to talk about Lesia Ukrainka's poetry.

Serhii Romanov: Jewish themes in her poetry were important and interesting to her. She was fascinated by ancient history. For her younger sister and brother, she produced a textbook entitled The Ancient History of the Eastern Peoples. It contains a chapter, "The History of the Israelites." The history of the survival of this people is also important to her. She is passionate about and amazed by the many things that this people had experienced, how they managed to preserve their language and culture. For her, the Israelite example is one of achievement, survival, and existence in a hostile, brutal, and bloody world.

Even at a young age, she began to introduce biblical — Jewish — materials and Jewish history into her poetry. Her poem, "And You Too Once Struggled Like Israel," was banned during the Soviet period. Considering the words of this poem, we can understand why. It shows that there were peoples that were worse off than we were. But they survived and defended themselves.

And now Bohdan has traversed that land from end to end.
The celebration of accord between him and the spirit has taken place noisily
in the golden-domed city. But suddenly,
the spirit was betrayed. Once again — darkness, horror, and discord.

And once again, Egyptian captivity is upon us,
but not in a foreign land — in our very own.

On Lesia as a harbinger: She says that if we want to have our own state, then we, like the Jews, should build it and defend it from our enemies. We see parallels with our present day. For our right to live in freedom, we have to pay the price through the current war.

Vasyl Shandro: Sometimes, we are biased by our view of how people in the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth treated other peoples in Ukraine. As they did not have their own state, these relations unfolded by various mechanisms. In this context, how does this relate to Lesia Ukrainka's life and Ukrainian–Jewish relations?

Serhii Romanov: In Lesia's works, there is no prejudiced attitude toward "foreigners," as they were called at the time. She belonged to socialist, leftist revolutionary groupings. A lot of Jews joined this left-wing movement. Lesia Ukrainka found a common language with them. She had friends among them. They were equal for her.

Vasyl Shandro: In Orhiia (The Orgy), there is a different conflict, but one that is comprehensible to us: between Greece, the cradle of everything original, and enormous Rome with its weapons. This transition and our reinterpretation are what is happening right now in our country, even though we are trying to make this process reversible, to return to ourselves in some way. Can we trace some kind of competition, if you will, in Lesia Ukrainka's choice of analogies between that of Greece or Israel?

Serhii Romanov: I don't know if you can say that there is some kind of choice in favor of something else. Comparatively speaking, antiquity fascinated her in equal measure. But the issue here was the interaction of cultures, peoples, and traditions. In Boiarynia (The Boyar Woman), it's Russia and Ukraine. Did she give conscious preference to Jewry, taking the factor of statehood into consideration? You could say that. But this was not decisive for her. She was attracted by power, passion, and the spirit that determines the historical fate of every people. For Lesia, Jewry manifested that spirit. Jews did not preserve a state, but they preserved a unity, which consolidates a people. And for her, this can be taken as an example for a nation battling for self-determination.

Vasyl Shandro: What do we gain from understanding and studying this phenomenon in her work; analogies, metaphors that are not trite, but which are extremely precise formulations and indicators of specific things and concrete problems?

Serhii Romanov: We can evaluate the range of thought, intellect, creative intuition, and talents of our finest people, who could see, describe, and direct our attention to historical analogies, experience, and stages of existence that define the coexistence of peoples throughout the world.

There is also a cultural factor. No matter what our attitude to one ethnicity or another, there are some that made an immense contribution to world culture. We have always been connected to the Jewish ethnic group, which inhabited and still inhabits our land. We have a common history in its various manifestations. We have to look at this objectively. We need to discuss the points in our history that do not cast us in a very flattering light because this is a "civic matter," as one of Lesia Ukrainka's heroes declares, and at the same time to build inter-state and internal state relations on those proven principles that are successful in our world — principles of freedom, equality, mutual aid, and knowledge of our pasts. As well as an understanding of what is contemporary and a vision of the future. This is precisely where Lesia Ukrainka shows herself to be an interesting thinker. She knows how to connect different periods in time. She knows how to see broadly — past her own epoch.

For the complete program, listen to the audio file.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization.  

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

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

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