Posted in Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian history

Lesya Ukrayinka (Леся Українка)

Lesya Ukrayinka, née Larysa Petrivna Kosach, 13/25 February 1871–19 July/1 August 1913, was born in the northern Ukrainian city of Novohrad-Volynskyy. Her mother, Olha Petrivna Drahomanova-Kosach, was a writer, translator, and folklore and folk embroidery collector who used the pseudonym Olena Pchilka. (Pchilka means “bee” in Ukrainian.) Her father, Petro Antonovych Kosach, was a nobleman who headed the district assembly of conciliators.

There were also many other prominent members of her family across many generations, including all five of her siblings. Growing up, Lesya was surrounded by writers, artists, musicians, and intellectuals who frequently gathered at her house. As an adult, she mixed and mingled with Ukraine’s cultural élite.

Lesya (left) with her dear friend Margaryta Mykhaylivna Komarova-Sidorenko and her brother Mykhaylo, 1889

Lesya learnt to read at age four, and was taught by private tutors. She was especially close to her older brother Mykhaylo (1869–1903), with whom she shared the nickname Mishelosiye. At age six, in 1877, she learnt how to embroider.

That same year, Lesya’s little sister Olha was born, and became just as close to her as Mykhaylo.

Lesya with her little sisters Olha (right) and Oksana (left), 1896

Lesya and her siblings were cared for by their paternal aunt Olena when their parents were at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878. The relationship Lesya formed with her aunt had a marked influence on her writing and life.

In November of that same year, Lesya’s father was forcibly transferred to Lutsk as punishment for his Ukrainophilia. Lutsk was practically a ghost town at that time, and the powers that wanted Lesya’s father away from a highly populated city full of other people resisting Russification and taking pride in their native Ukrainian heritage.

In the spring of 1879, Lesya, her siblings, and their mother joined him in Lutsk.

Lesya and her mother with friends, 1903

In March of that year, Lesya’s beloved aunt Olena was arrested for trying to assassinate Oleksandr Romanovich Drenteln, a high-ranking gendarme, and deported to Olenets Province in Karelia. In 1881, she was sent to Siberia for five years, where she married another exile and started a family with him. After her sentence expired, she visited her family in Lutsk.

Lesya was so stunned by this, she was inspired to write her very first poem, “Hope,” between 1879 and 1880.

Lesya and her mother, 1898

In 1880, another paternal aunt, Oleksandra Kosach-Shimonovska, moved to Lutsk with her two sons and lived in the Kosach house after the arrest and Siberian exile of her husband Borys. Aunt Sasha became Lesya’s first music teacher, and they formed a very close bond.

In January 1881, Lesya, then just shy of ten years old, contracted a very bad cold which transmogrified into tuberculosis of the bones and joints. This disease primarily strikes children in their first ten years of life and mainly affects the spine and large joints.


Later that year, Lesya, Mykhaylo, and Olha moved to Kyiv to study at gymnasium. They also continued learning with private tutors.

In May 1882, the Kosaches moved to the village of Kolodyazhne, which became their permanent home. Soon afterwards, a new sister, Oksana, joined the family.

The next summer, Lesya was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the joints and bones. In October 1883, she had an operation in Kyiv which removed the affected bones in her left arm.

Lesya returned home in December, and her health began to improve. At this time, her mother began teaching her French and German. Lesya was already studying Latin and Greek. 

Lesya and her brother Mykhaylo, 1890

Starting in 1884, at age thirteen, Lesya actively wrote poetry, and was quite prolific. Her first poems were published in Galician–Ukrainian literary magazines. It was at this time that she adopted her pseudonym.

During this year, her little brother Mykola was born. A final sibling, Izydora, joined the family in 1888.

Lesya with friend Olha Kobylanska (left), 1901

As an adult, Lesya continued travelling widely, soaking in the best of high culture, and cultivating friendships with writers, artists, scientists, musicians, philosophers, and other intellectuals. In August 1907, she married musicologist and ethnographer Klyment Vasylovych Kvitka (whose surname means flower), against her mother’s fierce disapproval.

Lesya travelled not just to broaden her mind and meet exciting people, but because of her health. She died at a health resort in Surami, Georgia, aged only 42.

Lesya’s funeral, August 1913

Lesya wrote over 100 poems, short stories, plays, and literary essays, and published three poetry collections. She was also a hyperpolyglot who knew, besides her native Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, Bulgarian, Latin, Ancient Greek, French, German, English, Italian, Georgian, Spanish, and Swedish.

Many of Lesya’s works have been adapted for film, theatre, radio, TV, and song. There are many monuments and museums in her honor, and many other things have been named for her. She’s also been featured on stamps and money many times.

In 1972, the Lesya Ukrayinka Prize was established for children’s literature, art, films, and plays.

Copyright Katerina Lipovka


Writer of historical fiction sagas and series, with elements of women's fiction, romance, and Bildungsroman. Born in the wrong generation on several fronts.

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