Fragments from a War Diary, Part #154
It is almost time for me to leave Chernivtsi and to move onto our next destination. But before I do so, I want to make a few passing remarks about the intellectual most closely associated with Chernivtsi and for whom I have the most admiration, namely the early Ukrainian feminist Olga Kobylianska. Chernivtsi’s main pedestrian street is name after her, the most beautiful street in Chernivtsi replete with architecture from the Austro-Hungarian period in which Bukovina, of which Chernivtsi was the capital, was a semi-autonomous Duchy. Kobylianska was born in 1863 and her first language was German; but in the multi-ethnic, predominantly Ukrainian and tolerant environment of pre-World War One Chernivtsi Kobylianska identified herself with Ukrainian nationalism and she wrote a small but highly regarded corpus of literary work in the Ukrainian language. She was one of the very few female intellectuals of the time, and her self-identification with Ukraine and her culture in this early period makes her an important figure in the intellectual history of Ukraine. She became viscerally anti-Romanian, protesting against the intolerant Romanian government’s domination of Bukovina in the inter-war period, which likewise sealed her approval by the Soviet authorities as they came to partition Bukovina at the end of World War Two. Unfortunately by this time she had died in fascist Romanian custody.
Kobylianska was the founder of modern Ukrainian feminism: a subject profoundly important because feminism is a movement much in need of advancement and development in Ukraine, a country in which traditional sexual mores still hinder the development of women in professional positions and in the highest levels of business and government. Moreover, as I have written previously in these diaries, there are issues in Ukrainian society relating to the exploitation of young Ukrainian women in the sex industries, both within Ukraine and abroad although there may be some anecdotal evidence that these problems have in fact ameliorated recently by reason of the often generous refugee payments western European governments pay to refugees (predominantly women and children) who arrive upon their shores. This in itself precludes the need for Ukrainian women to engage in sex work to the extent they were once reliant upon for revenue. Moreover war has deterred foreign sex tourism in Ukraine and this can only be a good thing.
Kobylianska wrote early works about female sexual fantasies and lesbian love: themes unthinkable in literature in the late nineteenth century, even in comparatively tolerant Austria-Hungary. Even today in contemporary Ukraine subjects of this kind are seldom discussed save in the most hushed of circles; in many ways Ukraine remains an extremely conservative society about sexual matters and this is often not understood by the foreigners who have flocked to Ukraine in the course of war to assist as volunteers. It takes deep understanding of the fabric of Ukrainian society to understand that women are both oppressed in Ukrainian society and also serve as matriarchs, dominant female figures within the family that maintain family unity and social structure in the face of a perception that a lot of Ukrainian men spend far too much of their time drunk. The contours of sexual inequality and difference are cut in a very different way in Ukraine to a number of western countries, and a reconciliation of those vary values will be an inevitable feature of Ukraine’s ever closer assimilation to the culture and values of the West.
Kobylianska explored a number of those themes in her literature, and perhaps her most famous work is entitled On Sunday Morning She Gathered Herbs. Published in 1909, it is based upon the plot of a famous Ukrainian folk song in which a man courts two female lovers at the same time one of whom poisons him. Kobylianska defends the idea of a Ukrainian woman as a strong figure who controls male impulses and is at one with nature, more inclined to understand natural forces than men. Her writing involves detailed descriptions of nature and rural life, interwoven with narratives about the female soul. She collected a group of friends who were also Ukrainian intellectuals of the same era, and it seems that she knew the Ukrainian writer and political thinker Ivan Franko. In many ways she was emblematic of the era of Ukrainian intellectualism that developed at the turn of the twentieth century and whose ideas gave rise to an early attempt at Ukrainian independence at the end of World War One.
The reason the Soviets admired Kobylianska was by reason of her resistance to Romanian fascism. The occupation of Bukovina by post-World War One Romania was a period Kobylianska considered to be associated with intolerance and suppression of Ukrainian culture and heritage, and she fiercely opposed it, preferring incorporation of Bukovina into the Soviet Union. She welcomed the Soviet authorities who occupied northern Bukovina (temporarily) in 1940 as more likely to uphold and preserve Ukrainian identity that the Romanians that in her mind were determined to suppress it. When she returned to Romania she was arrested and placed on trial and she died in custody in World War II fascist Romania while awaiting trial. Hence she was posthumously remembered by the Soviet authorities as a heroine of the Soviet Union.
There are few women in the annals of Ukrainian history who stand out as passionate for the cause of Ukrainian culture and heritage and even fewer who espoused such progressive values in the sphere of feminism, sexual equality and gender relations as Olga Kobylianska. For these qualities she is properly remembered as the figure after whom Chernivtsi’s most famous street is named, and her works are properly reread today. Ukraine remains in need of a sexual revolution to promote gender equality, and the inspirational early writings of Kobylianska are some of the only intellectual foundations Ukraine has for the gender revolution that is inevitable as Ukraine moves ever further into the European orbit.
I wish all Ukrainians well in their forthcoming cultural transformations, but in particular I extend every good wishes to Ukraine’s women. Ukrainian gender relations have for a long time been distorted around cultural stereotypes, and Kobylianska’s work is a respected starting point for reforming those distortions in the context of contemporary European gender relations.