Kickass Women in History: Lesya Ukrainka and Olha Petrovna Kosach-Kryvyniuk

This month’s Kickass Women in History is all about two kickass sisters from Ukraine, Lesya Ukrainka (born Larysa Petrivna Kosach) and her sister, Olha Petrovna Kosach-Kryvyniuk. These two sisters were literary powerhouses and feminist titles.

The sisters came from a literary family. Their mother, Kickass Woman Olha Petrivna Kosach, who used the pen name Olena Pchilka, was a famous writer, translator, and feminist activist. Their father, Petro Antonovych Kosach, was, among other things, an accomplished mathematician. The family also included aunts and uncles who were politically active intellectuals. In fact, Lesya’s first poem, “Hope,” was written for her aunt, Olena Kosach, when this aunt was arrested for political actions against the Tsar.

Lesya developed tuberculosis of the bone as a child (a disease which eventually led to her death in 1913 at only 42 years old), and spent a lot of her life traveling in order to improve her health by means of different climates. A modernist and an advocate for Ukrainian freedom and national and cultural identity as well as feminism, she often retold myths and male-dominated stories from a female point of view.

black and white close up photo of Lesya's face She has a serious expression, her hair is pulled back and she appears to be wearing a sweater and scarf
Lesya Ukrainka

Lesya’s little sister, Olha, was also an author and activist, as well as a physician and a translator. An accomplished author herself, she spent much of her later life cataloging and preserving her sister’s work. Olha was imprisoned as a student for her activism with the Ukrainian Student Hromada, a Ukrainian nationalist association. Later, her husband, Mykhailo Kryvyniuk, was arrested, tortured, and exiled for his activist work. Olha and her sons found refuge in a rural community outside of Kiev, where she worked as town physician, ran an orphanage, wrote, and translated French and English literature into Ukrainian. She also collected and cataloged examples of traditional Ukrainian embroidery.

During WWII, Olha escaped to Prague, leaving her compiled work and collections with a friend in Ukraine. She died in a refugee camp in an American-occupied area of ​​Germany in 1945. Her masterpiece, Lesia Ukrainka: A Chronology of Her Life and Workwas finally published in 1970.

black and white photo of Olha wearing traditional clothing
Olha Petrovna Kosach-Kryvyniuk

The internet is packed with articles about Lesya’s work, but without Olha’s endeavors much of Lesya’s work would have been lost. The sisters wrote warm letters to each other for as long as Lesya lived and truly, together were greater than the sum of their already incredible parts.

The video below discusses Lesya Ukrainka’s writing:

This article from the Los Angeles Review of Books discusses Lesya Ukrainkas’ subversion of patriarchal themes in her writing.

Here’s a short article from Encyclopedia of Ukraine about Olha Petrovna Kosach-Kryvyniuk.

Here’s some more about Olha.

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