Ukraine Literature

By | December 24, 2021

From the origins to the Ukrainian Baroque

The origins of Ukrainian literature historically correspond to the period of the Kiev principality (988-1240). At this stage it is not possible to distinguish between the literatures that would later be defined as Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian; for this reason the rich patrimony of Kievian Rus´, from religious texts to historical and folkloric ones, cannot be ascribed to a single national literature. After the end of the Kievian civilization, its legacy was partly picked up by the Muscovite principality, while the political and cultural center of the Ukrainian region moved further west to the principality of Galicia. and Volhynia. The annexation of Volhynia to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania marked the beginning of the decline of literary activity. In the 14th century. and part of the 15th century the cultural tradition was kept alive only in the chronicle and oral literature (ritual and agricultural songs, lyric and epic songs), known through testimonies and very late transcriptions. For Ukraine 2003, please check

In the 15th-16th century. the humanistic-Renaissance influence first manifested itself through the works of Catholic writers, who wrote in Latin and Polish. A second phase, in the now Baroque era, occurred with the reworking of the humanistic-Renaissance teachings by the Eastern Slavs of Greek culture and Orthodox confession. At the pressure of the Catholic Church (institution of Jesuit houses and schools) and the conversion to Catholicism of the great Ruthenian nobility, the Orthodox clergy reacted by creating schools that became centers of defense and renewal of the Orthodox tradition and at the same time of affirmation of a syncretic culture high profile. The first of these centers, still of secular origin, is the Academy of Ostroh (Russian Ostrog), founded in 1580, where the first complete edition of the Bible was printed in the Orthodox area (Ostroz ´ ka Biblija, 1581). Later (16th-17th century) dominant personalities were M. Smotryc´kyj, polemicist and philologist, author of the most important Grammar of Church Slavonic, I. Vyšens´kyj, P. Berynda, S. Zizanij, apologist and polemicist, and Z. Kopystens´skyj. At the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. a cultured poem emerged, with a ‘traditionalist’ orientation, with a closer religious observance of Slavic-Greek imprint (P. Berynda, KT Stavrovec´kyj), and a ‘Westernizing’ one, more open to secular requests and the suggestions of Latin-Polish culture (K. Sakovyč, S. Počas´kyj).

The Ukrainian (Ruthenian) Baroque was a complex and in many ways contradictory phenomenon ; its key point is the decisive turn towards the West, despite the full awareness of their own identity on the part of writers, be they Orthodox or Uniates and who write in Ukrainian, Latin or Polish. Alongside the dominant genres, such as historiography (F. Sofonovyč, J. Gizel´, S. Velyčko), travel descriptions (V. Hryhorovyč-Bars´kyj), letters, autobiographies and chivalrous tales of Western derivation, in polemical prose (I. Vyšens´kyj, M. Smotryc´kyj) and oratory (I. Galjatovskij, L. Baranovyč, D. Tuptalo, S. Javorskij). But the most evident innovations are recorded in poetry and dramaturgy, thanks also to the diffusion of poetic treatises (by F. Prokopovič in 1705; by M. Dovnalevs´kyj in 1736), based on Western dictates. Baroque poetry favored the epic element (Sakovyč, Smotryc´kyj), where ample space was given to the Cossack epic (I. Paškovs´kyj, S. Divovyč). The poetic genre par excellence was the epigram, which had its teacher in I. Velyčkovs´kyj. Particularly original in the theater were the interludes and the popular form of the vertep, which formed the basis of Ukrainian comedy.

18th-19th century

With the beginning of the eighteenth century the cultural flowering turned to decline, sanctioned by the prohibition of the use of the Ukrainian language (1721). The major personalities passed to the service of Russia, where the Kievian School played a primary role, while the literature produced in the Ukraine was expressed in the popular forms of the oral tradition and satirical compositions, especially anticlerical, and returned to being anonymous, even though concerns significant works such as the play Milost ´ Božija (“Divine Grace”, 1728) and the Istorija rusiv(«History of the people of Rus´», around 1770). Exceptional personality of the second half of the 18th century. was the poet and philosopher H. Skovoroda, a meeting point between the legacy of the past and projection towards modernity.

The rebirth of Ukrainian literature, definitively in the popular language, took place only at the end of the eighteenth century thanks to the poet and playwright I. Kotljarevskij. In the genre of disguise, he would be followed by P. Hulak-Artemovs´kyj (the adaptations of Horace’s Odes are famous) and G. Kvitka. In the meantime, Kiev was succeeded as the new center of national culture by Char’kov, which became a university in 1805, where an intense activity in the historical, ethnolinguistic, folkloric and literary fields took place (I. Sreznevskij; Char’kov Romantic School, with L. Borovs´kyj, A. Metlyns´kyj, M. Petrenko). A peculiarity of the Ukrainian culture of the nineteenth century was the ethical and national commitment: in this sense N. Kostomarov, father of modern historiography, the writer P. Kuliš, M. Vovčok worked, the poet T. Ševčenko. The tsarist reaction was not long in coming: between 1863 and 1881 the use of the Ukrainian language was again prohibited in literature, in the press, in the theater, in schools and this led to the emigration of prestigious personalities to Austrian Galicia. At the end of the century realistic prose found its best interpreters in O. Konys´kyj, B. Hrinčenko, I. Nečuj-Levic´kyj and P. Mirnyj. The theater also followed the romantic-ethnographic line, testified by the works of M. Staryc´kyj, M. Kropynyc´kyj and I. Tobilevyč.

From the beginning of the 20th century. to the post-Soviet era

In the first decades of the 20th century, the recovery of national roots was accompanied by a process of reintegration into the European cultural bed and from this perspective the Baroque experience was also re-read and recovered. In this period realist (L. Ukrajinka, M. Kocjubins´kij), realistic-impressionist (V. Stefanyk, M. Čeremšyna, S. Vasyl´čenko, V. Vynnyčenko orientations coexisted in a happy osmosis ; as well as, for poetry: A. Kryms´kyj, B. Lepkyj, V. Pačovs´kyj), neoclassicists (M. Zerov, M. Ryl´skij), symbolists (O. Oles, J. Savčenko, M. Tereščenko), futurists (M. Semenko, O. Slisarenko). A group of their own formed the proletarian writers, including the poets V. Čumak, V. Ellan-Blakytnyj, V. Sosjura, and the prose writers J. Janovskij and O. Dosvitnij; in the theater the figure of M. Kuliš emerged. Less attributable to a literary current are personalities such as the humorist O. Vyšnja, the parodist K. Burevyj, the narrator H. Kosynka, the refined poet M. Bažan.

The 1930s marked the end of any cultural yearning: the only aesthetic allowed was that of socialist realism. Many writers ended up victims of the Stalinist purges, others adapted to the line imposed by the regime, only to return to their original creativity (Ryl´skij, Bažan); others remained tied to the dictates of the party, others emigrated. The thaw of the 1950s led to the rehabilitation of some of the banned writers and to greater freedom of expression. The definitive break with the modules of socialist realism came with the group of šistdesjatnyky (the poets I. Sverstjuk, I. Svitlyčnyj, L. Kostenko, V. Symonenko, I. Drač). In the following decade, new poetic talents emerged such as M. Vorob´jov and I. Žylenko, while the prose experienced a remarkable vitality thanks to H. Tyutjunnyk and the exponents of the magical novel (chymernyj roman ; V. Zemljak, P. Zahrebel´nyj, V. Ševčuk); therefore new literary orientations of sophisticated culture were established, between sharp irony and formal research (L. Rymaruk, O. Zabuško, V. Neborak, O. Lyšega, J. Paškovs´kyj).

While the great writers destined for oblivion by the regime were recovered, with the end of the USSR the right to be an integral part of Ukrainian literary history was finally recognized as well: in this context, the activity, among the two wars, of the centers of Prague (J. Darahan, O. Stefanovič, O. Teliha, L. Mosendz, O. Ol´žyč) and of Warsaw (J. Lypa, N. Livc´ka-Cholodna) and, after the Second World War, of writers working in West Germany and Austria (the literary critic G. Shevelov, the narrators Ukraine Samčuk, J. Klen, I. Bahriany and the poets V. Barka, V. Lesyč), then largely emigrated to North America. Here new authors emerged alongside them (M. Irchan; M. Mandryka; I. Kiriak) and, towards the end of the 1950s, the ‘ New York Group’ was formed (J. Tarnavs´kyj, B. Bojčuk, E. Andijevs´ka, V. Vovk, P. Kylyna). Nor should we forget the Ukrainian literary flourish that occurred in Czechoslovakia at the time of the Prague Spring (the poems of S. Makara and S. Hostyak, and psychological short stories by J. Biss and V. Dacei).

Ukraine Literature