She is a very unexpected figure for the Ukrainian literature in the XIX-XX centuries. From numerous village women – girls, brides, mothers of bastards, old wives, mothers and daughters-in-law – her heroines were not just intelligent, emancipated and looking for ideals but also had quite expressive sexual impulsions. It is hard to imagine heroines of other Ukrainian authors of that time: Kvitka-Osnovianenko’s Marusia, Nechui-Levytsky’s Motria or even Mark Vovchok’s naughty and reckless college girl, – to have more description of their sexuality than just “thin brows”, “eyes like stars” etc. Olha Kobylianska’s works are filled with authentical vivid corporeity. “The reason why men were afraid of feminism and Kobylianska, in particular, was accounted for the fact that she touched the theme which didn’t exist within the patriarchal culture. The sexuality theme,” Solomiya Pavlychko writes. Who knows, maybe it is this men’s fear which didn’t let her be happy?
Olha Kobylianska was born in the town of Hira-Humora in the south-east of Ukraine on November 27, 1863. We can say that she was lucky to have such a family. Her mother was half-German, half-Polish, a relative of a famous German poet-romantic. She learnt Ukrainian and got the Greek-Catholic religion with respect to her husband. Her father was a minor official, a nobleman, he came from the north of Ukraine. Olha was the fourth child. The family wasn’t rich. Despite this, mother tried to teach her daughters good manners and communication skills. Father believed that he had to give a proper education to sons while for daughters it was enough just to get married.
“If only I was able to describe our poverty… our mean father… Neither Eugenia nor I could get money at least for paper without him scolding us. God!… I neither respect nor love my father… When father was ill I was absolutely indifferent – it is not my fault,” this is how Kobylianska describes her childhood.
She fell in love in the town of Kimpolung for the first time. It was there where the family moved because of the father’s condition. Her love was a schoolboy, perhaps, of her age. Kobylianska must have learnt then that she was extremely disobedient, moody and dualistic person. She refused but wanted to stay. She said “no” when her heart was saying “yes”. She was escaping but wanted to stay. “When I was observing the nature and let my thoughts and impressions fly, they made my soul feel exotic emotions, I seemed to see figures among trees, – then those ideas asked me to put them on paper”…
Everything was combined, even mixed up inside of her in a strange way, everything was changing. And it was fast, like the wind which makes waves on water. Later, she fell in love with her relative Genia who came to her place for holidays. Unfortunately, he saw only a friend, an intelligent and educated girl, in Olha. When he left, Olha was waiting for his letters the whole year. But he never sent her a letter…
She was keeping in secret all her first literary works, she thought writing was almost a sin. Her next love was an official Alfons Kuchynsky. She also made up this affair in her imagination. Her diary notes became bolder, more intimate, they contained some feministic theses: “If he had proposed to her, that happiness would have possibly killed her. That is how she loved him – immensely, deeply, passionately. She would have been a woman who kissed her man’s feet not because she obeyed him but because she loved. A great love knows no suppression…”
Kobylianska is 17. Her emotions turn her head. She is desirous, mysterious, exquisite. She likes horse riding. She has tender pretty hands. “Hydrangea or Essay About a Life of One Girl” is her first autobiographical tale.
But she wants to study most of all. For all her life, she will reproach herself that she didn’t manage to get a degree. She studied by herself. She read one wise book after another. She was reading, comparing, getting disappointed, returning… Kobylianska almost didn’t communicate with peers, “There was no person among girls of the same age I knew (I didn’t know many) whom I could spill a heart with secrets. All they wanted was a man and marriage, that’s all. I wanted more. I wanted an extended education, science and wider range of activity.”
Next love was Yevhen Ozarkevych. This time as previous ones, Olga isn’t brave enough to tell him. Her love exists only for her, “I have no person who would like to understand me, I am desperately alone with my love, my pain, my thoughts and ideas, my imagination…”
She is 20. When she writes and rides a horse, she changes – she’s brave, forceful, independent. But again, almost nobody knows about it. Her new obsession is Ernest Zergler. They know each other, communicate but the man perceives Olga only as a sex object. She is a friend for him, she’s equal to him. “It happens with any man… I think too much about them,” Kobylianska writes at that time.
Later, his father is fired, the family moves to Dymka and then to the town of Chernivtsi. Olga writes a lot. However, her relationship with the Ukrainian language wasn’t that simple. Most of her works were written in German, then Kobylianska translated them in Ukrainian. “Exactly because Kobylianska was an alien in the Ukrainian literature, she crossed its borders, she was in transgression, she showed sexuality as well as women’s masochism… I am not sure all women at that time were able to write in that way – in this regard, Kobylianska is a new type of woman,” Tamara Hundorova.
Olga met Osyp Makovei, an editor of the Bukovyna newspaper, in 1895. She is 32, he is 28. She already knew then that she would fall in love with him.
“… I don’t want anything reluctant from you – I am happy about that… sometimes I feel like two creatures live in me. One who thinks practically, I can count on it, it cooks dinner, speaks with young men about good deeds and is shy enough – in other words, does everything good Christians are supposed to do. The other creature is a bad “mimosa” – she looks for a special life: calmness, harmony, delicacy, beauty – and it dies when she can’t find it all, and she is happy when finds, and it is coming to you, don’t close your door in front of it, Mr Makovei – because it won’t make you any harm… It is coming to you – please answer to it because it is my morning soul…”. Olga Kobylianska writes to Osyp Makovei.
His letters are in another tune, “As for me… well, I won’t do any harm to a woman I highly appreciate. All our relationship makes me want to care about you, not to promise what I haven’t promised to anybody… We have the affection of our souls, affection to each other, which I appreciate, which I am looking for with you, knowing that it gentles me…”
This relationship lasted for 10 years. For Makovei, it was just a literary friendship, but Kobylianska was dying from love. She called him a bear. She promised to devote him a short story she never wrote. They lived in one town but were corresponding mostly via letters, they almost never saw each other…
“Be done! You should understand that Kobylianska has always loved you and always will just until her heart stops… Now I can see that people who are so iron loyal like me are desperately unhappy! Did you care about loyalty? – You didn’t. About my love? – You didn’t. I have always been nothing for you. If I die, your name will be in my soul,” she writes. He answers moderately. Often even quite shortly. Sometimes – he doesn’t answer at all.
Finally, Kobylianska gives up and… proposes to Makovei, “… I would never propose to you if we had no opportunity to live together. It won’t make any inconveniences for you, you will be independent… Do you dare to start a life I offer? I do. But just say a word and I will follow you. I want you to look at me like at an equal friend, not like at a “helpless woman”… I don’t write a line about love in this letter. It is a holy, great, another thing… I am 3 years older than you… I don’t feel the difference… I will erase these years and they won’t be an obstacle for us… I don’t know how you will take my words, women are not supposed to say such things. But I don’t follow the way other women follow.”
Makovei didn’t answer. He drew back. Stepped away. Got afraid? Didn’t dare? Didn’t want it? Was she wrong to propose? Should she have patiently waited for his proposal? But she “doesn’t follow the way other women follow”, she is not an ordinary woman, she is Kobylianska, at the last.
However, Makovei writes to her. But doesn’t send letters. He writes, “… I can’t give you an answer you will be satisfied with, but believe me, I want to stay your friend, I care about you, I think it is more than love.”
Kobylianska doesn’t know about these letters, she suffers. She shares her pain with other Ukrainian authors Lesia Ukrainka and Vasyl Stefannyk, “Imagine my soul mood. I can’t speak to anybody. My destination is supposed, no, it is stigmatized to be suppressed. Tell me what I should do to turn into a stone, to kill my soul, frozen my feelings and become an intelligent person who has what to eat and drink and who doesn’t need anything more? Do you understand?”
In a while, Osyp Makovei will get married to a young 25-year-old woman. He will persuade everybody that it was what he always wanted. Kobylianska won’t ever believe that he is happy with that “partlet”. She will think he married to money. She will think so until she dies.
She will be proposed to get married to Czech Franz Pravnichk. But she won’t want to get married anymore.
In 1919, Olga Kobylianska is 56. She writes her testament, “Be well and remember me. I have never been happy. The best moments for me were when I was writing and finishing my works. I have been indifferent to so-called “fame”. I liked my dreams, mountains, starry sky, sometimes – plains, autumn and my Lord. All those few men I once loved, I despised later except for Sribliansky and one doctor from Nauheim… The rest was uneducated and disrespectful”…
Osyp Makovei died in 1925. On the day he died, Kobylianska was wandering in mountains and crying. Because of the happiness, she had never had, because of her dream, finally because of the sea she had never seen. Because she had never taken her love to her favourite mountains – Runh and Mahura.
“Runh and Mahura seemed to be separated forever. There were many sharp stones in the valley which separated them…”
Text by Serhiy Osoka