Olena Pchilka (1849-1930)

Hi there! I’m Liza and today I’d like to share with you some information about Olena Pchilka, an outstanding Ukrainian woman, a publisher, writer, ethnographer, interpreter, and civil activist.

Olha Drahomanova-Kosach, known by her literary name of Olena Pchilka, was born into a privileged family of landowners in Eastern Ukraine — a family that actively opposed the oppressive political and cultural policies of the Russian Empire. Her father was a lawyer who tried his hand at writing poetry and short stories, while her mother pursued interests in Ukrainian literature, songs, folk tales, customs, and traditions.

Her older brother, Mykhaylo Drahomanov (1841-1895), an eminent scholar, historian, political publicist, literary critic, and folklorist, served as her mentor. After the death of their father, he enrolled her in an exclusive girls’ school in Kyiv, where she studied world literature and mastered German and French. In her brother’s home, she met the leading intellectuals of the day.

In 1868, at the age of nineteen, Olha married a lawyer, Petro Kosach. A devoted mother, she instilled in her children—two sons and four daughters—a fervent love of country, a passion for knowledge, and a special interest in the study of languages and literatures. Her eldest son, who became a mathematician and a professor of physics, wrote under the pseudonym of Mykhaylo Obachny; her eldest daughter, Larysa, using the pseudonym of Lesya Ukrainka, became Ukraine’s greatest woman poet.

Despite heavy family responsibilities, Olha’s favourable financial position enabled her to continue pursuing her intellectual interests. In 1872, she visited her brother in Bulgaria where he was a visiting professor and, a few years later, stayed with him in Geneva, where he had settled as a political emigrant. At this time, she travelled widely in Europe and established contacts with writers in Western Ukraine, among them Ivan Franko, a renowned author, critic, publicist, and political activist, and the feminist author, Nataliya Kobrynska.

The first focus of Olha’s national consciousness was Ukrainian folklore and ethnography. During the years that the Kosach family lived in smaller centres outside of Kyiv, she collected local customs, folk songs, and embroidery samples, and began her career as a writer in 1876, by publishing articles about Ukrainian folklore.

In the course of her career, she translated literary works from several languages into Ukrainian and wrote original poetry, plays, short fiction, and stories for children. She also published biographies, essays of literary criticism, literary reviews, and commentaries on current affairs. In addition, she compiled and edited journals, books, and almanacs.

Certainly, her pen name “Pchilka,” which in Ukrainian means “little bee,” was a most felicitous choice, for she gave up a life of leisure and assiduously fostered the development of Ukrainian literature.

Her literary activities intersected with her involvement in the Ukrainian women’s movement and her political activism in the cause of unifying Eastern Ukraine (in the Russian Empire) and Western Ukraine (in the Austro-Hungarian Empire). In 1887 she joined forces with Nataliya Kobrynska from Western Ukraine to publish the widely acclaimed Pershy vinok (The First Garland), an almanac that took the bold step of featuring only women contributors.

When the Kosach family settled in Kyiv in the 1890s, Pchilka, by then a well-known writer, became an active participant in the capital’s cultural life and delivered lectures about Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish authors. In 1901 the Ukrainian literary establishment celebrated the 25th anniversary of her writing career.

In 1905, Pchilka participated in a successful effort to lift tsarist bans (1863 and 1876) on Ukrainian – language publications in Eastern Ukraine. This same year, in the province of Poltava, she founded an organization which fought for women’s rights and issued a manifesto demanding autonomy for Ukraine.

The next decade in Pchilka’s life was marked by personal tragedy. Her son, Mykhaylo, died in 1903; her husband, in 1909; and her daughter, Lesia Ukrainka, in 1913. She also lost a number of her closest friends and political allies, including Mykhaylo Starytsky (1840-1904), a renowned author, and Mykola Lysenko (1842-1912), a gifted composer.

During the First World War, Pchilka edited newspapers in her native village of Hadyach in Poltava. In 1924, she returned to Kyiv, where she worked in the ethnographic, literary, and historical sections of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR. Even though she had been persecuted for her anti-Soviet views and activities, in 1925, in recognition of her many achievements, she was made a Member of the Academy. Despite her advanced years and frail health, she continued writing until her death in 1930.

In her thematically fresh depictions of the lifestyles and concerns of the upper classes, Pchilka was among the first Ukrainian authors to record authentically the speech patterns and conversations of the Ukrainian intelligentsia. A highly principled woman, she challenged deeply ingrained norms governing the status of women in society, played a leading role in the struggle for Ukraine’s reunification and independence, and made a noteworthy contribution to Ukrainian literature and the enrichment of the Ukrainian literary language.