Larysa Petrivna Kosach-Kvitka (February 23, 1871 – August 1, 1913) better known under her literary pseudonym Lesya Ukrainka, was one of Ukraine's best-known poets and writers and the foremost woman writer in Ukrainian literature.
Ukrainka was born in 1871 in the town of Novograd-Volynsky of Ukraine, which at the time was mostly a part of a Russian Empire. She was the second child of Ukrainian writer and publisher Olha Drahomanova-Kosach (better known under her literary pseudonym Olena Pchilka). Mykhaylo Petrovych Drahomanov, a well-known Ukrainian scientist, historian, philosopher, folklorist and public figure, was a brother of Drahomanova-Kosach. Ukrainka's father was Petro Antonovych Kosach, head of the district assembly of conciliators. Despite his non-Ukrainian background, Kosach was devoted to the advancement of Ukrainian culture and financially supported Ukrainian publishing ventures. Ukrainka was very close to her uncle M. P. Drahomanov (her spiritual mentor and teacher), and her brother Mykhaylo (who would be known under the pseudonym Mykhaylo Obachny) whom she called "Mysholosie."
Ukrainka's mother played a significant role in her upbringing. Ukrainian language was the only language used in the household, and to enforce this practice their children were educated by
Ukrainian tutors at home, in order to avoid schools that taught Russian as the primary language. Ukrainka learned how to read at the age of four, and she and her brother Mykhaylo could read foreign languages well enough to read literature in their original language. Ukrainka had a good familiarity with Russian, Polish, Bulgarian, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, German and English.
By the time she was eight, she wrote her first poem, "Hope," which was written in reaction to the arrest and exile of her aunt, Olena Antonivna Kosach, who took part in a political movement against the tsarist autocracy. In 1879, her entire family moved to Lutsk. That same year her father started building houses for the family in the nearby village of Kolodiazhne.
It was at this time that her uncle, Mykhaylo Drahomanov, encouraged her to study Ukrainian folk songs, folk stories, and history, as well to peruse the Bible for its inspired poetry and eternal themes. She also was influenced by well-known composer Mykola Lysenko, and famous Ukrainian dramatist and poet Michael Staritsky.
At age thirteen, her first published poem, "Lily of the Valley," appeared in the journal Zoria in L'viv. It was here that she first used her pseudonym, which was suggested by her mother. At this time, Ukrainka was well on her way of becoming a pianist, but due to tuberculosis of the bone, she did not attend any outside educational establishment. Writing was to be the main focus of her life.
When Ukrainka was seventeen, she and her brother organized a literary circle called Pleyada (The Pleiades) which they founded to promote the development of Ukrainian literature and translating foreign classics into Ukrainian. One of the works they translated was Nikolai Gogol's Evenings on the Farmstead Near Dykanka.
Her first collection of poetry, Na krylakh pisen’ (On the Wings of Songs), was published in 1893. Since Ukrainian publications were banned by the Russian Empire, this book were published in Western Ukraine, which was part of Austria-Hungary at the time, and smuggled into Kiev.
Her illness made it necessary for her to travel to places where the climate was dry, and as a result, spent extended periods of time in Germany, Austria, Italy, Bulgaria, Crimea, the Caucasus, and Egypt. She loved experiencing other cultures, which was evident in many of her literary work, such as The Ancient History of Oriental Peoples, originally written for her younger siblings. The book was published in L'viv, and Ivan Franko was involved in its publication. It included her early poems, such as "Seven Strings," "The Starry Sky," "Tears-Pearls," "The Journey to the Sea," "Crimean Memories," and "In the Children's Circle."
Ukrainka also wrote epic poems, prose dramas, prose, several articles of literary criticism, and a number of sociopolitical essays. She was best known for her plays Boyarynya (1914; The Noblewoman), which refers directly to Ukrainian history, and Lisova pisnya (1912; The Forest Song), whose characters include mythological beings from Ukrainian folklore.
In 1897, while being treated in Yalta, Ukrainka met Serhiy Kostiantynovych Merzhynsky, an official from Minsk who was also receiving treatment for tuberculosis. The two fell in love, and her feelings for Merzhynsky were responsible for her showing a different side of herself. Examples include "Your Letters Always Smell of Withered Roses," "To Leave Everything and Fly to You," and "I'd Like to Wind around You Like Ivy," which were unpublished in her lifetime. Merzhynsky died with Ukrainka at his bedside on March 3, 1901. She wrote the entire dramatic poem "Oderzhyma" ("The Possessed") in one night at his deathbed.
Ukrainka actively opposed Russian tsarism and was a member of Ukrainian Marxist organizations. In 1902 she translated a Communist Manifesto into Ukrainian. She was briefly arrested in 1907 by tsarist police and remained under surveillance thereafter.
Ukrainka married in 1907 to Klyment Kvitka, a court official, who was an amateur ethnographer and musicologist. They settled first in the Crimea, then moved to Georgia.
Ukrainka died on August 1, 1913 at a health clinic near Tiflis in Caucasus.