Four Ukrainian women: stories of courage and greatness
May 1, 2024

Four Ukrainian women: stories of courage and greatness

Ukraine, a country with a rich history and culture, has given the world many outstanding figures. Their achievements in various spheres of life serve as a source of inspiration and a reminder of the inexhaustible potential of the human spirit. This article is dedicated to four Ukrainian women whose lives and work have become symbols of courage, resilience, and unparalleled talent.

From Lesia Ukrainka, a poet and writer whose works are striking in their depth of thought and emotional power, to Oleksandra Matviichuk, a powerful human rights activist, we will travel back in time to learn about them! Their life stories, full of trials and triumphs, serve as a testament to the indomitable strength of the human spirit and the ability to overcome any obstacles.

This article was created to expand knowledge about Ukrainian culture and history, as well as to break down the stereotypes that often surround this unique country. We strive to showcase the richness and greatness of the Ukrainian people to the world and to inspire readers to do the same.

Lesya Ukrainka

Born on 25 February, 1871, Lesya Ukrainka, was not just a Ukrainian poet, but a dramatist, short-story writer, essayist, and critic. She spent her childhood in various places all across Ukraine before settling in Kyiv. Her talent for writing shone from a young age. She wrote her first poem ‘Надія’ (Hope) when she was nine, which in my opinion is one of her most notable pieces, as it resonates almost perfectly with the ongoing war in Ukraine and emphasises the strength of the Ukrainian people. Her first poems to be published were ‘Lily of the Valley’ and ‘Sappho’, appearing in the journal Zoria in Lviv.

But why am I writing about her? Why is it important to know about her and her writings? Lesya Ukrainka not only holds a place in Ukrainian literature but also as one of the most influential poets of all time. She was a pioneer in creating a new feminist literature at a time when no one dared to do so. She gave women agency and protagonism in all of her writing, contrary to the European trends of the day. Her characters would defy patriarchal norms, seeking their own well-being and independence, something quite revolutionary almost 150 years ago!

Take, for instance, ‘Stone Host’, the first version of the legend of Don Juan written by a woman in European literature. Here, she transforms the notorious libertine into the object of his conquest’s manipulation. She created characters like Donna Anna that embody what is called the ‘New Woman’, who put themselves first and narrate their own tales within a patriarchal society that can no longer silence them. But this is not the only reason why I believe we should remember Lesya Ukrainka. Another reason is that her poems remain relevant even today and resonate with the ongoing war in Ukraine. Look at some words from her poem ‘Hope’, ‘I hope to return once again to Ukraine, to look again at my native land, to look again at the blue Dnipro River. I don’t care if I live or die there; there is only one hope left‘. Her words reflect the resilience and determination of the Ukrainian people, and in the face of adversity, her poetry serves as a reminder of the power of hope to guide us through dark times. Lesya Ukrainka is a reminder of Ukrainian strength, and that is why we should remember her.

Sofia Yablonska

Did you know that the first travel-blogger making a solo journey across half of the world was actually a Ukrainian woman called Sofia Yablonska? She dared to travel the world at a time when some young ladies were not allowed to leave their city, let alone the country.

She came from a religious family, but this did not prevent her from studying at various courses: state seminaries, typewriting, commercial activities and even drama. Acting and cinematography, which had just appeared, became her biggest dream. For a while, Sofia managed a cinema in Ternopil, imagine! In 1927, 20-year-old Sofia, destined to expand her love of art beyond Ukraine, went to study cinematography in Paris. There she worked as a model. Later in life, after being inspired by her husband’s stories about Africa, the emancipated young lady went to Morocco on her own. She lovingly wrote down all her travels in a notebook. She was so inspired by her first solo trip that she decided that her second trip would be around the world! In order to somehow support herself during the trip, she signed a contract for the filming of actual documentaries about the life of the local population of Indochina with the company ‘Filmtak’ (later she also worked with ‘Indochinafilm’). Yablonska illustrated her travel novels with her own exotic photographs of the “great journey”. Over the course of three years (1932-1934), Sophia visited Egypt, Djibouti, Ceylon, French Indochina, Yunnan Province (China), Siam, the Malay Islands, Java, Bali, Tahiti, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA. Our woman from Galicia was the first woman who thought of building guest villas on the French Riviera and renting them out. She did a lot of things which were considered impossible for most women of that time. Unfortunately, she died in 1971 while taking one of her new novels to the publisher.

Source of photo

Liliana Gasinskaya

If you lived in the United States in the early 1970s, you would have definitely heard about the “red bikini girl”, a woman who became a celebrity overnight and stayed in people’s hearts for a long time. As you’re probably not American or from the 70s let me introduce you to the courageous Ukrainian girl, Liliana Gasinskaya from Luhansk, who is known to the world as the “The Girl in the Red Bikini”.

During the times of the Soviet Union, it was almost impossible to travel abroad, because the authorities feared that someone would not return to the homeland. However, this young woman refused to accept living in a country that she didn’t love and decided to do something very brave.

Liliana Gasinskaya was a lift attendant and waitress on the cruise ship, SS Leonid Sobinov, which operated out of the Black Sea port of Odesa. One evening when the cruise was near Australia, the ship’s crew arranged a party, but Liliana didn’t attend. She excused herself, claiming she had a severe headache. Leaving all of her belongings in her room, she jumped off the ship wearing nothing but a red bikini and swam through her pain and fear into Sydney Harbor. In the morning, she was discovered by a young photographer who took the famous photo. Foreign media published the photo writing: “It was a rare splash of colour in the Cold War when a young Soviet woman wearing only a red bikini squeezed through a porthole of a cruise liner to swim ashore in Sydney Harbour.”

I believe Liliana’s story is inspiring because she had no fear of chasing her dream. Courage is a core trait of Ukrainian people, something ingrained in our DNA. Ukrainian writer Ivan Bagryany in the book Tiger Trappers wrote that “only the brave ones have happiness” and that “it is better to die running than to live rotting.” Liliana embodied these values perfectly, as she knew that staying in a country where there was no freedom was virtually the same as death. She wanted to really live, not just survive or exist. Her act spoke to the whole international community.

Unfortunately, even now, if one were to search for Liliana’s name or “red bikini girl” on the Internet almost all the foreign media refers to her as a “Russian girl”. However, Liliana came from Ukraine, a land of free people, and always wanted the world to know it. So dear reader, never be afraid of anything. If the confidence of an 18-year-old Ukrainian girl even scared away the sharks from Sydney harbor, then you too can swim any distance to achieve your goal.

Oleksandra Matviichuk

Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a champion for human rights? Meet Oleksandra Matviichuk, an activist who created long-lasting change throughout Ukrainian society and the world. You may not have heard about the Centre for Civil Liberties, but you’ve definitely heard about the Nobel Peace Prize. Well in 2022, this organisation was the recipient of this incredible award, and Oleksandra is the leader of it! Back in 2007, Oleksandra envisioned a way of safeguarding human rights, fostering democracy, and upholding justice in Ukraine by overseeing law enforcement, educating youth, and incentivising international solidarity efforts…. And Matviichuk’s list of activist achievements doesn’t just stop there!

As a coordinator for the Euromaidan SOS initiative, a movement that provides legal and other assistance to persecuted protesters across Ukraine, she confronts the harsh realities of Russian occupation in Ukraine. From exposing political persecution in Crimea to spearheading the daring campaign “LetMyPeopleGo” to secure the release of political prisoners, she is driven by courage and resilience.

The impact of her work is felt even beyond Ukraine, reaching the European Union and international bodies such as the United Nations. Matviichuk amplifies the voices of the oppressed and holds perpetrators of injustice accountable. Her extraordinary efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. As the first Ukrainian to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and the first woman in her country nominated for a seat on The UN Committee against Torture, she’s blazing trails and breaking barriers.

In a world plagued by conflict and injustice, Oleksandra Matviichuk reminds us that human rights should not be mere rhetoric but the driving force behind political decisions. Through her active commitment and boldness, she continues to inspire us all to fight for a more just and peaceful world.

This blog post was written as a collaboration between members of the Dialogue Initiative EU-Ukraine Working Group.

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