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Love and Passions of a Litterateur


Approaches to telling a life story of a person who has distinguished herself or himself in some way will defer depending on whether the tale is meant for a popular magazine, a tabloid or a scholarly journal (books are a different matter altogether). Also, a lot depends on the whims, predilections and preferences of the person who tells the story. Oles PANIV has chosen love as the central theme in the life of Panteleymon Kulish, a towering figure in the nineteenth-century Ukrainian culture.


Love at first sight

In 1843, Panteleymon Kulish, a twenty-four-year old budding author with many literary ambitions, including translation of the Bible into Ukrainian, paid a visit to a friend of his, Vasyl Bilozersky, who lived in the hamlet of Motronivka in the Land of Chernihivshchyna. Vasyl had a good-looking younger sister, Lesya. When Kulish saw Lesya, he was swept off his feet by the girl’s looks and intelligence. It must have been love at first sight. But Lesya was only fifteen, and though in the nineteenth century it was not unheard of to marry someone so young, the girl’s parents, well-educated people of some means, had other plans for their daughter.

Kulish left Motronivka when it was beginning to be evident that he was overstaying his welcome. Before leaving, he tried to impose a portrait of his person, which he had drawn himself, on the girl, but she declared it was an act of brazen impudence on his part, and refused to take it — she may have tried in this way to hide her own feelings.

Kulish tried hard to get the girl out of his mind and heart, and devoted himself to studies and writing. But if his mind was occupied with matters that had very little to do with love or thoughts of matrimony, his heart refused to be purged of the image of the girl he had fallen in love with. A year after his first visit to Motronivka, he went there again. He talked to Lesya’s mother, trying to persuade her that his love for her daughter was an overriding passion, and that his social and material positions were secure enough to provide his future wife with decent living. The mother was adamantly against an early marriage of her daughter, particularly to a person with not enough, in her view, credentials. But the woman did ask her daughter whether she had any feelings for Kulish and was taken aback to hear an admission that she was not indifferent to “that impertinent young man.” Lesya’s confession did not sway her mother’s resolution not to allow this marriage, and Kulish left the next morning, having spent the night in tears. Lesya, to her mother’s consternation, vowed that she would not marry anyone else and would live her life in chastity.

Another two years passed. Kulsih who had attempted to get rid of the memories of Lesya by trying to fall in love with another girl, failed in both attempts. Lesya could not be purged from his thoughts, and Olga, the girl he fancied, did not show much respect for his “Maloroski (Ukrainian) background”. She was the daughter of the president of the University of St Petersburg Petr Pletnyov, and by marrying her, Kulish could get a considerable rise on the social ladder in Russia. In spite of being fond of Olga who, in her turn, was in love with Kulish, Kulish broke up with her — and went to Motronivka. Lesya had blossomed into an eighteen-year old beauty, and in spite of Kulish’s long absence from her life, she had preserved very warm feelings for him. This time, her mother softened up and consented to give her parental blessing to the marriage.

Lesya and Kulish were married on January 24 1847. Kulish’s best man was Taras Shevchenko, a great poet and a pivotal figure in the Ukrainian culture of the nineteenth century, whom Kulish had befriended. During the wedding ceremony in church, Shevchenko, in accordance with age-old tradition, held the crown over the newlyweds’ heads.

For their honeymoon, the happy couple went to Prague. In fact, for Kulish it was more of a business trip than pleasure — the Russian Academy of Sciences had sent Kulish to Central Europe on a sort of an ethnographic trip to study the Slavic culture and languages. When in March 1847, Kulish and his young wife traveled to Warsaw, Poland, he was arrested by the Russian police on charges of “being a member of a secret subversive organization (let us remind the readers that Poland was part of the Russian Empire)…


Early years

Panteleymon Kulish was born on August 1819 in the small town of Voronizh in the Land of Chernihivshchyna (now it is in Sumska Oblast). His father, Oleksandr Kulish, traced his lineage to the Ukrainian Cossack leaders of the old times, and his mother Kateryna (nee Hladka) also had Cossacks among her ancestors. There were eight children in the family, most of whom died either in infancy or when they were quite young. Kateryna was illiterate but knew a lot of folktales and folk songs. She died when Panteleymon was still a small boy. His father tried his best to develop Panteleymon intellectually but “he read boring poems to me and tried to teach me arithmetic that I did not care for,” wrote Kulish much later in his memoirs. It was their neighbor, a woman of excellent education and aristocratic spirit that had a profound influence upon Panteleymon. It was she who discovered potential talents in Panteleymon and talked his father into sending the boy to a good school. There being no such school in Voronizh, Kulish went to the town of Novhorod-Siversky (also located in the Land of Chernihivshchyna) where he got matriculated at the local himnaziya. The school’s principle was quick to spot the boy’s gift for creative writing, and he encouraged Panteleymon’s ambition to become a writer.

Upon graduation from the Novhorod-Siversky himnaziya, Kulish went to Kyiv where he tried to get accepted by the recently established St Volodymyr University. His social status proving to be an obstacle, he was rejected, but his himnaziya diploma was enough to give him a job of a private teacher, though not in Kyiv but in Nizhyn. In 1837, he returned to Kyiv to try his luck again, and this time he was given a right to attend lectures of his choice. This free attendance did not entitle him to earning a degree though.

Kulish compensated lack of formal education by extensive and voracious reading. He was particularly interested in history, ethnography and Biblical studies. He had a number of his short stories and essays published and they attested to Kulish’s talent. One of the professors of St Volodymyr University, archimandrite T. Avsenyev (high-ranking Christian Orthodox cleric) took an interest in the inquisitive and eager young man, and it was then that Kulish began to seriously entertain an idea of translating the Bible into the contemporary Ukrainian.


Arrest, release and further career

In the early nineteen-forties, Kulish earned his living by teaching, moving from town to town. Some of his short stories, essays and novels got published and made his name known to a group of like-minded Ukrainian intellectuals among whom were V. Bilozersky, T. Shevchenko and M. Kostomarov. At the end of 1845, Bilozersky, Kostomarov, M. Hulak, who were later joined by Kulish, and O. Markevych, founded “a brotherhood,” to which they gave the name of Kyrylo-Mefodiyivske Bratstvo (Brotherhood of Cyril and Methodius; these translators of the Bible brothers, for Christianizing the Danubian Slavs and for influencing the religious and cultural development of all Slavic peoples, received the title “the apostles of the Slavs”; both were outstanding scholars, theologians, and linguists who actually invented the Slavic alphabet based on Greek characters). Shevchenko joined later. Altogether, there were 12 members who were united by the ideas of establishing independent Slavic states united in a loose confederation headed by Ukraine, of promoting national culture and language, of abolishing serfdom and introducing civil liberties.

Though the group was small and idealistically romantic with no wide support or means of achieving their goals, the czarist government thought they were dangerous enough to be harshly dealt with. The crackdown came only fourteen months later. All the members were arrested, imprisoned or exiled. The actual participation of Kulish was not proven but the charge included “close friendly relationship” with “the most militant member of the so-called Kyrylo-Mefodiyivske Bratstvo Taras Shevchenko.

Kulish spent several months in prison in St Petersburg and upon his release he was exiled to the town of Tula in Russia. As though arrest and exile of her husband were not enough, the fate delivered another heavy blow — Lesya had a miscarriage which prevented her from having any more children.

In spite of a heavy psychological and physical shock, Lesya did whatever she could to get her husband out of the exile, and her efforts and support of friends and relations were crowned with success — Kulish was pardoned and allowed to return to St Petersburg, though not at that moment to Ukraine (“the act of august benevolence” was granted on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Nicholas I’s reign). Neither was Kulish allowed to publish his works. But he did continue to write and publish under various pseudonyms (Panko Kazyuk, Petro Zabotsen, Pavlo Ratay, Panko Khutorny and others).

Nicholas I died in 1855, and under his much more liberal son Alexander II, the ban on publications under Kulish’s own name was lifted, and he also could go freely to Ukraine. In addition to his and his wife’s estate in Motronivka, Kulish owned an estate in the Land of Lubeshchyna which was famous for its wonderfully scenic nature. It was the beauty of nature that must have prompted Kulish to develop his own “philosophy of nature, or, as he called it, his “khutirska filosofiya” — that is “philosophy of rural life.”


Countryside philosophy, passions and translations

After 1856, Kulish began to spend an increasing amount of time at one of his estates. He was a successful litterateur, his wife loved and respected him, he was not rich but neither was he poor — and yet he seems to have been affected by the middle-age crisis. He wanted children, but his wife was barren. After he met Oleksandra Myloradovychivna, a fine Ukrainian lady, he maintained “an epistolary romance” for quite some time. His wife discovered some of the letters and — quite understandably — was deeply hurt. But Kulish managed to overcome his straying feelings, the family peace seemed to have been reestablished, and the Kulishs went abroad to heal the wounds.

But the reconciliation did not last long. In the spring of 1859, Kulish found himself in St Petersburg where he met Mariya Markovych (nee Vilinska; 1833–1907), an attractive, temperamental woman of literary and revolutionary ambitions. Kulish, seeing a writer’s gift in Mariya, was persistent in encouraging her to write fiction. He even invented a penname for her — Marko Vovchok, under which Mariya did become a writer of considerable prominence.

It was a passionate love affair, adulterous on both sides. H. Halan, one of the persons who knew Kulish rather well, wrote later that it “was craziness. Kulish quarreled with his friends, his wife is very unhappy. He seems to be pursuing this woman, Marko Vovchok.” Kulish himself admitted that he “seems to have broken up his family happiness.” In a letter to Myloradovychivna he wrote of his loneliness, “I can’t find peace in the whole world… Even you have abandoned me…”

But his faithful and incredibly patient wife did not abandon him — she waited and he did come back.

The passions over, Kulish settled down permanently in Motronivka, and after 1871 stayed most of the time there, doing his translations, writing fiction and scholarly works. In 1880, he invited Ivan Palyui to come on a visit. Palyui did and later described his impressions: “I spent several weeks with the Kulishs. The days flicked by. Beatrice — this is how I addressed the ideal wife of Kulish, not only made sure we had excellent meals and all the comfort possible, but also entertained us with all sorts of things, including the sparkling conversation and singing of Ukrainian folk songs. Kuilsh’s wife proved to be an excellent conversationalist, whose opinions were well weighed and grounded, and her words were like gold. I was greatly impressed by her patriotic Ukrainianness and her great respect for the work her husband was doing. Her selflessness, her support of her husband and longsuffering endurance and tolerance are truly amazing.”

The fire of 1885 destroyed much of the Kulishs’ estate and the manuscript if his translation of the Bible perished in the fire too. Kulish spent the last twelve years of his life redoing what had been lost.

Kulish died on February 1897. His wife survived him by fourteen years.

At his grave in Kulishivka stands a pig iron cross, the inscription on which says in part: “Here rests the Ukrainian translator of the Holy Writ into the Ukrainian tongue Panteleymon Oleksandrovych Kulish, a God’s humble slave … may his soul rest in peace and may God forgive him all of his sins and lets his soul into Paradise…”


Panteleymon Kulish made very substantial contributions to the Ukrainian culture and language: he was the first to start writing scholarly works in Ukrainian; his were the first novels ever written in Ukrainian; he introduced new principles of spelling Ukrainian words which continue to be, to a large extent, in use today; he was the first to translate the Bible into Ukrainian; his translations also include works of Shakespeare, Schiller and Byron.


Portrait of Oleksandra (Lesya) Kulish by the painter Andriy Horonovych. 1847.


P. Kulish’s house in Motronivka. 1899.


The study of P. Kulish (early 20th century).


The portrait of P. Kulish as a young man.


At the Funeral of P. Kulish. A drawing by H. Kovalennko. February 1897.


Marko Vovchok.



An allegorical drawing by P. Kulish. Pencil and ink. 1843.




Covers of some of the books written by P. Kulish: Chorna Rada (Black Council; 1900); Sochineniya i pisma Kulisha (Works and Letters of Kulish, which was published posthumously by Kulish’s wife), and the second edition of Kulish’s Hramatka (Book of Grammar).




Covers of books by P. Kulish — Bayda, 1884; Dosvitky (Before Dawn), 1876; Ukrainian translation of Shakespeare’s King Lear.


P. Kulish’s translation of the Bible with a dedication to his mother and to his wife: “To my dearest mother, who inspired me, even when I was young, to do this work to her immortal soul with profound reverence”; “To my most loyal and faithful wife … for her unfailing support and encouragement with humble obeiscence.”


Covers of Gospels in translation by P. Kulish and I. Pulyui. 1871.

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