THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

15 July 2019

Animals, Folk Tales and Tragedy: the family story behind a Ukrainian reading book

Borys and Mariia Hrinchenko were two of the most prominent Ukrainian educators, folklorists, writers and linguists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Yet while Borys is widely celebrated, far less is known about Mariia and her work. On the anniversary of her death, this blog post looks at some of her activities through the lens of one book: Ridne slovo. Ukraïnsʹka chytanka (‘Native Word. A Ukrainian Reader’), which was compiled by Borys and Mariia and published in Kyiv in 1912 (12975.l.27.).

Family portrait

The Hrinchenko Family: Borys, Mariia and their daughter, Anastasiia. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The history behind the book’s publication reveals the vital and often overlooked role that Mariia played in preserving and bringing to light Borys’s work, as well as her role as a writer and editor. Borys initially used the reader, which he put together in 1889, to teach his daughter, Anastasiia, how to read. The book was based on the 1864 children’s reading book Rodnoe slovo (Native Word) by the writer and pedagogue Konstantin Ushinskii.

After publishing a Ukrainian primer in 1907 (012901.i.25.(1.)), Borys also planned to publish his reader. The book needed considerable work, however, and he died before it was finished. Following his death from tuberculosis in 1910, Mariia edited the reader and added additional sections. The book was received as a gift by the British Museum Library in 1913, a year after it was first published.

Ridne slovo cover

Cover of Ridne slovo. Ukraïnsʹka chytanka (‘Native Word. A Ukrainian Reader’), Kyiv, 1912. 12975.l.27.

The reader is arranged thematically, beginning with a section on domestic and wild animals, before moving on to subjects such as flora, clothing and science. In addition to short stories and poems (including by Borys and Mariia Hrinchenko, Lesia Ukrainka and Taras Shevchenko, songs and comprehension exercises, it contains a number of riddles relating to the topic of each section, such as the following agricultural gem:

Що старше: ячмінь чи овес?
[What’s older: barley or oats?]
Ячмінь, бо вуси має.
[Barley, because it has a moustache (whiskers).]

Ridne slovo animals

Ridne slovo mushrooms

Pages from Ridne slovo. Ukraïnsʹka chytanka (‘Native Word. A Ukrainian Reader’), Kyiv, 1912. 12975.l.27.

Mariia was herself a prolific translator, writer, poet and collector. Like Borys, she was also interested in education and Ukrainian folk culture. Between 1887 and 1893, the couple taught in a school set up by Khrystyna Alchevska, an educator, teacher and a prominent activist for national education in Ukraine and the Russian Empire. After moving to Kyiv in the early 1900s, both Mariia and Borys worked on the Slovarʹ ukraïnsʹkoï movy (Dictionary of the Ukrainian Language), which was published in four volumes between 1907 and 1909. Mariia’s role in compiling and editing the dictionary, which is considered one of the most important works in the history of the modern Ukrainian language, is rarely acknowledged, however.

Writing most commonly under the pseudonym M. Zahirnia, her translations include works by Henrik Ibsen, Hans Christian Anderson and Hermann Sudermann. Some were collaborations with her husband and daughter. Mariia also wrote pamphlets and short texts on social issues, such as Strashnyi voroh (‘The Terrible Enemy’) which discussed alcohol and alcoholism (Kyiv, 1907; Ac.2655/2.).

Books in memory of Nastiia

Title page from a book in memory of Anastasiia (Nastiia), (Kyiv, 1912). 010795.aa.5.

In 1908, Mariia and Borys’ daughter, Anastasiia, tragically died at the age of 24. Influenced by her parents, Anastasiia was also an active writer and translator during her short life. She was involved in revolutionary activities in 1905, for which she was twice imprisoned. It was during this time that she developed tuberculosis, which led to her death just a few years later. Tragically, her infant son, who was born just before her death, also died shortly after. In 1912, Mariia published a series of books (including older titles written by her and Borys) in Anastasiia’s memory (010795.aa.5.).

In her later years, Mariia was known for her philanthropic and political work. She was also responsible for organising and donating Borys’s library of over 6,000 books to the National Library of Ukraine shortly after it was founded in 1918. Mariia died a decade later, on 15 July 1928. As is clear from the story behind Ridne slovo, she was a hugely important figure as a writer and editor at this time and instrumental in shaping the way Borys’s legacy is viewed today.

Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

References and further reading

Borys Hrinchenko and Mariia Hrinchenko, Ridne slovo. Ukraïnsʹka chytanka. Persha pislia hramatky knyha do chytannia (Kyiv, 1912). 12975.l.27.

Borys Hrinchenko, Ukraïnsʹka hramatka do nauky chytannia ĭ pysannia (Kyiv, 1907). 012901.i.25.(1.)

Mariia Hrinchenko, Strashnyi voroh: knyzhka po horilku, No. 7 (Kyiv, 1907). Ac.2655/2.

Mariia Hrinchenko (ed.), Knyzhky pamʹiati Nasti Hrinchenko, No. 6-11 (Kyiv, 1912-1913). 010795.aa.5.

Liudmyla Nezhyva, Mariia Zahirnia: literaturnyĭ portret (Luhansʹk, 2003). YF.2007.a.23289

P. I. Skrypnyk, ‘Hrinchenko, Mariia Mykolaïvna’ Encyclopedia of Ukrainian History, Vol. 2 (Kyiv, 2004).