top of page

Travel for a Cause: A Conversation about Ukraine with Ivan Franko

By Agha Iqrar Haroon

My desire to know and meet revolutionists who fought against imperialist rules always keep me moving and my wandering soul never stops this search of those who dedicated their lives deliberately to sufferings by contesting norms, customs and rulers. I am a searching soul to know why Dullah Bhatti contested Mughal Empire while knowing that he would be crushed under the powerful elephant of Mughal Empire?

I wished to meet Baghat Singh, I wished to have dialogue with Jansi Ki Rani and I wished to ask Tipu Sultan who spoiled his almost up-and-coming campaign to throw British Empire out of the subcontinent?

Being a student of Political Philosophy and History, personalities who challenged their political systems and regimes have been an interesting part of my study. King’s philosophers have never inspired me because so-called thinkers under the protection of elites only dedicated and contributed their work for extension and expansion of foreign rulers and kept their readers busy in complicated dialogues. Not a single King’s philosopher can be considered in history as an activist while I believe that “New Thought” must represent a challenge to an “old System”.

While doing my master degree in Philosophy from Government College Lahore, I preferred to take “Baruch Spinoza” as my subject instead of more simple and more popular “Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel”.

Spinoza lived an outwardly simple life as an optical lens grinder and he turned down rewards and honours throughout his life, including prestigious teaching positions. He died at the age of 44 in 1677 from lungs illness, aggravated by the inhalation of fine glass dust while grinding lenses.

His work “magnum opus” was published posthumously in the year of his death. The work opposed Descartes’ philosophy of mind–body dualism, and earned Spinoza recognition as one of Western top philosophers and important thinkers.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said about Spinoza

The fact is that Spinoza is made a testing-point in modern philosophy, so that it may really be said: You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all. “

“Activism” in Philosophy and History has been my core area of interest and this composition influence my work as journalist and as a writer in later years of my professional life.

My search for those who dedicated their lives for Activism is still keeping me moving from one place to another place for meeting such characters who fought for their ideas, philosophies, their dreams and their motherlands at the cost of their lives.

My previous journey to “Golden Land of Black Soil” was in search of Stepan Bandera but now I decided to find Ivan Franko and requested him for a conversation to know what influenced him in his life and why did he opt a difficult path of life although he had opportunities to live a simple, better and comfortable life?

Ivan Franko who was born in the Ukrainian village of Nahuievychi located then in the Austrian kronland of Galicia (today part of Drohobych Raion, Lviv Oblast Ukraine) was an activist, poet, writer, philosopher and journalist.

Hailing from a rich family, Ivan Franko decided to live a tough life because he was not ready to compromise his thoughts for superior achievements.

Franko’s family was considered “well-to-do”, with their own servants and 24 hectares (59 acres) of their own property.

His father died before Ivan was able to graduate but his stepfather supported Ivan in continuing his education.

In 1875, he graduated from the Drohobych Realschule, and went to Lviv University, where he studied classical philosophy, Ukrainian language and literature. It was at this university that Franko began his literary career.

It was era of Austro-Hungarian oppression over western Ukraine and Franko’s socialist writings led to his arrest in 1877. However, the nine months in prison did not discourage his political writing or activism.

After release from jail, he studied the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, contributed articles to the Polish newspaper Praca (Labour) and helped organize workers’ groups in Lviv.

In 1878, Franko and Pavlyk founded the magazine Hromads’kyi Druh (“Public Friend”). Only two issues were published before it was banned by the government; however, the journal was reborn under the names Dzvin (Bell) and Molot (Mallet). Franko published a series of books called Dribna Biblioteka (“Petty Library”) from 1878 until his second arrest for arousing the peasants to civil disobedience in 1880.

After three months in the Kolomyia prison, Franko returned to Lviv but he was kept under police surveillance and was expelled from Lviv University, an institution that would be renamed as Ivan Franko National University of Lviv after the writer’s death.

He also wrote a series of articles on “Taras Shevchenko” who was a great source of inspiration for Fanko thereafter.

I met Ivan Franko in a garden of Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast – a land which was originally known as Stanislavshchyna or Stanislavivshchyna till November 9, 1962 and was renamed after the name of Ivan Franko.

As a journalist my simple and expected question was that who inspired him for dedicating his whole life for the preservation of Ukrainian culture and language under the oppressive Austro-Hungarian Empire which purged everybody about separate identity of Ukraine, Ukrainians and Ukrainian language.

He gave me a simple answer – He said:

I was inspired by the smell of my soil and breeze of my land and I have baggage of those who gave their lives while protecting Ukrainian identity and one of main sources of my inspiration was work of Taras Hryhorovich Shevchenko.

He asked me did I know Taras Hryhorovich Shevchenko? My answer was in negative.

He smiled and said you (I) would never understand me (Franko) and would never enjoy my (Franko) writing unless your (I) read and know about Taras Shevchenko.

Before I could ask him to tell me more about Shevchenko, he took a pause and said let me tell you who was Shevchenko. He said:

Our land (Halychyna–Galicia modern Western Ukraine) was negotiated among Russia, Prussia and Austria over the first partition of Poland led in 1772 to Austria receiving parts of Halychyna. For Empires, we were like cucumbers or sheep, not humans. But we (people of Western Ukraine) were not ready to bow down to any imperialism. We had been subjugated, enslaved, sold and purged but we never lost our identity. Ottoman Empire used to transport us like animals and used to sell us in slave markets of Constantinople (Istanbul) but yet they failed to fetch away our language, culture and identity rather we transported our culture with Ottoman Empire through personalities like Anastasia, or Aleksandra Lisowska (Roxelana) whom you know as “Ḫurrem Sulṭān” (Wife of Suleiman the Magnificent of Ottoman Empire).

We are strong enough to survive oppression and every oppression made us more irrepressible.

Taras Hryhorovich Shevchenko (born in 1814) lived half of his life in exile and imprisonment but he never left sketching Ukrainian female figures and culture in his paintings and never stopped writing Ukrainian poetry and prose writing. All his life and creative work were dedicated to the people of Ukraine. The poet dreamed about the times when his country would be a free sovereign state, where the Ukrainian language, culture and history would be highly valued, and the people would be happy and free.

Shevchenko was a serf (a kind of slave or agricultural labourer bound by the feudal system), by birth but he had free thoughts and free soul, and he paid price of this freedom of his soul. His first collection of poems, entitled “Kobzar” (1840), expressed the historicism and the folkloristic interests of the Ukrainian Romantics, and his poetry soon moved away from nostalgia for Cossack life to a more sombre portrayal of Ukrainian history, particularly in the long poem “Haidamaks” (1841). In early 1847, Shevchenko started to work as a teacher of visual arts at the Kyiv University. There, he engaged himself in the activity of the clandestine St. Cyril and Methodius society. When the secret society was suppressed by the Russian authorities in 1847, Shevchenko was punished by exile and compulsory military service for writing the poems “Dream,” “Caucasus,” and “Epistle,” which satirized the oppression of Ukraine by Russia and prophesied a revolution.

Though forbidden to write or paint, Shevchenko secretly wrote a few lyrical poems during the first years of his exile. He had a revival of creativity after his release in 1857; his later poetry treats historical and moral issues, both Ukrainian and universal.

Shevchenko was allowed to return from exile, and in 1858, he eventually returned to Moscow, and then came to St. Petersburg. In 1859, he managed to come to Ukraine, yet he was refused the right to live in his homeland permanently, so he was forced to return to Petersburg. Having ruined his health during his 10-year long exile, Taras Shevchenko passed away in early 1861.

Ivan Franko was telling me about the life of Taras Shevchenko and my thoughts were melting with agonizing tone of his talk and I could feel the pain of those who sacrificed their lives for protecting their identity.

When Ivan Fanko paused his conversation, I immediately threw another question that did fire sacrificing lives for protecting Ukrainian language and culture continue after the death of people like Shevchenko and Fanko?

He saw in my eyes and said – NO – Ukrainian mother land had thousands of thousands nameless heroes who never bothered to sacrifice their lives for their mother land.

I asked myself could he cite me one who I could quote as a journalist?

He said:

Iqrar you must read the history of Ukraine before asking me such shallow questions. We have a long history of sacrifices and this history is unending and most of time undocumented.

Suddenly, he said to me that I must read about Oleksa Mykolajovych Hirnyk (Олекса Миколайович Гiрник) who burned himself to death as an act of protest against Soviet suppression of the Ukrainian language, culture and history and this event took place in my lifetime – on 21 January 1978.

His sacrifice was quickly covered up by the Soviet authorities and remained unknown to general populace for decades.

I felt the Golden man Ivan Fanko was getting tired after so long conversation we had and I begged him to leave. He said me an interesting question before we departed. He said why did a man from Pakistan had so deep interest in Ukrainian culture and history?

This question was much expected because my country had no proximity with his (Ivan Franko) land. I smiled and said – I have an interest in those who contested the writ of imperialism and invaders because I myself belong to a land which had a long history of invasion, imperialism and colonization, and this subject interests me.

We departed but he asked me to visit his grave before I leave Ukraine and read more about Oleksa Mykolajovych Hirnyk if I am really serious to know that fire for independent thought had been burning thousands of writers, journalists and philosophers of Ukraine even after the death of Ivan Franko.

After my meeting with Fanko, I came to know that Hirnyk was born on 28 March 1912 in the town of Bohorodchany, then Austria-ruled Galicia and belonged to land of Ivan Franko. He came from a family of boykos with a long background of preserving Ukrainian culture and heritage. His grandfather was the founder of the Prosvita Society in Bohorodchany, a society that promoted Ukrainian culture and the Ukrainian language.

After finishing secondary education, his parents wanted him to study at the seminary to become a priest. He, however, enrolled into a paramilitary organization “Sokil”. When he was getting ready to study philosophy at the University of Lviv, he was conscripted into the Polish army. While serving, he protested the treatment of Ukrainian soldiers by the Polish officers. Because of statements against the Polish government and speaking about the independence of Ukraine, he was sentenced to five years in prison. When the Soviets took control of Ukraine in 1939, Hirnyk escaped from prison in Lviv. In that same year, he persisted with his promotion of the Ukrainian language and culture, and he did not hide his aspirations for independent Ukrainian statehood. He was arrested and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment, which he spent in a penal colony in the Ural region. After he was released in 1948, he returned to Ukraine. He was perturbed by Soviet policies of Russification because Ukrainian language was no longer spoken, particularly in the eastern and central regions.

The night of 21 January 1978, the eve of the sixtieth anniversary of Ukraine’s declaration of independence by the Tsentralna Rada government, Hirnyk doused himself with four liters of gasoline and burned himself to death on Chernecha Hill, in Kaniv not far from Taras Shevchenko’s tomb. He had written close to a thousand leaflets containing quotes of Taras Shevchenko, protests against the russification of Ukraine and calls for Ukrainian independence, and left them scattered on the hill.

According to record, Hirnyk’s wife was initially told that her husband died in a car accident and she was later forced to sign a written statement pledging not to tell anyone about the particulars of her husband’s death. However, the sacrifice laid down by Hirnyk was neither documented nor appreciated for years, and his story began to emerge from the archives and testimonies of the witnesses after Ukraine got independence. In 1993, a street was named after him in Kalush, and a memorial plaque was placed in his house. In 1999, the Hirnyk charitable fund was set up dedicated to the promotion of children’s literature in Ukraine. In 2000, a guelder-rose bush was planted on the place of his death. By decree of the President of Ukraine of 18 January 2007, Oleksa Hirnyk was awarded the title of the Hero of Ukraine posthumously and awarded the Order of the State.

Every nation can take Ukraine as an example that nations must not forget their heroes because nationalism survives only when we love those who sacrifice for their mother lands.



bottom of page