Conrad and Ukraine

Ludmilla Voitkovska, University of Saskatchewan

Joseph Conrad, one of the most eminent British writers, has been erased from the canon of English literature in the country of his birth, Ukraine. The list of Conrad's works translated into Ukrainian includes two collections: short stories The Outpost of Progress (1926; 92 pages) and Selected Works (1959, Radyans'kyj Pys'mennyk; 17500 copies). The latter included Lagoon, Tomorrow,, and Rescue (363 pages). The End of the Tether, (1928; 3000 copies), Almayer's Folly (1929: Xarkiv), Typhoon (1930: Kharkiv-Kyiv, 4000 copies), Freya of the Seven Isles (1960: Kyiv, Molod' Publishing House, 45000 copies), Lord Jim (1985: Kyiv: Molod' Publishing House) were published separately at different times. The choice of works to be translated into Ukrainian and released by the state controlled publishing houses apparently reduces the image of Conrad to that of a writer of romantic sea adventures.

The body of Ukrainian criticism of Conrad is extraordinarily small. The first article of a Ukrainian scholar on Conrad appeared in 1925. It was M. Mohylans'ky's "J. Conrad. The Avanpost of Progress," published in the journal Life and Revolution. Before 1990, only 20 critical works on Conrad appeared in Ukraine, including critical introductions to his novels, newspaper journalism, and two 1988 Ukrainian Literary Encyclopedia entries, one on Conrad specifically and a much broader one, on English literature, where Conrad's name is mentioned.

Conrad's relationship with Ukraine has not been received extensive attention in Western criticism either. In fact, a number of questions arise from Conrad biographies as their authors make references to the country of Conrad's birth. Neill R. Joy of Colgate University writes in the Dictionary of National Biography, "It is extraordinarily odd that one of the most important novelists of twentieth century writing in English should have been born in Berdyczyw in the Polish Ukraine and raised speaking Polish and French" (10: 112). It is not the aspect of critical astonishment with the writer's ability to transcend cultural boundaries that attracts attention to this statement. It is, in fact, the suggested country of Conrad's birth, namely "Polish Ukraine."

A short tour of other biographical resources English or North American reader of Conrad is exposed to adds to the confusion on the seemingly simple matter of the country of Conrad's birth. Kingsley Widmer, from San Diego State University, insists that "Conrad was born in Berdyczow (now Berdichev), Russia" (DLB, v.34 British Novelists, 1890–1929: Traditionalists, 43). Monika Brown, from Pembroke State University, complicates matters ever further, maintaining that Joseph Conrad is "a native of the Polish Ukraine who grew up under Russian rule" (Dictionary of Literary Biography. British Short Story writers, 1880–1914: The Romantic Tradition, 66). European biographical sources do not deal with the issue of the country of Conrad's birth in an unequivocal manner either. The Dictionary of National Biography suggests that Joseph Conrad was born near Mohilow in Poland (Humphrey Milford being the author of the entry). The latest Oxford Reader's Companion to Conrad by Owen Knowles and Gene Moore, published in 2000, gives the most precise definition of the place of Conrad's birth: "Berdyczow in Ukraine, a part of Poland annexed by Russia since 1793" (XXI). As accurate as it may be, it sounds more as a précis of a political history of Eastern Europe than a mere statement of the geographical position of a city. Moreover, Conrad was born 64 years after the second partition of Poland, which was followed by the third partition in 1795, and at no time after that was Berdyczow part of a Polish state.

Where, then, was Conrad born? And why do Conrad biographers so persistently mention Poland as the country of the writer's birth? What exact map of Europe are Conrad biographers looking at when they refer to "Polish Ukraine," and, consequently, what political narrative of a state history are they promoting? Why, finally, has the Ukrainian reader been denied an opportunity to read Conrad's works, which have become permanent fixtures in English literature courses in Western universities? Answers to these questions lie in the complex political history of the region, which also involves the history of ethnic relationships between Russia, Poland, and Ukraine.