Prose. The plain speech of humankind. As a literary genre prose includes all forms of literary expression not metrically versified or designed for theatrical presentation. Literary prose is distinct from poetry and drama.
Ukrainian prose literature first appeared after the Christianization of Ukraine in 988 and the adoption of Church Slavonic as a written language. The earliest works of Ukrainian prose literature, written in that language, were liturgical and other religious books either copied from those of the previously Christianized Balkan and Moravian Slavs or newly translated in Constantinople or Kyiv from Byzantine Greek sources. Liturgical works included full texts or selections of the Gospels (eg, the oldest dated monument of Kyivan Rus’ literature, the Ostromir Gospel, ca 1056–7) and the Acts of the Apostles (see Apostolos). In Kyivan Rus’, from the 10th to 14th centuries, the Old Testament was known mostly through translations of the Paremeinik (selected quotations used in the liturgy) and the Pentateuch and Octateuch. Instruction books for divine services and church ceremonies were also available, as were hagiographic lives of the saints and sermons in various collections and anthologies. Translated secular literature included the Byzantine chronicles of John Malalas, Georgius Hamartolus, and Georgius Syncellus; collections of scientific knowledge, such as the Shestydnevi (Hexamerons) of Basil the Great and of John the Exarch, and the anonymous Fiziolog; and miscellanies, such as Maximus's Pchela (The Bee) and the izborniki, such as the Izbornik of Sviatoslav (1073) and the Izbornik of Sviatoslav (1076). Translated prose tales also circulated, including the ‘Aleksandriia’ (legends about Alexander the Great), Devheniieve diianiie (The Deeds of Degenis), Varlaam i Ioasaf (Barlaam and Josaphat), Povist’ o Akiri Premudrom (The Tale of Akir the Wise), and Povist’ pro Indiiske tsarstvo (The Tale of the Indian Kingdom).
The original literary prose in Kyivan Rus’ was small in quantity and heavily influenced by Byzantine sources in its forms and substance. The most important prose works of Kyivan Rus’ were the annalistic chronicles Povist’ vremennykh lit and the Galician-Volhynian Chronicle. Also significant were sermons, such as those of Saint Theodosius of the Caves, Metropolitan Ilarion, and Cyril of Turiv; original hagiographic literature, such as the lives of Saints Borys and Hlib or of Saint Theodosius of the Caves and the works contained in the Kyivan Cave Patericon; original tales, which appear in the text of the chronicles; and works such as Hegumen Danylo’s Zhytiie i khozhdeniie Danyla, rus’koï zemli ihumena (The Life and Pilgrimage of Danylo, Hegumen of Rus’, ca 1100), Volodymyr Monomakh's Poucheniie ditiam (An Instruction for [My] Children, ca 1117), and various prayers, letters, and supplications, such as the Moleniie Danyla Zatochnyka (Supplication of Danylo the Exile, ca 12th or 13th century).
After the break in Ukrainian cultural development caused by the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, Ukrainian literary prose reappeared along with the general resurgence of culture in the second half of the 16th century. The resurgence was characterized by the influence of Renaissance, Reformation, and Counter-Reformation ideas from Western Europe and by growing religious and national awareness among Orthodox Ukrainians under pressure from Polish Catholicism. The 16th century witnessed a renewed interest in the genres of translated prose that were popular in Kyivan Rus’, as in the Ostrih Bible of 1581 (a complete and verified Slavonic text), the Peresopnytsia Gospel and other Gospels that appeared between 1556 and 1600, various sermons, and secular works and collections, among them Velyke zertsalo (The Great Mirror) and the Rymski diiannia (Gesta Romanorum). Original works, such as the sermons of Lazar Baranovych and Dymytrii Tuptalo's collection of saints' lives, were also popular in the 17th century.
The most important genre of Ukrainian prose in the second half of the 16th and first half of the 17th centuries was polemical literature. The subject of the polemic was the religious and cultural struggle between Catholicism (both Latin and Uniate) and Orthodoxy. The rhetorical works on both sides of the debate were highly charged philippics written in Old Ukrainian, Church Slavonic, or Polish. On the Orthodox side the outstanding polemicist was Ivan Vyshensky, a monk who lived on Mount Athos, and whose works consist of sermons and letters to his countrymen. Other Orthodox polemicists were Zakhariia Kopystensky, Herasym Smotrytsky, Lavrentii Zyzanii, and, later, Ioanikii Galiatovsky and Mykhailo Andrella. Another important figure in the polemic, Meletii Smotrytsky, began as a defender of Orthodoxy but later converted to Catholicism. The outstanding Uniate polemicist was Ipatii Potii. Many works written anonymously or pseudonymously have not been definitively attributed to specific authors, among them Apokrisis, Perestoroha, and Poslaniie do latyn. Piotr Skarga and Benedykt Herbest were Polish Jesuits who participated in the polemic.
After the establishment of the Kyivan Mohyla Academy and the Cossack-Polish War Ukrainian prose was enriched with historical writing and scholarship. History appeared in the form of the so-called Cossack chronicles, among them the Samovydets Chronicle, the Hryhorii Hrabianka chronicle, and the Samiilo Velychko chronicle, which give accounts of the Cossack wars, and the Sinopsis, which was composed at the Kyivan Cave Monastery (most probably by Inokentii Gizel). Scholarship from the 17th and 18th centuries covered a wide range of topics: linguistics, as in Meletii Smotrytsky's Slavonic grammar and Pamva Berynda's Slavonic dictionary; theology, as in the treatises of Kyrylo Stavrovetsky-Tranquillon and Havrylo Dometsky; philosophy, as in the Latin treatises of Innokentii Gizel and Teofan Prokopovych; and various other works, usually derived from Western sources and often produced as textbooks for the Kyivan Mohyla Academy, on rhetoric, poetics, science, and mathematics written by a variety of authors in Church Slavonic, Old Ukrainian, or Latin. Ukrainian philosophical prose culminated with the work of Hryhorii Skovoroda at the end of the 18th century. His original treatises and dialogues, as well as his fables, were written in the bookish language of the time. Istoriia Rusov, an influential early 19th-century history of Ukraine, bridged the gap between the traditions of the Cossack chronicles and the literature of the emerging Ukrainian national revival.
Cultural secularization and national self-consciousness dramatically changed the Ukrainian cultural landscape at the beginning of the 19th century. Modern Ukrainian prose did not develop as rapidly or as richly as poetry, but it made a clean break with the past in adopting a modern system of belletristic genres and in abandoning the bookish language of the 18th century in favor of the modern forms of either Ukrainian or Russian. Many writers of the first half of the 19th century, among them Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovianenko, Yevhen Hrebinka, Nikolai Gogol, Panteleimon Kulish, and Taras Shevchenko, chose to write prose in Russian. The unqualified choice of Ukrainian as the language of prose literature occurred in the second half of the century.
Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovianenko was the first major figure in modern Ukrainian prose. His short stories combined elements of burlesque classicism and moralizing sentimentalism with lengthy and abundant descriptions of ethnographic detail, such descriptions as would become a feature of Ukrainian prose throughout the 19th century. The first novel in Ukrainian, written in 1845–6, was Panteleimon Kulish's Chorna rada (The Black Council), a historical novel influenced by Sir Walter Scott, on the subject of the Cossack past, which Nikolai Gogol and Kulish had already pursued in Russian novels. Kulish was also instrumental in promoting the Ukrainian works of Marko Vovchok, whose emotional, abolitionist short stories describe the horrors of serfdom and the cruel fate of women. A number of her stories were published in the journal Osnova (Saint Petersburg), edited by Kulish and published in Saint Petersburg in 1861–2. Osnova also published ethnographic stories by lesser figures, such as Hanna Barvinok and Petro Kuzmenko.
The tsarist government's Valuev circular (1863) and Ems Ukase (1876) were particularly heavy blows for Ukrainian prose because they closed off the possibility of publishing, except in Western Ukraine. Some works remained unknown to the general public, among them Anatolii Svydnytsky's realist novel Liuboratski (The Liuboratsky Family), written in the 1860s but not published in its entirety until 1901. Because of the prohibition the realist period in Ukrainian prose was an assortment of individual writers rather than a cohesive literary movement.
The last quarter of the century was dominated by the large presence of Ivan Nechui-Levytsky, the author of over 50 stories and novels (Nechui-Levytsky, like most 19th-century authors, called all his long works povisti [tales]). A descriptive realist with a focus on social and national issues, Nechui-Levytsky set himself the task of describing contemporary Ukraine in the abundance of its social, cultural, ethnic, and geographic types. His contemporary and fellow realist Panas Myrny wrote a number of stories and novels focusing on social issues. Other writers in eastern Ukraine, such as Oleksander Konysky, Borys Hrinchenko, and Olena Pchilka, were largely ethnographic realists who depicted populist social issues. Mykhailo Starytsky wrote novels and short stories in Russian on themes from Ukrainian history. In Western Ukraine, under Austria-Hungary, the major figure was Ivan Franko, whose prose works, heavily influenced by Western European naturalists, particularly Emile Zola, focus on the misery and victimization of workers and peasants under changing economic conditions. Among other prose writers in Western Ukraine were Yurii Fedkovych, a late Romantic, and Olha Kobylianska, a modernist who focused on the psychology of the new woman.
The 20th century brought major changes to Ukrainian prose. Cultural, national, and political ferment created an atmosphere that allowed literature to develop as an organic system. Modernist esthetics challenged the prevailing realist canon in a lively and productive assault. As government restraints were lifted, Ukrainian prose acquired a new readership with new interests.
The major figure of 20th-century prose has been Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky. In his modernist works Kotsiubynsky concentrated on the psychology of his heroes, usually exceptional persons, through subjective narration, an impressionistic descriptive technique, and a poetic, lyrical style. Many of his works depict social conditions at the time of the Revolution of 1905. Kotsiubynsky's influence on subsequent Ukrainian prose, particularly the short story in the 1920s, was overwhelming. A different direction in prose was charted by Volodymyr Vynnychenko, the most popular Ukrainian writer in the 1910s and 1920s. Vynnychenko practiced a form of psychological realism similar to that of Guy de Maupassant and D.H. Lawrence. His short stories and novels often focus on the loss of human dignity under the weight of oppressive social stratification and on the personal dilemma of sexual morality. In Western Ukraine the first half of the century was dominated by the novellas of Vasyl Stefanyk, who depicted the tragedy of human existence in an extremely laconic style, and the less successful stories of Les Martovych and Marko Cheremshyna.
The 1920s was a period of unprecedented growth and development for Ukrainian prose in Soviet Ukraine. After a few years of tentative efforts, between 1923 and 1927 the Ukrainian short story underwent a burst of creativity. Hundreds of new writers, not all of them highly skilled, appeared. After 1927 much of the energy turned from the short story to the novel. The generic and stylistic profile of the period was, for the first time in the history of Ukrainian literature, heterogeneous in the characteristically modern manner. The prose genres included every imaginable form: adventure stories, thrillers, science fiction, historical stories, travel stories, erotica, melodrama, biographies, humorous feuilletons, experimental novels, poems in prose, and so on. The styles included those of neoromanticism, ethnographic realism, psychological realism, and modernism of various stripes. Although many works still centered on Ukrainian village life, others dealt with newer subjects, such as industrialization, prostitution, and life in Central Asia.
In the early years of the decade the characteristic genre was the highly lyrical and melodramatic short story, often about the turbulent events of the revolution and civil war and their effects on an individual's psychology. The focus was usually on the incompatibility of the individual's personal values with the demands placed on him or her by the new ideology. Among the outstanding practitioners of the genre were Mykola Khvylovy, Hryhorii Kosynka, Borys Antonenko-Davydovych, Andrii Holovko, Mykhailo Ivchenko, and Arkadii Liubchenko. Major novelists in the second half of the decade, Valeriian Pidmohylny and Viktor Petrov (Domontovych) wrote intellectual novels using psychological realism. Their works, particularly Pidmohylny's outstanding novel Misto (The City), examined philosophical questions about humanity in the 20th century against the backdrop of Soviet reality. Yurii Yanovsky wrote romantic idylls set in contemporary times; Oles Dosvitny, travel novels set in exotic places; Yurii Smolych, adventure novels; and Geo Shkurupii and Maik Yohansen, experimental novels. Among the most popular novels were those of Volodymyr Vynnychenko, even though their author lived abroad and was considered an ideological enemy. Ostap Vyshnia was a popular humorist. Other writers, such as Petro Panch and Ivan Le, wrote novels that reflected the values and ideology of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Their weak and artificial works anticipated the prescribed style of the Stalin era, socialist realism.
The massive campaign of the early 1930s against the Ukrainian nation and its culture brought the growth and development of Ukrainian prose to an abrupt halt. Most writers were either silenced or destroyed. Those who continued to write were forced to adopt the official style of socialist realism, a poorly defined concept that amounted to glorification of the Soviet Union, its ideology, its defenders and heroes, and its way of life, while prohibiting psychological, especially Freudian, characterization, philosophical speculation, and formal experimentation. The Second World War introduced new enemies and a military backdrop, but otherwise Ukrainian prose changed little.
The general thaw in Soviet Ukraine in the late 1950s and 1960s brought a renewal in the prose genres. New writers, such as Oles Honchar and Pavlo Zahrebelny, produced works that did not challenge the rules of socialist realism but gently expanded and humanized them. What was new in their works was often a return to the traditions of the early decades of the 20th century, as in Oleksander Dovzhenko's small autobiographical masterpiece Zacharovana Desna (The Enchanted Desna). In the 1970s, under renewed ideological pressure, Ukrainian prose developed slowly. Young writers who had first appeared in the 1960s (see Shistdesiatnyky) continued to experiment tentatively with new techniques and new subjects. In the novels and stories of Hryhir Tiutiunnyk, Yevhen Hutsalo, Volodymyr Drozd, Anatolii Dimarov, and Valerii Shevchuk human values and the mundane struggles of human existence replaced state ideology as the guiding principle. The trend continued through the 1980s. Since 1991 there has been a slow but steady stream of original and interesting works in a variety of genres and styles from both new and established writers. In the emigration Ukrainian prose is scant and weak: Ulas Samchuk continued the realistic tradition, and Emma Andiievska endeavored to write complex surrealistic novels.
The study of Ukrainian prose is poorly developed, a reflection of that genre's subordinate position relative to poetry. There is no general history of Ukrainian prose or of the Ukrainian novel or short story. Most existing specialized studies, such as Mykola Levchenko's Vyprobuvannia istoriieiu (Trial by History, 1970) on the prerevolutionary novel or I. Hrytsiutenko's Estetychna funktsiia khudozhn’oho slova (The Esthetic Function of the Artistic Word, 1972), about 16th- and 17th-century prose, are limited in scope, methodologically unsound, and ideologically biased.
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[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 4 (1993). The bibliography has been updated.]