Cassandra by Lesia Ukrainka  | Rock & Art

Over a century after Lesia Ukrainka wrote her poetic drama Cassandra, based on the myth of Troy, it could not be more relevant in illustrating the challenge of female agency and Ukraine’s anti-colonial struggle. Ukrainka, born Larysa Kosach in 1871, was a writer, scholar and a Ukrainian woman from an intellectual, forward-thinking European class. Ukrainka was a polyglot who consistently used characters and themes from classical mythology in her work.

Cassandra – A Poetic Reimagining of a War Epic

Cassandra, presented by Live Canon and the Ukrainian Institute London, was performed in the UK for the first time as part of the UK-Ukraine Season of Culture. It was a re-enactment of the poetic drama that allowed for Ukrainian culture to be centred and shared through a feminist, anti-colonial and fervently Ukrainian lens. 

In her relatively unknown 1907 rewriting of the siege of Troy, arguably the ‘chief war epic’ of the West, she brings to the surface an unfamiliar individual. Cassandra is a Trojan prophetess cursed to tell the truth and always be dismissed. Cassandra continues to vocalise her visions regarding Troy’s inevitable downfall despite being labelled as unreasonable by those around her.

Through retelling this tragic story, Ukrainka can transform what being Ukrainian and a woman means. She dismantles the ‘patriarchal foundations’ that largely occupy Western literature. Her work is, as Dr. Sasha Dovzhyk has stated, ‘painfully relevant’ today as it showcases the ‘silenced history’ of women writers, more specifically Ukrainian women writers, in an anti-colonial context against Russia that is still ongoing.

It involves themes of female agency, language, nationalism and defiance of Russian imperialism. The poetic drama clearly compares to Ukrainian warnings about the imposing threat of Russia’s aggression since 2014. It is invaluable in today’s context to look at the story and Ukrainka’s own story as a reimagining of another “war epic” of the Western world, Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression.

A Cultural Analysis of Ukrainka`s Literature

Ukrainka was a modernist who worked to reject the ‘provincializing paradigm’ enforced by the Russian empire on Ukrainian culture, all while going against the heavily male-oriented field of literature. As Dr. Solomiia Pavlychko has written, Ukrainka promoted the ‘Europeanization’ of Ukrainian culture, rejecting the limitations of populism, which she saw as backward and negligent towards women.

Moreover, the ‘revisionist mythmaking’ in Cassandra preceded the works of Sylvia Plath and Margaret Atwood by ‘half a century’. Her work clearly broke boundaries by centring women in established myths and provoking a new, modern perspective on literature.

Cassandra - Lesia Ukrainka

A cultural analysis of Ukrainka’s work is therefore vital as, although largely ignored by the Western world, it showcased a clear act of defiance against Russian imperialism. It can generate solidarity with Ukraine and further decolonise the field of literature. 

Within Cassandra, the challenge of female agency is clearly present. As the prophetess, Cassandra is a ‘seemingly marginal’ character; however, Ukrainka sought to recentre her.

Through this, she was fighting for the recentring of Ukrainian voices, particularly Ukrainian women’s, to their proper place. Ivan Franko, one of Ukraine’s most prominent writers, called her the ‘only man in all our present-day Ukraine’ despite being a ‘fragile’ girl.

She went beyond her gender to create her version of what a Ukrainian nationalist should be and to centre the war epic into a tragedy of female agency. This recentring of female characters is exemplified clearly within the drama where Cassandra’s brother wants to betroth her for the good of Troy and attempts to persuade her by stating, ‘it is more fit by far for girls to spin than utter prophecies’.

Rather than accepting her fate, Cassandra talks back at her brother. She clarifies that true sacrifice is, in fact, the ‘wifely duty, obedience and fidelity’ a woman is forced to show her husband. Through this interaction, Ukrainka gives her heroine centre stage and demonstrates female agency in the face of patriarchal foundations. 

Cassandra and Ukrainka

Both Ukrainka and Cassandra exemplify how women are often overlooked and misinterpreted. The Lesia Ukrainka Literary Prize was set up in the USSR for children’s literature. Her work was deemed suitable for school syllabi as it was ‘ideologically harmless’. This infantilising and misunderstanding of Ukrainka’s work can be linked to Cassandra and people’s inability to comprehend what the prophetess is saying.

Cassandra is heavily contrasted to her brother Helenus, who is respected by the people of Troy because he tells them ‘what is needful … and useful’ compared to Cassandra, who prophesies what the ‘voice’ in her heart says. She confronts the apparent norm of concealing the truth and stays true to herself. In the same way, Ukrainka stayed true to her nation and culture. 

On top of her pen name Ukrainka, translated to Ukrainian woman, she also wrote in Ukrainian, an apparent defiance against the Russian empire. Ukrainka had a prophetic aspect to her work, pre-empting the Ukrainian nation by expressing her nationalism in the anti-colonial struggle while also giving Cassandra the curse of her words being misunderstood, as if she was speaking an undistinguished language.

She personified resistance against an imperial Russia that looked to destroy a ‘distinct Ukrainian national consciousness’. Ukrainian was not considered a high culture language, and after an 1876 decree that forbade printing in the language, Ukrainka’s work embodied direct resistance. In Cassandra, the prophetess is consistently questioned with, ‘How can they believe you when you always prophesy out of place and out of season?’.

Cassandra cannot counter their statements as she can ‘only see’ the visions but cannot make sense of them. This misunderstanding points to how Ukrainka’s work was unacknowledged due to it subverting a male space and being Ukrainian. 

The aspect of Cassandra that is arguably most relevant today is the clear parallel between the prophetess’ desire to free Troy and Ukrainka’s anti-colonial nationalist rhetoric present in her writings. Ukraine and Russia have a clear asymmetrical relationship, which can be considered similar to Cassandra’s, with those more respected than her. In Cassandra, it is also possible to present Troy as Ukraine and Greece as Russia.

Cassandra illustrates this further by consistently attempting to steer her country towards safety from Greek aggression. Ukrainka is similarly trying to defy imperial Russia. By centring an otherwise dismissed female character and giving her agency to stand her ground against those above her, Ukrainka can counter the image of Ukraine as a backwards, rural country.

Cassandra saying, ‘Guards, keep good watch!’ and ‘Do not sleep, watchmen!’ clearly reflects her desire to help her people. She risks standing for what she believes is true, embodying female agency and paralleling the Ukrainian nation.

Cassandra is not respected due to her femininity and indifference to set norms; this, however, does not stop Ukrainka or Cassandra from staying true to their principles. Ukrainka was evident in her pride in being a Ukrainian woman and determined to free her beloved Ukraine.

This resonates with Cassandra consistently trying to wake the sleeping guards and her fellow Trojans, who refuse to believe they are in danger. Ukrainka being viewed with suspicion by imperial Russia mirrors the prophetess and her relentless desire to free Troy, despite knowing her inevitable fate as a woman of being dismissed. 

Therefore, it is paramount to listen to Ukrainka now and continue highlighting Ukrainian literature and culture as they face Russian aggression. Ukrainka mirrors Cassandra’s fate further as the prophetess ‘takes the distaff from her girdle and sits down to spin’, as if resigning herself to the fact she will not be heard.

Ukrainka’s work being misinterpreted parallels Cassandra and acts as a prophecy for the future of women’s literature remaining unheard, alongside the Ukrainian nation’s warnings regarding Russian aggression. In the end, Cassandra refuses to accept this ‘victory’ of truth that Helenus assigns to her by saying, ‘No, it is yours. You’ve killed me with this word … yours will travel far … but mine will be extinguished with this fire.’

This blessing of being able to speak the truth has turned into a curse of being misinterpreted. Their devotion to their principles has allowed them to have agency and not limit their visions; however, their societies have chosen to ignore them. As clarified by Dr. Sasha Dovzhyk, in the same way that the slogan ‘no conversation about Ukraine without Ukraine’ has emerged following Russia’s war against Ukraine, all conversations around Ukrainka should specify the variety of the themes she presented in her work.

Ukrainka - Cassandra

The UK performance of Cassandra is the beginning of Ukrainka finally taking centre stage. Her distinctly Ukrainian and feminist agenda should be spotlighted alongside Ukrainian literature as a whole. They deserve to be given a proper place amongst the accomplished works of European literature to ensure that the words of Ukrainka and Cassandra are finally heard.


Ukrainka, L. (1968) ‘Cassandra’, in  Lesya Ukrainka: Life and Work by Constantine Bida. Selected Works translated by Vera Rich. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 181-239.

Dovzhyk, S. (2021). ‘Subverting the Canon of Patriarchy: Lesya Ukrainka’s Revisionist Mythmaking’, Los Angeles Review of Books, 25 February. Available at:  [Accessed 9 August 2023].

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