The origins of the Ukrainian literature can be traced back to the old Rus chronicles such as the annalistic historical chronicle “Povist Vremyanykh Lit” (“Tale of Bygone Years”)—the primary chronicle of Kyivan Rus from 850 till 1110 compiled in Kyiv by the monk Nestor, the chronicler. The adoption of Christianity favored the spread of literature, mainly in the form of church scriptures written in Old Church Slavonic language, manuscripts depicting life of the first Rus rulers, Olha and Volodymyr, legends of Borys and Hlib martyrdom. Another important literary memorial of the Old Rus is an epic 12-century poem “Slovo o Polku Ihorevim” (“The Lay of Igor’s Campaign”) depicting the Prince Igor unfortunate raid against Eastern nomads. Under the rule of Yaroslav the Wise—the Kyivan Prince who greatly favored the development of literacy—the first code of laws called the “Ruska Pravda” (“Justice of the Rus”) was compiled.
The Cossack era left a legacy of hundreds of ballads on historic motives (“dumy”), lyrical folk poetry, tales and legends. The first printing shops appeared in the 16th century and during the next two centuries printing houses were established in Kyiv, Chernihiv, Lviv, Lutsk, Kremenets and Uman. The first known periodical on the Ukrainian lands was Gazette de Leopol, first published in 1776.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Ukrainian literature experienced a certain renaissance despite the Russian Empire dominance over the biggest part of the Ukrainian lands. Hryhorii Skovoroda, an ethnic Ukrainian who made a significant contribution to culture and philosophy of the Russian Empire, wrote philosophic treatises and poems predominantly in Ukrainian language and aimed at the wide readership of his compatriots. Ivan Kotlyarevsky’s “Eneyida”, a witty Ukrainian-language parody of Virgil’s “Aeneid” where the original Trojan heroes were turned into Ukrainian Cossaks, introduced a new age of Ukrainian literature.
Published in 1840, Taras Shevchenko’s poetry book “Kobzar” became not only the example of exceptional poetic genius of the Ukrainian origin, but also a manifestation of the Ukrainian spirit and the will for freedom. Among great contributors to the Ukrainian literature of the 19th century were such writers and poets as Ivan Franko, Lesya Ukrainka, Mykhayo Kotsiubynsky, Ivan Nechui-Levytsky, Pavlo Hrabovsky and others.
The literature of the 20th century is represented by both the Diaspora writers (such as Ivan Bahriany and Yuri Lypa) and the Ukrainian writers, such as Pavlo Tychyna, Ostap Vyshnia, Volodymyr Sosiura, Vasyl Stus, Oles Honchar and Lina Kostenko whose poetic works were reflecting the Soviet Ukraine realities. Since 1991, the array of the contemporary Ukrainian writers, among them Oksana Zabuzhko, Andriy Kurkov, Serhiy Zhadan, and others, took over the literary stage of Ukraine creating and establishing a new cultural and literature phenomenon.
Several outstanding Ukrainian writers were nominated for the Nobel prize but died before any decision regarding the nomination was made. In 1915 an Austrian professor nominated one of the top Ukrainian artists of all time Ivan Franko for the award. In 1985 Nobel Laureate from Germany Heinrich Böll nominated a representative of Ukrainian dissident movement Vasyl Stus for the prize.
Other Ukrainian writers nominated for the Nobel Prize include Mykola Bazhan, Oles Honchar, Ulas Samchuk, and Pavlo Tychyna. Interestingly, Mykola Bazhan refused his nomination in 1970 politely explaining his choice in a letter – although he appreciated the effort to draw international attention to the blossoming Ukrainian literature he reckoned his art unworthy of such an honor as the Nobel Prize.