Ukrainka was born in 1871 in the town of Novohrad-Volynskyi of Ukraine. She was the second child of Ukrainian writer and publisher Olha Drahomanova-Kosach, better known under her literary pseudonym Olena Pchilka. Ukrainka's father was Petro Antonovych Kosach, head of the district assembly of conciliators, who came from the northern part of Chernihiv province. After completing high school in Chernihiv Gymnasium, Kosach studied mathematics at the University of Petersburg. Two years later, he moved to Kiev University and graduated with a degree in law. In 1868 he married Olha Drahomaniv, who was the sister of his friend Mykhaylo Petrovych Drahomanov, a well-known Ukrainian scientist, historian, philosopher, folklorist and public figure. Kosach, her father, was devoted to the advancement of Ukrainian culture and financially supported Ukrainian publishing ventures. Lesya Ukrainka had three younger sisters, Olha, Oksana, and Isydora, and a younger brother, Mykola. Ukrainka was very close to her uncle Drahomanov, her spiritual mentor and teacher, as well as her brother Mykhaylo, known under the pseudonym Mykhaylo Obachny, whom she called "Mysholosie."
Lesya inherited her father's features, eyes, height, and build. Like her father, she was highly principled, and they both held the dignity of the individual in high regard. Despite their many similarities, Lesya and her father were different in that her father had a gift for mathematics, but no gift for languages; on the contrary, Lesya had no gift for mathematics, but she knew English, German, French, Italian, Greek, Latin, Polish, Russian, Bulgarian, and her native Ukrainian.
Lesya's mother, a poet, wrote poetry and short stories for children in Ukrainian. She was also active in the women's movement and published a feminist almanac. Ukrainka's mother played a significant role in her upbringing. The Ukrainian language was the only language used in the household, and to enforce this practice, the children were educated by Ukrainian tutors at home, in order to avoid schools that taught Russian as the primary language. Ukrainka learned how to read at the age of four, and she and her brother Mykhaylo could read foreign languages well enough to read literature in the original.
By the time she was eight, Ukrainka wrote her first poem, "Hope," which was composed in reaction to the arrest and exile of her aunt, Olena Kosach, for taking part in a political movement against the tsarist autocracy. In 1879, her entire family moved to Lutsk. That same year her father started building houses for the family in the nearby village of Kolodiazhne. It was at this time that her uncle, Mykhaylo Drahomanov, encouraged her to study Ukrainian folk songs, folk stories, and history, as well to peruse the Bible for its inspired poetry and eternal themes. She also was influenced by the well-known composer Mykola Lysenko, as well as the famous Ukrainian dramatist and poet Mykhailo Starytsky.
At age thirteen, her first published poem, "Lily of the Valley," appeared in the journal Zoria in Lviv. It was here that she first used her pseudonym, which was suggested by her mother because in the Russian Empire, publications in the Ukrainian language were forbidden. Ukrainka's first collection of poetry had to be published secretly in western Ukraine and snuck into Kiev under her pseudonym. At this time, Ukrainka was well on her way of becoming a pianist, but due to tuberculosis of the bone, she did not attend any outside educational establishment. Writing was to be the main focus of her life.
The poems and plays of Ukrainka are associated with her belief in her country's freedom and independence. Between 1895 and 1897, she became a member of the Literary and Artistic Society in Kiev, which was banned in 1905 because of its relations with revolutionary activists. In 1888, when Ukrainka was seventeen, she and her brother organized a literary circle called Pleyada (The Pleiades), which they founded to promote the development of Ukrainian literature and translation of foreign classics into Ukrainian. The organization was based on the French school of poesy, the Pleiade. Their gatherings took place in different homes and were joined by Mykola Lysenko, P. Kosach, Kostiantyn Mykhalchuk, Mykhailo Starytsky, and others. One of the works they translated was Nikolai Gogol's Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka.
Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko were the main inspiration of her early poetry, which was associated with the poet's loneliness, social isolation and adoration of the Ukrainian nation's freedom. Her first collection of poetry, Na krylakh pisen' (On the Wings of Songs), was published in 1893. Since Ukrainian publications were banned by the Russian Empire, this book was published in Western Ukraine, which was part of Austria-Hungary at the time, and smuggled into Kiev.
Ukrainka's illness made it necessary for her to travel to places where the climate was dry, and, as a result, she spent extended periods of time in Germany, Austria, Italy, Bulgaria, Crimea, the Caucasus, and Egypt. She loved experiencing other cultures, which was evident in many of her literary works, such as The Ancient History of Oriental Peoples, originally written for her younger siblings. The book was published in L'viv, and Ivan Franko was involved in its publication. It included her early poems, such as "Seven Strings," "The Starry Sky," "Tears-Pearls," "The Journey to the Sea," "Crimean Memories," and "In the Children's Circle."
Ukrainka also wrote epic poems, prose dramas, prose, several articles of literary criticism, and a number of sociopolitical essays. She was best known for her plays Boyarynya (1914; The Noblewoman), a psychological tragedy centered on the Ukrainian family in the 17th century, which refers directly to Ukrainian history, and Lisova pisnya (1912; The Forest Song), the characters of which include mythological beings from Ukrainian folklore.
In 1897, while being treated in Yalta, Ukrainka met Serhiy Merzhynsky, an official from Minsk who was also receiving treatment for tuberculosis. The two fell in love, and her feelings for Merzhynsky were responsible for her showing a different side of herself. Examples include "Your Letters Always Smell of Withered Roses," "To Leave Everything and Fly to You," and "I'd Like to Wind around You Like Ivy," which were unpublished in her lifetime. Merzhynsky died with Ukrainka at his bedside on March 3, 1901. She wrote the entire dramatic poem "Oderzhyma" ("The Possessed") in one night at his deathbed.
Ukrainka actively opposed Russian tsarism and was a member of Ukrainian Marxist organizations. In 1902 she translated the Communist Manifesto into Ukrainian. She was briefly arrested in 1907 by tsarist police and remained under surveillance thereafter.
In 1907, Ukrainka married Klyment Kvitka, a court official, who was an amateur ethnographer and musicologist. They settled first in Crimea, then moved to Georgia.
Ukrainka died on August 1, 1913 at a health resort in Surami, Georgia.
There are many monuments to Lesya Ukrainka in Ukraine and many other former Soviet Republics. Particularly in Kiev, there is a main monument at the boulevard that bears her name and a smaller monument in the Mariyinsky Park (next to Mariyinsky Palace). There is also a bust in Garadagh raion of Azerbaijan. One of the main Kiev theaters, the Lesya Ukrainka National Academic Theater of Russian Drama is colloquially referred to simply as Lesya Ukrainka Theater.
Under initiatives of local Ukrainian diasporas, there are several memorial societies and monuments to her throughout Canada and the United States, most notably a monument on the campus of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. There is also a bust of Ukrainka in Soyuzivka in New York State.
Each summer since 1975, Ukrainians in Toronto gather at the Lesya Ukrainka monument in High Park to celebrate her life and work.
On May 28, 2007, the National Bank of Ukraine released a 200-hryvnia banknote depicting Lesya Ukrainka.
According to image consultant Oleh Pokalchuk, Ukrainka's hairstyle inspired the over-the-head braid of Yulia Tymoshenko.The Babylonian Captivity, (play), from Five Russian Plays, With One From the Ukrainian, Dutton, NY, 1916. from Archive.org;
In the Catacombs (play) translated by David Turow;
Short stories; “Christmas Eve”, “The Moth”, “Spring Songs”, “It is Late”, “The Only Son”, “The School”, “Happiness”, “A City of Sorrow”, “The Farewell”, “Sonorous Strings”, “A Letter to a Distant Shore”, “By the Sea”, “The Blind Man”, “The Apparition”, “The Mistake”, “A Moment”, “The Conversation” and “The Enemies” translated by Roma Franko;
The Forest Song, (play), in "In a Different Light: A Bilingual Anthology of Ukrainian Literature Translated into English by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps as Performed by Yara Arts Group", compiled and edited by Olha Luchuk, Sribne Slovo Press, Lviv 2008.
1994 Yara's Forest Song directed by Virlana Tkacz with Yara Arts Group at La MaMa Experimental Theatre in New York and Les Kurbas Theatre in Lviv