Borys Grinchenko is a famous Ukrainian ethnographer, language expert, poet, writer and teacher. He is known for putting together the first Dictionary of Ukrainian Language, writing textbooks for young students, being the editor of newspapers and magazines, and active participation in the Ukrainian cultural movement. His mission in life was “to make a nation out of blokes.” Borys Grinchenko’s contemporaries spoke of him as of a true servant who devoted his life to Ukraine. Mykola Lysenko, a Ukrainian composer, once said “He looked at all of Ukraine with his spiritual eye, observed, saw its helpless state – and decided to give his life to serve it, trying to satisfy its spiritual needs all by himself”.
Borys Grinchenko was born on 9th December, 1863. As a child he fell in love with Ukrainian language, folklore, legends and traditions, starting to assemble his own dictionary of Ukrainian language, not knowing yet that this material would later be used in a real Dictionary. When Borys reached his teenage years, he began writing his own stories and poems, as well as his own journal. At the age of 15 he was arrested for distributing prohibited literature (books in Ukrainian were banned at the time). He bravely suffered through imprisonment and the consequences that followed (expulsion from the university and prohibition from any education till the end of his life; moreover, he was to be under police surveillance for the rest of his life). But Borys dreamed of becoming a teacher, so he studied hard and passed the teacher’s exam, and then got an approval to teach in a distant village (“by miracle”, as he recalled later). This profession, in Grinchenko’s opinion, would allow him to foster the spiritual growth of peasants and help him change Ukraine for the better. He followed the German philosopher Leibnitz, who once said “The one who holds enlightenment in his hands, can change the face of the Earth.”(.) To reach even more people, Borys wrote school textbooks in the Ukrainian language, grammar and literature, striving to build his teaching on historical past, traditions and folklore of Ukraine. He was highly respected by colleagues for his dedication to teaching, sharp mind and love for children. Grinchenko’s pedagogical views were described in a number of articles he wrote over the years.
Here, in the village he also met his wife. Maria Gladylina was a teacher, too. Their marriage was blessed not only with love, but also with determination to serve the enlightenment of Ukrainian people.
After a few years of teaching, Grinchenko’s family settled down in Chernihiv, a small Ukrainian town not far from Kyiv, the capital. Here Grinchenko worked in the document handling department and later as the town council’s secretary. At those positions he also did a lot for the teachers, trying to improve their living and working conditions, helping to open libraries and schools. Here he also started working with museums – helping to create and develop them. Grinchenko also began active work as a folklorist, ethnographer and bibliographer, managing to collect and publish folklore gems of the Chernihiv region. He continued writing prose and poetry himself, but spent very little time on it, thinking that “I was never a poet who could give all of his life to a song. I always had very short moments for poetry that were free from labor – sometimes pleasant and dear to me, more often very boring and tedious labor”. Grinchenko’s stories, alongside with the stories of his contemporaries, became the foundation of Ukrainian children’s literature, depicting moral and ethical problems of peasant children. As a teacher, Borys knew how great the role of fairy tales was in the child’s upbringing, so he wrote about 20 tales that were later published in a book.
Grinchenko’s family founded a publishing house in Chernihiv that published inexpensive and popular literature for the people. Since money was tight, Borys and Maria Grinchenko did all the preprint work by themselves, managing to publish 45 books, and the total number of copies reached 180,000. Some of the money came from charity and sponsors, and some of it was invested by the family, even though they often had to live on very little.
In 1902 the family moved to Kyiv and Grinchenko started devoting most of his time to the Dictionary of Ukrainian Language. Thanks to his titanic labor and love for his work, it was completed in two years, and the four volumes of the first dictionary were published in 1907-1909. In Kyiv Grinchenko also worked as an editor and director of a magazine and newspaper and head of a cultural and educational organization, Prosvita. He continued to put together their family library where he collected many books about Ukraine. In his will Grinchenko asked to keep the library as a whole, to have a separate catalog and bookshelves for it, and call it the Maria and Borys Grinchenko Library. His wife did her best to carry out his wishes.
Anastasiia Grinchenko, Borys and Maria’s daughter, was inspired by her father’s example and became a writer and translator, too. Seeing how her father cared deeply about the Ukrainian nation, she entered the Ukrainian Revolutionary Party, was soon arrested and died shortly after giving birth to a son who died four months later, too. The loss of his daughter and grandson, passing of his mother and Maria’s illness (all of this happened within two years) caused an outbreak of tuberculosis in Borys. Maria borrowed some money from her father and took her husband to Italy to treat his illness. The couple settled in a small town, Ospedaletti. Unfortunately, Grinchenko was too weak and not able to overcome the illness. On 6th May, 1910 he passed away. The Italian press, writing about this sad event, called him “a great person, who worked for his country all of his life, and gave it his only daughter.” Mykhaylo Kotsuybinski, a writer and contemporary, wrote to Maria, “We, and all of Ukraine, must find comfort in the thought that he has been among us, that his great work, his great love for his nation will never die and through them he will live for a very long time among grateful descendants.”
Borys Grinchenko was a model servant leader. All his life and energy were devoted to serving others and helping them “grow as persons…become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous and more likely themselves to become servant leaders” (Robert Greenleaf’s criteria for servant leadership). His teaching and administrative career helped many people have a better life and have more access to education and culture, and the books and articles of Grinchenko have helped many children and adults in mastering the art of their native language, as well as the art of teaching. As a founder and leader of a cultural society in Kyiv, Grinchenko helped many poets, writers, artists, and historians find their voice and calling in life.
Borys Grinchenko’s contemporaries remembered him as a person truly devoted to serving his nation and helping other people see how they could serve their communities and their country. He inspired people to work hard for the well-being of their Motherland. Hard work was one of Grinchenko’s core values, and this allowed him to be great in so many things. Here is a quote from one of his poems:
“I’ll do it” – beware this word,
“I’ve done it” – this is the language of the mighty.
Borys Grinchenko Kyiv University Academic Board at the opening ceremony of the monument to Borys Grinchenko in August 2011.