Saturday, December 05, 2009

A Monument a Day #3 - Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861)

Taras Shevchenko
Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko, Ukrainian poet and artist

I think Shevchenko is one of the most recognized symbols of Ukrainian culture. His birthday on March 9th, is widely celebrated (as you can see on the website of the President of Ukraine) and almost every city in Ukraine has a monument, street, square, or park named after him.

Born into a serf family in the village of Moryntsi, of Kyiv Governorate of the Russian Empire (now in Cherkasy Oblast, Ukraine) Shevchenko was orphaned at the age of eleven. He was taught to read by a village precentor, and loved to draw at every opportunity. Shevchenko went with his Russian aristocrat lord Pavel Engelhardt to Vilna and then to Saint Petersburg.


He began writing poetry while he was a serf and in 1840 his first collection of poetry, Kobzar, was published. Ivan Franko, the renowned Ukrainian poet in the generation after Shevchenko, had this to say of the compilation: "[Kobzar] immediately revealed, as it were, a new world of poetry. It burst forth like a spring of clear, cold water, and sparkled with a clarity, breadth and elegance of artistic expression not previously known in Ukrainian writing".

In 1841, the epic poem Haidamaky was released. In September 1841, Shevchenko was awarded his third Silver Medal for The Gypsy Fortune Teller. Shevchenko also wrote plays. In 1842, he released a part of the tragedy Mykyta Hayday and in 1843 he completed the drama Nazar Stodolya.

While residing in Saint Petersburg, Shevchenko made three trips to the regions of modern Ukraine, in 1843, 1845, and 1846. The difficult conditions under which his countrymen lived had a profound impact on the poet-painter. Shevchenko visited his still enserfed siblings and other relatives, met with prominent Ukrainian writers and intellectuals such as: Yevhen Hrebinka, Panteleimon Kulish, and Mykhaylo Maksymovych, and was befriended by the princely Repnin family especially Varvara Repnina.

In 1844, distressed by the condition of Ukrainian regions in the Russian Empire, Shevchenko decided to capture some of his homeland's historical ruins and cultural monuments in an album of etchings, which he called Picturesque Ukraine.


On March 22, 1845, the Council of the Academy of Arts granted Shevchenko the title of an artist. He again travelled to Ukraine where he met historian Nikolay Kostomarov and other members of the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius, a Pan-Slavist political society dedicated to the political liberalization of the Empire and transforming it into a federation-like polity of Slavic nations. Upon the society's suppression by the authorities, Shevchenko was arrested along with other members on April 5, 1847. Although he probably was not an official member of the Brotherhood, during the search his poem "The Dream" ("Son") was found. This poem criticized imperial rule, personally attacked Emperor Nicholas I and his wife Alexandra Feodorovna, and therefore was considered extremely inflammatory, and of all the members of the dismantled society Shevchenko was punished most severely.

Shevchenko was sent to prison in Saint Petersburg. He was exiled as a private with the Russian military Orenburg garrison at Orsk, near Orenburg, near the Ural Mountains. Tsar Nicholas I, confirming his sentence, added to it, "Under the strictest surveillance, without a right to write or paint."

With the exception of some short periods of his exile, the enforcement of the Tsar's ban on his creative work was lax. The poet produced several drawings and sketches as well as writings while serving and traveling on assignment in the Ural regions and areas in modern Kazakhstan.

But it was not until 1857 that Shevchenko finally returned from exile after receiving a pardon, though he was not permitted to return to St. Petersburg but was ordered to Nizhniy Novgorod. In May 1859, Shevchenko got permission to move to his native Ukraine. He intended to buy a plot of land not far from the village of Pekariv and settle in Ukraine. In July, he was arrested on a charge of blasphemy, but was released and ordered to return to St. Petersburg.


Taras Shevchenko spent the last years of his life working on new poetry, paintings, and engravings, as well as editing his older works. But after his difficult years in exile his final illness proved too much. Shevchenko died in Saint Petersburg on March 10, 1861, the day after his 47th birthday.

He was first buried at the Smolensk Cemetery in Saint Petersburg. However, fulfilling Shevchenko's wish, expressed in his poem "Testament" ("Zapovit"), to be buried in Ukraine, his friends arranged to transfer his remains by train to Moscow and then by horse-drawn wagon to his native land. Shevchenko's remains were buried on May 8th on Chernecha Hill (Monk's Hill; now Taras Hill) by the Dnipro River near Kaniv. A tall mound was erected over his grave, now a memorial part of the Kaniv Museum-Preserve.

Dogged by terrible misfortune in love and life, the poet died seven days before the Emancipation of Serfs was announced. His works and life are revered by Ukrainians and his impact on Ukrainian literature is immense.


Taras Shevchenko has a unique place in Ukrainian cultural history and in world literature. His writings formed the foundation for the modern Ukrainian literature to a degree that he is also considered the founder of the modern written Ukrainian language (although Ivan Kotlyarevsky pioneered the literary work in what was close to the modern Ukrainian in the end of the eighteenth century.) Shevchenko's poetry contributed greatly to the growth of Ukrainian national consciousness, and his influence on various facets of Ukrainian intellectual, literary, and national life is still felt to this day. Influenced by Romanticism, Shevchenko managed to find his own manner of poetic expression that encompassed themes and ideas germane to Ukraine and his personal vision of its past and future.

In view of his literary importance, the impact of his artistic work is often missed, although his contemporaries valued his artistic work no less, or perhaps even more, than his literary work. A great number of his pictures, drawings and etchings preserved to this day testify to his unique artistic talent. He also experimented with photography and it is little known that Shevchenko may be considered to have pioneered the art of etching in the Russian Empire (in 1860 he was awarded the title of Academician in the Imperial Academy of Arts specifically for his achievements in etching.)

His influence on Ukrainian culture has been so immense, that even during Soviet times, the official position was to downplay strong Ukrainian nationalism expressed in his poetry, suppressing any mention of it, and to put an emphasis on the social and anti-Tsarist aspects of his legacy, the Class struggle within the Russian Empire. Shevchenko, who himself was born a serf and suffered tremendously for his political views in opposition to the established order of the Empire, was presented in the Soviet times as an internationalist who stood up in general for the plight of the poor classes exploited by the reactionary political regime rather than the vocal proponent of the Ukrainian national idea.

This view is significantly revised in modern independent Ukraine, where he is now viewed as almost an iconic figure with unmatched significance for the Ukrainian nation, a view that has been mostly shared all along by the Ukrainian diaspora that has always revered Shevchenko.

A young Shevchenko on a Ukrainian 100 Hryven note

Here's one of Shevchenko's poems translated into English:

My Friendly Epistle

To the Dead, the Living, and to Those Yet Unborn, My Countrymen all Who Live in Ukraine and Outside Ukraine,

If a man say, I Love God, and
hate his brother, he is a liar,
1 John iv. 20

Day dawns, then comes the twilight grey,
The limit of the live-long day;
For weary people sleep seems best
And all God's creatures go to rest.
I, only, grieve like one accursed,
Through all the hours both last and first,
Sad at the crossroads, day and night,
With no one there to see my plight;
No one can see me, no one knows me;
All men are deaf, no ears disclose me;
Men stand and trade their mutual chains
And barter truth for filthy gains,
Committing shame against the Lord
By harnessing for black reward
People in yokes and sowing evil
In fields commissioned by the Devil...
And what will sprout? You soon will see
What kind of harvest there will be!
Come to your senses, ruthless ones,
O stupid children, Folly's sons!
And bring that peaceftil paradise,
Your own Ukraine, before your eyes;
Then let your heart, in love sincere,
Embrace her mighty ruin here!
Break then your chains, in love unite,
Nor seek in foreign lands the sight
Of things not even found above,
Still less in lands that strangers love...
Then in your own house you will see
True justice, strength, and liberty!

Gain knowledge, brothers! Think and read,
And to your neighbours' gifts pay heed, --
Yet do not thus neglect your own:
For he who is forgetful shown
Of his own mother, graceless elf,
Is punished by our God Himself.
Strangers will turn from such as he
And grudge him hospitality --
Nay, his own children grow estranged;
Though one so evil may have ranged
The whole wide earth, he shall not find
A home to give him peace of mind.

Sadly I weep when I recall
The unforgotten deeds of all
Our ancestors: their toilsome deeds!
Could I forget their pangs and needs,
I, as my price, would than suppress
Half of my own life's happiness...

Such is our glory, sad and plain,
The glory of our own Ukraine!
I would advise you so to read
That you may see, in very deed,
No dream but all the wrongs of old
That burial mounds might here unfold
Before your eyes in martyred hosts,
That you might ask those grisly ghosts:
Who were the tortured ones, in fact,
And why, and when, were they so racked?...

Then 0 my brothers, as a start,
Come, clasp your brothers to your heart, --
So let your mother smile with joy
And dry her tears without annoy.
Blest be your children in these lands
By touch of your toil-hardened hands,
And, duly washed, kissed let them be
With lips that speak of liberty!
Then all the shame of days of old,
Forgotten, shall no more be told;
Then shall our day of hope arrive,
Ukrainian glory shall revive,
No twilight but the dawn shall render
And break forth into novel splendour....
Brother, embrace! Your hopes possess,
I beg you in all eagerness!

The Shevchenko monument is located here: 49°47'32.09"N 30° 6'54.01"E

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