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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #109

It seems that every town and city in Ukraine has a square or street or both named after the Ukrainian national figure Taras Shevchenko, and many cities even have a statue of him. He is not well-known outside Ukraine; but in Ukraine he seems to be even more widely known than the President. He is perhaps the figure who, more than any other, Ukrainians identify with their nation state and with Ukrainian culture in an uncontroversial, universally admired way. So I decided to learn a little bit more about him.

He was quite an unusual figure. Born in central Ukraine in 1814 in a village in very modest circumstances, he spent his early life as a family servant to a wealthy noble family in the Russian Empire and one of his earliest artistic creations is a portrait of his master, Pavlo Engelhardt, a Russian military officer based in Warsaw, which he produced at the age of 19. Due to various military upheavals in Poland against Russian imperial rule, the most important of which was the November Uprising in 1830, the feudal family under which Shevchenko served relocated to St Petersburg where Shevchenko became an apprentice of a St Petersburg painter and his talents were eventually recognised such that he was released from serfdom in exchange for a substantial sum of money and a complex deal a portrait for Tsarina Alexandra (Charlotte of Prussia). This took place at the age of 24.

Shevchenko then became a student at the Imperial Academy of Arts, an elite institution of artists that formed a central plank of Tsarist Russia’s cultural institutions. Shevchenko spent the rest of his life painting, but it is principally his poetry, that contained political themes increasingly calling for revolutionary activity, that he is best remembered. He published a book of political poetry, Kobzar, in 1840 at the age of 26 that attracted widespread attention and Kobzar has now become Shevchenko’s nickname; it means approximately “the Bard” in English. Shevchenko became increasing distressed and disillusioned by the poverty and conditions of his native Ukrainian peasantry, and his works increasingly reflected these themes. At the age of 31, in 1845, Shevchenko moved back to Ukraine to pursue cultural and political ties with other artists and joined a clandestine political organisation known as the Ukrainian-Slavic Society, which promoted renewal of the Ukrainian language (which Shevchenko had not much written in) and an independent democratic Ukraine free from Russian imperial domination. He thus became a fitting hero for modern Ukrainians in their struggle against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Two years later he was arrested for subversive activities, including writing a poem in Ukrainian rude about the Tsar and his wife. The Tsar ordered his exile to the Ural Mountains, which he was forced to march to, and the Tsar personally ordered that he would not be allowed to write or paint during his incarceration. Criminal punishments seemed rather petty in those days. He was then press-ganged into the Russian Navy and then sent to a remote penal colony on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea in what is now western Kazakhstan. This was the way they did things in Russian imperial times, and you can see a common theme with the Gulag Archipelago in the Soviet Union and indeed modern Russia’s system of remote penal colonies. In 1857, at the age of 43, he was released from captivity and apparently at the request of the Russian secret police, he was required to move to Nizhniy Novgorod. The historical connections of various branches of the Russian secret police with Nizhniy Novgorod remains something of a mystery to me but I have noticed that it is a place where people tend to fall off balconies or hang themselves from staircase banisters more frequently that is normal. If anyone knows what the connection between the Russian secret police and Nizhniy Novgorod is, please do tell me because I am fascinated.

Shevchenko was soon allowed to return to St Petersburg where he died in 1861 at the age of 47. Only a corpus of his work was published in his lifetime and most of those were published in Russian. His work reviving the Ukrainian language as a medium for cultural expression was more expansive and emerged only after Shevchenko’s death. In total his work was modest in output but then he had an extremely difficult life and in fact he spent rather little of his adult life in Ukraine. It is no doubt testament to the strength of his vision and his writings, a few of which I have read in English, that a man with a relatively modest literary output could nonetheless have so profound a contribution to make to Ukrainian culture. His work has become particularly significant in post-independence Ukraine, as he advocated Ukrainian independence in a non-racist, non-nationalist way coupled with values of freedom of speech and expression and the values of democracy and social equality. He was arguably an early social democrat without embracing Marxism or all the Russian pseudo-intellectual Leninist and Trotskyist nonsense that followed in shaping the Soviet Union. His work is not easy to translate into English, because it relies upon specific Ukrainian turns of phrase that capture literary allusions with great subtlety. But here is my preferred translation of arguably his most famous work, Testament.

When I die, then make my grave High on an ancient mound, In my own beloved Ukraine, In steppeland without bound: Whence one may see wide-skirted wheat land, Dnipro's steep cliffed shore, There whence one may hear the blustering River wildly roar. Till from Ukraine to the blue sea It bears in a fierce endeavour The blood of foemen — then I'll leave Wheatland and hills forever: Leave all behind, soar up until Before the throne of God I'll make my prayer. For till that hour I shall know naught of God. Make my grave there — and arise, Sundering your chains, Bless your freedom with the blood Of foemen's evil veins! Then in that great family, A family new and free, Do not forget, with good intent Speak quietly of me.

Shevchenko was one of the few characters in a period of comprehensive Russian domination of Ukraine, that for centuries was a mostly feudal, agrarian economy, who can properly be said to symbolise Ukrainian aspirations for cultural and political independence and a series of distinctive political traditions unknown in Russia even to this day, including democracy, equality and freedom of thought and speech. In inculcating these qualities, Ukraine shows her culture to have streaks of the values we admire in the West and she reveals herself properly to be a member of the European community of nations whereas Russia has a lot farther to go. We must not give up on Russia; but the gulf of understanding between Russia, with her long imperial history of undemocratic oppression of peoples within her dominions, and the West, is substantially greater.

Even though the volume of his written work published within his lifetime was modest, Shevchenko is also arguably responsible in substantial part for the preservation of the Ukrainian language at a time when it was under threat of extinction by Russian domination. Slava Ukraini.

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