This line comes from the well-known poem “Caucasus” by Ukraine’s national poet Taras Shevchenko, in which he appeals to the moral values of justice and freedom for those who fight for it. As a symbol of uncompromising struggle for human rights and equality who suffered for his beliefs, Shevchenko has been widely appropriated by the popular culture in the course of last year’s “Revolution of Dignity.”
These moral values are now more than ever at risk in Ukraine. The country is dealing with the Russian aggression in the East, the loss of the Crimea and the export-oriented economy in the Donbas region, failing reforms of the government and discontent in the society where populist tendencies are gaining momentum.1 The growing militarization of the society harbors severe risks for the values of liberal democracy: gender equality or even freedom of speech easily become secondary in the face of war.
In times like these, Taras Shevchenko once again should become a source of inspiration and a powerful symbol of resistance and unity of the Ukrainian society. From Crimea, Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk in Eastern Ukraine, to Kyiv and Lviv, and to places abroad Ukrainians celebrate Shevchenko (1814-1861), the bicentennial of whose birth commenced last year on March 9. While rather little known in the West, Shevchenko’s stature in Ukrainian culture makes him the Ukrainian counterpart of Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Cervantes, or Mickiewicz. His uncompromising moral stance on violence and aggression, his unrestricted compassion for human suffering, and the beauty of his poetry have guided Ukrainians through many dramatic events in the past and to this day.
Born into slavery (the form known as serfdom), Shevchenko gives voice to his people and epitomizes for Ukrainians the human struggle for freedom and dignity. Throughout the heroic protests of the “Revolution of Dignity,” as well as during Russia’s hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine, Shevchenko has been implicitly present as the people’s leader in the struggle for their rights and liberty. The many adaptations of one of the most canonic of his images in the Maidan protests – depicting him as the immediate participant of the resistance to the government’s bloody crackdown – provide undeniable proof for it.
This is primarily due to the fact that, at a moment when the Ukrainian language was considered no more than a “southern dialect” of Russian, and when Ukraine’s culture had been reduced to a form of colorful entertainment for both the Russian and the now Russophone Ukrainian gentry, Shevchenko not only challenged the imperial paradigm, but reinvented the modern Ukrainian language as the fully-fledged poetic device of immense power and deep subtlety. A Romantic poet who in numerous ways anticipated modernist experimentation, he took human suffering as the moral guidance for his work: with unparalleled courage Shevchenko addressed questions of slavery, rape and incest, fratricide and colonialism, not sparing either his compatriots or their perpetrators.
Shevchenko’s rise to the status of a national poet is both a detective story and a tale of much pain, sacrifice, and hard work. Following his owner Pavel Engelhardt, at a young age he moves from Central Ukraine to Vilnius and then to St. Petersburg where he learns painting and begins writing poetry. Thanks to the efforts of his influential friends in Russia’s capital and under direct participation of the tsar Nikolai I’s family, he gains freedom at the age of 24. A promising painter, he immediately is accepted at the Russian Academy of Arts in the class of Karl Briullov. Very soon he is recognized as one of the most talented artists of the Russian high society, especially after the publication of the first collection of his poetry, Kobzar [The Minstrel], in 1840, that became a big success among prominent Russian critics. This collection revolutionized the understanding of Ukrainian as a language of poetic excellence and played the key role in the formation of the Ukrainian modern nation as we witness it today.
With his 1841-1842 poem “Haidamaky,”2 Shevchenko continued lending voice to the suffering of his people, indeed spoke with their many voices. In his next collection, Three Years (1843-1845), he goes even further and condemns imperialism and the tsar himself for grave crimes against humanity that the regime for centuries committed against the Ukrainian people. Here, the poet speaks to the collective memory, addresses deep archetypal traumas, and appeals to the consciousness of his people. Imagine the rage and the outmost perplexity which the Emperor of Russia, the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Finland, Nikolai I, must have felt reading the lines of “The Dream,” a poem exposing and mocking him, his royal wife, and the bloodthirsty imperialism they came to represent for most of Russia’s conquered lands. It must have remained a mystery to reactionary and despotic Nikolai I how one could possibly sacrifice the royal benevolence and all benefits that came with it only to depict the suffering of one’s people.
The price of courage for opening the Pandora’s box of history is high for Shevchenko: He is arrested and becomes an indefinite prisoner, serving as a private in the Russian army first in Orenburg and then under much harsher conditions in Fort Novopetrovsk on the Mangishlak Peninsula on the northeastern shore of the Caspian Sea (today’s Kazakhstan).
The cruel sentence was to last 10 years, until after Nikolai I’s death. Although explicitly prohibited from writing and painting (Nikolai I in his own handwriting added that condition to Shevchenko’s sentence), he continues his work; his poetry of the exile, especially from the earlier period, assumes a new quality. Shevchenko breaks with many conventions of his time even more radically than before, and addresses the issues of a poet’s predicament, moral and existential dilemmas, and the questions of artistic creation. Despite all drastic limitations and restrictions, in these years Shevchenko achieves the highest, universal standard of poetry.
Released from exile in 1857, Shevchenko returns to Russia where he is received with triumph and admiration; he soon becomes one of the most recognized and respected artists of the Russian and Ukrainian society. In November 1858, in St. Petersburg, he makes the acquaintance of the prominent African-American tragedian Ira Aldridge, whom he saw in a performance of Othello. At a private reception they become friends (although they don’t speak each other’s language), and Shevchenko paints two portraits of Aldridge (one of which survives). In the last years of his life, Shevchenko enjoys the status of a celebrity in St. Petersburg, playing a prominent role in the Russian artistic circles, but fails to settle his private life. Soon, he falls ill and dies of heart and liver complications at the age of only 47.
Shevchenko is still awaiting a proper reception in English – and a translation of the bulk of his work that would match the brilliance of his poetic genius. Yet if we are to understand what is at the heart of Ukrainian identity, the Ukrainian people’s continuous strife for justice, and their courage to face brutal force when defending human rights and dignity, we ought to discover Shevchenko.
Having survived all the appropriation attempts by the Soviet propaganda and the trivialization since independence, today more than ever he remains the highest moral beacon for Ukrainians who defend their homeland. His poetry – the Word – continues to guide Ukrainians and to appeal to the core values of humanity:
Dear God, how very few are now
The righteous of this world.
The others talk and in their heart
Just scheme to put their kin in chains,
While with their honeyed lips
They kiss and then anticipate
How they’ll transport their brother
Straight from the banquet to the grave.
But you, our one and only Lord,
Will seal their lying lips
And that loquacious tongue which still
Proclaims: we are not vain, not us,
We merely vaunt our minds and tongues.
And where’s that Lord who’ll try to leash
Our thoughts and everything we claim?
I will rise up—that Lord will say—
For them I’ll rise up from the grave,
For all my poor, and fettered beggars.
I’ll raise them up, these mute and lowly slaves.
And to stand guard beside them
I’ll place my word. And all your plans
And words will be like trampled grass.
But yours, o Lord, will be like hammered
Silver that’s been forged and seven times refired.
So cast them forth, your holy words
Through all the land. And all your wonders
Will be seen throughout this world
By all you poor and lowly children.
(“Imitation of Psalm XI,” 1859; translated by George G. Grabowicz.)