In his Haidamaky (Haidamakas, 1841) Taras Shevchenko deals with a historical flashpoint in Ukrainian-Jewish relations. This powerful and controversial early poem describes the great peasant uprising of 1768 known as Koliivshchyna, in the course of which thousands of Poles and Jews were massacred. The rebellion was stamped out with merciless cruelty by both the Polish and Russian authorities, who at the time were rulers, respectively, of Right- and Left-Bank Ukraine. It came after Catherine II of Russia curtailed the hetmanate state’s autonomy in 1763 and began enserfing the population. Shortly afterwards, in 1775, the last autonomous Ukrainian territory, the Zaporozhian Sich, was liquidated. These events help to explain the uprising’s explosive violence. The descriptions of bloodshed and cruelty shock readers, some of whom have accused Shevchenko of antisemitism. Is this a fair assessment? Does the poem condone bloodshed? A careful reading indicates that the poem is a commentary on both intimacy as well as antagonism in Ukrainian-Jewish relations, and a meditation on the origins and destructive effects of violence.
Over the decades readers and critics have tried to fit the writer into various interpretative frameworks. In the nineteenth century he was seen primarily as the Romantic bard who spoke for the oppressed peasantry. In the early twentieth century he was viewed as a victim of tsarism and a defender of civil rights. The Bolsheviks appropriated him as an uncompromising class warrior; the national movement saw him as the prophet of their country’s statehood who asserted a distinct Ukrainian identity; and recently women critics have acknowledged him as a feminist, pro-woman writer.
Jewish readers have expressed many of the same concerns, but their particular interest has been in depictions of the Jewish community and antisemitism. A Christian antisemitism has always, of course, existed in Ukraine, as it has in other countries with dominant Christian traditions. It can be traced, for example, in the images of Jews on icon paintings depicting the Gospel narrative, or by examining depictions of Jews in church literature. This kind of religious antisemitism over the centuries found its way into popular songs and rituals, although Jews were also portrayed in other ways. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century graphic art and folklore presented them in various settings and guises: as townspeople, magistrates, rabbis, leaseholders, merchants, and musicians.
Moreover, at the end of the nineteenth century Jews began to establish a presence within Ukrainian culture, writing in both Ukrainian and Russian. The best known Jewish-Ukrainian writers are perhaps Hryts Kernerenko (Hirsch Kerner) in the 1890s and 1900s, Raisa Troianker in the 1920s, Leonid Pervomaisky (Illia Hurevych) and Mykola Bazhan, who wrote from the 1920s to the 1960s, and Moisei Fishbein, who has been publishing since the 1960s. Authors from Ukraine who wrote in Russian include major figures like Eduard Bagritsky and Isaak Babel. It is also worth recalling that Jews played an important role in the 1920s during the period known as the Cultural Renaissance, when many were prominent in the Ukrainianization process. For example, about a third of the artists in Mykhailo Boichuk’s school of art (the most prominent artistic group of the 1920s) were Jews, and they often selected Jewish themes for their work.
Within this Ukrainian tradition Shevchenko played a key role in developing the literary image of Jews. His Haidamakas (1841) deals with Jews in Ukrainian history; his translations of the Psalms (1845, 1859) take up biblical history; various later poems (1859) show the Jews in struggle with the Roman Empire; and one major work Maria (1859) is a secular version of the Gospel narrative: it tells the story of a Jewish girl who falls in love with a prophet and has a child out of wedlock. However, Haidamakas deals directly with the sensitive issue of anti-Jewish violence, encapsulating themes and images that later became influential.
The poem’s main events are conveyed in Opanas (Afanasii) Slastion’s illustrations, which were made in the years 1883-85 (the time, incidentally, of the first great wave of pogroms) ¹. These illustrations reveal the wide range of emotions within the work, which is a kind of Ukrainian Les Miserables produced twenty years before Victor Hugo’s classic, but one that does not avoid the ugly side of violence during mass revolts. Slastion’s illustrations show how Shevchenko juxtaposes and interweaves the themes of love and violence.
A blessing of the knives takes place on the Eve of the Maccabees, a reference to the great Jewish uprising that ushered in the Maccabean era (200-150 BCE) and is viewed as transforming the Jewish people and Judaism. During this time Mattathias and his five sons led a successful revolt against the Seleucid dynasty that was trying to Hellenize the Asian territory it ruled. Supported by Hellenized Jews the Seleucids began imposing the Greek language and their own pagan religion on Judea. The ensuing revolt became an example of how the few and weak can overcome the numerous and powerful, of freedom’s triumph over tyranny. It has provided a memory of Jewish heroism for many generations.
But Jewish history and biblical times are already referenced in the poem’s opening lines. The narrator turns to the moon for inspiration, considers that the same moon once gazed at the gardens of Babylon, the scene of Jewish captivity and suffering, and comments that the same “eternal” moon will in the future continue to observe the fate of Ukrainians. Just as the opening words are directed to the moon and eternity, the final words are addressed to God’s will and the flow of history.
When Leiba suddenly appears in disguise in the camp of the haidamakas, he is recognized by Yarema, who threatens to kill him. Leiba’s identity at this point becomes complex and ambiguous. He announces that he is with the haidamakas and carries their secret sign, the kopek coin by which they recognize each other. He is clearly on a mission to help Gonta, one of the rebellion’s leaders, a former Polish officer in the town of Uman. Yarema demands help from Leiba in finding Oksana. Both men are linked by the desire to save their women, and both cooperate in the struggle against the Poles.
The violence leads to degeneration, the massacre of innocents, and to an endless cycle of destruction. The songs sung by accompanying bards cease being heroic; they become coarse, comic, and are filled with sexual innuendo. These songs represent the “voice of the folk” and act like a Greek Chorus. However, their tone is no longer admirable. The bards act as mouthpieces of the wild mob; their poetry is debased doggerel. This is not the only place where Shevchenko criticized illiterate and inane singers prepared to serve whoever paid them. A similar critique occurs in another major poem, Rozryta Mohyla (Uncovered Burial Mound). The Chorus, therefore, can inspire the struggle for freedom, but can also license the agitation of warmongers.
At this point it becomes clear that the bloodshed is no longer harnessed to a struggle for freedom and equality, but is linked to the satisfaction of animal urges and low appetites.
This degeneration is most clearly described in the scene were Gonta executes his two children. Knowing they have been brought up as Catholics by their Polish mother, he kills them in accordance with the public vow he has taken to murder all Poles and Catholics. When alone, he grieves over their bodies, and buries them in secret. The brutal logic behind ethnic cleansing is here exposed as a path to self-destruction.
In the epilogue the reader learns that this story has been passed down through generations. The narrator informs that he heard it from his grandfather, and that the response of listeners is always a stunned, awe-struck silence. The message is, after all, complex and not easy to process. The poem forces its audience to think hard about what constitutes good and evil in the world, how one should consider the rights and wrongs of human conflict, whether identity and loyalty have limits, and how love and violence are related.
In the end this is a painful history told frankly. It describes events both from “within” and “without” – initially from the point of view of the haidamakas, and then from that of an appalled observer.
The accusatory voice of the haidamakas can be heard in phrases like “they became intimate with the Jews” (polyhalys z zhydamy, 79), “Yarema, do you hear, you son of a boor, This is how the damned Jew browbeat the Cossack” (“Iareme, hersh tu, khamiv synu, Otak urantsi zhyd pohanyi Nad kozakom koverzuvav, 19-80), “The Polish lords slept in the same buildings with the Jews” (Nochuvaly liashky-panky V budynkakh z zhydamy, 101), “The Poles and Jews Drank their fill of liquor and blood, Cursed the schismatic, crucified him, Cursing that there was nothing left to take (I liakh, i zhydovyn Horilky, krovi upyvalys, Klialy skhyzmata, rozpynaly, Klialy, shcho nichoho vzhe vziaty, 105)².
The narrator’s voice sometimes shifts to incorporate the language of the haidamakas. This is a technique that the critic Mikhail Bakhtin has described as a voice within a voice. Here is an example: “It was worse than hell … But what was the point, For what did people die? They have the same father, they are the same children – They should live and fraternize. No, they couldn’t, they wouldn’t, Disunity was inevitable! Blood, fraternal blood was required, Because what a brother had In his pantry and in his yard, And the happiness in his home were coveted! […] Blood for blood, Suffering for suffering! The heart hurts in remembering: Children of ancient Slavs Drank blood. And who was to blame? The Polish priests, the Jesuits” (Hirshe pekla … A za vishcho, Za shcho liude hynut? Toho zh batka, taki zh dity – Zhyty b ta bratatsia. Ni, ne vmily, ne khotily, Treba roziednatsia ! Treba krovi, brata krovi, Bo zazdro, shcho v brata Ie v komori i na dvori, I veselo v khati! […] i krov za krov, I muky za myky! Bolyt sertse, iak zhadaiesh: Starykh slovian dity Vpylys kroviu. A khto vynen? Ksiondzy, iezuity” (115).
Here is Yarema’s voice during a killing spree: “’Give me a Pole, give me a Jew! More, I want more!’” (‘Daite liakha, daite zhyda! Malo meni, malo!,’ 119).
And here is Gonta’s voice: “’And where is Leiba? Is he not back yet? Find him and hang him!” (‘A de Leiba? Shche ioho nemaie? Naity ioho tai povisyt!’ 126).
Yet at other moments the narrator stands back from the action, surveying the killing by the haidamakas in shock: “In the attics, the rooms, Cellars, everywhere, They killed everyone, took everything” (Po horyshchakh, po komorakh, Po liokhakh, usiudy; Vsikh uklaly, vse zabraly, 110). The narrator says the following about Uman: “It was a paradise, no less! For whom? For people. And the people? Do not want to even glance at it, Or if they glance, deride it. They want to add blood to the picture, To light it by setting a fire […] Not enough hell! … People, people! When will you be satisfied With what you have?” (Rai, tai hodi! A dlia koho ? Dlia liudei. A liude ? Ne khotiat na ioho i hlianut, A hlianut, ohudiat. Treba kroviu domalovat, Osvityt pozharom […] Pekla malo! .. Liude, liude! Koly to z vas bude Toho dobra, shcho maiete? 131-32).
The killing in Uman includes the mass murder of children and cripples: “Little children were felled And sick cripples” (Pokotylys mali dity I kaliky khvori, 133). It also includes the murder of priests and schoolchildren: “The haidamakas broke the walls – Broke them and smashed priests against the stones, and buried schoolchildren alive in the wells” (Haidamaky Stiny rozvalyly –Rozvalyly, ob kaminnia Ksondziv rozbyvaly, A shkoliariv u krynytsi Zhyvykh pokhovaly, 135). Throughout this frenzy Gonta acts like a vampire calling for more blood: “’Blood, I need blood! Noble blood, because I am thirsty, I want to watch it turn black, To drink my fill’” (Krovi meni, krovi ! Shliakhetskoi krovi, bo khochetsia pyt, Khochetsia dyvytys, iak vona chorniie, Khochetsia napytys, 135). He cries out to be punished, asking to die for his sins. This poem is therefore no apology for revolutionary bloodshed but, as in Shakespearean tragedy, a depiction of descent into a form of madness. The picture of Uman in flames is an image of an apocalypse, a hell in which the haidamakas act as agents of evil. The reader’s sympathy, which initially moved toward the rebels and Yarema, now sharply moves away from them as the senselessness of the bloodshed becomes clear.
In a similar way the reader’s sympathy gradually and unexpectedly shifts toward Leiba and his daughter. Jews, like Ukrainians, are shown to be vulnerable. Leiba’s relationship with the haidamakas and with Yarema turn out to be surprisingly close. Leiba, after all, appears in the hadamakas’ camp and helps Yarema rescue Oksana. It becomes apparent that there is a particular closeness between Ukrainians and Jews, a sense of shared suffering and oppression. Both at different times are victims of violence and accomplices in violence. This message of intimacy in Ukrainian-Jewish relations was later picked up by Bagritsky in his poem “Duma pro Opanasa” (A Duma about Opanas, 1926), which pits a peasant revolutionary against a Jewish commissar. Bagritsky’s Russian-language work pays homage to Shevchenko. It uses Shevchenko’s metre, rhythms, and phrasing, and even takes its epigraph from Haidamakas. But most importantly, it captures a sense of intimacy, the tragedy of two people who come from the same place and know each other well but find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict.
Ultimately, all Shevchenko’s work can be interpreted as a meditation on the presence of evil and violence in the world, and on the role of love. The revenge theme in Haidamakas was later answered in Maria. In this late poem it is the mother who best grasps the prophet’s message that love will save the world.
Haidamakas continues to challenge today’s readers, as it did Shevchenko’s contemporaries, by forcing a consideration of community. Who, after all, are “we”? How should a brotherhood of nations look? Who are the frequently-invoked “good people” who must remake the world into a better place? And how is justice and peace to be achieved?
Illustrations are taken from Taras Shevchenko, Haidamaky: Vydannia iliustrovane artystom A. H. Slastionom (Winnipeg: Ukrainian Publishing, 1919).
¹ These illustrations are taken from Taras Shevchenko, Haidamaky: Vydannia iliustrovane artystom A. H. Slastionom (Winnipeg: Ukrainian Publishing, 1919).
² Shevchenko, Taras. Kobzar (Kyiv: Vydavnytstco Shkola, 2009).