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Shevchenko’s Relevance Today

A talk opening the Shevchenko exhibition at the Manitoba Legislature, 15 July 2014

Shevchenko, Self-portrait, 1847

Shevchenko, Self-portrait, 1847

Shevchenko has had admirers in every generation. There are many stories not only of intellectuals like the historian Mykola Kostomarov but of ordinary workers or peasants identifying themselves as Ukrainians after reading his poetry. Today, at a time of crisis people in Ukraine are once more searching out his works and reading them — even those whose ethnic origins are not Ukrainian. Why is this? One important reason is that many are appalled by the extremely biased attitudes expressed toward Ukraine and Ukrainians in much of the Russian press and have turned to Shevchenko to discover or rediscover a Ukrainian sensibility and identity. There is a rapidly growing understanding among citizens of all ethnic origins, races, and religions that Ukraine is indeed a country with a sense its own place in the world, and that Ukrainians are a people committed to the universal values of respect for self and others. These values are recorded in its literature – from the dawn of Christianity in Kyivan Rus’, through the “Cossack” or “baroque” age of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to the modern revival in the nineteenth century.

In the years 1837-1860, Shevchenko produced some of the greatest works written in Ukrainian. His poetry demonstrated that the language was a fitting vehicle for profound, sublime forms of expression. Over the decades that followed his death, he became a symbol for Ukrainians — wherever they found themselves — of their own solidarity, and served as their ambassador to the wider world. Over 1,000 monuments to the writer have been erected in Ukraine, and over 120 in various cities throughout the world. Among them is the monument on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature, which brought together the largest gathering of Ukrainians in Canada, some 25,000, when it was unveiled in 1961 on the hundredth anniversary of the writer’s death.

What makes Shevchenko so remarkable? Every generation and every reader discovers something new in him, but I would like to draw attention to three things. Firstly, he was a great Romantic poet. Like other Romantics, he had a respect for the demos, the common people, their history, their struggles against oppressors and their aspirations for a better life. But of all the great Romantic poets he was the only one to be born a serf, in effect a slave, the personal property of his lord. Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Blake and Hugo – for all their glorification of the ordinary peasant and labourer – could not speak in the voice of the ordinary oppressed individual in the way Shevchenko could. He was bought out of serfdom only because a group of elite writers and painters in the imperial capital of St. Petersburg saw his art work, recognized his remarkable talent, and were appalled by the condition in which he was forced to live. No other great European writer had such a biography, or overcame such obstacles.

Secondly, he was a great democrat in the European tradition. An anti-imperial and anti-colonial writer, he identified with the struggles of subjugated peoples and told their stories — long before postcolonial studies became popular in the last decades of the twentieth century. His heroes are enlighteners; they rebel in the name of conscience; they speak truth to power. Among them are figures from Ukrainian history, but also the early Christians of Rome, the Czech Protestant reformer Jan Hus, and the nations of the Caucasus that refused to be silenced by the tsarist juggernaut. This concern for all oppressed people places Shevchenko in the mainstream of European and international movements for popular sovereignty, national liberation, and the spread of humane, democratic values – movements that have over many generations shaped the thinking of enlightened and progressive societies.

Thirdly, perhaps no other great poet has been so woman-centred. The fate of his female characters dominates his poems and stories. The deceived and abandoned girl, the enslaved, wronged or suffering woman are recurrent images, and their stories provide the basic narrative of many works. Yes, this feature of his poetry can be interpreted as a trope – a metaphor for the situation of the Ukrainian people — but it is also a metaphor for the situation of all the vulnerable, voiceless, and subaltern.

There is an underlying poetic structure to most of his works, even the very short ones. It begins with a description of paradise, which may be a happy scene from childhood or the depiction of a young couple in love. Then, suddenly this picture of happiness is torn apart by a violent and cruel act committed by an intruder. And finally, at the end comes a struggle to overcome grief and to imagine a paradise regained. In this way Shevchenko’s poetry and stories speak of what is unjust and what is right. His great themes — violence and love — remain as relevant as they have ever been, and convey a universal message: recognize evil, reach for the good.

Today it is easy to forget that even in his day Shevchenko was the poetic equivalent of a rock star. He was imprisoned in 1847 and then exiled to Siberia for almost ten years because he was close to members of the Cyrillo-Methodian Brotherhood, a Christian democratic society that was anti-tsarist and believed that Ukraine should take its rightful place among other European nations as an equal. The tsar issued specific instructions that while in exile Shevchenko should not be allowed to write or draw — so powerful, subversive, and offensive did the sovereign find his subject’s creativity. However, this punishment made Shevchenko a celebrity in intellectual circles.  There is a drawing by Shevchenko on the wall of Dostoevsky’s apartment in St. Petersburg. Unless Putin has decreed that it be taken down, it can still be seen there, in what is now a museum to the Russian writer. It is an appropriate reference. Shevchenko’s portrayals of the humiliated and injured, of the tragic fate of women, are echoed in later works by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and many other Eastern European writers, all of whom found inspiration in the poet’s life and work.

For all these reason — his greatness as a poet, his importance as an enlightener and reformer, and his anti-colonial and feminist stance – he is worth celebrating and reading. He placed Ukrainian language on the map and instilled Ukrainian literature with the values of European humanism. This is worth stressing today, because Vladimir Putin has stated that Ukraine is “not a country” and has embarked on a policy that undermines or denies the legitimacy of many values we consider universal and associate with European humanism.  In response to this challenge, Ukrainian citizens have turned again for inspiration to Shevchenko’s works on the two-hundredth anniversary of the poet’s birth. When Putin states that Ukraine is not a country, he is mimicking the attitude and words of Russian tsars and imperialist thinkers who repeated the mantra that Ukraine had no language, no literature, and no independent identity. One of the tsar’s ministers, Valuev, bluntly declared in 1863 that the Ukrainian language “never existed, does not exist, and cannot exist.” For most of the tsarist period the language was denied public expression, banned from schools and publications. Many tsarist officials viewed Shevchenko as a subversive writer and those who read as disloyal to the state.

As in the past, his life and poetry continue to inspire. Like previous generations, contemporaries now read Shevchenko in order to discover that Ukrainians are indeed a people, and a country — with its own voice, a sense of its own enduring presence in the world, and with the right to exist.

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