But if you think that’s impressive, take a look at his reputation here in his home country. A visitor doesn’t have to be in Ukraine long before he realises that every other street, institution, or geographical point of interest in the country is named after the fiercely-moustached writer. Wherever he is right now, Lenin must be jealous. In Ukrainian schools these days kids learn his life story by heart and memorise endless bunches of his verse. It’s not only Ukrainian literature teachers who love him. So do professors
This quintessentially Ukrainian poet, a peasant son of the land, was actually a far more illustrious and interesting figure than he’s usually given credit for
of Slavic philology (he established the modern Ukrainian written language), Ukrainian national history (he was one of the political activists of the Brotherhood of Sts. Cyril and Methodius and a ‘dangerous nationalist’ in the eyes of the Tsarist regime), philosophy (he was one of the great Eastern European humanists of his times), art history (he could paint as well as write, and he left behind a big collection of oil paintings and etchings), and music (he inspired Ukraine’s top composers and a lot of his poems were set to music). Students start learning about him the day they enter grade school and don’t stop until they get their doctorates.
Worship and Hostility
Perhaps it’s needless to say, but there’s actually a complex and interesting man behind the myth of the Great Kobzar and Father of Modern Ukraine that’s fostered both here in Ukraine and in Diaspora communities. Critics have long moved beyond the story of how the poor kripak, or serf, managed to grow up into a great national intellectual. They’re onto new themes now, like his relations with the Russian intelligentsia and complicated view of Russian culture, or his unlucky private life. If they’re in an iconoclastic mood they claim that his talent is overblown and that the cult of Shevchenko has been a disaster for the Ukrainian mentality. Actually, the first hostile critics of Shevchenko appeared in the early 20th century, when the modernist Mykhailo Semenko wrote an aggressive manifesto in which he claimed to “want to burn ‘Kobzar’” and Mykola Khvylyovy announced that he hated Shevchenko. Meanwhile, his poetry has been so analysed and overanalysed that there’s hardly a living piece of it left. A lot can be said about the poems collected in the ‘Kobzar’. Shevchenko described the relations between Ukrainians and Russians, between men and women, between poor and rich. He was a thundering critic of the world around him, especially of the powerful people in it, and a protector of the humble and the downtrodden. Critics have complained that we don’t need lectures and instructions about how to live from our writers, but as the average reader of literature I’ve got to admit that Shevchenko’s tone of voice is something that appeals on a very deep level. A lot of it is uncannily relevant to the political or economical questions we’re dealing with today.
Natives and Foreigners
Take, for example, the poem ‘To the Dead, the Living and the Unborn,’ written in 1845. Shevchenko addresses the poem to Ukrainians and discusses Ukraine’s problematic relations with our foreign neighbours. He’s harsh but at the same time sensitive. “And in the Sich the clever Germans their precious potatoes plant,” he writes. “And these, of course, you buy and for your health you eat them.” There’s more, but trust me: it’s all very applicable to the relationship that Ukrainians have to the many foreigners who have come to the capital in the era of globalisation. In addition, Shevchenko keeps hammering home that Ukraine has a great history and that there are a lot of things we can be proud of – the Cossacks, Khmelnitsky, the numerous battles we won. “What history!” he writes, later speaking of “the poetry of a free people’s epic.” And when he writes, “No other River Dnipro exists, no other Ukraine/ Yet in foreign fields you persist in attaining blessed goodness/ A better goodness,” it’s relevant to those many Ukrainians who persist in leaving their homes and pursuing their futures in Italy or Portugal. How many times have I run into young Ukrainian women who believe that paradise exists abroad? It’s terrible. Shevchenko wants to remind us that our country is beautiful, too, and that we have to believe in it. Sure, he gets dyspectic and disappointed sometimes, calling Ukrainians “Moscow’s dirty footmen,” but at the same time he believes in his nation’s glory and asks us to join together as brothers. Shevchenko’s famous line, “Read, study and discern/ And learn from foreigners/ But don’t disdain your own” is another line that’s very relevant. Shevchenko can be aggressive toward Germany, Poland, and Russia, but at the same time he wanted us to consider ourselves capable of standing on the same cultural level as them. Shevchenko loved to use the image of the abandoned Ukrainian woman, lost and crying, wandering around, pregnant by rich men or soldiers. Poems like ‘Knyazhna’, ‘Slepaya’, ‘Naymychka’, and ‘Pryncessa’ stimulate the tear ducts by describing the hard lives of beautiful Ukrainian girls who are unhappy in love. I don’t remember many happy women in Shevchenko. The famous line, “O lovely maidens, fall in love, but not with Muscovites/ For Muscovites are foreign people/ They do not trust you right,” has became proverbial, and might even express good common sense. However, Shevchenko was not a parochial writer. His work was reviewed in the Russian, French, Spanish, and Italian press during his lifetime. He himself long lived in St. Petersburg, the most ‘Western’ of the Russian Empire’s cities. His work was published in Leipzig and he was mentioned for the first time in the English-speaking world in 1877 in a magazine edited by Charles Dickens. New York City’s ‘The Galaxy’ and the famous Revue des Deux Mondes’ wrote about him. The British Slavist W.R. Morfill wrote a biography of Shevchenko in English in 1880. By the end of the last century his poems had been translated into more than 100 languages.
Students start learning about Shevchenko the day they enter school and don’t stop until they get their doctorates
So, this quintessentially Ukrainian poet, a peasant son of the land, was actually a far more illustrious and interesting figure than he’s usually given credit for being. He wanted Ukraine not only to be a strong country, but a strong country that had its place in the greater world. Meanwhile, his plea, in his ‘Testament’, that Ukrainians remember him with “with softly spoken, kindly word,” has been respected. No in Ukraine is going to forget him anytime soon.