But the fact that he wrote his literature in the Ukrainian language, for
which he suffered great hardships, and refused to do otherwise despite
immense pressure, has contributed greatly to the ongoing sense of pride
and identity of this country even when some have strived to eradicate
A nation has no future if it doesn’t know its past, and Taras Shevchenko is as big a part of that as anything. His name and his works remain relevant today, and that is probably why he is still invoked by politicians at every opportunity.
The Formative Years
Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko was born on the 9th of March, 1814, into a family of serfs. Both parents were under the ownership of a Russian aristocrat, Pavel Engelgardt, who had lands in the village where Shevchenko was born – Morintsy, the region now known as Cherkasy. Not long after his birth, the family moved to a town called Kyrylivka, which today is in the province of Dnipropetrovsk. Sadly, Shevchenko’s mother found her final resting place there in 1823, and not long after, his father would marry once again. Taras was only 12 when death took his father as well, and the only person left to look after him was his stepsister. While tragic, this became a highly significant point in his young life as it allowed for influences and choices that otherwise wouldn’t have been available. However, it would also signal the beginning of a very challenging period...
Parentless and homeless, Taras tried his luck at numerous quests: he entered a monastery where he was taught to read; he found himself painting houses for a time and learns to draw. More significantly, at the age of 16 he ended up back at the house of his parent’s former master, Engelgardt. He started out as a domestic servant but worked diligently and soon got promoted to the position of Kozachek. The ‘official’ definition of this position is not unlike that of a court jester: one who serves his master through entertainment, singing folk songs, making jokes, etc. There is some speculation that a Kozachek was also under obligation to fulfil wishes of his master even in the bedroom, but here is no evidence that Shevchenko himself was compelled to such a fate.
Englegardt, however, was quite taken with Shevchenko’s work and noticed that he possessed a raw but promising talent for the arts and so after a move to Vilnius, Engelgardt apprenticed Shevchenko to Yan Rustem, a painter and teacher at the university. There he had the good fortune of meeting numerous professors, artists, painters, and poets, and over the coming years, he would soak up as much of what they would offer as he could. He turned out paintings such as the Gypsy Fortune Teller, a play entitled Nazar Stodolya, and poems such as Kobzar, Haidamaky and Kateryna, just to name a few. The poetic elite of the Russian Empire accused him of being too provincial but the enlightened poet didn’t care. His response was, “Even if I only write for the ears of the ordinary man, the main thing is that I continue writing.”
The Latter Years
In 1842, Shevchenko drew Kateryna – the only painting of his to survive from this period. It is a significant painting as she was not only drawn specifically for the poem of the same name, but it was the first painting of its kind at this time and place to portray a pregnant peasant woman. It was such a symbol of the lower classes that it remains, even today, as one of the great masterpieces in the artistic world of critical Ukrainian realism.
1846 saw the return of the great Shevchenko to the territory of Ukraine where he received a hero’s welcome. In Kyiv, he joined the Society of Saints Cyril and Methodius, or Kyrylo-Mefodiy. The organisation was primarily concerned with developing education, democracy and the autonomy of each Slavic nation. This young, educated and enthusiastic group was obviously not favoured by the Tsar’s autocratic regime and 10 people from within the community were sentenced to various penalties. Shevchenko himself was sent to jail overnight and then banished to Orenburg near the Ural Mountains, where he would be placed on military duty. He was prohibited to write or draw which was obviously an initial shock, but the ban would soon prove to be quite lax and he was writing narratives and doing sketches and drawings not long after.
Receiving a pardon in 1857, Shevchenko returned to Ukraine but was ordered to St. Petersburg two years later on a charge of blasphemy. Unfortunately, 11 years in the army didn’t contribute positively to his health as alcoholism tainted his talent, and in 1860 he fell quite ill. He died in 1861, the day after his 47th birthday and was buried in the cemetery there. Though he was not permitted to live in Ukraine, the time he spent there made such an impact that this poem, Zapovit (Testament) would express his wish to buried on Ukrainian soil.
When I am dead, bury me
In my beloved Ukraine,
My tomb upon a grave mound high
Amid the spreading plain,
So that the fields, the boundless steppes,
The Dnieper’s plunging shore
My eyes could see, my ears could hear
The mighty river roar.
Translation by John Weir
He found his final resting place on May 8th of that year, on Chernecha Hill (Monk’s Hill, now Taras Hill) not far from Kaniv. Though he has thousands of visitors each year, the icon who fought for the independence of Ukraine never married and lies alone.
Discover the Man
Shevchenko has become such a national symbol for people of all ages and from many parts of the world. Though he may not answer back, we can still catch a glimpse of him as he has been caste in stone in monuments in innumerable cities. There are museums and memorials inspired by his genius; streets and boulevards have been named in his honour; volumes of his works are stored in libraries everywhere; his face appears on the one hundred hryvnia note.
To go about your own little Shevchenko treasure hunt, What’s On has put together a list of places you’ll find this national hero:
First, visit the National Museum of Shevchenko. It’s situated on 12 Shevchenko Blvd. The museum has more than four thousand exhibits where you’ll find original paintings, documents, handwritten poems and prose, first print editions, and rare photographs of Shevchenko.
Next stop isn’t hard to find as it is big and red and also sits in the middle of the city: it’s the National University of Taras Shevchenko. There you’ll find not only of the most popular landmarks in Kyiv, but also one of the most famous monuments of Shevchenko, plunged in thought as the monument says, in the park across the street.
The path of Shevchenko Boulevard leads you from Beserabska Square to the Ukraina Shopping centre and if you don’t mind the noise of traffic that is a part of this very busy street, it is a perfect place to take your sweetheart for an evening stroll.
If you find that you’ve caught the Shevchenko bug and these spots within the capital aren’t enough, why not check out Taras Hill, his resting place. Apart from this memorial, you’ll find a monument of the man looking down on the mighty river Dniepro and a small museum called “Tarasova Svitlytsya” which includes much of his literature.
Taras Shevchenko has become such an international symbol that his name can be found in many other countries as well: Russia, England, the United States, France, Paraguay, Brazil, the list goes on.
Born a serf, then orphaned and made to fend for himself, Shevchenko lived a life that he believed in. Though he was criticized for much of it because of his nationalistic ideals, he stood up against the Tsarist regime and refused to go back on his beliefs. He has become an iconic figure with unrivaled significance for the Ukrainian people and would be proud to know what a lasting effect his ideas have caused.