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Shevchenko — a poet, a legend, a prophet and a symbol


A great poet lives on, after his death, in the hearts of the people. In case of Shevchenko, it would not be enough to say that. Even in his lifetime, he became a legend and was looked upon as a national prophet. His poems, suppressed or banned, acquired the enigmatically vatic character. His name was associated with the persecuted and exiled for speaking out the truth.


Shevchenko lived a life incredibly fantastic in its turns, ups and downs. An orphan at an early age; a surf, a shepherd; a servant of the man who literally owns him; the master Enhelhard by name, takes the young Shevchenko to St Petersburg; Shevchenko studies at the Art Academy; returns to Ukraine for research of Ukrainian antiquities; writes idealistic poetry; arrested and exiled for rebellious writings and membership in a nationalist organization; spends years in exile in arid Central Asia; returns to St Petersburg, his health ruined, to die there; buried with thousands of people attending the funeral; later exhumed and taken to Ukraine; the new grave is watched over by the admirers and police; his books banned but his poetry is widely known — Shevchenko becomes a symbol of Ukraine.

Some literary critics group together Pushkin (1799– 1837), the Russian poet, Mickiewicz (1798–1855), the Polish poet, and Shevchenko (1814–1861), the Ukrainian poet. This association has come to be widely accepted. But let’s not forget that Pushkin enjoyed a great fame as a bard of an imperial nation; Mickiewicz was a bard of a nation widely known in Europe for its political emigres, and Shevchenko was a bard of nation whose very name was banned (Ukraine was referred to as “Little Russia” — tr).


In the revolution of 1917, Shevchenko’s name was put on the banner of the struggle for national liberation. After the defeat of the Ukrainian revolution, the Bolsheviks put Shevchenko’s name on their own banner — and the letters were even of a bigger size. Shevchenko was “converted” to their faith and decorated with their slogans — “Class Struggle,” “Socialism,” “Materialism,” “Internationalism,” “Atheism” and a little later “Anti-fascism.”

Strangers who come to Ukraine for the first time are amazed at the ubiquity of Shevchenko’s name — Shevchenko University; Shevchenko Museum; Shevchenko Boulevard; Shevchenko Park; Shevchenko District; and a great number of factories, museums, theatres, schools also named after Shevchenko.

It is a legacy of the era of totalitarianism which in its use of the ideological symbols went to extremes, imposing them on society wherever and whenever it could. Monuments to the founders of the regime, to communist leaders and communist ideologues were erected, and streets were named after them all over the Soviet empire. Cultural figures were also honoured with monuments, and “the people’s initiatives to honour the great poet Shevchenko” were always welcome as such “initiatives” helped the anti-Ukrainian regime to disguise itself as “pro-Ukrainian.”

But it is only part of the story about Shevchenko’s monuments. Almost in all the countries of the world where Ukrainians settled down in their diaspora communities, monuments to Shevchenko were erected in these countries’ capitals. And these monuments are evidence of the fact that Ukrainians, leaving their native land, took along with them their most treasured cultural possession. And there is also something else in these monuments — they reflect the striving of the Ukrainians, as a people suppressed, for self-affirmation.

But let us not overlook the other side of popularity. The ubiquitous presence can cause indifference and disinterest, or even lead to negative reactions. In the post-Soviet world, poisoned by violence and untruth, reaction takes the forms of nihilism and aggression. Objectivity and impartiality are the qualities that are increasingly difficult to come across in people, and the general level of culture is going down.

We discover that Shevchenko is not “working” for us the way he used to. His words do not penetrate into the hearts which are not warmed up by love. The great idealist Shevchenko becomes an anachronism in an age of consumerism and materialism. Older generations of Ukrainians know hundreds of songs with Shevchenko’s lyrics, but younger generations care for different songs, alien and incompatible with the harmoniously lofty spirit of the Poet.

The post-Soviet school followed the general trends of our times and went after the lures of liberalism, with the national traditions and spiritual authorities regarded with scepticism if not ridiculed. In the Ukraine of today, liberalism is a borrowed phenomenon, it does not grow naturally from the native soil, and because of that it denies this soil. Anti-Ukrainian forces which have a lot of political and financial freedom, channel the negative emotions in society against Shevchenko, the people’s poet.

Shevchenko is once again in the centre of confrontation. His voice of true love and fullness of emotions is too serious in the “virtual” world of today. His voice was much too demanding in the world in which the poet lived — the world in which the spiritual and moral values were formalized, adjusted and then utilized by Russian tsarism for its own ends. Rejection of the tsarist values and repressions created dramatic tensions.


These days we observe a crisis of drama and tragedy, a crisis of love and faith. The national prophet is addressing himself to a narrow circle of people, but the magical power of his words, his enchanting poetry preserve their ability to alert, to give light, to widen the circle of the enlightened.


Symbol and profanation

In the human consciousness, the symbol is as ancient as the sign and the word. Culture and religion developed around symbols. Reading, recognition, perception, differentiation, sacralization — on these things the hierarchy of values and the hierarchy of society was built. In order to go to a higher level, an effort of crossing the threshold should be made.

Characteristically, the Ukrainian word “profan” (ignoramus) is derived from Latin profanus — “before the temple,” that is the one who cannot go into the temple because he is not initiated, and as such must not “profane” the temple by his interference and lack of understanding.

Symbols cannot be rationally explained, symbols should be gradually accepted, they should become an integral part of our conscious, we should “feel” them. It is dangerous and ruinous when “profan” tries to judge, make comments and reduce the three-dimensional, deeply significant symbols to flat rationality.

“Fear of God” may mean exaltation and awe before the majesty of the eternal. Fear of the authorities means humiliation and pretended obedience and submissiveness. The flat rationality concentrates only on “fear” and reduces the sublime to the lowly — to the dread and fright.

The Ukrainian word “kham” (there is no adequate correspondence to this word in English — it can be rendered as boor, churl, lout — tr.) is derived from the Bible. In fact, it is Ham, one of the sons of Noah, “the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers… [Noah] said, Cursed be Canaan…” [Genesis, 21-26]. In the Ukrainian language and culture, “kham” is a universal symbol of “khamstvo” which embraces aggressive lack of manners, unculturedness, and incivility. And khamstvo has become the order of the day.

Respect for, and preservation of the symbols is an essential feature of a culture. Totalitarianism brutally teaches how to disrespect or destroy the symbols. During the Second World War, the German soldiers, in contrast to the Bolsheviks, did their best to avoid shooting at the churches which were symbols with which they were raised (three K’s of their mothers: Kinder, Kirche, Kuche).

Respect for the traditional symbols engenders the spirit of self-preservation of man and society. The Bolshevik revolution brought the wave of destruction; the old symbols were swept away like so many other things.

“What’s burning over there?

Archives? Museum? Fair?

Add fuel for more flare!”

wrote the Ukrainian poet Pavlo Tychyna.


Characteristically, the Bolsheviks, during their first siege of Kyiv, aimed their artillery shelling at the Pechersk Lavra Monastery. Incidentally, the Russian monarchy had been carefully preserving its own symbols. Inviolability of private property was one of the best guarded principles and often interfered with the regime’s self-preservation. Police, for example, could not enter private premises without a proper warrant.

At the time of the Revolution of 1905, the Russian premier Count Sergey Witte did not deal with the rebellion as harshly as Pyotr Stolypin did (Stolypin was governor of Provinces, then minister of the interior and later prime minister). Stolypin violated some of the old symbols and taboos in order to put down the revolution as fast as possible. The revolution was crushed, but later Stolypin was assassinated by Bagrov, a secret agent who also doubled as a leftist provocateur. Bagrov was poisoned by the nihilism of the then political system, and the toppled symbols took their revenge.

If only there had been more respect and self-respect in the Russian empire, if the Russian Orthodox Church had been more supportive of the Christian values rather than serving the political interests, if the symbols had been held in greater respect, then the revolution of 1917 would not have been so disastrous and those who came to power would have had more respect for law. The murky waves of nihilism would not have swept away the symbols, had the state symbols been replaced by democratic and national ones. When the sculptor Mikeshin included the figure of Shevchenko in his model for the monument of The Thousand Years of Russia, it should have been left there rather ordered to be removed. Shevchenko as a symbol stands for the Christian harmony of the soul, defends it. But the Russian monarchy was very much different from, say, the British Empire and could not allow things the British Empire would have allowed.

The Bolsheviks demagogically used the calls for rebellion and protest to be found in some of the works of Shevchenko and adjusted them to their purposes but Shevchenko called for something entirely different:

“Only to God pray,

Only the Truth obey,

No other values cherish

— or perish!”

Shevchenko’s was a message of faith, hope and love.


Shevchenko talking to God

All the forerunners and contemporaries of Shevchenko in Ukrainian culture were deeply religious — Skovoroda, Gogol, Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, Kulish and others.

But it was Shevchenko’s addressing himself to God that was most dramatic and vocal. It is popularly believed that Shevchenko addresses himself to Ukraine in his poetry most often but it is not so. The word “God” appears in his writings 1281 times, whereas the word Ukraine — 269 times.

Professor Yury Shevelyov, an eminent Ukrainian scholar who died in emigration, who mentions these figures, goes on to say: “If somebody’s speech is studded with words related to the notion of God, it may be the reflection of this person’s piety, or habit, or frequent prayers, or religious songs often sung. But with Shevchenko it is different. Shevchenko’s references to God are also occasionally linked to prayer, but more often they are connected with philosophical analysis; [God for Shevchenko is] the original cause of the world, of the world order (and thus of the world’s disorder), the essence and manifestation of the universal nature, both the cosmic and human; it [God] is the synonym of the laws of existence. In other words, it is He or That which has created the universe and humankind, has set the laws of existence; It is the supreme power and law that determines the course of events, that stays above them and at the same time that puts into them the seed which makes existence realizable. Such a god is clearly different from the canonical church God…”

“I saw that Shevchenko’s muse has split apart the curtain hiding the people’s life. It is so frightening, and sweet, and painful and exciting to peer into it.” This metaphoric expression of the historian Kostomarov suggests an image of Shevchenko’s motifs and archetypes which live in every person’s subconscious and disturb every person with its mystery of “a deep pit,” examination of which does not seem to bring any results.

It took only a poet with a penetrating spiritual vision to peer into the depth of subconscious and express what he saw there in adequate words.


The founders of Ukrainian literature were religious people, but from the point of view of the conservative Synod of the Orthodox Church their religiosity was a bit of a faulty kind. Skovoroda showed leanings towards Protestantism. Gogol was suspected of courting Catholicism. Kulish translated the Bible in spite of the Synod’s ban on the translation, and he worked jointly with a Greco-Catholic, Ivan Pulyuj, incidentally a physicist by occupation, responsible for revolutionary discoveries.

Why then the religiosity of others was never questioned, but Shevchenko’s religiosity is questioned? Is it only because in some of his poems we find sarcastic remarks addressed to the official Church? It can hardly be the main reason since a critical attitude towards the official Orthodoxy was shared by many people, if not by most. But very few dared to express their attitude in such an unequivocal way and publicly as Shevchenko did.

The main reason must lie in the religious attitude which is expressed in the form of Christian “maximalism.”

The spiritual legacy which is passed from generation to generation belongs, like the sun and the air, to everyone. But a maximalist believes in his calling to bring his people face to face with the God of the ancestors, back to the lost historical memory, to provoke the drama of eternal struggle.

In his poem Ivan Hus Shevchenko portrays in lofty terms a heretic who was burnt at the stake for his faith. In his poem Caucasus, Shevchenko gives his blessing to the struggle for liberation of the Caucasian highlanders (who, incidentally, killed his friend). In Poslannya do mertvykh, zhyvykh I nenarodzhenykh (“Message to the Dead, Living and Those Who Are Unborn Yet”), Shevchenko calls upon his fellow countrymen to truly love their land, no matter that they proclaim themselves patriots. These poems were written in 1845, the year of the upsurge of his creativity, the time when he created his paraphrases of Psalms of David. Literary critics are unsure how to explain this creative and prophetic upsurge but ordinary people, for some reason, began putting Shevchenko’s portrait alongside the icons in their homes. It never entered their minds that Shevchenko could be suspected of harbouring atheistic thoughts — the other way round, it was Shevchenko rather than “official” sermons, from whom they learnt the Christian values of love, truth, faith and courage.

Shevchenko is often called “the founder of Ukrainian literature,” with his “national character, national roots and realism” being cited as his most important features. But “national character” and “national roots” and “realism” can be found in the writings of some of his contemporaries. However, Shevchenko did indeed become “the founder of Ukrainian literature” — because he raised this literature to a new level, he set it on the courses of dealing with the eternal spiritual issues. Going against the trends of his time, he reinterpreted the Ukrainian Christian tradition in his own way, and put the spiritual and moral issues into the foundation of the future Ukraine as its cornerstone.

Many circumstances combined to get the poet’s name transformed into a symbol — his life and destiny; his works and struggle around them. But the most important thing is that he ripped apart the curtain that hid the longings and aspirations of the people, revealed secrets of the subconscious, and expressed his love of, and penned his prophetic address to the Dead, Living and Those Who Are Unborn Yet.


The diamond does not change with time and no attempts to use it for political ends or to split it will succeed.


By Yevhen Sverstyuk


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