What is Taras Shevchenko for the present-day government? He is probably the only figure in Ukrainian culture whose existence it had to know about before becoming government. This only figure, by the way, appealed to rise against the tsar and called Russians “Muscovites.”
With such set of peculiarities, Shevchenko keeps the current government (just as any other one) on toes.
In 1914, on the centennial anniversary of Shevchenko’s birthday, the government forbade to celebrate this day by issuing a circular that closed the access to Taras’ Hill. Shevchenko’s grave was surrounded by gendarmes with rifles ready.
Some three decades ago, people were sentenced for many years for unauthorized laying flowers at Taras Shevchenko’s monument in front of the Kyiv University named after him.
According to some oppositionists, the local community in Moryntsi village, Cherkasy oblast (Shevchenko’s birthplace), were not allowed to celebrate the 199th anniversary of the poet’s birthday. In particular, the police were summoned, the local choir was not allowed to sing and Moryntsi school students were not allowed to read Shevchenko’s poems.
What is Shevchenko for the opposition? Some of the oppositionists have time to think about it now. “Literature experts state that Taras Shevchenko’s political views are hard to identify, since he is a poet in the first place, not a politician. I think that this is a mistake, for Ukraine has not yet known such a great politician as Shevchenko. Taras is half of Ukraine. He was forced to become a politician even without realizing it, because that was his mission: to protect our land, our nation, our history and culture. His ‘Zapovit’ (Testament) contains more politics, more expression and action than all four Universals of the Central Council and all the statements of the modern opposition. Shevchenko’s poetry is politics; it is the politics of struggle, freedom, and liberation,” says Yulia Tymoshenko in her appeal.
However, the most important is what Shevchenko is for his nation. One philosopher said once that nations often bow before the great figures instead of hearing them.
The majority of Ukrainians thinks Shevchenko to be the main poet of their country.
This is even stranger, because Shevchenko’s primary function is fundamentally different. Shevchenko considered himself to be a Kobzar (and that is also the name he chose for his main volume of poems), that is a bard in medieval Ukraine who called the people to fight.
Shevchenko’s popularity can be explained by two reasons. The first one is the extraordinary archetypes present in his works. Images in Shevchenko’s works have a distinct national character and therefore are often not understood by foreigners.
Secondly, the power of Shevchenko’s word met a big demand in Ukrainian society itself.
Shevchenko still serves as a sentry of the national consciousness: after reading his Kobzar, any Ukrainian is sure to find things that make him proud of his nation, even if they were forgotten long ago.
Because of Shevchenko’s archetypes, the Soviet regime never risked crossing Shevchenko out of history, as it had done with hundreds of other Ukrainian artists. Even though the Soviet education tried to cultivate aversion towards Shevchenko’s work by presenting him as a simple-minded bumpkin in a shaggy cap, this image was never taken seriously.
The party and Ukrainians themselves understood that when Shevchenko’s portrait is gone from the wall, Ukrainians will not perceive this country as Ukrainian, with all the consequences.
Obviously, the understanding of Shevchenko’s importance for the national identity of Ukraine can explain the contemporary attempts to destroy his image: endless slanderous books, articles, and public attacks commissioned abroad.
Russia’s Putin said during his visit to Ukraine in 2004 on the eve of the presidential election:
“I tried to read Kobzar when I was a student, but I only remembered a few lines, and that was because they probably corresponded to my mood back then. It went like that: ‘The day comes and the night comes, with my head in my hands, I wonder why the Apostle of truth and science is not coming.’ I thought I was such a dunce and could not keep anything in my head. But it turns out that outstanding people who we all love, remember, honor, and cherish, had the same feelings and emotions.” This is no wonder that the KGB school never taught that Christians call Jesus Christ the Apostle of truth and science while waiting for his advent.
The real Shevchenko has not been comprehended to the full extent yet. It is fun to watch how he, a self-educated person, cannot be fully understood by people with several academic degrees.
And he is not read to the full extent, because the real uncensored Shevchenko can only be found in the latest editions of Kobzar.
The empire identified its powerful enemy right away. “Today, the censorship released my unlucky thoughts from its claws. Damn it all, it scrubbed them oh so bad that I could barely recognize my poor children” (a letter to Khropal, November 26, 1844).
Something similar happened to Gogol, but unlike Shevchenko, he gave up.
It is known that Gogol’s novel Taras Bulba was first published in 1835. The Russian tsar was not mentioned in that edition, and neither was the Cossacks’ desire to join someone. However, thanks to the publisher’s and copyist’s efforts, serious changes were made to the text, including the appearance of “the tsar of Moscow” and “Russian power.” Gogol protested, but it was too late, it was done in 1842 and only in private letters to the publisher. And 20,000 rubles, given to Gogol by the tsar basically for refusal to protest publicly, did the rest. As a result, Ukrainians, Russians, and the rest of the world were fooled with a fake Taras Bulba, when even Gogol himself said that “vexing mistakes stole in the novel.”
Soviet censorship took the whole poems out of Kobzar. The 1950 edition was missing 18 works, including “Yakby ty, Bohdane,” “Rozryta Mohyla,” “Velyky Liokh,” “Chyhyryne,” “Stoit v seli Subotovi,” “Irzhavets,” “Davydovi psalmy,” “Zastupyla chorna khmara,” and others.
Soviet translations of Shevchenko’s poems into other languages are often comical: “swears like a Muscovite” was changed to “heaps a torrent of abuse,” “Muscovites plundered everything they saw” – to “Tsar’s servants were taken by envy and ravaged everything,” “Poles came, took everything, drained people’s blood. And Muscovites put the whole world in the yoke” to “Polish gentry came, took everything, drained people’s blood. And the tsarina put even air in chains,” “believed a Muscovite” to “believed an official,” “maybe, Moscow burned it down and drained the Dnipro River into the blue sea” to “maybe, Ukraine is burned down, maybe, the Dnipro River is let down into the blue sea,” “your young children… are poisoned with Moscow henbane” to “your own sons… are poisoned with the tsar’s henbane,” “the Muscovite will take everything when he gets to the big cellar” to “the authorities will take everything when they get to the big cellar.”
“Shevchenko did not awake high feelings towards the great state of Russia,” wrote a censor from Russian Empire, “because he preached Ukrainophilia and could not talk about the reunion of Little Russia and Russia without hatred in his voice.”
It is obvious that it happened this way. The censor says about the poem “To Osnovianenko”: “In this poem we can see that while talking about freedom he does not mean freedom from serfdom, but independence of Little Russia in general, freedom from bonds that tie the Russian nation (‘a fierce enemy’) to its Southern branch.”
Shevchenko’s Dream was banned by censorship because “the author states that the builder of Saint Petersburg ‘covered swamps with noble Cossacks’ bones and raised a capital above their exhausted bodies, the capital, over which a lot of blood was spilt even without a knife; he carved himself a mantle out of Ukrainians’ skins and founded a capital wearing this garb…”
The poem “Plundered Grave” outraged censors with the poet’s accusations of Bohdan Khmelnytsky for Ukraine’s joining Russia and calling “faithful Little Russians apostates who help stripping Ukraine and torturing their motherland.”
In “Testament” the censorship’s attention was attracted to the poet “asking Little Russians to bury him after he dies, then revolt, break the chains and spray the freedom with enemies’ evil blood.”
In “Plundered Grave” censors did not understand the poet’s address to Ukraine: “Why have you been harried, Why are you dying, mother?” and Ukraine’s appeal to Khmelnytsky: “If I knew, I would strangle him in the cradle.”
In the poem “Archimedes and Galileo” censors noted Shevchenko’s prediction of the sad fate of the Russian Empire.
Shevchenko in Ukrainian is extremely rebellious and anti-authoritarian.
The tsars, who made the whole Russia crawl on their knees in front of them, are just “bears” and “fed boars” for Shevchenko and tsarinas are “bitches” who “whelp pups.”
Between slavery and struggle, Shevchenko always chooses struggle, both in his personal life and social ideals. “Roaring guns” and Cossacks who “know how to rule” are Shevchenko’s favorite themes. One British critic called Shevchenko perhaps the most militant poet in the world literature.
A lot of fervor is directed against countrymen who betrayed Ukraine: “slaves with cockades on their heads,” “servants in golden garbs,” “swineherds,” and “Pharisees.”
Shevchenko described corrupt and unpatriotic “Little Russian” officials extremely aptly: “slaves, footstools, Moscow dirt.”
Shevchenko wrote that the time would come when “Human pipeworms, nannies, lackeys of the strange fatherland! The holy idol will be gone, and so will you. Only thistles and nettle will grow on your grave. Dung will pile up on dung, but it will be blown away by the wind in time. And we will pray to God, neither rich, nor poor…”
Maybe, these words have already started to come true?
One of the most obvious and important Shevchenko’s insights for today was his absolute disagreement and rejection of Moscow’s appropriation of the name “Rus’.” Shevchenko reached this intuitively, because he had access to mainly official Russian interpretations of history.
In all his works Russia is called Muscovy. And Russians are called Muscovites respectively. For Shevchenko, Kyivan Rus’ and everything that is connected with it are purely Ukrainian. In particular, so is The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, which inspired him to write “Yaroslavna’s Lament.”
Shevchenko’s words sound so up-to-date now: “I was in Ukraine last year, went to Mezhyhiria, Khortytsia, went everywhere and cried everywhere, our Ukraine is harried, damned Germans and Muscovites destroyed everything, let the God send His wrath upon their heads (a letter to the future otaman of Azov and Black Sea Cossack army Kukharenko, November 26, 1844).
Despite his complete objection to Ukraine’s enslavement by Russia and Poland, Shevchenko was not a chauvinist. He had a lot of friends among Russians and Polish, and he even dedicated poems to them. He often expressed compassion to representatives of these nations in his works. Shevchenko distinguished between Russian people and the Russian state.
Shevchenko remains inalterable and up-to-date supporter of Ukrainian identity, his creative work certainly enhances the strengths of Ukrainian character.
In serf Russia, the most a slave could become was a puppet at a private theater. There are no serfs at all among the prominent figures of the 19th century Russia.
A miracle had to happen for Shevchenko to be heard in such a country. And even a bigger miracle had to happen for Shevchenko’s word, the word of a self-educated man and serf in the second generation became more powerful than words of all the tsars of the Empire.
Taras Shevchenko died without leaving any property, real estate, money, or shares, but, lo and behold, his image was imprinted in people’s memory better than an image of any king, tsar, emperor, or president.
This could happen only when Shevchenko’s word became like Ukrainian song: “without gold, or stone, or cunning talk, but loud and truthful, like God’s word.”