Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian Kobzar

As a child, Taras Shevchenko received little formal education. At any rate, his education was clearly less than what is received by many children around the world. Born to parents who were serfs, Taras was 24 years a serf. He spent only one fourth of his relatively short life of 47 years as a free man. Nevertheless, this largely self educated former serf became the ‘headmaster’ of Ukrainian literature and also enriched modern Ukrainian language more than any writer.
Self portrait as a soldier (1847)

In Ukraine Taras Shevchenko is a national hero. Due to the prevailing political tension between Ukraine and Russia, his Bicentenary on March 9, 2014 was swamped by politics. Many Ukrainians remembered Taras Shevchenko the patriot, not Taras Shevchenko the poet.

Shevchenko was born on March 9, 1814 in Moryntsi, a small village in Central Ukraine. His parents were serfs and therefore, Taras was a serf by birth. At the age of eight, he received some lessons from the local Precentor (person who facilitated worshippers at the Church) and was introduced to Ukrainian literature. His childhood was miserable as the family was poor. Hard work and poverty ate up the lives of the family and Taras’s mother died when he was nine. His father remarried and the stepmother treated Taras very badly. Two years later, Taras’s father also passed away.

The 19th century Russian Empire was largely feudal, Saint Petersburg being the exception. It was the door to the West. Shevchenko’s lucky break in life came when his landlord left for Saint Petersburg, taking his serf with him. Since Taras had shown some merit as a painter, his landlord sent him to learn painting with a master. It was fashionable for a landlord to have a court painter. However, through his teacher, Shevchenko met other famous artists. Impressed by the artistic and literary merit of the young serf, they decided to raise money to buy his freedom. In 1838, Taras Shevchenko became a free man.

Two years later, his collection of poetry, Kobzar, was published, giving him instant fame. A kobzar is a Ukrainian string instrument and a bard who plays it is also known as a Kobzar. Taras Shevchenko came to be known as Kobzar after the publication of his collection. He was speaking of the plight of his people in his language, not through music, but poetry. However, since there were restrictions in publishing books in Ukrainian, the book had to be published outside Russia.
Gypsy Fortune Teller (1841)
Shevchenko continued to write and paint, showing considerable merit in both. In 1845, he wrote “My Testament” which is perhaps his best known work. In his poem, he begs the reader to bury him in his native Ukraine after he dies. His immense love for the land of his birth is epitomized in these verses. Later, he wrote another memorable piece, “The Dream”, in which expresses his dream of a day when all the serfs are free. Sadly, Taras Shevchenko died just a week before this dream was realized in 1861.

Taras lived a free man until 1847 when he was arrested for being a member of a secret organization, Brotherhood of St Cyril and Methodius. He was imprisoned in Saint Petersburg and later banished as a private with the Russian military to Orenburg garrison. He was not to be allowed to read and paint, but his overseers hardly enforced this edict. After Czar Nicholas II died in 1855, he received a pardon in 1857, but was initially not allowed to return to Saint Petersburg. He was however, allowed to return to his native Ukraine. He returned to Saint Petersburg and died there on March 10, 1861, a day after the 47th birthday. Originally buried there, his remains were brought to Ukraine and buried in Kaniv, in a place now known as Taras Hill. The site became a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism. In 1978, an engineer named Oleksa Hirnyk burned himself in protest to what he called the suppression of Ukrainian history, language and culture by the Soviet authorities.
The first edition of Kobzar (1840)
Ironically, Taras Shevchenko was considered a hero by the Soviet regime as an anti-Czarist literary figure. In 1939, Saint Vladimir University of Kyiv was renamed as Taras Shevchenko University. In 1951, a Soviet Drama film on his life was released. MS Taras Shevchenko was a 1967 cruise ship owned by the Black Sea Shipping Company of the Soviet Union.

Testament (Zapovit)

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.

When from Ukraine the Dnieper bears
Into the deep blue sea
The blood of foes ... then will I leave
These hills and fertile fields --
I'll leave them all and fly away
To the abode of God,
And then I'll pray .... But until that day
I nothing know of God.

Oh bury me, then rise ye up
And break your heavy chains
And water with the tyrants' blood
The freedom you have gained.
And in the great new family,
The family of the free,
With softly spoken, kindly word
Remember also me.
-Translated by John Weir, Toronto, 1961

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