Taras Shevchenko. Prominent writer who fought for the self-identification of Ukrainians almost 200 years ago
March 9 marks the 209th birthday of Taras Shevchenko — an outstanding Ukrainian poet, writer, artist and public figure. Shevchenko has a special significance for Ukrainians of all generations. His works and ideas were always ahead of his time and his words ring true to this day. They resonate with every Ukrainian, especially in times of war, when Russia tries to destroy Ukraine’s identity, as it did 200 years ago during Shevchenko’s time.
Read more about Taras Shevchenko and his significance for Ukrainians in our special material.
Was born a serf, but free by soul
Taras Shevchenko was born in March 1814, when the territory of Ukraine was under the rule of the Russian Empire. Shevchenko was born into serfdom and his family was owned by landowner Vasyl Engelhardt. From a young age, Shevchenko exhibited many talents — out of all 6 children in his family, he was the only one to learn to read and write.
Shevchenko became an orphan at the young age of 11. In 1828, together with his owner Pavlo Engelhardt — Vasyl’s successor — Taras Shevchenko moved to Vilnius, Lithuania, and later to the capital of the Russian Empire, St. Petersburg. With time, Shevchenko developed his talent for drawing. He was noticed by famous artists who bought him out of serfdom when he was 24 for a very high price.
A man of talent and hard work
Despite being naturally artistically talented, Shevchenko recognised he would not be able to succeed if he did not work on his skills. He was keen to learn new techniques in drawing and was very good at it. Thanks to his efforts, he mastered the then-known means of graphic representation.
After being freed from serfdom, Shevchenko dove deeper into poetry. His first collection of poems — Kobzar — was published when he was 26. It was written in Ukrainian, then repressed, and had a thousand copies. After becoming widely popular, it was sold out in two weeks.
Kobzar had an anti-imperialist nature. Subsequently, it was later republished in a censored version. Shevchenko never stopped writing in Ukrainian despite being denounced and shunned for it.
In his poems, he criticizes the Russian Empire and calls on Ukrainians to fight for their freedom. These ideas were uncommon to be voiced publicaly at that time — that’s why he became so popular.
“Even during Shevchenko’s lifetime, his Kobzar was read to the letter. Many Ukrainian young women studied the Ukrainian language in order to read his poetry. It had its own charm,” Shevchenko researcher Dr Oleksandr Boron told Ukrainska Pravda.
A nuissance for the Empire
Despite having spent 17 years in St. Petersburg, Shevchenko often wrote of his affinity for Kyiv. His first trip to Ukraine after being freed from serfdom was in 1843. During his visit, the poet traveled around the country, met with prominent members of the intelligentsia, and made many pencil studies for a projected book of engravings to be called Picturesque Ukraine. This album of etchings brought him fame as the founder of critical realism in Ukrainian pictorial art. A year before he died, the Academy of the Arts Council awarded Shevchenko with the title of Engraver Academician.
In 1846, Shevchenko spent some time living in Kyiv, where he met the members of the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius — a short-lived secret political society. According to historians, his modern and revolutionary views had a great influence on the development of this secret society.
Unsurprisingly, the Russian imperial authorities soon began to persecute members of the society — it was Shevchenko who suffered the most. He was arrested on several occasions and then exiled as a soldier for ten years to Kazakhstan without the right to draw and write.
The exile broke his health, but it did not break his spirit — and so, the artist continued to write. Just before he passed away, he issued at his expense 10,000 copies of alphabet books for the Ukrainian children to learn their native language.
Shevchenko died in 1861, a day after his 47th birthday, but his popularity didn’t die with him. He became an inspiration for the next generations of Ukrainians and for the world as well. During Shevchenko’s lifetime, his works were translated into Russian, Polish, and Czech; later Bulgarian, Serbian, German, Croatian, Italian, Slovakian, Slovenian and other languages. In the English-speaking world, Shevchenko was first mentioned in 1877 in the weekly All the Year Round edited by Charles Dickens. The British Slavist W.R. Morfill was the first to write a biography of Shevchenko in English in 1880 and was the first who made poetic translations of excerpts from Shevchenko’s poetry.
Сandidate of Historical Sciences Myron Hordiichuk wrote that Taras Shevchenko became one of the first to speak out against the Russian-created “Little Russian” identity (editor’s note: back then Russian Empire identified Ukrainians as such), contrasting it with Ukrainian national identity in his works.
Ukrainian politician and one of the most important figures of the Ukrainian national revival of the early 20th century Mykhailo Hrushevskyi once said the following about Shevchenko: “He is the holy flag of our national unity, one of the most significant symbols of Ukrainian community, the unity of Ukraine and Ukrainian life, which is united despite state, church and all other boundaries.”
Even the Soviet regime felt threatened by Shevchenko’s legacy, subsequently censoring a number of his poems and attempting to pervert his image by dubbing him a revolutionary, not a fighter for Ukrainian self-identification.
Memory of Taras Shevchenko
Taras Shevchenko holds a special place in the heart of every Ukrainian even more than 200 years after his birth. According to a survey conducted by Rating sociological group, over 63% of Ukrainians considered Shevchenko as the most prominent Ukrainian as of October 2022.
His wide array of talents aside, Taras Shevchenko is also a world record holder as a cultural figure with the greatest amount of monuments dedicated to them in the world. There are 1167 monuments of Taras Shevchenko in the world, 1068 of which are in Ukraine and the rest around the globe in 44 countries.
Today, Shevchenko’s words are a frequent feature of speeches made by global leaders in support of Ukraine, from US President Joe Biden to former US President Bill Clinton, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the head of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola and many others.
Prepared by: Oksana Dumska
Edited by: Kvitka Perehinets
Designed by: Vladyslav Rybalko, Oleksandr Kryvets