Taras Shevchenko: The poet of Ukrainian freedom

By - Tuesday 25th February, 2014

As the recent events in Ukraine throw the country into turmoil, Sean Creighton looks at the life of a Ukrainian poet who fought for the freedom of his country using words

Portrait of Taras Shevchenko as a student. Image free to use in the public domain.

A few years before he set up home in Upper Norwood, the African American actor Ira Aldridge toured Russia in 1858 and 1859. Among those who reacted to his acting with rapture was ‘the Ukrainian Robert Burns’ – Taras Shevchenko, a poet and artist.

On December 6th 1858, Shevchenko wrote, “The African actor is here now; he does wonders on the stage. He shows us the living Shakespeare.” They became good friends spending much time together over two months, with the daughters of a mutual friend acting as translators. They sang traditional Ukrainian folk melodies and Negro spirituals together. Shevchenko also drew and painted him.

One of the daughters wrote: ‘These two individuals had more in common than just similar traits of character; in his youth one had been a serf, while the other was a member of a despised race; both experienced much bitterness in life, and both passionately loved their unfortunate peoples”.

Back in December one of the pro-Europe demonstrations in Ukraine was at the Shevchenko statue in Lugansk. As the economic and political situation in the Ukraine becomes more complex and the clashes between the government and the protest movement become more fraught, as a result of Russia’s pressure using the threat of higher gas prices, Ukrainians will be using this year’s 200th anniversary of his birth to reaffirm their independent nationalism.

Although Shevchenko was a nationalist he also believed that a free republican Ukraine should be friends with Russia, Poland and other Slavic peoples. As Dr Rory Finnin of Cambridge University will be arguing at the British Library on 17th March, the poet “should be understood not as Ukraine’s national bard but as a universal humanist whose verse irrevocably changed the political landscape of modern Europe”. Through a close reading of selected poems, Finnin will explain “how Shevchenko is best studied as a modernist who was generations ahead of his time”.

The struggle of the Ukrainians against their enemies became a major theme of his poems

I was reminded about Shevchenko in conversation with a Ukrainian resident in London who attended my Vauxhall/Nine Elms walk on 13th January. It was back in the 1960s that I became aware of the poet. The Soviet Progress Publishers volume of his selective works published by the Ukrainian Shevchenko Jubilee Committee has sat on my bookcase since.

Born into a serf family Taras experienced forced labour from childhood. His mother died when he was eight years old and his father when he was 10. He managed to get elementary education from a sexton in return for heavy labour. He became interested in drawing, and when he was 17 his master Baron Engelhardt apprenticed him in Petersburg to the painter Shirayev. Images of Shevchenko’s art can be seen at the Toronto Museum that bears his name. His friends purchased his freedom in April 1838, the same year as the British former slave apprentices in the West Indies were finally freed.

Alongside his artistic studies he began to write poetry. The struggle of the Ukrainians against their enemies became a major theme of his poems. He wrote in the language ordinary Ukrainians spoke. From 1844 he joined the secret political Brotherhood Society of Cyril and Methodius. It wanted the abolition of serfdom, public education, a federation of Slavic peoples with Russia being one of equals, and freedom of speech, thought and religion.

Its members were arrested in 1847. He was exiled and forced into the army. He was forbidden to write and paint, which he ignored. Arrested again in 1850, he was exiled further east to the Caspian Sea area. He was finally released from exile as a result of lobbying by his friends, and returned to Petersburg. In 1859 he was arrested on charges of blasphemy. He died aged 47 in 1861, his body buried in Ukraine.

Shevchenko after his return from exile. Image free to use in the public domain.

Translations of his work and articles spread across Europe. An English advocate was William Richard Morfill (1834-1909) who became the first Professor of Russian and the other Slavonic languages in 1900 at Oxford University.

In 1911 the Irish author Ethel Lillian Voynich (1864-1960) published Six Lyrics From the Ruthenian of Taras Shevchenko. Her novel The Gadfly about revolutionary activities in Italy was made into a Soviet film released in 1956 with a score by Dmitri Shostakovich. Vonynich, whose maiden name was Boole, had relatives living in Croydon at 8 Friends Road and then 47 Birdhurst Rise in the 1890s and 1900s, one of whom, Rosemary, became a nun and was involved in running the Old Palace School.

Later translations into English of Shevchecko’s poetry were undertaken by the British based Australian Jack Lindsay, a prolific author and communist. Another was Aldridge’s biographer the writer and film director Herbert Marshall (1906-1991), some of whose translations appeared in the Soviet volume. Interest about him spread eastwards to India, China, Vietnam and Japan, and westwards to Canada and the United States. The Canadian John Weir edited the Soviet volume. Despite the Cold War the Soviet film Taras Shevchenko was shown in New York in 1952.

Croydon Festival organisers might want to consider including activities about Shevchenko in their programmes

Speaking about him in 1961 the American artist Rockwell Kent said: “Why is it that sometimes a poet of one language becomes a poet of all languages, although it is very difficult to translate poetry from one language to another, and the native language is one-half of the poetry?”

The 200th Anniversary has the backing of UNESCO. Cambridge University is re-naming the central avenue on the Sidgwick site Taras Shevchenko Way for the duration of the bicentennial. We can expect activities in Britain organised by Ukrainians living and working here, especially the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain which calls its Library and Archive after the poet. Although developing his own individual style he was widely read and knew works by Byron, Walter Scott, Shakespeare, Defoe, Richardson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon and Charles Dickens. He held Robert Burns in high esteem.

Croydon Festival organisers might want to consider including activities about Shevchenko in their programmes perhaps on the theme of the cultural contributions of Ukrainians, like Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Gilels, Horowitz, Moiseiwitsch (who settled in Britain), Richter, The Oistrachs, Babel, Bulgakov, Ehrenburg, Gogol, and of those of Ukrainian heritage like ‘Herb’ Alpert and Andy Warhol. Add into the mix Joseph Conrad, the Pole who settled in Britain and who was born in Ukraine. Just before he died David Lean was preparing to shoot an adaptation of Conrad’s adventure novel Nostromo. We could have the makings of interesting events of mixed music and readings.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • http://www.ukrainians.og.uk Stepan Pasicznyk

    Well done Sean, as someone of Ukrainian decent its nice to see write ups like this. Thank you! Sharing with Ukrainian community circles.