Taras Shevchenko (1814-61) is considered the father of modern Ukrainian literature. Born in central Ukraine into a serf family. He went to university in Vilnius before moving to St Petersburg in 1831. His work contributed greatly to the creation of a Ukrainian national consciousness, and therefore as well as being an immense literary figure, he is a political figure whose legacy has been used and abused by different groups in recent history.
One of his most famous poems acts as an informal Ukrainian national anthem and mentions the most important river in Ukraine (the Dnieper not the Danube). However the mentioning of this river highlights how rivers can become intrinsically linked with a nation’s identity. As is the case with the Danube further upstream.
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 know nothing 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
Shevchenko was a member of a group called the Brotherhood of St. Cyril and Methodius whose members included a large number of Ukrainian liberal intellectuals. The aim of the organisation was independence for Ukraine as well as other liberal goals including the abolition of serfdom. Due to his membership of this underground organisation he was exiled to Asia by the Tsar in 1845. Shevchenko returned from exile in 1853 but he was not allowed to return to St Petersburg. He died in 1861 just seven days before the emancipation of the serfs was announced, something for which he had fought his entire life.
The Kremlin propagandists of the 20th century used the life of Shevchenko to further their goals. A highly inaccurate biographical film was made that twisted his anti-Tsarist views to promote ideas of class-struggle within the Russian Empire. Ukrainian nationalist sentiments were completely erased.Though for Ukrainian nationalists and some of the Ukrainian diaspora the use of Shevchenko’s legacy to bring Ukraine closer to Russia was an ironic reminder of Shevchenko’s real principles. The Bolsheviks had simply replaced the Tsars in repressing Ukrainian independence.
Since the collapse of the USSR and the independence of Ukraine Shevchenko remains a symbol of the continuing struggle for Ukrainian independence and is revered by the whole country. Shevchenko’s embodiment of the fight for independence is reflected by the fact he still motivates many people, during the Euromaidan protests the largest demonstration outside of Kyiv took place in Lviv next to a statue of Shevchenko.
Shevchenko demonstrates how important an individual can be to a nation, however this respect for a character can be exploited. I hope that Shevchenko’s ideal of united, peaceful Ukraine whose path is decided by the Ukrainian people soon becomes a reality.
By Jake Smithson