Thursday, March 10, 2011

If I had been a monster

Today is the 150th anniversary of the death of the great Ukrainian poet, artist and nationalist, Taras Shevchenko. He was exiled for a decade by the Tsar for subversive writings against Russian domination of Ukraine, and on being released started to keep a diary. This has been called a ‘living portrait of the implacable revolutionary’.

Shevchenko was born a serf in the village of Moryntsi, then in the Russian Empire (now in Cherkasy Oblast, Ukraine) in 1814. He was orphaned at 11, and grew up in poverty, but was taught to read by a lay church person. From the age of 14, he worked as a houseboy for his owner, Pavel Engelhardt, in Vilnius and then St Petersburg. Having noticed a talent for drawing, though, Engelhardt apprenticed him to the painter V Shiriaev. Through him he met other Russian and Ukrainian artists, including the famous painter and professor Karl Briullov. A portrait of the Russian poet Vasilii Zhukovsky by Briullov was sold in a lottery to raise funds to buy Shevchenko’s freedom in 1838. That same year he enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg.

Shevchenko’s first collection of poetry - Kobzar - was published in 1840; epic poems and plays followed. In the mid-1840s, he made several trips to regions that are now modern Ukraine and, disturbed by the conditions he found there, produced an album of etchings of the historical and cultural ruins. Also, he began to write increasingly subversive material against the Tsarist regime. In 1847, he was arrested with others interested in bringing more freedom to Ukraine, and was exiled as a private with the Russian military Orenburg garrison at Orsk near the Ural Mountains. Tsar Nicholas I, confirming his sentence, added: ‘Under the strictest surveillance, without a right to write or paint.’

Shevchenko remained in exile for a decade, to 1857, though the Tsar’s ban on his artistic work was never more than lax, and he produced both sketches and writing during the period. In 1859, he was allowed to move to Ukraine, but then was arrested and ordered to return to St Petersburg. He continued to write poetry, etch and paint, but ill-health got the better of him, and he died on 10 March 1861. Further biographical information is available at Wikipedia, and at the Taras H Shevchenko Museum & Memorial (in Toronto), and Encyclopaedia of Ukraine.

Encyclopaedia of Ukraine provides this assessment: ‘Shevchenko has held a unique position in Ukrainian intellectual history, and the importance of his poetry for Ukrainian culture and society cannot be underestimated. His Kobzar marks the beginning of a new era in Ukrainian literature and in the development of the modern Ukrainian language. Through his poetry, Shevchenko legitimized the use of Ukrainian as a language of modern literature. His poems’ revolutionary and political content found resonance among other captive peoples. The earliest translations of his poems - mainly into Polish, Russian, Czech, and German - appeared while he was still alive. By the 1990s parts of the Kobzar had been translated into more than 100 languages. Shevchenko’s poetry has also become a source of inspiration for many other works of literature, music, and art.’

For less than two years, in 1857 and 1858, after being released from exile, Shevchenko kept a diary. The Encyclopaedia of Ukraine says ‘it is of great value in interpreting his poetic works and an important source for studying his intellectual interests and development.’ Yevhen Kirilyuk, a Member of the Academy of Science of Ukraine, wrote in 1961 that this diary is ‘a wonderful human document which provides us with a living portrait of the implacable revolutionary and the significance of the development of engineering and science, which would inevitably bring an end to the old order’. And Professor W K Matthews of the University of London wrote (in Forum magazine, 1989) that the diary is ‘particularly illuminating on the notable change in his psychology which was the inevitable outcome of ten physically and morally degrading years of exile in the Kazakh steppe.’

Matthews continues: ‘Like Shakespeare, another author with a defective early education, Shevchenko was an uncommonly sensitive and impressionable man, quick to learn, and able to transform acquired knowledge to his own use and to give it the stamp of his unique genius. A sober study of Shevchenko’s poetry convinces us of this, even though we can easily pick out its folk-song elements. But as we read his ‘Diary’ we continually marvel at the variety of his interests and information, the maturity of his understanding, his balanced judgment in the fields of literature and aesthetics, and his high moral standard. . .

What drew Shevchenko to the Russian revolutionaries in his latter days was an unrelenting hatred of established authority - both that of the landowners and that of the Russian government. These had been the twin sources of his miseries from his birth. And how intense those miseries could be we realize, for instance, from the pages of his Diary, in which he complained on 19th June, 1857: ‘If I had been a monster, a murderer, even than a more fitting punishment could not have been devised for me than that of sending me off as a private to the Special Orenburg Corps. It is here that you have the cause of my indescribable sufferings. And in addition to all this I am forbidden to sketch’. To these words he subsequently adds the scathing remark: ‘The heathen Augustus, banishing Naso to the savage Getae, did not forbid him to write or to sketch. Yet the Christian Nicholas forbade me both.’

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