On the radio the other day I heard about a protester in Ukraine wrapping a blindfold around a statue of someone named Taras Shevchenko. A person patrolling the streets stopped him, worried about his actions, and said, “That statue is very important to the people of Ukraine, we don’t want anything happening to it.” The reporter explained that Shevchenko was a 19th century poet and artist, a beloved figure of Ukrainian independence.
That sent me down a rabbit hole from whence I write this post. Who was this guy Shevchenko? How had I never heard of a poet who’s a national hero? Turns out he’s a hero beyond the borders of Ukraine. All over the world there are towns, streets, and buildings named for Shevchenko. There are statues of him in the unlikeliest of places, from Beijing to Australia to Washington, D.C. to Argentina. There are six statues of him in Canada alone, and a whole museum dedicated to him in Toronto.
Ukraine boasts about 150 monuments to Shevchenko. (Link here to see the list of statues in Ukraine and other countries—it’s fascinating to find a world you did not know existed.) His name is on Ukrainian money, stamps, city squares, and schools. Here’s a wonderful fact: after Ukraine became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, some statues of Lenin were replaced with statues of Shevchenko. A dictator toppled for a poet! You can’t overstate his place in Ukrainian hearts and culture.
One of the accolades I came across (over and over) struck me as curious: he’s considered not just the father of modern Ukrainian literature, but of modern Ukrainian language— “to a certain extent,” reads his Wikepedia page. Such a blanket statement needs verification, and believe me, I tried—but the linguistic parlance was over my head. I’ll take it on faith.
With Shevchenko monuments improbably located, I decided the state of Hawaii could use one too. On a fence along a beach path on the north shore of Kauai, I constructed a Poem-Elf style tribute to this revered Ukrainian. The poems are placed behind barbed wire as a nod to the years Shevchenko, a former serf, spent oppressed by Tsarist Russia.
One more note: I’m only offering these poems for your reading. I’m not going to analyze them. Translation makes an examination on the level of language pointless. We get but a taste of the meaning and emotion and will have to settle for that.
A brief biography of Shevchenko is below, along with a few of his paintings. He was a wonderful artist.
“My Testament” is a touchstone poem for Ukrainians, especially, tragically, this year. For background: Shevchenko was forced into exile in Russia for ten years and died in St. Petersburg. To honor the burial wishes expressed in this poem, his body was moved back to Ukraine, and a mound built over his grave.
by Taras Shevchenko
When I die, bury me
On a grave mound
Amid the wide-wide steppe
In my beloved Ukraine,
In a place from where the wide-tilled fields
And the Dnipro and its steep banks
Can be seen and
Its roaring rapids heard.
When it carries off
The enemy’s blood from Ukraine
To the deep blue sea… I’ll leave
The tilled fields and mountains –
I’ll leave everything behind and ascend
To pray to God
Himself… but till then
I don’t know God.
Bury me and arise, break your chains
And sprinkle your freedom
With the enemy’s evil blood.
And don’t forget to remember me
In the great family,
In a family new and free,
With a kind and quiet word.
Translated by Michael M. Naydan
I pray for the day “Letter to My Countrymen Dead, Alive and Not Yet Born” is no longer relevant. Look at this Ukraine/Love our ruined country . . . the heart breaks for Ukraine, again and again and again.
Letter to My Countrymen
Dead, Alive and Not Yet Born (1845)
by Taras Shevchenko
Whoever claims to love God,
yet hates his brother, is a liar. John 4:20
The sun rises, the sun sets
And the Lord’s Day passes
As the exhausted rest.
I alone am cursed to cry
On the crowded crossroads
Day and night.
No one knows,
No one knows or cares.
They’re deaf and don’t hear
How chains are forged,
How truth is sold,
How the Lord’s abused.
Our people are forced
Into hard labor.
They plow sorrow
And sow grief.
What will grow now?
What will the harvest bring?
Come to your senses,
You heartless idiots!
Look at this paradise,
Look at this Ukraine.
Love our ruined country
Honestly (with a pure heart).
Throw off your chains
And embrace each other.
Don’t leave for far off lands
Searching for what
Can’t even be found in heaven,
Much less in someone else’s backyard.
At home lies your own truth,
Your own power and freedom.
When you read “Envy Not the Man of Wealth,” keep in mind that during his lifetime Shevchenko had neither wealth nor power nor fame. He had a hard, hard life, and so his advice on avoiding envy carries a lot of weight.
Envy not the Man of Wealth
by Taras Shevchenko
Don’t envy, friend, a wealthy man:
A rich man’s life is spent
Without a friend or faithful love —
Those things he has to rent.
Don’t envy, friend, a man of rank,
His power’s based on force.
Don’t envy, too, a famous man:
The man of note well knows
The crowd’s acclaim is not for him,
But for that thorny fame
He wrought with labour and with tears
So they’d be entertained.
But then, when young folk gather ’round,
So fine they are and fair
You’d think it’s heaven, — ah, but look:
See evil stirring there …
Don’t envy anyone, my friend,
For if you look you’ll find
That there’s no heaven on the earth,
No more than in the sky.
Translated by John Weir
Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) was born a serf, the third child of parents who were also serfs. Taras was orphaned by age 11 and worked as a house serf for the son of his original lord. The new master discovered Taras painting a picture and whipped him for it. Nonetheless, when the lord took Taras with him to Russia, he arranged for him to study under a painter. (Having an in-house artist was fashionable at the time.)
Shevchenko met up with a group of artists who saw his talent and bought his freedom with an auctioned picture by one of Russia’s most famous painters. After graduating from St. Petersburg Academy of Art, he returned to Ukraine. There he got involved with a secret society that supported Ukrainian independence from Russia. A satirical poem he wrote about the Tsar’s family was confiscated, and Shevchenko arrested and exiled. He was forced to serve in the Russian military in remote and punishing outposts, which took a toll on his health. Although prohibited from drawing and writing, he continued to do both.
After ten years he was allowed to return to his country. Shortly after, he was re-arrested and re-exiled on trumped-up charges. He died in Russia seven days before liberation of serfs. He was only 47 years old.
Here’s a picture of the young woman in his most famous poem “Katerina.” (Link here to read. The long poem tells the story of a young woman who falls in love with a Russian soldier. He deserts her, and she finds herself pregnant and rejected by her family and townspeople. She tries to find the father in Russia and eventually commits suicide. I usually don’t like long story poems, but this one I read right through.)
This ink drawing is called “In Prison.”