5 Reasons Why Shevchenko is Still Cool Lviv Today Recognizes Ukraine’s ‘Poet-in-Chief’ on the 200th Anniversary of his Birth

Issue 66, March 2014.

5 Reasons Why Shevchenko is Still Cool

Lviv Today Recognizes Ukraine’s ‘Poet-in-Chief’ on the 200th Anniversary of his Birth

It is impossible to live in Ukraine and not know Taras Shevchenko. To be honest, it’s practically impossible to live in this country and not see Taras Shevchenko on a daily basis. For Ukrainians, he remains a constant presence; a common thread throughout their lives much like an old friend or a wise uncle. For tourists and expatriates though, little is known about the man other than he wrote poems and every town in Western Ukraine has a statue that bears his likeness. So, in honour of the anniversary of our national poet’s birthday, Lviv Today looks at 5 reasons why the man is still revered in Ukraine and around the world 200 years after his birth.

  1. He’s the Father of Ukraine

Shevchenko is often considered the Father of Ukraine. Not really in the same sense as say George Washington in the USA or Vladimir Lenin in the USSR, who used politics and revolution to birth their nations, but more in the sense of defining and expounding a national consciousness. His works derived from his own extraordinary (and well-known) story: he was born as a poor and illiterate surf and found his break when a local churchman taught him to read and his owner noticed his artistic abilities. After an artist friend purchased his freedom, Shevchenko began to life the high life – studying, painting, and writing all the day (including his most famous collection of poems – Kobzar). He returned to Ukraine and travelled the land extensively to collect folkloric and ethnographic materials. After meeting with his serf friends and family, Shevchenko returned a changed man. His writings and paintings took on a more political tone, often at the expense of the tsar and the imperial system. One famous example is how he uses the allegory of a Russian officer impregnating a beautiful Ukrainian girl before abandoning her to represent Russia’s imposition of serfdom on Ukraine. When the tsar read his works he was not impressed, and sentenced Shevchenko hard time in a Siberian prison – forbidding him from even writing or painting. He spent the next decade in prison and wasn’t released until years after the tsar’s death. A condition of his release was that he was forbidden to travel to his beloved homeland, although he did make it back once more before his death. He was promptly detained and sent back to St. Petersburg, where he lived out the rest of his days. His life work – his poems, writings, and paintings – are considered to be the foundation for modern Ukraine literature and language and his themes are considered to have inspired the modern Ukrainian consciousness.

  1. He’s Intellectual

So you know it that he’s a poet. And you now know he’s a writer and painter too. But did you know that he was also a talented folklorist, ethnographer, artist, and a pioneer in the field of etching? In addition to his many talents, he was a recognized public and political figure. Shevchenko has long been recognized for his greatness – even while he was alive. His first biography was published in Poland just one year after his death. Certainly Ukraine has long recognized his brilliance. After all, it is estimated that there are over 1200 Shevchenko statues throughout Ukraine, including on Lviv’s aptly-named Prospekt Svoboda (Independece Street). Ukrainians have come up with all kinds of manners to honour their hero-poet, including: naming a cruise ship after him, and a Kyiv metro station; gracing the 100 UAH bill with his image; naming one of Ukraine’s oldest and most reputable universities in his honour; bestowing a national arts prize in his honour; a national arts prize is named after him; even an asteroid was named after him (Kobzar 2427). Yet it’s not just Ukrainians that know how to honour the intellectual giant.

  1. He’s Famous Worldwide

From his monument in downtown Washington to his statues in St. Petersburg and across Russia; from a street named after him in New York City to his memorial in a Parisian park; from his likeness at Ukraine Square in Brazil to a Romanian high school named in his honour, Shevchenko is well-known and honoured all around the world. One of the themes of his poetry – for the oppressed to stand up to their oppressors – has long been recognized by revolutionary groups, while his impact on Ukrainian language and literature has made him an icon among Ukrainian diaspora groups worldwide. Many organizations and foundations throughout the diaspora have been set up in his name to either promote his works or to honour them. In addition, it’s likely just as easy to find a Shevchenko street or statue in North America as it is in small town Ukraine. There are even cities named after him in Canada and Kazahstan. Even UNESCO – the United Nations’ branch that is responsible for promoting and protecting culture – has invited the world to celebrate with Ukraine to mark the 200th anniversary of Shevchenko’s birth. The organization notes that events are planned to mark the occasion in, coincidentally, 200 countries around the world.

  1. He’s Still Cool

Don’t think that Ukraine has forgotten to mark the momentous anniversary of their hero’s 200th birth. The government has marked 2014 as ‘The Year of Taras Shevchenko’ and has a bevy of events planned to mark the occasion. The events kicked off with a 200th anniversary logo contest – won by a children’s art teacher from a small town in the Ternopil Oblast. The winning design, which netted the man 20,000 UAH, depicts a young Shevchenko above a stylized signature and the number 200. Other events tied to the celebrations include: the release of a 6-volume Shevchenko encyclopedia, the release of an education video series about his life and works, an international Shevchenko conference, renovations of the Shevchenko museums in Kaniv and Kyiv, and an international festival of choirs in Kaniv. In fact, the Shevchenko National Preserve near Kaniv, a park containing Shevchenko’s grave and a museum, is really the place to see in 2014. Plenty of exhibits, exhibitions, and events will be hosted there to honour Ukraine’s national bard. The anniversary itself, on March 9th, would have been a party had earlier events not soured the mood at the Maidan…

  1. He’s Still Relevant

Shevchenko’s works still enjoy immense popularity and relevance even 200 years after his birth. Children are taught to recite his poems from their first days in school and study them right through university. More than just a father to Ukrainian language and literature, Shevchenko’s poems still hold special appeal to the Ukrainian consciousness. He remains one of the few national figures with the ability to draw people from all areas of Ukraine together. Perhaps that was one reason for his immense popularity during the initial stages of the EuroMaidan protests. Yet by the time the Maidan celebrated the anniversary on March 9th, the image of Shevchenko at the Maidan had taken on a whole new relevance. Just days earlier Russia had occupied Crimea, reminding many Ukrainians of times past – distant, and not-so-distant. Poems read at the square, such as the popular Kavkaz, acquired a whole new meaning. The poem, invoking the poetic image of Prometheus to symbolize the eternal spirit of heroism, calls on all oppressed nations “from the Moldovan to the Finn” to stand up to Russia’s tyranny. Truly, there hasn’t been a time in Ukraine’s brief post-Soviet history that Shevchnko’s works have been more relevant. In the words of EuroMaidan martyr Serhiy Nigoyan, himself quoting from Shevchenko’s Kavkaz:

“And glory, mountains blue, to you,

In ageless ice encased!

And glory, freedom’s knights, to you,

Whom God will not forsake.

Keep fighting – you are sure to win!

God helps you in your fight!

For fame and freedom march with you,

And right is on your side!