Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), also known as ‘Kobzar’ (the Bard) is one of the most prominent and celebrated Ukrainian figures of the 19th Century. He was a poet, artist, humanist, folklorist, and prominent advocate of Ukrainian freedom and culture. His literary works are considered to be the foundation of modern Ukrainian literature and the themes of his work are still relevant, now more than ever.

With the current war in Ukraine raging on, it seems befitting to pay homage to the great Taras Shevchenko and shine a spotlight on one of his most famous short poems, “Calamity Again.” In the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine in 2022, it seems  that history is repeating.

Calamity Again
Dear God, calamity again!

It was so peaceful, so serene;
We had just begun to break the chains
That bind our folk in slavery,
When suddenly…! Again the people’s blood
Is flowing. Like dogs hungry
For butter, the royal thugs
Are at our throats again.

Shevchenko wrote “Calamity Again” in 1859 just two years before his death.  Sadly the poem’s theme of oppression seems to be as relevant today as it was over 160 years ago when it was written. Back in 1859 Ukrainians faced oppression from the Russian Tsarist state and today Ukraine’s freedom is again under siege. History seems to be repeating as Ukrainians fight for freedom and cultural preservation.

Ukraine’s history is somewhat complex, but one thing is certain: Ukraine has a distinct culture and history as a nation, and  Ukrainians have always strived for freedom and independence.  We have Taras Shevchenko to thank for helping to lay the foundation for modern Ukrainian literature and sharing Ukrainian culture through his art and writing. Through his incredible body of work he helped to define, document, and preserve Ukrainian culture, as well as advance freedom in Ukraine, despite the heavy price he paid personally.

Let us reflect on the life of Taras Shevchenko and look to him as a beacon of hope for Ukrainians standing strong and united in their fight for freedom in 2022.

Who is Taras Shevchenko?

Shevchenko’s life experience is reflected in “Calamity Again.” He was born into a serf family in Moryntsi, now the area of central Ukraine. At the time Serfdom reprepresented a system of forced labor with serfs bound to a plot of land and the will of their landlords (or masters.) As a young boy, Shevchenko exhibited talent as a painter. His master took him from his homeland on trips to St. Petersburg and Vilnius Russia where he received instruction in painting. He also started to write poetry during that time. Shevchenko’s talents were also recognized by other artists and writers in St. Petersburg. His newfound friends in the creative community helped to purchase his freedom from serfdom in 1838.  During the next few years, Shevchenko continued his studies at the Imperial Academy of Art where his talents were further nurtured, and he received a number of accolades for his artwork. Shevchenko’s first collection of poetry, Kobzar, was published in 1840. This collection of poems helped to define Ukraine’s national identity as Shevchenko reflected on his memories and emotions. Shevchenko also wrote plays that were published in the following years.

After his many successes as artist and poet, Shevchenko returned to Ukraine where he witnessed first-hand oppression and the incredibly difficult living conditions that Ukrainians faced under Tsarist rule. This influenced his work; through the years Shevchenko’s writing transitioned from traditional Ukrainian themes around depictions of Cossack life and nostalgia to his observations of Ukrainian life, including the oppression and suffering of the Ukrainian people of the lower classes. His work evolved and reflected the things that mattered most to him at the time, which also included writing about the beautiful Ukrainian landscape and plains, churches, and customs.

During this time Shevchenko started to get involved in dissident groups that advocated for political reform. He was outspoken and his work reflected his views. Shevchenko was arrested in 1847 after one his poems mocking the imperial family was published. He was exiled to a Russian prison far from St. Petersburg and was  forbidden to engage in any writing or art although he managed to continue during exile. Shevchenko’s sentencing document included a statement directly from Tsar Nicholas I, “Under the strictest surveillance, with a ban on writing and painting.”

Shevchenko’s works were banned and confiscated by the Russian Empire during that time as they clearly depicted Ukraine’s unique cultural identity and distinct language. Just like present day, there was a concerted effort to suppress and even annihilate Ukrainian culture.

It wasn’t until the death of Russian Emperor Nicholas I that Shevchenko received a pardon from his sentence in 1857 and he returned to St. Petersburg in 1858. But the years in exile didn’t suppress his desire to voice opposion to the status quo. After his time in exile, Shevchenko’s political poems tended to reinforce the intensifying movement against the autocracy and, as a result, Shevchenko was under constant surveillance by the authorities.

In 1849 Shevchenko was given permission to visit Ukraine. During his time in Ukraine he once again witnessed the same oppression and difficult living conditions that he remembered from his earlier life there. He had hoped to buy a plot of land near Pekariv and live out the rest of his life in Ukraine; unfortunately, that never happened. He remained outspoken regarding his political views regarding the oppression and was a remained a steadfast champion for the poor classes of Ukraine. He was arrested and charged with blasphemy; although he was released, he was ordered to return to Saint Petersburg and never returned to Ukraine until after his death.

The difficult years in exile and poor health took its toll on Shevchenko; he died in St. Petersburg at the early age of 47 on March 10, 1861 and was originally buried in St. Petersburgh. Shevchenko’s wish to be buried in Ukraine was expressed in his poem, “My Testament,” written in 1845. Below is John Wier’s translation of this poem.

My Testament

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 till that day
I nothing know 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.

In the end, Shevchenko got his wish as his friends managed to arrange for his remains to be transported back to Ukraine. On May 8, 1861, Taras Shevchenko’s wish was honored and he was buried at his final resting place on Chernecha Hill (Monk’s Hill), now Taras Hill, on the bank of the Dnieper river near Kaniv in Ukraine.

Taras Shevchenko Monument - Washington, DC

Taras Shevchenko monument in Washington, DC, dedicated on June 27, 1964. “Shevchenko/Pilgrims” by NCinDC is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

His legacy

Taras Shevchenko’s influence on Ukrainian history is significant. His life’s work embodies Ukraine’s distinct culture. He was a champion of freedom just like the warriors in Ukraine today who are fighting for Ukraine’s sovereignty and cultural preservation. Shevchenko’s art and writing helped to define and document the beautiful and unique  Ukrainian culture that was under attack during his lifetime and now again over 160 years after his death.

At Spotlight Ukraine, we are celebrating the legacy of Taras Shevchenko as teachers and preservationists of Ukrainian culture.

References and Attributions

New World Encyclopedia contributors, “Taras Shevchenko,” New World Encyclopedia, , https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Taras_Shevchenko&oldid=1030991 (accessed May 20, 2022).

“Graffiti: Taras Shevchenko.” by Kodjii is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Shevchenko/Pilgrims” by NCinDC is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.