Presentation at the Opening of Shevchenko Exhibition
Manitoba Legislature, 15 July 2014
Shevchenko has had his admirers in every generation. There are many stories of people identifying themselves as Ukrainians after reading him. Today, once more Ukrainian patriots are picking up his works and rereading them. Even those whose ethnic origins are not Ukrainian. Why is this? One reason is because these people are appalled by the extremely biased attitudes expressed toward Ukraine and Ukrainians in much of the Russian press. There is a rapidly growing understanding among Ukrainian citizens of all ethnic origins, races, and religions that Ukraine is indeed a country with a sense its own place in the world, a country committed to the universal values of respect for self and others.
Over the years Shevchenko has served Ukrainians as a symbol of their own solidarity. He has also been their ambassador to the world. Over 1,000 monuments to the writer have been erected in Ukraine, and over 120 in various cities throughout the world. Among them is the monument on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature, which brought together the largest gathering of Ukrainians in Canada, some 25,000, when it was unveiled in 1961, the hundredth anniversary of Shevchenko’s death.
What makes Shevchenko so remarkable? Every generation and every reader discovers something new in him, but I would like to draw your attention to three things worth considering. Firstly, he was a great Romantic poet. Like other Romantics, he had a respect for the demos, the common people, their history, their struggles against oppressors and their aspirations for a better life. But of all the great Romantic poets he was the only one to be born a serf, in effect a slave, the personal property of his lord. He was bought out of serfdom only because a group of elite writers and painters in the imperial capital of St. Petersburg recognized his remarkable talent and were appalled by the condition in which he was forced to live. No other great European writer had such a biography or overcame such obstacles.
Secondly, he was a great democrat in the European tradition. An anti-imperial and anti-colonial writer, he identified with the struggles of subjugated peoples, long before postcolonial studies became popular in the last decades of the twentieth century. His heroes are enlighteners; they rebel in the name of conscience; they speak truth to power. Among them are not only Ukrainian figures, but the early Christians, the Protestant reformer Jan Hus, and the small nations of the Caucasus that refuse to be silenced by the tsarist juggernaut. This concern places Shevchenko in the mainstream of European and international movements for popular sovereignty, for national liberation, and for the spread of humane, democratic values – movements that have over many generations shaped the thinking of enlightened and progressive societies.
Thirdly, perhaps no other great poet has been so woman-centred. The fate of his female characters dominates his poems and stories: the deceived and abandoned girl, the enslaved and abused woman are dominant images. Yes, this feature of his work can be interpreted as a trope – a metaphor for the situation of the Ukrainian people — but it can also be seen as a metaphor for the situation of all the vulnerable, the voiceless, and the subaltern.
Shevchenko’s poetry and stories speak of what is unjust and what is right. His great themes, violence and love, remain relevant today. They carry universal messages and have contributed to his enormous influence. Today it is easy to forget that even in his day he was a poetic rock-star. He was imprisoned and exiled to Siberia for almost ten years from 1848 to 1857 because he belonged to a Christian democratic society that was anti-tsarist and that believed Ukraine should take its rightful place among other European nations as an equal. The tsar issued instructions that while in exile Shevchenko was not allowed to write or draw — so powerful, subversive, and offensive did the sovereign find his subject’s creativity. But this punishment made Shevchenko a celebrity in intellectual circles. Dostoevsky had a drawing by Shevchenko on the wall of his apartment in St. Petersburg. It can be seen in the apartment, which is now a museum to the Russian writer. Works by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy that are devoted to the humiliated and injured owe a debt to Shevchenko’s writings. These are only two Eastern European writers who have found inspiration in the Shevchenko’s life and work.
For all these reason — his greatness as a poet, his importance as an enlightener, a reformer, an anti-colonial and feminist voice – he is worth celebrating and reading. He placed Ukrainian language on the map and instilled Ukrainian literature with the values of European humanism. This is worth stressing today, because Vladimir Putin has stated that Ukraine is not a country, and because the Russian president has embarked on a course that denies the legitimacy of many universal values that are associated with European humanism. In response, Ukrainian citizens of all origins, as I mentioned at the beginning, have turned for inspiration to Shevchenko’s works. When Putin states that Ukraine is not a country, he is repeating the words of the Russian tsars and imperialist thinkers, who stated that Ukraine had no language, no literature, and no independent identity. Like previous generations, contemporaries now read Shevchenko in order to discover that Ukrainians are indeed a people, and a country with its own voice, a sense of its own enduring presence in the world, and a faith in its right to exist.