Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko (4442 words)

George G. Grabowicz (Harvard University)
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Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861) is the Ukrainian national poet—and a national icon. He articulates a millenarian vision of national emancipation that is still broadly perceived as prophetic, i.e., fulfilling the teleology of national identity. As early as 1879, Mykhailo Drahomanov, the outstanding Ukrainian thinker of the nineteenth century, could argue that virtually every political or pre-political Ukrainian movement sought to claim Shevchenko as its patron. His cult was inevitable. It rested on the numinous cast of his poetry, the all but religious impact it had on his broad audience, and was a product of underlying collective values and the emerging politics of populism. A rethinking of Shevchenko's work, however, especially the interaction of its various modalities—his poetry, all-but exclusively in Ukrainian; his prose, all-but exclusively in Russian; and his quickly evolving painting in various genres—is still in the shadow of his iconic status.

Shevchenko was born on March 9, 1814, in the village of Moryntsi of the Kyiv governorate as a serf of the senator and privy councillor of the Russian Empire, Vasilii Vasilievich Engelhardt. He was a full orphan by the age of eleven, and, curiously for peasant society, left with no inheritance. For the next three years, or until he was fourteen, he was homeless. When his master died in 1828, Shevchenko became the property of his master’s son, Pavel Vasilievich Engelhardt, also a military man and adjutant to the military governor of Vilnius, who promptly made him a houseboy. Shevchenko accompanied him to his posting in Vilnius in 1829. With the outbreak of the November 1831 Polish uprising, Engelhardt was recalled to St. Petersburg; his household, and Shevchenko, followed.

Until 1836, Shevchenko was apprenticed to a painter of decorative interiors, but he was already cultivating contacts with various Ukrainian literati in the capital. He also turned for support to the St. Petersburg Society for the Encouragement of Artists, which was dedicated to securing the freedom of artists who were serfs. In 1836, he drew the attention of the painter Karl Briullov, then the most popular painter in Russia, and the poet Vasilii Zhukovskii, who while being one of the foremost poets of the time, was also a tutor to the heir apparent, the future Alexander II, with virtually open access to the monarch’s family. These two and some of their colleagues soon felt strongly that Shevchenko should be free. Strengthening their resolve was the fact that he also wrote poetry.

After lengthy negotiations, Engelhardt agreed to a price of 2,500 rubles. The sum was to be raised by Briullov painting a portrait of Zhukovskii especially for this purpose. On April 22, 1838, the tsar’s family held a lottery for the portrait and contributed 1,000 rubles to the asking price; the rest was apparently made up equally by Briullov, Zhukovskii, and the musician and composer Count Mikhail Vielgorskii. On April 25, 1838, in Briullov’s studio and in the presence of these benefactors, Shevchenko was given his certificate of manumission and became a free man. The next day he enrolled in the Academy of Arts, where his primary teacher was Briullov.

Shevchenko’s first, slim, collection of poetry Kobzar [The Minstrel] appeared in 1840 and fundamentally changed the course of Ukrainian literature—and identity. It was reviewed by all the prominent periodicals of St. Petersburg. They spoke unanimously of the strength of the poetry and the promise of the new poet; a few enthused about a poetry “full of feeling, authentic grace, and simplicity”; a number, though, questioned Shevchenko’s recourse to “dialect”, i.e., Ukrainian; all expressed an implicit presumption of quality, drawing apparently on the aura of genius that was attached to Briullov (TShCR1: 3–11).

The Ukrainian response was handicapped by a paucity of journals, but remarkable also for its enthusiasm and unanimity: everyone saw in Shevchenko an unprecedented, uncannily powerful force that gave new meaning to poetry. As the writer and historian Mykola Kostomarov later recalled: “Shevchenko’s muse sundered the veil of national life. It was terrifying and sweet and painful and fascinating to peer inside” (TShCR 2:165). Panteleimon Kulish, another major Ukrainian and Russian writer, also writing immediately after Shevchenko’s death, said: “Shevchenko is our great poet and our first historian. It was Shevchenko who was the first to ask our mute burial mounds what they were, and it was to him alone that they gave their answer, clear as God’s word” (ibid. 109–10). In time the realization grew that it was not only Ukrainian poetry that was being transformed, but Ukrainian identity.

Shevchenko’s was a poetry that seemed direct, natural, and simple. Above all, it radiated authenticity as it drew on folk models and the voice of the people, the narod. Through this voice, Shevchenko exhibited an unprecedented command of the language that was his medium. A new standard had emerged.

At the same time (covertly, as it were), it was also formally and technically sophisticated, drawing on a range of Romantic conventions, but also breaking with them and anticipating later, even modernist innovations. Shevchenko displays a remarkable control over voice and narrative, with various works often told in more than one voice. A subtle sense of intertextuality is expanded to include a special focus on the very process of creating the works. Most strikingly, he blurs two seemingly incompatible modes—the oral and the written. Throughout he is writing in variants and resisting the notion of a fixed text; the poem is thus both a text and an oral performance (as of a folk minstrel, a kobzar), an experience. Consequently, he avoids canonic forms (sonnets etc.) and continually transgresses conventions (which many of his contemporary admirers and exegetes mistakenly ascribe to “bohemian carelessness”).

On the thematic level Shevchenko introduces what still appears to many to be a remarkably new and potent sense of history. Many of his works draw on overtly historical subject matter—which gave rise both in his time and to this day to a tendency to see him as articulating “historical views”, even a kind of “historiosophy”. A closer reading of his “historical” works, especially the poem Haidamaky [The Haidamaks] (1841)reveals this as a misconception: the issue is not history but memory—and identity.

Also indisputably new was a radical stress on the psychological dimension and especially on the very process of writing poetry—the construction of the text, the pain and doubt that accompany it, and the psychological trauma that generates it. In a sense, this converges with Romantic poetics. But it exceeds it in intensity, and its “naturalistic” or “expressionist” articulation suggests an affinity more with such early modernists as Baudelaire than with Byron or Shelley.

A defining mode for Shevchenko was his reliance on archetypes and on a mythical code to construct his vision of Ukraine and of his own prophetic role as myth carrier within that vision. The mythical prominently involves the collective and the realm of the sacred, of reaching into repressed and forgotten collective experience and drawing from its chthonic energies the strength to envision and commit to his country’s resurrection.

In pragmatic terms, focusing his poetry so powerfully on Ukraine, on its past heroism, but especially its subjugation in the present, and also the prospect of its rebirth in freedom, turned it into a revolutionary act. All Ukrainian readers, but especially his contemporaries, were affected by it. The question was not whether this prophetic and apocalyptic message was perceived to be true (its emotional impact made it so); the question was how to process it, and then act on it. This would become a constant issue for the reception of Shevchenko.

In late 1841, Shevchenko finished writing his long poem Haidamaky, which deals with the bloody 1768 uprising of the Ukrainian peasantry and some Cossacks against exploitation by Polish landowners and religious oppression in Right-Bank Ukraine, then part of Poland. It marks a fundamental shift as Shevchenko addresses not just a Ukrainian audience but implicitly the Polish and the all-Russian one as well. By turning to the past, it also lays claim to speaking for the collective experience—much as Pushkin had done with his drama Boris Godunov(1831) and Adam Mickiewicz in his poem Pan Tadeusz(1834). Cast as a Byronic poem, Haidamaky evokes the national past and its implicit heroism and also depicts its demonic face. On its deepest symbolic level, it conveys the story of a ritual, archetypal, and mythical sacrifice, where the shedding of innocent blood symbolically offers the promise of collective redemption and resurrection.

Various Polish critics were aghast at a work that at first glance seemed to condone the massacres. Soon, however, a Polish critic (and Shevchenko’s first biographer), Gwido Battaglia, made an extended argument for seeing the poem not as an exculpation, but as a recollection and re-imagining of the uprising—and an exorcism of it. In Russian criticism a different issue emerged. Vissarion Belinskii, the leading critic of the day, mocked the poem for what he saw as its trite and conventional moments, but above all for Shevchenko’s presumption that Ukrainian could be a normal language for literature, indeed that there could be a Ukrainian literature. Arguing that writings in Ukrainian have no real readership (other than the lower classes) and that since the Ukrainian elite was Russified and all its needs were met by Russian literature, the notion of a separate Ukrainian literature was an offence against history and common sense (TShCR 1:14–17; 44–46). To be sure, he also foresaw what the official state censors were still apparently not attuned to: the political—separatist—danger of Ukrainian literature. For his part, Shevchenko anticipates and mocks the charge that writing in Ukrainian is a futile business already in the introduction to the poem.

Shevchenko graduated from the Academy of Arts in March 1845. Two years before (in 1843–1844) and immediately after graduation (in the spring of 1845), he was allowed to travel to Ukraine. Both trips were basically triumphal tours; he was greeted with admiration and even adulation by Ukraine’s most prominent families. In his poetry, however, Shevchenko was discovering a different Ukraine. This is reflected in a manuscript collection of twenty-four poems that he composed between 1843 and the end of 1845, entitled Try lita [Three Years] and referring to his years of travel in Ukraine.

Most of the poems in the collection could never hope to pass censorship: from the perspective of the authorities, they were patently subversive. In the critical tradition they are seen as manifestly political: they excoriate the system, governance, values, and ethos of the Russian Empire, showing it as a slave-owning, despotic state bent on crushing freedom (whether in Ukraine or the Caucasus)—while continually mouthing Christian pieties. But more than just “political,” this poetry is a moral indictment of tyranny and imperial aggrandizement, of institutionalized lies, corruption, hypocrisy, and arrogance—in short, the workings of empire. And it excoriates not just the Russian Empire, but those, especially many Ukrainians, who grovel before it and swell its progress. A number of the poems, especially “Son” [“The Dream”], “I mertvym i zhyvym i nenarozhdennym” [“Epistle to the Living, the Dead, and the Still Unborn”] “Kavkaz” [“The Caucasus”], “Velykyi l′okh” [“The Great Crypt”], “Rozryta mohyla” [“The Open Grave”], “Kholdnyi iar” [“The Cold Ravine”], are cast in the mode and diction of the Biblical prophets, particularly Jeremiah, a long quote from whom serves as an incipit to the collection. Paradigmatically, this is the kind of poetry that Michel Foucault identified as parrhesia: speaking boldly, speaking truth to power—especially when it entails actual risk.

In late 1845–early 1846, a secret society composed of young Ukrainian intellectuals called the Brotherhood of Sts. Cyril and Methodius was formed in Kyiv. Their goals were idealistic but largely vague: Slavic unity, the abolition of serfdom, education for the masses. In the programmatic text of the group, Knyhy bytiia ukraïns′koho narodu [Books of Genesis of the Ukrainian People] (Kostomarov’s reworking of Mickiewicz’s Books of the Polish Nation and the Polish Pilgrimage, 1832), there was clear reference to the special role Ukraine was to play in the new, ideal Slavic community in the Gospel spirit that “the last shall be first” (258). Christian millenarianism (echoing Mickiewicz’s messianism) is key; echoes of the Decembrists are also apparent. Shevchenko’s presence is manifest: he did attend some meetings; his poems of the Try litaperiod anticipated various positions and were most likely much discussed; by all indications, his impact on the Brotherhood was fundamental.

In March 1847, the Brotherhood was denounced to the secret police and soon everyone associated with it was arrested; Shevchenko on April 5, 1847. All were taken to St. Petersburg where an inquest was held. As far as the secret police were concerned, Shevchenko was not a member of the society, although the “crimes” uncovered at the inquest—that is, his poems from Try lita—were damning (irrespective of the fact that they had not been published). He was sentenced to serve an indefinite (possibly life-long) term as a private in the army in one of the most distant outposts of the Russian Empire, with a provision, insisted on by Nicholas I himself, that he be strictly prohibited from writing and painting. The core of the charge: ingratitude towards the tsar’s family who helped buy his freedom from serfdom.

Shevchenko’s exile period breaks down into two unequal phases: the first three years (1847–1850) in Orenburg and the Orsk fortress, and a much longer and harder stay in Fort Novopetrovsk on the Mangishlak Peninsula on the northeastern shore of the Caspian Sea (1850–1857). The first period was at times both interesting and civilized. As a new arrival from St. Petersburg, a known poet, a “political exile,” and especially an artist, Shevchenko was a celebrity. Despite the official interdiction against writing and painting, he did both. He became, in fact, the semi-official portraitist for the military and civil service establishment in this deep province—and then was asked to accompany an expedition (May 11, 1848–October 31, 1849) to chart the Aral Sea precisely as an artist, to record the expedition’s sights, landscapes, and events (an invitation obviously not cleared with St. Petersburg). The 170 watercolors, drawings, and sketches that Shevchenko produced constitute an invaluable—and indeed the only extant—record of that expedition. The responsibility placed on him, the intense work, the status that this gave him as the artist for the expedition made the experience challenging and empowering.

The exile poetry written over a period of only three years—from mid-1847 to mid-1850—is some of the best poetry Shevchenko would write. There is much textual extension to it—it is almost half of his overall poetic output. The experience of exile, particularly in its earlier phase, stimulates Shevchenko to write with a new depth and intensity. Even more than before, his poetry becomes personal, confessional, and focused on his predicament and on his role as a poet.

The theme of writing, the articulation of poetry as something born of suffering and doubt, and perforce done surreptitiously, is key—and is incarnate in the very way the poetry is produced: written in minute script in small (2 x 3 in.) handmade miniature notebooks that could easily be hidden in his boot top (now called “Mala knyzhka” [“The Small Book”]). This literally “bootleg” poetry, written against strictures and the threat of further punishment, also exemplifies the existential as well as therapeutic function of poetry.

Shevchenko’s tolerable life in Orenburg came to an abrupt end when he was arrested on April 23, 1850, as a result of a denunciation to the authorities that he was violating the terms of his penal service by walking around in mufti and painting. Shevchenko was transferred to the prison in Orsk fortress, where he spent several months, and from there was sent to Novopetrovsk. In this small outpost of some seven hundred men, he was to spend the next seven years, from October 17, 1850, to August 2, 1857. His life there was much harsher: barracks, up to eight hours of drill a day, and little privacy.

Despite this, Shevchenko continued to write and paint. Instead of Ukrainian poetry, however, he turned to writing prose, in Russian. By his own account, he wrote about twenty novellas (povesti), of which only nine have survived, all written between 1853 and 1858; the last and longest of them, “Khudozhnik” [“The Artist”] (1856), and “Progulka z udovolstviem i ne bez morali” [“A Journey with Pleasure and not Without a Moral”] (1855–1858) can simply be considered short novels. While they often recapitulate the plots and various structural elements of Shevchenko’s earlier narrative poems, the novellas also present new autobiographical content, often drawing on details from Shevchenko’s travels in Ukraine. Those last two are explicitly autobiographical, and “Khudozhnik”, in fact, often serves as a basic source of information about Shevchenko’s life around the time he was freed from serfdom.

The early reaction to the novellas was tepid, even negative. Shevchenko’s friend, and first critic, Panteleimon Kulish, felt that the Russian prose was so inferior to the Ukrainian poetry that it should simply be burned (Lysty 125–26). The well-known Russian novelist Sergei Aksakov, with whom Shevchenko was on friendly terms, also counseled against trying to publish “Progulka” (ibid. 143–44). All the novellas were, in fact, published only well after Shevchenko’s death, in the 1880s. Following Kulish, the first responses saw them as inferior to Shevchenko’s Ukrainian poetry. Their pace seemed slow and the style garrulous; they were overly digressive and they echoed an earlier Russian prose style that became passé with the appearance of Turgenev and Dostoevsky. In time, however, opinion has shifted: the novellas can stand on their own, even while not competing with the leading Russian prose of the day. The perspective they provide on Shevchenko’s strategies of self-expression and survival is invaluable. The last two, “Khudozhnik”and “Progulka,” are indispensable for any informed, psychological reading of Shevchenko as writer and painter.

Shevchenko’s painting during this period requires no qualification. It impresses in various ways, not the least by providing constant, subtle, and varied forms of self-expression in extremely straitened and inhospitable circumstances. Most striking are his many self-portraits, which are either explicit, or with the artist inserted into a scene. He is continually drawing on his most ready and basic topic—his person, his feelings, his state of mind—and, at the same time, affirming his presence, his resistance to a soulless regime that for ten years had painted him out of the picture, willed him into non-existence.

A special instance of this are the eight sepia paintings that comprise the allegorical Prytcha pro bludnoho syna [Parable of the Prodigal Son], which Shevchenko created between November 8, 1856, and May 10, 1857—between when his hopes were raised for his release and shortly after news of it had actually reached him. They project a loose and satiric narrative exposing the inhumanity of Tsar Nicholas’s empire and trace a symbolic autobiography of the artist, his fall and his redemption (or what Jung would later call individuation).

In this cycle and in other paintings of this period there is a fusing of reportage and of bearing witness. The motif of witnessing, of placing oneself into the picture, is inherited from his teacher Briullov. But now, as in Kara kolodkoju [Chained and Gagged] or in Kara shpitsrutenamy [Running the Gauntlet] in the Prodigal Son cycle, Shevchenko places himself in the picture, as a willy-nilly participant—and as moral witness. The fact of bearing witness, of removing the gag, is also thematized in some other paintings, for example Baigushi [The Kyrgyz Beggar-Children] (1853) or Kyrgyzenia [The Kyrgyz Child] (1856-1857) and anticipates Shevchenko’s reimagining of the Biblical prophets in his later poetry, a poetry expressing God’s mandate to represent the poor, the downtrodden, and the enslaved.

Freedom was ultimately won through a confluence of causes: Russia lost the Crimean War (1853–1856); Nicholas I died in 1855; while Shevchenko’s supporters, especially Count Fedor Tolstoy of the Academy of Arts and his wife Anastasiia (who also had frequent access to the tsar) kept up their efforts at winning his release. The climate was changing.

After hearing that he would be freed (on April 7, 1857), Shevchenko again began writing poetry, in Ukrainian. He also started his Diary [Zhurnal], in Russian, which he would continue for just over a year. Bridging the period from imprisonment, degradation, and exile to freedom and to the status not just of a celebrity, but of acknowledged national poet, this document becomes a centerpiece of Shevchenko’s biography, especially in the way it traces his process of psychic healing and reconstitution.

On August 1, Shevchenko received official permission to leave Novopetrovsk. He finally arrived in St. Petersburg on March 27, 1858. Much of the return trip was spent on receptions, dinners, and banquets in his honor (often with numerous Russian and Polish friends). It was a triumphal return of a poet who had been consigned to oblivion (during his exile no mention of him was allowed in the press).

Throughout 1857 and 1858 Shevchenko was working intensely on revising the poetry he had written in exile and transforming it into what is now known as the “Bil′sha knyzhka” [“Larger Book”]. Originally intended to include only the work done in exile, it soon grew to include the sizeable corpus of poetry written in 1857–1859 and into early 1860, especially such poems as “Neofity” [“The Neophytes”] (1857), the triptych “Dolia” [“Fate”], “Muza” [“The Muse”], “Slava” [“Fame”] (1858), the long poem Maria (1859), and others.

Around this time Shevchenko turned to etching (primarily on copper plates, eau forte) as a means of bringing his work to a broader audience. He continued making self-portraits—drawings, an oil painting, etchings—casting himself in one of them as a Biblical prophet (1858). In the most canonic self-portrait of all, he depicts himself in fur hat and fur coat— peasant-like: an icon, implicitly, of the entire Ukrainian collective. But his nuancing of this iconic dress is also evident in a group photo made in 1859: all of Shevchenko’s friends here are in evening dress, and so is he—but under his fur coat and hat.

In his final poems, particularly those that he wrote in 1860, the vision that he so long focused on Ukraine is transposed into a universal frame, and a sense of imminent rebirth and liberation for all mankind. All are invited to experience rebirth by imagining themselves as Ukrainian. As he says in the poem “I Arkhimed i Halilei…” [“Neither Archimedes nor Galileo…”]: “І на оновленій землі / Врага не буде, супостата, / А буде син, і буде мати, / І будуть люде на землі” [“And on the liberated earth / No foe or tempter will remain, / But a son and mother will endure, / And there’ll be people on this earth”] (PZT 2:353). All this flows from the archetypal and mythical, and hence universal, cast of the poetry itself. His own mission within it is both grandiose and modest—bearing God’s word, performing the essentially human:

— Воскресну я! — той пан вам скаже, —
Воскресну нині! Ради їх,
Людей закованих моїх,
Убогих, нищих... Возвеличу
Малих отих рабов німих!
Я на сторожі коло їх
Поставлю слово.

[—I will rise up!—that Lord will say,
Today I’ll rise up from the grave!
For all the poor and fettered beggars.
I’ll raise them up, these mute and lowly slaves.
And as a guardian over them
I’ll place my word.]

Подражаніє 11 Псалму [Paraphrase of Psalm 11] (1859) (PZT2:281)

Shevchenko died of heart and liver complications on March 10, 1861, a few days before the emancipation of serfs in Russia was formally announced. His friends and admirers immediately decided to bury him first in St. Petersburg and then, as soon as possible, to reinter him in Ukraine as he had explicitly asked in his “Testament” in verse (1845). The funeral, on March 12, was a massive gathering, seen by many also as a political demonstration, where virtually all the leading Ukrainian figures in the capital and many of the Russian ones were present as well as many students from the university and the Academy of Arts.

When permission was granted by the authorities in late April to rebury Shevchenko in Ukraine, his body was disinterred, placed in a special coffin, and taken by train to Moscow. From there the coffin was taken by horse-drawn cart along the post road to Kyiv, then by boat down the Dnieper to Kaniv. On May 22, 1861, Shevchenko was buried on a tall hill known as “Monk’s Mountain” overlooking the Dnieper. The funeral rites drew many participants—students, peasants, intellectuals—in short, a cross section of Ukrainian society. The ritual of Shevchenko’s final return to Ukraine left an indelible impression on numerous witnesses and on Ukrainian society as such: it cemented what was already a uniquely powerful bond between the Ukrainian collective and the poet who as no other articulated its innermost sense of self—as collective memory, as identity, and as aspiration.

Works Cited

Battaglia, Gwido . Taras Szewczenko, Życie i pisma jego. Lwów: Tygodnik Naukowy, 1865.
Drahomanov, Mykhailo Petrovych. "Shevchenko, ukraïnofily i sotsializm" (1879). In his Literaturno-publitsystychni pratsi u dvokh tomakh. Vol. 2, edited by O. Ia. Lysenko, 1–133. Kyiv: Naukova dumka, 1970.
Foucault, Michel. “The Meaning and Evolution of the Word Parrhesia.” In his Discourse & Truth: The Problematization of Parrhesia, 1999. https://foucault.info/parrhesia/foucault.DT1.wordParrhesia.en/
Grabowicz, George G., general editor. Taras Shevchenko v krytytsi / Taras Shevchenko: The Critical Reception [TShCR]. 2 vols. Kyiv: Krytyka, 2013–2016.
Kostomarov, Mykola. Knyhy bytiia ukraïns′koho narodu. In Kyrylo-Mefodiïvs′ke tovarystvo, edited by I. I. Hlyz′ et al. Vol. 1, 250–58. Kyiv: Naukova dumka, 1990.
Lysty do T. H. Shevchenka 1840-1861. Edited by L. F. Kodats′ka. Kyiv: AN Ukr. RSR, 1962.
Shevchenko, Taras. Povne zibrannia tvoriv [PZTu dvanadtsiaty tomakh. Kyiv: Naukova dumka, 2001–2014.

Citation: Grabowicz, George G.. "Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 22 May 2018 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=13029, accessed 07 August 2022.]

13029 Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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