by Askold S. Lozynskyj
Mar 1, 2023
The Role of the Ukrainian Bard Taras Shevchenko
Every year, Ukrainians observe various historical events and honor notable individuals from the nation’s past. This became more complicated during this already more than a-year-long war. What hasn’t changed however are Ukrainian religious rites, in particular, because, in times of grief and danger, people find the need to pray more. Ukrainian chaplains perform a far greater role among our soldiers, not only because of the moral and mental support and comfort they provide but because they often arrange for defensive equipment, offer medical and humanitarian assistance.
From the point of view of national consciousness and identity, many things have not changed so much as they have been more firmly established. The Ukrainian nation has become more united in mission as well as dedication regarding territorial integrity, sovereignty, the Ukrainian language, and symbolism. Important symbols include the annual commemoration of Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko, in particular during the “Shevchenko days,” that is, March 9-10, the poet’s birth and departure into eternity.
God and Shevchenko are not moral equivalents, but they are both sources of spiritual inspiration. “God and Ukraine” is the mantra of many Ukrainian organizations, particularly those involved with the education of the younger generation. Church, or simply one’s inner personal relationship with God, is the essence of a religious life, spirituality, and moral integrity. For Ukrainians, Shevchenko is at the core of their national consciousness.
Taras Shevchenko represents the Ukrainian national identity irrespective of partisan affiliations. Refraining from metaphysical absolutes because Shevchenko was after all a human being with human flaws, one must note that he was by any measure an extraordinary human being, bordering on being a national prophet and, certainly, a bard. Within his poetry and biography, one finds almost everything needed for developing national consciousness and perseverance in times of trial and tribulation – language, dedication, unity, strategy, and even practical strategies – everything that today a nation needs to win the war against its aggressor, an enemy that Shevchenko very clearly depicted as evil in his poetry.
A colleague of mine in Ukraine recently, amid the explosions of rockets, admitted to me that twenty-five years ago, at the inception of our friendship, I was accurate when I spoke of the Russians as a horde, essentially imperialists, or bad people with a mentality that pervades all of society even including Russian mothers. He had Russian friends. I asked him then if these friends were true friends. He insisted naively that they were. Today he has changed his opinion.
Many former Ukrainian dissidents and political prisoners spoke not about the hostility or danger from the Russian people, but about the so-called perilous center of power — Moscow or the Kremlin. My colleague need not have listened to me, but simply looked into Shevchenko’s
“Kobzar”. Everything is presented there clearly so that “the sleeping do not dream of all the lies.” Shevchenko also had Russian friends (perhaps merely acquaintances), yet he wrote that “the Muscovites are evil people, they are doing evil to you” reminding his people of “tall burial mounds appearing before our eyes.”
The war today is proceeding fortunately towards our victory but at a great human cost. Lives are irrevocably altered, careers halted, personal relationships aborted, wealth depleted. The war has changed the life of every resident of Ukraine and should have changed the life of every Ukrainian outside Ukraine depending on his/her level of concern and moral compass. The struggle against and victory over the horde is the sacred duty of every Ukrainian. Shevchenko instructed “Fight, you will overcome, God helps you, With you is strength, with you is will and the holy truth.” Today the whole world sees that the “holy truth” is with us.
So, when we, often disingenuously, in the diaspora ask ourselves what we should do in this difficult time, let’s look into the “Kobzar.” We have to join the war together with the people of Ukraine, provide them with everything they need regardless of the cost to ourselves short of sacrificing our own lives life since they there are paying the dearest price.
Shevchenko first felt freedom when he was bought out of serfdom. He understood this as a gift from God that he dare not waste and as an opportunity to strive for the freedom of his people. That is why he devoted not only his work but his life to the cause. This life as a free person was marked nevertheless, with difficult experiences, persecution by the authorities and the contempt of his Russian “friends” and writers, exile with a ban on writing and painting, and ultimately, a premature death. For a poet and an artist, a ban on writing and painting essentially means death. Even the reburial of the poet which fulfilled his “Testament Bury me in dear Ukraine ” encountered great obstacles and took place two and a half months after his death. The entire life of the poet was a struggle. That struggle should serve as an example for all Ukrainians who came or will come after him. The Russian aggressor sits at Ukraine’s border for the long term unless it is neutralised by decolonisation, dismantling the current Russian empire into independent nation-states.
Spurning God and religion, the Soviet authorities recognised the need for treachery so Stalin rehabilitated the so-called Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate as a front for the NKVD. Unfortunately, this KGB-front aberration of a “church” continues its existence for more than thirty years in independent Ukraine. Even today, some unfortunate ostensibly religious Little Russians fill the structures of that abomination, and some legitimate international religious leaders even treat this monster as a real spiritual institution. It is very difficult to explain or justify this behavior.
The greatest significance of Shevchenko is his continued and pervasive triumph. The poet died in 1861, but today, more than a century and a half later, he continues to be deemed dangerous by Ukraine’s enemies. Shevchenko’s reburial mound in Kaniv, Ukraine became a national holy place where people come as pilgrims for national reawakening and renewal.
Despite the efforts of Hetman Ivan Mazepa who was glorified in the poetry of Lord Byron until Shevchenko, historians consider the period of Ukrainian history from Pereyaslav in 1654 as a
ruinous period in Ukrainian history. Because of Shevchenko, our historical nation was revived and the period that followed has been one of statebuilding. The Tarasivtsi Brotherhood in the late XIX century named in the poet’s memory gave impetus to the liberation struggle and the proclamation of the Ukrainian National Republic in 1918, its restoration by the Act of June 30, 1941, and the struggle of the OUN-UPA and later the struggle of the writers and artists of the sixties. It is no coincidence that the artist Alla Horska was killed for her role in creating the stained glass window where Shevchenko stands with a raised fist.
The Soviets could not overcome the power of the poet entirely, so they allowed monuments to appease the people, but rewrote his poetry in part, hoping to at least confound his message. It seemed that the Soviet authorities were able to cope with almost everything, even with our language, because Little Russians began to speak Russian. But they couldn’t defeat God and Shevchenko so they resorted to deceit.
But the truth won out. Today, the monument to Taras Hryhorovych in Shevchenko Park in Kyiv is inaccessible, carefully wrapped and reinforced to protect it from enemy missiles. However, the immortal Shevchenko, that is, the spirit of the poet and prophet lives in all Ukrainians. In spirit, Shevchenko commands the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the nation. The observance of Shevchenko’s anniversaries is as written in a program for children and the song “I go from childhood to Taras” because after all, we are all children – children of God and Shevchenko’s national progeny.
“When there is anxiety in my soul, when there is a hellish pain,
I go to him as if he were living. In the universe of poems
and in rain and snow, I take my steps. And looking into the blue vista, I listen as the broad Dnipro roars and moans to wake up everyone who is asleep.”
Thank you, Taras, for being with us at this time of yet another difficult trial. With your prophetic and fiery words, our once blind eyes are now aware of their path to victory. The Dnipro river roars and sighs! I am awake. Glory to Ukraine!