On Friday, 25 August 2023, in comments made by video to Roman Catholic youth in St. Petersburg, Russia, Pope Francis made the following comments:

“Never forget the legacy…You are the heirs of great Russia: great Russia of saints, rulers, great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that empire – great, enlightened,

of great culture and great humanity.” (As reported by “The New York Times”, Tuesday,29 August 2023)

The Pope’s praise of the Tsarist Russian empire was widely criticized and condemned.


Ukraine’s national poet Taras Shevchenko (1814 – 1861) in his poem “The Dream”, composed in St. Petersburg and dated 8 July 1844, sends from the past to the present

Pope Francis the following message:

“… I turn and am surprised to see

A horse come flying straight at me,

And strike a boulder with its strides [188].

Now on the bare-backed horse there rides

One in a cloak that is no cloak,

While on his brow are leaves of oak.

The horse rears up, and it would seem

He yearns to leap across the stream;

The horseman stretches out his hand

As if to seize on every land.

Who is it? And to make this known,

I read the engraving on the stone:

“The SECOND reared this to the FIRST” [189]

A sight to all who view accurst.

Ah, now the mystery is clear,

The FIRST one racked my country dear [190];

The SECOND gave the final blow [191]

That brought my land to utter woe.

Ah, hangmen both, voracious beasts!

Upon our folk have been your feasts,

To the last shred. What token fond

Went with you to the world beyond?

Such heaviness oppressed my head

As if in those two words I read

All history of our Ukraine…”

(Quote from: “The Poetical Works of Taras Shevchenko”. Translated by C. H. Andrusyshen and W. Kirkconnell. Toronto: U of T Press, 1964, pp. 172-3)


Shevchenko – artist, poet and National Bard of Ukraine – was born a serf in Russia-occupied Ukraine, but has secured a uniquely important place in Ukrainian history. “ He created the conditions that allowed the transformation of Ukrainian literature into a fully functional modern literature. His influence on Ukrainian political thought and his role as an inspirer of a modern democratic ideal of renewed Ukrainian statehood are without parallel. His poetry contributed greatly to the evolution of national consciousness among the Ukrainian intelligentsia and people, and his influence on various facets of cultural and national life is felt to this day … Shevchenko realized the full extent of his country’s misfortune under Russian rule and progressively identified his own role as that of a poet-spokesman for his nation’s aspirations.” (Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 5)


For all of this, Shevchenko was arrested by the Russian police on 5 April 1847, and Russia’s

Tsar Nicholas I himself initiated the sentencing order with the admonition that the prisoner be prevented from writing and painting. Fortunately, Shevchenko managed to continue doing both. He hid his poetry, written secretly in several notebooks known as “Zakhaliavni knyzhechky (“Bootleg booklets”).


Now, fast-forward to the current Russia’s war on Ukraine. During their murderous occupation of the town of Borodianka in 2022, Russian troops, true to their bloody traditional methods, also “executed” the local statue of Taras Shevchenko by firing shots at his head, because they felt Shevchenko’s message to Ukrainians:

“Bury me thus – then arise!

From fetters set you free!

And with your foes’s unholy blood

Baptize your liberty!”

(“My Legacy”, 25 December 1845)


[188] An equestrian statue of Peter I, who was fashioned as clad in a toga and with a laurel wreath around his head.

[189] To be understood: The Second Catherine reared this statue to the First Peter. The exact inscription: Pervomu Vtoraya – To the First the Second. In these two Russian words Shevchenko pictures the entire history of Ukraine under the tsarist [Russian] oppression.

[190] After the Battle of Poltava in 1709, Peter I began, step by step, to destroy the freedom of Ukraine and to treat its population as his slaves. In the same year, but a few months before the battle, he destroyed the Zaporozhian Sich [The name of several Ukrainian Cossack fortresses and keeps on the Dnipro River], the last stronghold of Ukrainian liberty.

[191] Catherine II continued Peter’s repressive measures in Ukraine until the last vestiges of Ukrainian autonomy disappeared. It was during her reign that serfdom was officially established in her Empire. In 1775 she finally annihilated the Zaporozhian Sich , which had revived somewhat after Peter’s death.



Oleh Romanyschyn

September 17, 2023