Weekend Reading: March is Taras Shevchenko month

Sorry no video this week. Along with reading 5 great books for Ukrainian Literature Day, March is Taras Shevchenko month in Canada so instead of watching videos this weekend try reading some poems on the foundation of Ukrainian nationalism. Happy weekend!

From the University for Manitoba’s Centre for Ukrainian Canadian studies:

Press Release – Taras Shevchenko Month for Ukrainian Canadians

Ukrainian Canadian Community to Honour the Great Ukrainian Poet and Freedom Fighter – Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861)

195th Anniversary Since His Birth (1814-2009)

The Ukrainian Canadian community scattered across Canada honours annually in March, Taras Shevchenko – the greatest literary figure of Ukrainian literature, a major painter – artist and freedom fighter. The celebrations in March (the month of his birth and death) include concerts, symposia and academic presentations by members of Ukrainian organizations, churches and especially youth groups. Similar celebrations with also take place in Ukraine every March.

Taras Shevchenko was born on March 9, 1814 and passed away on March 10, 1861. He was born into a Ukrainian serf family in central Ukraine which was part of the Russian Empire and was orphaned at the age of eleven. He was very bright and was mentored by the village cantor and became a very good student – both academically as well as in the field of art and painting. His talents were soon noticed by Pavlo Engelhardt who took him to Vilnius and then St. Petersburg. During this period he engaged in the formal study of art. In 1838, due to a special art commission, the proceeds gained were utilized to buy Shevchenko’s freedom from serfdom. He continued to draw and paint for the next decade; winning several major awards in the Russian Empire.

Shevchenko also had a love for writing poetry yet still as a serf and after his personal emancipation. He wrote in the Ukrainian vernacular that was popular in rural Ukraine but was considered an inferior “tongue” by the Russians. He did this to recognize the importance of the Ukrainian language and culture as a self-identification trait of the Ukrainians against the political and monolingual policies of the Russians.

In 1840 he published a collection of poems entitled Kobzar. This published volume became a great success due to its “clarity, breadth and elegance of artistic expression not previously known in Ukrainian literature” (Ivan Franko). Later he wrote the epic poem Haidamaky (1841), the tragedy Nykyta Hayday (1842) and the drama, Nazar Stodolya (1843).

All of this was accomplished living in St. Petersburg, Russia, but Shevchenko never forgot about Ukraine. He visited Ukraine in 1843, 1845 and 1846 and witnessed the difficult political, economic and social conditions of his countrymen which had a major impact on his writings and art. On his 1845 trip to Ukraine, Shevchenko made friends with prominent Ukrainian intellectuals and joined the Brotherhood of Sts. Cyril and Methodius – a secret political organization that aspired Ukrainians to liberate Ukraine from Russia. In 1847 their Brotherhood was suppressed by the Russian authorities and Shevchenko was arrested and imprisoned. During a search of his belongings, the poem Son (The Dream) was discovered that was a critique of Russian Imperial rule in Ukraine. Thus he was imprisoned in St. Petersburg and then sent to Orenburg (near the Ural Mountains) with the decree that “he was not to write or paint and to be placed under the strictest surveillance.”

During his exile and imprisonment, Taras Shevchenko continued to find ways to be creative as an artist and poet. Finally in 1857 he was liberated and ordered to the Russian city of Nizhniy Novgorod. Only in May 1859 was he allowed to move back to his native homeland – Ukraine. But another accusation, that of blasphemy was raised against him and again he was ordered to St. Petersburg, never again to return to Ukraine.

After the difficult years of exile and imprisonment, Shevchenko’s health deteriorated and in 1861 he passed away in St. Petersburg. Initially he was buried in the Smolensk cemetery in St. Petersburg, but later his friends arranged the transfer of his remains to Kaniv, Ukraine, south of the capital Kyiv and he was interred on a hill on the banks of the Dnieper River (Today a museum exists at this site).

Taras Shevchenko’s works and life are revered and honoured by Ukrainians in Ukraine and the diaspora. His literary impact on Ukrainian literature was immense and he is known as the founder and father of the modern written Ukrainian language. His poetry with its patriotic themes contributed immensely to the growth and development of Ukrainian national consciousness. His volume of poems known as the Kobzar have been reprinted many times including versions in Canada. For Ukrainian Canadian settlers, this was a most important book that was brought to Canada from Eastern Europe among their meager possessions and was read widely. His poem, Zapovit (My Testament) is one that is often studied and recited by children and youth across Canada at celebrations honouring Taras Shevchenko.

Many statues of Taras Shevchenko exist in Ukraine and around the world, beginning with the one on his burial site in Kaniv, Ukraine. On the 100th anniversary of his repose in 1961, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress erected a monument on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg. On that occasion, the then premier of Manitoba – the Honourable Duff Roblin announced to the Ukrainian Canadian community that permission was granted again to have the Ukrainian language taught in Manitoba schools, where the number of students was sufficient. This policy was subsequently repeated in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. So today, Taras Shevchenko’s language is still taught in numerous schools of the Canadian prairies.

Again in 2009, Ukrainian Canadians will be honouring Taras Shevchenko – the “poet laureate” of Ukraine with concerts and celebrations and in so doing giving homage to one of the most important figures in Ukrainian history.

For more information on this matter and other Ukrainian Canadian news events contact Professor Roman Yereniuk, Acting Director of the Centre for Ukrainian Canadian Studies at the University of Manitoba at 204-474-8907 or cucs@cc.umanitoba.ca.

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