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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Shevchenko as a key to Ukrainian identity and history

A roundtable dedicated to the Kobzar’s 200th birth anniversary is held in Kyiv
20 February, 2014 - 11:17

The closer the anniversary of Taras Shevchenko is, the higher is the number of events dedicated to interpretation of Kobzar’s personality and creative oeuvre. Recently the National Museum of Literature of Ukraine together with the National Expert Commission of Ukraine on questions of protecting social morality has taken a roundtable on the topic “Taras Shevchenko as a national symbol and moral authority of the Ukrainian people.” The invited scholars, workers of education, civic activists, and representatives of a variety of national organizations discussed the versions of interpreting Shevchenko’s personality, its meaning for formation of Ukrainian identity, as well as the problem of preserving and studying the oeuvre of the Kobzar. We offer for attention of The Day’s readers the most interesting thoughts and conclusions made by the participants of the discussion.

In spite of all political and social transformations, Taras Shevchenko remains the only personality among historical and modern personalities who enjoys indisputable trust and authority among most of Ukrainians in all regions of the country. Proof of this is the results of the monitoring conducted on a regular basis by the Institute of Social and Political Psychology of the NAPN of Ukraine. “In 2003 Taras Shevchenko was called the national symbol of Ukraine by 54.9 percent of respondents, the rest of versions (which referred not only to people, but also various signs and geographic objects) received a considerably smaller number of votes,” says the director of the institute Mykola SLIUSAREVSKY, “For example, the flag and coat of arms were called then the national symbols by only 38 percent of respondents. At the same time, according to the data of the previous year, Taras Shevchenko “rating” reached almost 64 percent.”

However, in spite of these impressive figures and all exalted words about Shevchenko’s personality which can be heard from the powers that be, the state does not pay proper attention to poet’s oeuvre. So, the deputy director of the Shevchenko Institute of Literature of NAN of Ukraine Serhii HALCHENKO says, no complete academic collection of Shevchenko’s works has been published in independent Ukraine. “The process started in 2001,” says the scholar, “The first six volumes were published with a number of copies of 37,000. Further the print-runs reduced: the eighth and ninth volumes published only last year had 2,000 copies each. This won’t be enough even for all university libraries. Neither does Ukraine have a proper depository for keeping manuscripts of Shevchenko and other classics of Ukrainian literature. The only gratifying news is that the Internet portal ‘Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko’ will be filled before the anniversary, and one can find there manuscripts, pictures, documents, and publications of the writer’s works made both in his lifetime and after his death, as well as the post stamps and coins with his picture.”

Another problem is the stereotypes which surround Shevchenko. “We are used to seeing Shevchenko as a peasant and surf, whereas he was a personality of broader cultural context,” insists the head of Slavic philology and general linguistics at Kyiv International University, Professor Ivan YUSHCHUK. “Shevchenko’s great grandfather Andrii was a highly educated person, he was a kish clerk in Zaporizhian Sich, and his father read many-volume Great Menaion Reader every Sunday. Taras Shevchenko is a descendant of the Cossack starshina, and he was given primary education by his family. Later he studied for six years at the Petersburg Academy of Arts, where among other things he studied Russian, French, Latin, Russian and world literatures, history, geography, philosophy, theory of arts, aesthetic, music, dancing, anatomy, chemistry, optics, mathematics, algebra, various artistic schools and currents, etc. Besides, Shevchenko read much not only in Russian, but also Polish and French. For example, in the world literature he appreciated the works by Shakespeare, Dickens, Scott, Goethe, Byron, Swift, Moliere, Balzac, Dante, Boccaccio, antique literature, etc. He listened to classical music.”

The outstanding Ukrainian writer Yurii MUSHKETYK, who is known owing, in particular, to his historical works, was present at the meeting as well. In his opinion, even today Taras Shevchenko remains the best guideline for understanding Ukraine’s history. “Shevchenko was able to accurately feel and aptly depict in his works the essence of every personality and event, no matter how controversial and unequivocal it was,” the writer thinks. “So, for example, he cognized the historical figure of Bohdan Khmelnytsky much deeper than the imperial historiography, and later, on the one hand, Soviet, and on the other hand, nationalistic historiography. He did this in spite of the fact that in Shevchenko’s time Ukrainian history was scarcely researched, and to study it one needed to use mostly the primary sources.”

Taras Shevchenko’s creative work became an integral part not only of Ukrainian, but Russian culture as well. However, according to Russian Shevchenko researcher Tatyana LEBEDINSKAYA, Russian public does not care much about Shevchenko’s anniversary. So, for example, St. Petersburg completely fell out of the festive program, although the poet has lived there for 17 years. Ukrainian scholars don’t pay enough attention to the Russian period of Kobzar’s life either. “Without the influence of his Petersburg environment Shevchenko would never become the genius he became,” the scholar noted, “However, Ukrainian museums have almost no information about this circle of people who considerably formed his personality. In St. Petersburg there are about 100 official and unofficial places connected with Shevchenko. The most remarkable include the Kobzar Monument created by Leo Mol, the place of Shevchenko’s first burial, and Museum-Apartment of Taras Shevchenko, where he died. Unfortunately, Shevchenko’s and Ukrainian Petersburg on the whole (in the 19th century part of local elite included over 3,000 of outstanding Ukrainians) remain scarcely known for wide audience. Even top-level guests from Ukraine, when they visit the city, almost never visit the Shevchenko places.”

At the end of the meeting the participants of the roundtable approved a resolution in which they urged the power to found in Ukraine and other countries special Taras Shevchenko institutes (like German Goethe Institute), help in publishing the complete collection of Taras Shevchenko’s works and Shevchenko’s Encyclopedia and create a depository “Shevchenko’s Home.”

By Roman HRYVINSKY, The Day