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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

Kings and masters be damned!

Taras Shevchenko: Co-author of Kostomarov’s Book of Genesis of the Ukrainian People?
17 March, 2011 - 00:00

In the spring of 1847, Russia’s secret police crushed the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius. When arresting Mykola Kostomarov and searching his place, they found the precious manuscript of Knyha bytiia ukrainskoho narodu (The Book of Genesis of the Ukrainian People), one of the most eloquent documents reflecting Ukraine’s mid-19th-century thought and which can be described as a manifesto of the contemporary Ukrainian renaissance.

Regrettably, the manuscript was sent to the archives of the Department for Protection of Public Security and Order [abbreviated in Russia to the derogatory okhranka, meaning “(that damned) guard department”; the term would be upheld by Soviet propaganda – Ed.]. In 1917, it was found in the okhranka archives of St. Petersburg (then Petrograd). It first appeared in print in 1921, carried by a periodical entitled Our Past. The Book of Genesis… is generally believed to have been written by Kostomarov, and has usually been published under his name. However, there is reason to assume that it was the result of the Brotherhood’s joint effort.

By the way, it reminds one of Adam Mickiewicz’s Books of the Pilgrims, in which he formulates the idea of Polish national Messianism. It is known that Taras Shevchenko read Mickiewicz’s works. Suppose he drew the Brotherhood’s attention to this particular work by the celebrated Polish author? Of course, this matter is subject to further scholarly debate, although the assumption looks quite credible.

The Book of Genesis… shows a biblical approach, using biblical symbols combined with Slavophilic ideas. It is a historically established fact that Shevchenko had friendly relationships with Russia’s Slavophilic circles at an early stage and later during his creative lifetime, and had his works carried by their periodicals. At the same time, Shevchenko had a biblical approach of his own. He would repeatedly turn to biblical subjects and settings, while interpreting them at will. The roots of this approach are founded in the Ukrainian tradition — e.g., Hryhorii Skovoroda’s works, in which Shevchenko was versed (Hryhorii Skovoroda regarded the Holy Bible as a separate spiritual world). Shevchenko also had another biblical inspiration source. As a student at St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, Shevchenko often communicated with local Protestant communities, and his art professor, Karl Briullov, was an adherent. All of them attached great importance to biblical studies.

The Book of Genesis… is written in a biblical style, as though the author(s) tried to imitate the Bible. It offers a specific historiosophic concept, to the effect that God created people and had them divided into families and tribes, allowing each mortal to live for so many years. But then his people committed an unpardonable transgression by (a) ceasing to believe in one Lord Almighty and beginning to worship idols, and (b) by discarding the notion of all being equal before the Lord and instituting kings and nobility.

Only two peoples, Jews and Greeks, proved their worth, reads The Book of Genesis…. God sent Moses to the Jews and he convinced them to worship one God, but the Jews proceeded to institute kings and this led to the ultimate destruction of their kingdom (one is reminded of Shevchenko’s Tsars and other works aimed against Russia’s autocracy).

The Greeks rejected the institution of kings because they wanted to be free and equal with other peoples. However, they refused to re-cognize one God. Instead, they invented deities/idols they worshipped, and this led them into Roman bondage. The Roman Empire is condemned as the worst sinful body politic because its rulers considered themselves to be gods (e.g., Shevchenko’s The Neophytes). This condemnation would eventually evolve as Soviet Russia being referred to as the evil empire.

God sent down Jesus Christ to save humankind, reads The Book of Genesis…: “And Christ taught that all men are brethren and neighbors, and must first of all love God and then one another, and the one who acquires the greatest merit with God is he who lays down his soul for his friends. And he who desires to be first, must be the servant of all.” In other words, Christianity asserted itself along with securing equality and freedom.

“Then the Roman emperors and the masters and officials and all their agents and philosophers rose against Christianity and wished to uproot the Christian faith; and Christians perished…” reads the Book of Genesis…

It further shows the manner in which Europeans treated the Christian faith. The Romance peoples, having adopted this faith, never discarded the notion of kings and nobility. Instead, they instituted the Roman Pope, vested with control over the whole Christian world. The situation with the Germans looked better. One is aware of the author’s (authors’) friendly attitude toward Protestantism. Could this be Shevchenko’s influence, considering his frequent contacts and friendly ties with members of the German Protestant community in Russia? The Book of Genesis… favors Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism. It reads that he wanted to restore law and order as practiced in the early Christian times. Germans, however, kept the practice of “kings and masters.”

The Book of Genesis… frowns upon the Enlightenment ideology: “And the heretics devised a new god, supreme over all petty little gods, and this god was called in French egoism or self-interest… And the philosophers began to exclaim: it is stupid to believe in the Son of God, there is neither paradise nor hell, all must worship egoism or self-interest…” And the Slavic tribe is the younger brother in the Japhet family… “It happens that the younger brother loves his father better, but receives a lesser share than the other brothers, but afterward as the older brothers waste their property while the younger saves his, then the younger rescues the older.” The Slavs inherited the kings and masters from the Germans, and found themselves being ruled by foreigners, mostly Germans.

At that historical period, a large part of the Slavs were being Germanized within the Austrian Empire, Prussia, and Saxony. In Russia, the ruling Romanov dynasty maintained close contacts with top-level aristocratic families in Germany. There was a great deal of German blood running through the veins of Russia’s tsars, with Germans constituting one half of Russia’s imperial elite.

“And the Lord punished the Slavic tribe more cruelly than the other tribes because the Lord himself hath said: to whom more is given, from him more is demanded; and the Slavs fell captive of the foreigners… But the Lord was not completely angered at the Slavic tribe, because the Lord planned that the Scripture should be fulfilled in this tribe: The stone which the builders rejected is to become the cornerstone…” In Genesis... the attention is drawn to the Ukrainian Cossacks. They are considered the bearers of Christian liberty: “And day after day the Cossack Host grew and multiplied and soon all people in Ukraine would have become Cossacks, i.e., free and equal, and there would have been neither tsar nor Polish lord over Ukraine, but God alone.” There is probably no need to remind people that Shevchenko dedicated a lot of his works to glorifying the Cossacks.

Nonetheless, later he states that the Poles and Muscovites destroyed the Cossacks, though this did not result in the death of Ukraine: “She was not destroyed because she wished to know neither a tsar nor a master, and although a tsar was over her he was a foreigner, and although there were nobles they were foreign, and although these degenerates were of Ukrainian blood they yet did not soil the Ukrainian language with their foul mouths and they did not call themselves Ukrainians; but the true Ukrainian — whether of simple origin or noble — must love neither tsar nor master but must love and be mindful of one God, Jesus Christ.”

It’s natural that Ukraine has to save all the Slavs and the world: “Ukraine will rise from its grave and will call all of its Slavic brothers, and they will hear its appeal, and all the Slavs will rise; and there will be no more tsars, tsars’ sons or daughters, princes, counts or dukes, excellencies, masters, boyars or serfs… Ukraine will be independent from the Rzeczpospolita in the Slavic union. All the languages will say, about Ukraine’s place on the map.

This is the historical and philosophical concept of Genesis... Theoretically, it’s Christian. In reality it’s quite far from Orthodox Christianity. This is Christian heresy, grown on Ukrainian soil, where the Ukrainian nation is considered to be chosen by God. It’s significant that one of Shevchenko’s poems, professing the similar Slavophil ideas, is called Heretic. Its main character Jan Hus, who was charged with heresy, is considered one of the greatest heroes of the Slavic world.

The Book of Genesis… offers a philosophical concept that might seem speculative at first look. But what about similar concepts by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and his idee fixe, the German world? That was a period in history that was ripe for national messianic myths — except that Hegel’s messianic views seemed more logically substantiated.

Conservatism is one of the main ideological concepts found in Genesis... The poem emphasizes that we shouldn’t thoughtlessly accept innovations. We should preserve our traditions, and, according to Genesis..., they are the faith in One God, liberty and equality.

Genesis disapproves of the development of commodity-money relations in Europe in the New Age: “…while the English worshiped gold and Mammon, and the other nations likewise their idols; and their kings sent them to death for pieces of land, for tobacco, for tea, for wine, and the tobacco and the tea and the wine and the rest became their gods.” The author(s) condemns the Enlightenment ideology and the French Revolution — especially the latter because it produced fake liberties, considering that true freedom is in one’s Christian faith.

What makes The Book’s conservative concept special is that whoever wrote this must have combined notions of conservatism and freedom. Though you won’t find a definition of freedom, the implication is obvious: no tsars, no masters, with one and all being equal, which equality is to be secured by the Ukrainian Cossacks.

Conservative ideas are combined with Slavophilic ones. One of the big problems with the Slavs appears to be their indiscriminate, unreasonable borrowings from other peoples, thus acting against national tradition, ending up in being ruled by Germans. In fact, The Book of Genesis… betrays anti-German moods, accusing Germans of all troubles afflicting the Slavic community.

Similar ideas are found in Shevchenko’s poetry, mainly in his “three-year period” that produced works preceding the foundation of the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius; those concepts may have been utilized by the author(s) of The Book of Genesis…

In his Russian poem The Funeral Feast Shevchenko expresses his disapproval of the enlighteners’ ideology:

He who constantly reflects
On Kant’s, Galilee’s
And the wise cosmopolite’s ideas,
And mercilessly judges
His brother and father,
Is a false prophet!
His ideas are half-ideas
And half-nonsense!..

Taras Shevchenko wanted to share his experience, saying that, by mechanically accumulating knowledge, without being supported by moral principles, one would end up on a road leading to nowhere. Similar ideas were harbored by Pamfil Yurkevych, Shevchenko’s contemporary Ukrainian philosopher. He believed that man ought to learn as much as befits his moral and divine essence. Shevchenko was very skeptical about all that Western European “truth.”

Shevchenko wrote in his poem To The Dead, To The Living, And To Those Yet Unborn, My Countrymen All Who Live In Ukraine And Outside Ukraine, My Friendly Epistle:

If you would train yourselves alone,
You’d have some wisdom of your own;
But you must prattle from the sky;
‘We are not we, and I not I!
All have I seen; I’m now all-wise;
There is no hell, no paradise,
Not even God; but I exist
And this smart German atheist
And nothing else…

Like many other Slavophiles, Shevchenko was wont to regard Germans, particularly their political elite, as a major reason behind all problems being faced by the Slavic community at large. He wrote in his poem The Heretic or Jan Hus:

A certain man’s fine dwelling-house
Was grossly set on fire
By wicked neighbors.
At the blaze
Made warm, these folk conspire
To sleep and quite forget to dout
The embers on the plain.
There in the field the ashes lie
And smoldering sparks remain;
A mighty conflagration’s seed,
It never wholly dies
But still awaits the flaming hour
When vengeance shall arise.
The smoldering spark glows silently,
To time a lingering prey,
And at the crossroads of the world
Begins to fade away
Thus did the German litter set ablaze
Our own great dwelling, and our family,
The Slavic stock, confused us to a daze,
And slyly gave to our divided ways
The fiery serpent of discordancy.
Then streams of blood began to flow…

In My Friendly Epistle Shevchenko kept lashing out at Germans, condemning them even as efficient Cossack real estate managers:

For in the Sich the German sage
Now plants potatoes; without rage...

Such anti-German attitude may appear naive on the part of Shevchenko, considering his contacts with Germans in St. Petersburg and Willi Sternberg, his German chum buddy. Still, Shevchenko adopted a Slavophilic interpretation of the German influence in Russia.

Taras Shevchenko emerges as an exponent of conservatism in his poetry — as do the authors of The Book of Genesis…. He voiced it in his own way, in the abovementioned poem:

For he who is forgetful shown
Of his own mother, graceless elf,
Is punished by our God Himself.
Strangers will turn from such as he
And grudge him hospitality
Nay, his own children grow estranged;
Though one so evil may have ranged
The whole wide earth, he shall not find
A home to give him peace of mind.

Shevchenko adopted a cautious attitude toward innovations. One of the key themes in his poetry was juxtaposing a traditional and a civilized society. At the time, the existing agrarian society in Russia, and particularly in Ukraine, was collapsing. It was to be replaced by a new, civilized and industrialized one. This process was complicated and accompanied by painful episodes. In Ukraine, it often boiled down to confrontations between the traditional countryside, with the good old landlords, and the urban aristocrats who represented the new imperial culture and power. Under the circumstances, Ukrainian cultural figures, including Taras Shevchenko, had to adopt a conservative stand, so as to preserve the folkways. This conservatism was long-rooted in Ukraine’s public opinion (e.g., Ivan Vyshensky or Hryhorii Skovoroda, whose concept of the pure countryside against the city infested by moneybags was eagerly shared by Shevchenko).

Shevchenko often used his poetic, image-bearing talent when portraying the civilization vs. tradition conflict. He focused on the notion of pokrytka (a young woman who has lost her virginity without being married), as evidenced by his dramas in verse Kateryna, The Witch, The Hired Girl, and a number of poems and prose writings. The plot is basically the same: a poor innocent village girl falls in love with a Muscovite officer. He leaves her pregnant and she becomes a pokrytka. Nothing new at the time, considering that Russian army units were deployed in Ukrainian towns and villages, leaving behind young mothers and fatherless children. These young women suffered from their pokrytka status, being scorned by the community and regarded as “unclean.”

Shevchenko treated the phenomenon as not simply the result of a rash love-at-first-sight decision, but as a social phenomenon determined by the traditional-modern society confrontation. In most cases the mistreated young woman comes from the countryside, representing the traditional society, and her seducer, the Muscovite army officer, represents the civilized one.

This confrontation is clearly apparent in Shevchenko’s The Hired Girl. He notes: “I bow my head to all of you common folk. Given a chance, you would pester my heroine with questions and make her suffer and tell lies, simply because she wasn’t born to tell incredible stories supposed to come from her heart. She was a pure, intelligent and beautiful child of Mother Nature. She met and fell in love with a Muscovite Cavalry officer, bewitched by his handsomeness and tender words. He left her, threw her away the way a child throws away a toy. All she did was burst into tears. She couldn’t understand how one could swear to tell the truth and then end up lying. For her virgin mind this was something unfathomable. However, this is easily understandable between more or less civilized individuals; like taking something from someone and never giving it back.”

Shevchenko obviously believed that immoral acts and deceit were standard practice among the rich and famous. That was one of the reasons for his rejection of civilized society.

For him the social ideal was the Ukrainian khutir, a self-sustained village located a healthy distance from the hustling and bustling urban area, with a populace adhering to a healthy lifestyle and folk tradition (e.g., The Hired Girl). His story The Princess demonstrates the hazardous consequences of the destruction of a khutir as an ideal social environment. Here one can find harbingers of the 1932-33 Holodomor in Ukraine.

At the time, other authors came up with such idyllic rustic settings, among them Mykola Hohol with his Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, stories from the collection “Myrhorod.” Panteleimon Kulish, another member of the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius, tried to work out a khutir philosophy.

It would be wrong to regard Shevchenko as a person who rejected all innovative ideas. Nothing could be further from the truth. His Diary contains entries greeting technological discoveries, new artistic techniques. Shevchenko sought a clever combination of tradition and innovative initiative.

One is reminded of the economic miracle in Japan, after WW II. The Book of Genesis of the Ukrainian People is an important aspect to all Shevchenko studies. There seems to be ample evidence that the poet took part in the project. 

* * *

 Petro Kraliuk is a Doctor of Sciences (Philosophy)

By Petro KRALIUK. Photos from the book Dolia (Destiny; Dnipro publishers, Kyiv, 1994)