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20 марта, 00:00
140 years ago on March 10, 1861 the heart of Taras Shevchenko stopped beating in St. Petersburg. Literature on the author of Kobzar is thousands of times as massive as the main work itself of Ukraine’s national genius. Countless books in dozens of languages (from thin brochures and journal articles to well-respected encyclopedic publications) have been dedicated to Shevchenko’s life and his bitter road as a national prophet. But to speak of the Kobzar is to speak about the spirit of Ukraine. The subject will remain inexhaustible as long as our nation exists. Shevchenko genuinely comprises a whole universe: this is felt especially keenly by one who sinks in the bottomless depths of Kobzar without haste, line by line, at the call of one’s heart rather than by requirement of the curriculum. The 140th anniversary of the poet’s death induces all thinking people to ask themselves again: how could a person born in serfdom manage to reach the heights of a spirit of genius? What kind of a person was the real-life, not mytholocized, Shevchenko?

We would like to discuss one of the many aspects of Shevchenko’s outlook: his attitude toward Christ, Christians, and the mission of church and religion in society. Naturally, this incredibly complex problem can only be solved by the joint effort of all Shevchenko scholars. The following ideas represent only the author’s subjective views, but perhaps they can also become part of the Herculean labor still to be done

What kind of God did Shevchenko worship? Let us say at once: whoever wrote the following lines in “The Caucasus,” addressed to the Almighty Himself, could not possibly be an atheist: “Our faith can never cease/In Thy strong, living World:/ Justice and Liberty/Will rise, and unto Thee/All tribes shall bend/For ages without end.” An atheist could not have written about himself, suffering spiritual and physical torments in a horrible exile, in the midst of a barren desert, living in a grave- like barrack among the downtrodden, being forbidden to write or paint, “I read the Bible every hour, not just every day” (the Bible was the only book the exiled poet was allowed). An atheist could not have written “The Psalms of David,” a poem worthy of a genius, where he resurrected, in an unsurpassed way, the spirit of unshakable Faith in the Supreme Being (“A madman in his heart says/There is no God/But there is lawlessness all around./Yet, God looks down on those without faith in Him./Nobody is doing good, nobody at all!.../People chew their bread without remembering God”). An atheist could not have had a soul that aspired to believe in Divine Good until his dying breath.

So was the religious publicist Viktor Askochensky (incidentally, Shevchenko treated him with unhidden irony as, for example in his poem “The Revered Gentleman in a Hair Shirt Will Die”) was right when he wrote about Taras Shevchenko in his memoirs: “He was no atheist. Education failed to spoil his pure and simple view of religion. His heart was good and full of love, and he was a true Ukrainian. Did those progressives and civilizers lead him astray, while circumstances brutalized his beautiful sensitive soul?” Let Askochensky suffer pangs of conscience for saying that our great poet’s soul was brutalized (Kobzar as a whole is the best denial to this). But we resolutely disagree with the author of such words that Shevchenko’s was a simple faith. Let us remember that we are dealing with a genius. Hence, by simplifying and debasing his image, we insult both the kobzar and ourselves.

On the contrary, the poet and the Almighty maintained an extremely dramatic and complex relationship. Shevchenko was never a slave of God. He spoke with the Creator if not like a peer, then like an adult son with an unpredictable, sometimes cruel, and sometimes blind father. Blind, for why then God does not put an end to evil in the world? (“Does God see our tears and woes from behind the clouds?/He may see them but helps no more than/Those eternal mountains drenched in human blood!” (“A Dream”). In other words, as an educated person, Shevchenko had a clear idea of theodicy (vindication of God) first set out by Epicurus: if God is kind and omnipotent, then whence comes all evil in our life? The author of Kobzar pondered on this question to his last breath. He would also have hardly been satisfied with the answer of modern theologians: God left evil behind for man to have free will. Shevchenko is indignant at the Creator’s nonintervention in earthly affairs (“And you, the all-seeing eye! Did you watch from high above hundreds of chained holy captives (the Decembrists — I. S.) being driven to Siberia,/Tortured, humiliated and hanged.../Oh, eye, you can’t see deep enough!” (“God’s Fool”).

Another question tormented the poet’s heart: what was the Son of God crucified for (“Really for us, the sinful?”), what did Christ’s self-sacrifice bring to the people, and what kind of destiny would Jesus face should He come to Earth again? The answer (to be more exact, one of the possible answers, for Shevchenko’s thought always searches out) is in the above epigraph. The same idea runs through his beautiful poem “The Prophet,” the creative development of and a polemic with Aleksandr Pushkin’s “Prophet”: “Loving those people like righteous children, /The Lord sent them a prophet;/To announce His love! To reveal the holy truth!” But the “cunning” and “crafty” people “besmirched themselves,” and “defiled the holy glory of the Lord.” God in return gives the people no mercy: “Cruel and heartless people! He ordered they be given a king instead of a meek prophet!” (a striking, purely Shevchenko, leitmotif: an earthly despot as God’s punishment to people for their blindness!).

Shevchenko is the prophet of Ukraine, we usually assert. But there is “one small detail” — he utterly hated the slavishness in his own people without mincing words, for a slave flouts the will of God: “All who live in this world, both princes and paupers, are Adam’s children” (i.e., they are equal in rights: “all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as the authors of the US Declaration of Independence put it). Meanwhile, however, “Brothers, wide-eyed, keep silent! As if they were lambs: ‘let it be so, maybe, it is our fate.’ It truly is! For there is no Lord in heaven! And you are pulling a yoke and hankering for a paradise in the other world? No! No!” (“A Dream”). Every line of the poem “God’s Fool” exhales virulent hatred toward any subservience as a gross violation of the divine spirit of liberty: “And you looked on in silence, scratching your hair, you, dumb and petty slaves, the Tsar’s doormats, and lackeys of a drunken corporal! You, flunkies and Pharisees in lacy liveries, will never stand up for freedom and the holy truth. You only learned to crucify, not love, your Brother!”

Bowing to the passion of Christ, Shevchenko censured indignantly and mercilessly the baseness and treachery of many of his contemporary “Christians.” He had every reason to dub his tormentor, “Christian” Emperor Nicholas I, “a cruel Nero.” The poet writes in his Diary (1857) about the inhuman cruelty of his ten years of privation: “Even a tribunal presided over by Satan himself could not have passed such a cold, inhuman sentence. The pagan Augustus, exiling Ovidius Naso to the savage Goths, did not forbid him to write and paint, while the Christian Nicholas forbade me to do both. They are despots, but one of them is a nineteenth century Christian. The half-savage and diabolically Christian medieval Florentine Republic, too, did not treat in this way its disobedient citizens, such as Dante Alighieri” (could all the contemporary wannabe critics of Shevchenko, who ascribe to him “vampirism,” “primitive quality of thought,” etc. together achieve this level of thought and write this way after such sufferings?).

A Christian, Shevchenko was also a true humanist. He was not indifferent to the woes of other peoples, for example, the Caucasian mountaineers (it is to them that he addressed the well-known words: “Fight and you will win, for God is helping you!”). And who encroaches on their freedom, according to “The Caucasus”? They are the “Orthodox” of whom the poet writes sarcastically: “We are not heathens (comes that Russian voice)-/We are true Christians: .../And all your oatmeal we would wish to own /And cast it to you, as to dogs a bone!” These are the “Orthodox” to whose hypocritical words about apostolic “loving thy neighbor” the poet answers with the lines of intense hatred: “Do you, by the Apostles’ law,/ Love your neighbor, in God’s awe?/Hypocrites, impostors vile,/ Cursed by God for all your guile!/ ‘Tis your neighbor’s hide you love,/ Not his soul, which soars above...!” (I think Ukraine will enjoy a happy future if those having the right to lay flowers at the Kobzar’s monuments still remember these words fifty or a hundred years from now).

There has never been any shortage of those who wished to portray Shevchenko as a primitive fanatical nationalist who allegedly blamed Poles and Jews, as people of a different faith, for all the sins of Ukraine. The facts indicate otherwise. It is common knowledge that Shevchenko was a friend of many prominent Poles, such as Zygmunt Sierakowski and Edward Zeligowski. In general, the Kobzar clearly set out his idea of Polish-Ukrainian relations in the poem “When We Used to Be Cossacks...” As to Shevchenko’s true attitude toward Jews as practitioners of Judaism, suffice is to quote the memoirs of some of the poet’s friends about an episode that occurred in Pryluky in 1846. Seeing a wretched Jewish house burning, Taras Shevchenko rushed inside, risking his life, in order to rescue the remaining property from the flames. One of those who told this was Afanasiev-Chubynsky. Moreover, a nationalist could not possibly have written this about Ukraine: “Her own children torment her worse than the Poles do;/They drink her righteous blood as if it were beer...”

A special subject worthy of serious research is Shevchenko’s attitude toward the Biblical prophets. He knew very well the irate sermons of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea; more than once did he use them in his works (and is the spirit of Shevchenko’s prophesies not related to that of the Old Testament? Take, for example, Isaiah XXV, Hosea XIV, and Ezekiel XIX). The poet compares Pavel Safaryk, a Czech scholar and champion of Slavic unity, in his poem “The Heretic” with the fiery Biblical prophet Ezekiel. Also interesting is the way Shevchenko quoted the apostles for epigraphs to his works (for example, To the Dead, to the Living, and to Those Yet Unborn... is preceded by a quotation from First John: “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar.”

I will take the liberty of expressing a perhaps disputable idea. In Shevchenko’s perception, God also has three hypostases: not the canonical Orthodox Father, Son, and Holy Ghost but, rather, Freedom, Mother, and Ukraine. This is confirmed by the poet’s own words. “Our soul and our freedom will never die” is a copybook maxim from “The Caucasus.” For every Christian, the “soul” means life, the sign of immortality, and at the same time a gift bestowed on man from above to bring the latter closer to Kingdom of Heaven. But, as we see, the poet asserts not only the immortality of the soul but also the inviolability of Freedom, in fact equating them.

Everybody seems to be aware of the Kobzar’s reverence for woman and mother. Tellingly, the poet’s pen attaches divine traits even to an ordinary peasant girl turned mother (to say nothing about Mary, the Mother of Christ, to whom Shevchenko dedicated a poem worthy of a genius). For, indeed, “There is nothing more beautiful in our paradise than a young mother with a little baby...”

And, finally, Ukraine, the hub of the poet universe, the chief hypostasis of his inner God, the holy of holies. In truth, Shevchenko places it above God. For it must be only our Prophet, the only Ukrainian out of all those who have ever existed, who secured, by his torments and struggles, the right to the following lines of genius:

“I love her, my poor Ukraine, so much that I will curse the Holy Lord and forsake my soul for her!”

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