Taras Shevchenko Introduction

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Taras Shevchenko 1814-1861

(Also transliterated as Ševčenko) Ukrainian poet.

Considered the national poet of Ukraine, Shevchenko virtually created a Ukrainian literary language by resisting Russian political and cultural impositions. His first collection of poetry, Kobzar (The Minstrel, 1840), earned him the nickname "the Ukrainian Pushkin." Active in the Ukrainian nationalist movement for independence from tsarist Russia, Shevchenko remained a symbol of resistance for Ukrainian nationalists even after his death. In addition to his importance for Ukrainian literature, he also influenced Russian literature through contemporary translations of his poetry into Russian. In 1964, during the sesquicentennial of his birth, Shevchenko was honored both by anti-communist Ukrainian nationalists, for his resistance to Russian dominance, and by the Soviet government, for his political resistance to the tsar.

Biographical Information

Born a serf in a province of Kiev and orphaned at a very young age, Shevchenko endured a childhood of deprivation and abuse. After an apprenticeship as an icon-maker, he was taken into the service of a landowner named Engelhardt to work as an interior decorator. In 1832 he was sold to a painting contractor in St. Petersburg as an indentured servant. Six years later, his freedom was purchased by the painter Bryullov and the poet Zhukovsky, who recognized Shevchenko's poetic and artistic talents. He entered the Academy of Art in St. Petersburg, where he studied painting with great success and also began writing the poems that would appear in his first published collection two years later. He returned to the Ukraine in 1843, painting an album of life in that area. After completing his studies at the Academy in St. Petersburg, he again went to the Ukraine as the commissioned artist of an archeological team studying Ukrainian relics. Shevchenko voiced his protests against Russian oppression in strongly nationalist poems, which he circulated in manuscript form. In 1847, when he was about to be appointed to Kiev University, he was arrested for his unpublished anti-tsarist poetry and for membership in the secret "Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius," an outlawed society that advocated Slavic union based on independence from Russia. Shevchenko was exiled to penal army service in central Asia and prohibited from writing or painting, although sympathetic superiors often overlooked the prohibition; it was during the period of his exile that Shevchenko wrote his nine novellas in Russian. He was pardoned and released in 1857, but his health was broken and he was never free from police surveillance. Shevchenko returned to the St. Petersburg Academy in 1858, where he edited his army memoirs and continued to paint. After a year in the Ukraine he went back to St. Petersburg in 1860, and was helping to establish a periodical on Ukrainian affairs when he died in 1861.

Major Works

Although Shevchenko wrote two long poems, two plays, and nine novellas in Russian, they are considered of a lesser quality than his Ukrainian works, especially his first published collection of poems, Kobzar (The Minstrel), which appeared in 1840. Other poems, such as Haidamaki (Free Cossacks, 1841), and dramas, such as Nikita Haidai, were published in journals, but the majority of his poems were circulated privately in manuscript form. Most of his political poems remained unpublished until after the Revolution of 1905, and although he wrote most of his work in Ukrainian, none of his poetry was published in that language until the publication of his collected works beginning in 1939.

Critical Reception

Shevchenko's The Minstrel found a mixed reception in Russia. While praising his poetic talents, critics felt he would have done better to exercise them in Russian rather than in his native Ukrainian. Some Russian intellectuals, including the noted critic N. A. Dobrolyubov, supported his resistance to Russian repression. Shevchenko's principal detractor was V. G. Belinsky, who faulted the poet for trying to develop a specifically Ukrainian literature; Belinsky thought that Ukrainians should write in Russian to be appreciated by a wider audience. While most Russian intellectuals resisted Ukrainian separatism and considered Ukrainian romanticism representative of a lesser literature, Shevchenko endorsed a nationalistic development of Ukrainian literature on the same scale critics such as Belinsky advocated for Russian literature. The question of the relationship of Shevchenko's work to Russian literature has been clouded by the official Soviet interpretation of literary history, which insisted on the primacy of Russian literature over the other national literatures of the USSR.