A SHORT BIOGRAPHY OF THE BARD OF UKRAINE
Taras Hryhorovich Shevchenko, the great Ukrainian poet, artist and
thinker, was born on March 9, 1814, in the village of Moryntsi in
central Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. His parents, H.
Shevchenko and K. Shevchenko, were serfs on the land of V. Engelhardt.
His grandfather I. Shevchenko, who was a witness of the Haidamak
movement, had a significant influence on Taras. Taras’s father was
literate, and he sent his son to be educated as an apprentice to a
deacon. In 1823, Taras’s mother died, and his father married for a
second time. In 1825, his father also died. For some time little Taras,
now an orphan, served as a houseboy and was in training as a servant. A
talent for drawing showed itself in the boy quite early. When he was 14
years old, he became a domestic servant to P. Engelhardt.
In the spring of 1829, Taras travelled with P. Engelhardt to Vilnius.
There he studied painting under an experienced craftsman. The Polish
rebellion for national liberation from Russia began in November, 1830,
and Engelhardt left for the Russian capital, St. Petersburg. Shevchenko
stayed with the lord’s servants in Vilnius and was witness to the
revolutionary events. Shevchenko went to St. Petersburg at the beginning
of 1831. In 1832, the lord “contracted” him to the master painter V.
Shyryayev, with whom the lad experienced a hard school of professional
Noted writers and artists bought Shevchenko out of serfdom. The 2,500
rubles required were raised through a lottery in which the prize was a
portrait of the poet, Zhukovsky, painted by Karl Bryullov. The release
from serfdom was signed on April 22, 1838. A committee of the
Association for the Encouragement of Artists had examined drawings by
Shevchenko and approved them. In 1838, Shevchenko was accepted into the
Academy of Arts as an external student, practicing in the workshop of K.
In January, 1839, Shevchenko was accepted as a resident student at the
Association for the Encouragement of Artists, and at the annual
examinations at the Academy of Arts, Shevchenko was given the Silver
Medal for a landscape. In 1840 he was again given the Silver Medal, this
time for his first oil painting, The Beggar Boy Giving Bread to a Dog.
In the library of Yevhen Hrebinka, he became familiar with anthologies
of Ukrainian folklore and the works of I. Kotlyarevsky, H.
Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, and the romantic poets, as well as many Russian,
East European and world writers.
Shevchenko began to write poetry even before he was freed from serfdom.
In 1840, the world first saw Kobzar, Shevchenko’s first collection of
poetry. Later Ivan Franko wrote that this book, “immediately revealed,
as it were, a new world of poetry. It burst forth like a spring of
clear, cold water, and sparkled with a clarity, breadth and elegance of
artistic expression not previously known in Ukrainian writing.” In 1841,
the epic poem Haidamaky appeared as a separate volume. In September of
that same year, Shevchenko got his third Silver Medal — for his picture
The Gypsy Fortune Teller. A significant work is the painting Kateryna,
based on his poem.
appeared, and in 1843 he completed the drama Nazar Stodolya.
In this period, the full genius of Shevchenko was apparent, and the main
characteristic of his poetry – a deep national sense – was evident. All
his life, the poet was devoted to his nation. “Body and soul I am the
son and brother of our unfortunate nation,” he wrote.
Opposition to the social and national oppression of the Ukrainian people
grew in Shevchenko. Tsarist censorship deleted many lines from his
works, and created problems for the printing of the writer’s poetry.
None of the critics of the Kobzar, however, was able to deny the great
talent of Shevchenko.
In 1843, the poet left St. Petersburg, and at the end of May he was in
Ukraine. In Kiev, he met M. Maksymovich, P. Kulish and others, and did
That summer, the poet visited the sites of the former Zaporozhian
Cossack Sich, and in September he went to Kyrylivka where, after a
fourteen-year separation, he saw his brothers and sisters. In Ukraine
Shevchenko did many pencil studies for a projected book of engravings to
be called Picturesque Ukraine. At the end of February Shevchenko
returned to St. Petersburg.
In Ukraine, the poet has seen the heavy social and national yoke borne
by the working people and the inhuman conditions of life of the
peasants. This evoked new themes in Shevchenko’s poetry.
It was useless to think of publishing political poetry in conditions of
Russian tsarist censorship. The works of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz
had a great influence on Shevchenko, especially in the writing of
political satire. One of the highlights of the political poetry of
Shevchenko is the satirical poem Son (The Dream).
On March 22, 1845, the Council of the Academy of Arts decided to grant
Shevchenko the title of artist. On that same day, he approached the
leadership of the Academy with a request for a “pass” for a trip to
In Kiev, the poet met with M. Maksymovich, and was commissioned to paint
historical sites. Shevchenko visited Kyrylivka, and in the fall of 1845,
on an appointment by the Archeological Commission, he left to paint the
historical and archeological sites of Poltava. In Myrhorod, the poet
wrote the mystery play The Great Vault. Toward the end of October,
Shevchenko went to Pereyaslav, where he lived to the beginning of 1846.
In the spring of 1846, the poet lived for some time in Kiev, where he
met the members of the Kyrylo-Methodius Society. The views of the poet
had a great influence on the program of this secret society and on the
philosophical outlook of many of his contemporaries.
In 1847, arrests began of the members of the Kyrylo-Methodius Society
and Shevchenko was arrested on April 5, on a ferry crossing the Dnipro
River near Kiev. The next day, the poet was sent to St. Petersburg. He
arrived there on April 17, 1847, and was imprisoned. Here he wrote the
cycle of poems In the Dungeon. Of all the members of the association who
came under investigation, Shevchenko was punished most severely: he was
exiled as a private with the Military Detachment at Orenburg. Russian
Tsar Nicholas I, in confirming the sentence, wrote, “Under the strictest
surveillance, with a ban on writing and painting.”
On June 8, 1847, Shevchenko was established at Orenburg, and later he
was sent to the fort at Orsk. From the very first days, Shevchenko
violated the tsar’s order. He transcribed the prison cycle into a small
secret book he kept in his boot, and he wrote new poems into the book.
In 1848, Shevchenko was included as an artist in the Aral Survey
Expedition. In 1850, Shevchenko was arrested for violating the tsar’s
order. Warned by his friends, the poet was able to give them his
notebooks and to destroy some letters. The poet was taken to Orsk, where
he was questioned. Then he was sent to a remote fort in Novopetrovsk.
Once again, strict discipline was imposed, and the poet was subjected to
more rigorous surveillance. It was not until 1857 that Shevchenko
finally returned from exile, thanks to the efforts of friends.
While awaiting permission to return, Shevchenko began a diary, an
important documentation of his views. On August 2, 1857, having received
permission to travel to St. Petersburg, Shevchenko left the fort at
Novopetrovsk. In Nizhniy Novgorod, he learned that he was forbidden to
go to Moscow or St. Petersburg, on pain of being returned to Orenburg.
A kind doctor attested to Shevchenko’s illness, and the poet spent the
entire winter in Nizhniy Novgorod. The winter of 1857-58 was very
productive for Shevchenko. During that time he painted many portraits
and other paintings. He also edited and transcribed into the Bilsha
knyzhka (The Larger Book) his poems from the period of exile, and wrote
new poetic works. After receiving permission to live in the capital, he
went to St. Petersburg. After his exile, Shevchenko devoted his greatest
attention as an artist to engraving, and in this field he became a true
In May, 1859, Shevchenko got permission to go to Ukraine. He intended to
buy a plot of land not far from the village of Pekariv, to build a house
there, and to settle in Ukraine. In July he was arrested on a charge of
blasphemy, but was released and ordered to go to St. Petersburg without
fail. The poet arrived there on September 7, 1859. Nevertheless, to the
end of his life, the poet hoped to settle in Ukraine.
In spite of physical weakness as a result of his exile, Shevchenko’s
poetical strength was inexhaustible, and the last period of his work is
the highest stage of his development. In a series of works, the poet
embodied the dream of the people for a free and happy life. Shevchenko
understood that the peasants would gain their freedom neither through
the kindness of the tsar nor through reforms, but through struggle. He
created a gallery of images – Champions of Sacred Freedom – of fighters
against oppression and tyrarny. On September 2, 1860, the Council of the
Academy of Arts granted Shevchenko the title, Academician of Engraving.
The poet began to feel increasingly ill, and complained in letters about
the state of his health. Taras Shevchenko died in St. Petersburg at 5:30
a.m. on March 10, 1861. At the Academy of Arts, over the coffin of
Shevchenko, speeches were delivered in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish.
The poet was first buried at the Smolensk Cemetery in St. Petersburg.
Shevchenko’s friends immediately undertook to fulfil the poet’s Zapovit
(Testament), and bury him in Ukraine. The coffin with the body of
Shevchenko was taken by train to Moscow, and then by horse-drawn wagon
to Ukraine. Shevchenko’s remains entered Kiev on the evening of May 6,
and the next day they were transferred to the steamship Kremenchuh. On
May 8 the steamship reached Kaniv, and Taras was buried on Chernecha
Hill (now Taras Hill) by the Dnipro River. A tall mound was erected over
his grave, and it has become a sacred site for the Ukrainian people.
(Biography prepared by Lari Prokop.)
When I am dead, then bury me
In my beloved Ukraine,
My tomb upon a grave mound high
Amid the spreading plain,
So that the fields, the boundless steppes,
The Dnieper’s plunging shore
My eyes could see, my ears could hear
The mighty river roar.
When from Ukraine the Dnieper bears
Into the deep blue sea
The blood of foes… then will I leave
These hills and fertile fields —
I’ll leave them all and fly away
To the abode of God,
And then I’ll pray… But till that day
I nothing know of God.
Oh bury me, then rise ye up
And break your heavy chains
And water with the tyrants’ blood
The freedom you have gained.
And in the great new family,
The family of the free,
With softly spoken, kindly word
Remember also me.
Pereyaslav, December 25, 1845.
Translated by John Weir.