IN SAINT PETERSBURG
Taras Shevchenko arrived in St. Petersburg from Vilnius, along with the
rest of the servants of Paul Englehardt, in February of 1831. He was on
the eve of his seventeenth birthday. It was here, in the Tsarist capital
and the centre of the cultural life of the Russian Empire, that
Shevchenko was to mature, first as an artist, and as a poet, writer and
His master, still realising that the youth would not make a good house
servant and wanting a “court painter”, apprenticed young Taras in 1832
to the master painter V. Shyrayev; known to be both stern and arbitrary.
Shyrayev was also a famous painter, decorator and art expert, who ran an
enterprise engaged in painting the walls and ceilings of the homes of
the St. Petersburg elite and public buildings.
As such, Shyrayev was in contact with and entertained the cream of
Tsarist society and it is only logical to assume that the young
apprentice Shevchenko also became exposed to many of the ideas then
circulating in the Russian capital. Popular amongst the intelligentsia
were ideas of reform, many borrowed from the ill-fated 1825 Decembrist
uprising by young officers who had borrowed heavily from the philosophy
of the French Revolution. In later life, a more politically mature
Shevchenko referred to the Decembrists as “the first Russian heralds of
freedom”. While in Vilnius, Taras also had the experience of having
witnessed first hand the Polish uprising against Tsarist rule.
While a good part of Shevchenko’s apprenticeship was spent mixing paints
and delivering items to various of Shyrayev’s projects across St.
Petersburg, he also honed his own talents and learned much from the
master painter. Although he was still officially a serf, his
apprenticeship nonetheless allowed him a certain degree of personal
freedom in the city. In his spare moments, normally in the evenings, he
would wander the city making sketches, often in the Summer Gardens
during the northern “white lights”.
It was because of this habit that Shevchenko met a fellow Ukrainian and
artist, Ivan Soshenko, in July of 1835. A friendship was formed and
Soshenko took Shevchenko under his wing, teaching him some of the basics
of painting and introducing the talented youth to some of the most
enlightened and cultured elements of St. Petersburg society, including
the Russian artist Karl Bryulov, the poet Zhukovsky (who had been a
tutor to the Tsar’s family), Ukrainian writer Hrebinka, the conference
secretary of the Academy of Arts V Hrihorovich and others.
Moving in this circle of the Russian intelligentsia, Shevchenko won the
hearts of this enlightened segment of society, which quickly recognized
the young man’s talents and realized that they could only be properly
developed if he were a free man.
Accordingly, the artist Karl Bryulov; whose works were much in demand,
painted a portrait of the poet Zhukovsky which was raffled off, raising
the 2500 roubles necessary for Shevchenko to receive his certificate of
freedom on April 22, 1838.
that, on his arrest in 1847, Shevchenko was reproached for his “black
ingratitude”, as the rumour had circulated that the Tsar’s family had
bought all the raffle tickets and, as a result, had purchased the
freedom of the serf who then went on to attack and ridicule them through
his poetry. While it is true that the tickets were no doubt bought in
the most part by members of the court, it was not through any altruism
on their part, but to cheaply obtain a fine work of art. What was
ingratitude for some, was perhaps more realistically an ironic form of
With his freedom attained, in 1838 Shevchenko became an external student
at the Academy of Arts, studying under Karl Bryulov. In January of 1839,
he was accepted as a resident student of the Association for the
Encouragement of Artists and at the annual examinations at the Academy
was awarded a silver medal for a landscape. The following year, he again
won a silver medal for his first oil painting The Beggar Boy Giving
Bread to a Dog.
As his artistic talent developed, Shevchenko continued to move in the
circles of the progressive intelligentsia and also broadened his world
view. He took courses in zoology, physics and philosophy, studied the
French language and avidly read literature – Homer, Goethe, Schiller,
Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Shakespeare, Defoe, Mickiewicz, Pushkin,
Gogol and many others. In art, he became a critical realist and applied
his approach to portraiture, etching and illustrating.
However, it is for his written work that Shevchenko is best remembered.
According to his own memoirs, he first began to write verse during his
visits to the Summer Gardens in 1837. However, he had become so immersed
in this that, by 1840, his first collection of poetry appeared – the
Kobzar, containing but eight verses, with a forward in verse form, the
now famous Dumy moyi.
The Kobzar met with mixed reaction. Chauvinistic elements of society
scoffed at his efforts and suggested Shevchenko cease writing in the
Ukrainian language, calling him a “peasants’ poet”, an epithet which
never bothered the poet himself.
The more enlightened, though, greeted Shevchenko’s poetry for its
lyricism, deep feeling and love of his native land and people. In
Ukraine, Shevchenko’s poetry became an almost overnight sensation.
out the process.
It should be noted, however, that Shevchenko was not exclusively
Ukrainian in his work. A few poems, his drama Nazar Stodoyla and his
prose were written in Russian. However, the bulk of his work was in the
Ukrainian language. And his themes were overwhelmingly based on
Ukrainian history, tradition and conditions of serfdom, the fate of
This latter point, as well as the obvious despise he feels for the
Tsarist system and his ridicule of its aristocracy, has led some critics
to view Shevchenko as a “nationalist”, as anti-Russian. And there is no
doubt that Shevchenko’s poetry, as it develops, does increasingly call
on the Ukrainian people to overthrow their rulers. What should be noted,
however, is that Shevchenko’s heroes include the Czech Jan Hus (The
Heritic) and the oppressed peoples of the Caucasus (in the poem of the
same name), and that he attacks not only Russian masters (The Dream),
but Ukrainian masters as well, (To the Dead, the Living and the Yet
Unborn). For Shevchenko, the enemy is always the oppressor, regardless
of ethnicity, a view reinforced by his 1843 visit to Ukraine. During
this visit, already as an adult, Shevchenko came face to face with the
cruel realities of the economic, social and national oppression of the
Further adding credence to this international aspect of Shevchenko’s
political attitudes is the fact of his involvement, in 1846-47, in the
Kyrylo-Metody Society, an underground anti-serfdom grouping with
Following his visit to Ukraine, Shevchenko returned to St. Petersburg to
finish his studies and to continue writing and publishing poetry, as
well as to produce a series of etchings entitled Pictorial Ukraine. He
graduated from the Academy of Arts in 1845 and almost immediately
returned to Ukraine.
In Kiev, Shevchenko first made contact with the Kyrylo-Metody Society
and quickly became one of the leaders of its radical faction. While some
members of the Society saw reform as the solution to the ills of Tsarist
society, the radical faction saw rebellion and popular uprising as the
sole means of overthrowing their masters.
During this period, Shevchenko was hired by the Archeological Commission
to travel through Kiev, Poltava and Volyn provinces to record in
sketches and paintings significant cultural sites.
received very lenient sentences. Shevchenko reftised to repent for his
actions, which included reading subversive and “openly unlawful” verses,
some of which ridiculed the Tsar’s family. In his defence, Shevchenko
denounced Tsarist repression in Ukraine and throughout the Empire.
Shevchenko received a sentence of exile as a rank and file soldier to
Orenburg in the East. He was to be kept under strict scrutiny so that
“from him wouldn’t come, in any form, any outrageous or libellous
works”. To this order, the Tsar personally added, “He is to be under the
most strict surveillance, with prohibition to write and to paint”.
It is interesting to note that Shevchenko’s colleague in the radical
wing of the Society, M. Hulak, who also refused to repent, received a
three year jail sentence. Shevchenko’s sentence, if Tsar Nicholas I had
not died ten years later, would have been for life. His treatment by the
Tsarist regime is perhaps the greatest possible tribute to Shevchenko’s
dedication and effectiveness in the cause of freedom.
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