THE CHILDHOOD OF
exists. Apart from his own autobiographical notes which relate only part
of the story, there is a fair number of interpretive works, primarily of
the Soviet period. One should also note in this regard that because of
the stature Shevchenko attained in the national culture of Ukraine and
his contribution to international culture in general, twice celebrated
by UNESCO, there has been a tendency to idealise, even iconise him. As
such, these interpretations of the young Taras, and even of the older
artist and poet, often contradict each other and, as such, are not fully
reliable. What can be gleaned from these materials, however, is a
portrait of the times and the conditions under which Taras and countless
other peasant children grew up.
Taras Shevchenko, the son of serfs, was born on the estate of Baron
Vasili Engelhardt on March 9, 1814. One of six children, at his birth he
was little more than another possession of his lord and master.
The place of his birth was the village of Morintsi, some 200 kilometres
to the south of Kiev, an area which in earlier generations had been the
home of the Zaporizhian Cossacks. Amongst the peasantry, burdened by the
brutal and unjust system of serfdom, tales of these folk heroes and
their struggles for freedom, were commonplace, a relief from the toils
of the day, as well as a hope for a better future. It was in such an
environment that the young Taras and his siblings were raised.
Shevchenko’s parents, Hryhori and Kateryna, worked the fields of Baron
Engelhardt, as did his older brother Mykyta. As was usual in those
times, the serfs laboured five days for their master, and one for
themselves. His father also worked on occasion as a chumak, a teamster,
hauling salt for Baron Engelhardt from southern Ukraine. It appears that
his father, on occasion, took Taras with him on these trips, as young
children were not obliged to work for their master. During these trips,
the young boy was able to see some of the world, even major centres such
as Elizavetgrad and Uman.
His mother Kateryna, while working the fields during the growing season,
spent the winters at home, as did most peasant women, spinning and
weaving for the master.
Inside the household, again as was typical, the older children took care
of the younger ones. In the Shevchenko household, older sister Katrusia
was the mainstay and had quite an effect on her younger brother. He was
upset, it appears, when she married and moved away with her new husband,
and it was to her home that Taras returned a few years later after
fleeing a brutal deacon for whom he worked.
youngest sister, Mariyka, forced to fast during the lenten period before
Easter and after a winter of food shortages, went blind as a result of
Another influence on the young boy was his paternal grandfather, Ivan,
who often related stories to the young boy of the struggles of the
peasantry and the not infrequent rebellions and violent uprisings. These
stories probably are the basis for much of the poet’s later works, such
The greatest influence on the boy, however, was simply the hard fact of
peasant life. Until the abolition of serfdom in 1861, ironically, the
year of Shevchenko’s death, a serf was simply a chattel, free to be
worked as an animal, beaten for any perceived misdemeanour, killed in
extreme cases, sold or traded. Shevchenko as a boy was witness to all
this, including the beating of his grandfather for not showing proper
respect for the master. On another occasion, a serf who had been
insolent, was sent into the army as a conscript, in those days a
twenty-five year sentence, leaving behind his young wife. It is not
surprising that in later life so much of his poetry is devoted to the
recurring themes of peoples’ struggles against injustice and a vengeful
hatred of those who oppress.
As a youngster, Taras stood out amongst his peers. He was inquisitive
and adventurous, often wandering away to search out answers to his many
questions. When he was six, he set off to a distant burial mound to see
the iron pillars which he imagined held up the sky. Luckily, a villager
spotted him on the road and brought him home.
It was not long after this that the boy was sent to study with a deacon
to learn to read and write. He was one of twelve village boys studying,
out of some one hundred of that age. This in itself, shows that Taras
was exceptional amongst his peers. He excelled at his studies and was
sometimes sent to read psalms for the dead in the deacon’s place. By
this stage, young Taras was already sketching and wanted to become an
artist. He often would copy liturgical materials and illustrated the
margins of his pages with various designs.
When Taras was nine, his mother died. Soon after, his father remarried,
but life was unbearable with his new stepmother. She had brought three
children with her and, as perhaps is natural, favoured her own over the
Shevchenko children. When Taras was eleven, his father died.
Shevchenko later summed up his childhood and his feelings in the
I don’t describe that little cottage
Beside the pond, beyond the village,
A paradise right here on earth.
That’s where my mother gave me birth,
And singing, as her child she nursed,
She passed her pain to me. T’was there,
In that wee house, that heaven fair,
That I saw hell… There people slave
from morn till night… There to her grave
My gentle mother, young in years,
Was sent by want and toil and cares.
There father, weeping with his brood
(And we were tiny, tattered tots),
Could not withstand his evil lot
And died at work in servitude.
away to a second one who painted and allowed the boy to mix colours.
Before he left, however, Taras administered a whipping to his drunken
abuser and took with him an illustrated book. Experiencing similar
treatment from his second teacher, Taras ran away again to yet a third
deacon who painted, but who, after examining the boy’s hands, declared
him unfit to be an artist. Taras returned home from these deacons around
the age of twelve or thirteen and spent some time as a shepherd, work
which allowed him the opportunity to sketch.
It was around this time that Taras came to the attention of Paul
Engelhardt who had just inherited the estates of his late father. Taras
was now at the age when he was expected to enter formal servitude. Taras
had finally found a deacon who had agreed to teach him to be an artist,
but had to obtain the written permission of his master. Paul Engelhardt,
not about to lose a servant, refused the permission and Taras was
assigned to be his kozachok, or houseboy, performing various menial
At this stage in his life, the young boy had already learned that he
could not pursue his dream openly. He began stealing prints and, with a
stolen pencil, made copies of them which he hid from the view of his
In 1829, at the age of fifteen, Taras travelled in his master’s
entourage. first to Kiev, and then to Vilnius in Lithuania, the
Engelhardt ancestral homeland. It was in Vilnius that Taras ceased to be
a boy and began entering his adult life.
One evening (in his autobiography Shevchenko gives the date as December
6, 1829), the master and his wife went out to a ball. In their absence,
Taras pulled out his materials and began sketching by candle light. He
was so engrossed in this that he didn’t hear the Engelhardts’ return.
What ensued Shevchenko described in the following words:
The master savagely pulled him by the ears and slapped his face, on the
pretext that not only the house, but the whole city could have burned
down. The next day the master ordered the coachman Sidorko to give him a
good whipping, which was properly administered.
Although this incident remained with him throughout his life, Shevchenko
continued to draw surreptitiously. Finally, aware of his servant’s
behaviour, Paul Engelhardt relented and agreed to allow Taras to study
with a professional artist, Jan Rustem, at Vilno University. It was here
that Shevchenko’s boyhood ends. It seemed that fate had finally smiled
on the talented, but abused peasant boy. A new world opened up in front
of Taras, but despite his elation at the time, it was but an opening
into a world of further hardship and distress.
When I was Thirteen
By TARAS SHEVCHENKO
My thirteenth birthday soon would come.
I herded lambkins on the lea.
Was it the magic of the sun,
Or what was it affected me?
I felt with joy all overcome
As though in heaven…
The time for lunch had long passed by,
And still among the weeds I lay
And prayed to God… I know not why
It was so pleasant then to pray
For me, an orphan peasant boy,
Or why such bliss so filled me there?
The sky seemed bright, the village fair,
The very lambs seemed to rejoice!
The sun’s rays warmed but did not sear!
But not for long
the sun stayed kind,
Not long in bliss I prayed…
It turned into a ball of fire
And set the world ablaze.
As though just wakened up, I gaze:
The hamlet’s drab and poor,
And God’s blue heavens — even they
Are glorious no more.
I look upon the lambs I tend —
Those lambs are not my own!
I eye the hut wherein I dwell —
I do not have a home!
God gave me nothing, naught at all!…
I bowed my head and wept,
Such bitter tears… And then a lass
Who had been sorting hemp
Not far from there, down by the path,
Heard my lament and came
Across the field to comfort me;
She spoke a soothing phrase
And gently kissed my tear-wet face…
It was as though the sun had smiled,
As though all things on earth were mine,
My own… The orchards, fields and groves!…
And, laughing merrily the while,
The master’s lambs to drink we drove.
How nauseating!… Yet, when I
Recall those days, my heart is sore
That there my brief life’s span the Lord
Did not grant me to live and die.
There, plowing, I’d have passed away,
With ignorance my life-long lot,
I’d not an outcast be today,
I’d not be cursing Man and God!…
Orsk Fortress, 1847.
Translated by Jobn Weir.