Taras Shevchenko is an iconic symbol of Ukraine, a great national hero whose works and actions have inspired many generations of Ukrainians to seek freedom and be proud of their heritage. His literary works have competed with the Bible in popularity among Ukrainians, and thousands of monuments all over the world were erected to honor his legacy.
How did Taras Shevchenko become Ukraine’s prominent symbol, and why is his legacy still so relevant these days? Find out about Shevchenko and his impact on modern Ukraine below!
Shevchenko — a symbol of Ukrainian resistance
The 19th century was a period of Russian imperialism and cruel domination over the Ukrainian people when even cultural activity was brutally oppressed. Taras Shevchenko lived in extremely difficult circumstances – childhood serfdom, a decade of imprisonment in far-off Russian regions, and sudden early death from years of suppression – paying a high price for his national identity and beliefs.
His biography and iconic works have become the epitome of Ukraine’s uniqueness and aspirations for freedom, independence, and the unwillingness to tolerate oppression. Even in the darkest of times, Ukrainians found solace in Shevchenko’s poems, cherishing the glorious past and hoping for a bright future.
Taras Shevchenko, being a highly talented self-taught poet and artist, experienced all sorts of injustice and oppression common in the 19th-century Russian empire. As a child, he saw the abominable lords’ behavior toward their powerless serfs, which caused his disdain for serfdom to Russian nobles. Harsh censorship of his poems and far-reaching limitations to the overall Ukrainian nation and culture resulted in his hatred of Russian imperialism.
Curious to learn more about Ukraine’s history? Check out our Ukrainian history course by the Ukrainian Lessons Podcast!
In his poem, «Заповіт» /Testament/, Shevchenko appealed to Ukrainians to break the chains («Кайдани порвіте»), water freedom with the enemy’s evil blood («І вражою злою кров’ю волю окропіте»), and remember him in a free, new family («В сім’ї вольній, новій»). As you see, his testament is so relevant during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022…
Using sarcasm as his poetic weapon, Taras Shevchenko frequently described the cruelty of Russian oppression and called for its demise. His famous poem Кавказ /Caucasus/ not only criticized the Russian rule but also urged suppressed nations to fight it.
Борітеся — поборете,
Вам Бог помагає!
За вас правда, за вас слава
І воля святая!
Keep fighting — you are sure to win!
God helps you in your fight!
For fame and freedom march with you,
And right is on your side!
Get inspired by the full version of this poem (with explanations in Ukrainian) – «Кавказ» Тараса Шевченка: текст та аналіз поеми!
No wonder the infamous Russian emperor Nicholas I considered Shevchenko as a personal enemy, persecuting him and sending him to remote Russian lands as a prisoner.
Such legacy and calls for resistance have long been essential for Ukrainians – in war defense, revolutions, demonstrations, and many other occasions. The Russian war against Ukraine proves his poems remain as relevant as ever.
Shevchenko — a symbol of modern Ukrainian literature
The poet is considered the founder of new Ukrainian literature. He was the first to stand out as a true people’s poet whose poems reflected the thoughts and feelings of the lower social strata along with aspirations for freedom. His book Кобзар /Kobzar/ has long been a must-have for every Ukrainian household.
Find out more about Taras Shevchenko and his lifepath in our signature Ukrainian Lessons Podcast – Episode 156 (in intermediate Ukrainian)!
Taras Shevchenko shaped a new positive image of a fighter and judge against imperial and lordship rule, fighting for the happiness of the nation. Contrary to his contemporaries, he focused on criticizing Russian rule as a whole, not merely some imperfections.
Next-generation writers followed his example, finding inspiration from his approach. The Ukrainian language was also influenced – in structure, vocabulary, and syntax.
Shevchenko — a symbol of unity & freedom
Taras Shevchenko condemned oppression on many levels – serfdom, permissive behavior of the higher strata, and suppression of Ukrainian culture. Satire was a common instrument for showing the shortcomings of imperialism and calling for change.
If you are an experienced learner of Ukrainian, read excerpts from the famous poem Сон by Shevchenko (with easy explanations in Ukrainian) – «Сон» («У всякого своя доля…») Тараса Шевченка!
He described the tragic destinies of Ukrainian families impacted by serfdom and pointless imperial wars that took the lives of many Ukrainians. The image of an aggrieved serf deciding to fight for justice and freedom is one of the most powerful in his works.
Calls for unity and brotherhood, especially with Poles, are also common in Shevchenko’s poems. He stressed equality between the nations and sympathized with oppressed people (like Kazachs).
Shevchenko — a symbol of patriotic love
Taras Shevchenko loved his homeland dearly, regularly showing it in his literature and artworks. Thanks to him, Ukrainians can admire sketches of beautiful sceneries and architecture of 19th-century Ukraine, imagining how the country looked like in such a distant past.
His patriotism and harsh criticism of Russian rule were fatal to his destiny, as he spent a decade in exile and prisons under constant guard control. In Shevchenko’s works of that time, he worried more about his «robbed» homeland, depleted by Russians, than his own fate.
The most vivid example of his patriotic love is shown in these lines:
Свою Україну любіть,
Любіть її…Во время люте,
В остатню тяжкую минуту
За неї Господа моліть.
Love your Ukraine,
Love it…In harsh times,
In the last arduous minute
Pray to God for it.
Shevchenko was also unapologetic to passive conformers of injustice who chose to forget their roots and distance themselves from Ukrainian heritage for the sake of comfort and profit.
Shevchenko — a symbol of Ukrainians abroad
Since the late 19th century, Ukrainians emigrated abroad in large numbers, at first due to poverty and the search for better opportunities. In the 20th century, Ukrainian lands were torn apart between several countries, forcing the Ukrainian political and cultural elite to flee the country to avoid persecution.
Big Ukrainian communities, notably in the US and Canada, cherished their heritage, where Taras Shevchenko’s legacy played an important role. The Ukrainian diaspora published his works, researched his activity, and named their cultural and scientific centers after Shevchenko.
Taras Shevchenko even has the world record in the number of monuments erected to honor him – 1384 (!). Among them, 128 statues are abroad (in 35 countries).
Shevchenko — a symbol of a talented nation & a self-made man
Taras Shevchenko is a true national gem, a one-in-a-million kind. He was a poet, an artist, an engraver, an ethnographer – the list goes on and on.
A poor serf caught the attention of his lord with stunning artworks, and later on, prominent professional Russian artists of that time redeemed him from serfdom and placed him in the Arts Academy. His unique talents allowed him to gain freedom and success despite limited opportunities. An impressive story of a self-made man, don’t you think?
And he was not alone – many Ukrainians are known for their talents, succeeding in many fields by determination and hard work, and Shevchenko’s example can indeed be an inspiration for many.
Though Shevchenko gained his importance in Ukraine mostly through writings, he is one of the greatest painters of 19th-century Ukraine!
Enjoy the stunning artworks by Shevchenko and other leading Ukrainian artists in our popular blog post – Introduction to Ukrainian visual arts!
Today, Shevchenko remains an important symbol of Ukrainian resistance and pride. His poetry and art are still widely celebrated in Ukraine, and his legacy is remembered as a reminder of the struggles and sacrifices made by the Ukrainian people in their quest for freedom and independence.
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