What is Shevchenko? A curiosity or a manifestation of the viability of the Ukrainian people

Many among us indeed consider Taras Shevchenko a linguistic curiosity. To them, it appears to be an oddity, a curiosity: the man had an excellent command of Russian and was able to pen his poems in the “common” language, and yet he obstinately wrote in the language of khokhols… Shevchenko is a national poet, and that is where his power lies.

It is amazing how inconsistent people can be.

When we say A, we mostly do not think that we must also say B. We treat a social fact as if it was isolated, plucked from life, and of no consequence.

We are now honouring Shevchenko’s memory or at least responding to the honours. But at the same time, we draw no conclusions. Not only those who listen and read, but also those who write show no signs of having given good thought to what the recognition of this anniversary necessarily entails.

It is one of two things: either Shevchenko is a cultural misunderstanding, a linguistic curiosity and rarity, and then there is no point in marking his anniversaries; or Shevchenko is a natural and characteristic phenomenon of a developing life, a symptom of something to come. In that case, it behooves us to say A and then say B, i.e., by acknowledging his anniversary, define our attitude to the enormous phenomenon whose inevitability is presaged by this event.

But few seem to be thinking about it.

Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that, deep inside, many, many of us indeed quietly consider Shevchenko a linguistic curiosity. Truth be told, many think precisely that. To them, it appears to be an oddity, a curiosity: the man had an excellent command of Russian and was able to pen his poems in the “common” language, and yet he obstinately wrote in the language of khokhols [Ukrainians]. Others go further and ask: is there any significant difference between the two languages? It is only stubbornness, petty clinging to some distinct letters.

Taras Shevchenko’s poem “Mariana, the nun” written in his own hand.

Is it not a whim to write in no other way but this [in Ukrainian]:

My pensive, heavy-laden songs,
How dire you are today!
Why do you stand upon my page
In such a sad array?

[Trans: C.S. Andrusyshen & Watson Kirkconnell]

when the same can just as well be written in Russian with a few changes here and there?

One gentleman recently took up, in my presence, a volume of poems by [Oleksandr] Oles and began to argue right there that these poems could simply be read in Russian without any losses: the meter did not change, and nearly all the rhymes were preserved.

I did not wait for him to finish, and as he recited, in the Muscovite way, Oles’ lines “Oh, why did you entrust your little child to the steppes?”, my thoughts drifted to a different topic.

I remembered that Shevchenko had written something also in Russian. Authors contributing to the newspaper Kievlianin consider it his great merit and rebuke the current mazepyntsi [Ukrainian patriots, literally ‘Mazepa followers’]: see, he is not like you—he did not shy away from the “all-Russian language”!

Suppose this is indeed true. However, it turns out that the “all-Russian language” strangely shied away from the Ukrainian poet, and he could not produce anything decent in that language. And Shevchenko’s is not the only such case.

Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, an Italian poet who wrote in Romanesco, the dialect of Rome.

In the 1840s, the great poet Belli lived in Rome; Gogol seems to have mentioned him somewhere. He wrote mostly in Romanesco, the dialect of Rome.

Unlike other local dialects of Italy, Romanesco is almost identical to the Italian language: if it were not boring to the readers, I could list all the differences on fifteen lines. Belli wrote wonderful things in the dialect and utterly worthless poems in Italian. His Romanesco sonnets are excellent, while his Italian elegies are watery, rhetorical, and now forgotten. He, too, obviously dug in his heels deep, so much so that the Lord himself left him as soon as he crossed a barely perceptible line in his creative impulse: on this side Belli was a great poet by God’s mercy, while on the other side he suddenly turned into a helpless versifier…

Mother tongue! It takes all of our Russian naiveté, inexperience, social ignorance, all our Pigasov-style attitude [Russian chauvinism], all the coarse empirical practicality that we profess regarding many sacred problems of the spirit—it takes all of that for us to goggle in confusion and astonishment at a normal man of sound mind and clear memory who invariably and stubbornly insists that a particular word should be pronounced svit [as in Ukrainian] rather than svet [as in Russian]. What nonsense, what a whim!

For many years now, the Magyars have been fighting for the Hungarian language to be used in the Hungarian army, even though all the military commands consist of just seventy words. Because of these 70 words, ministries were overthrown; major reforms were postponed, and Europe’s political map is now splitting along the Leitha.

In the Hungarian parliament, 40 MPs from Croatia sit among more than 400 Magyars and fiercely defend their right to speak Croatian from the rostrum, i.e., a language that no one else understands there and the use of which in parliament is, for this reason, not only unnecessary but also detrimental to the Croatian cause itself.

Those same Croats rebelled when the Hungarian authorities tried to introduce Hungarian in some government institutions in Zagreb alongside signs in Croatian: there were street demonstrations, clashes with the army, bloodshed…

“What nonsense, what a whim!” say we, the provincial inhabitants of a remote country, from the height of our political understanding and experience. Meanwhile, wouldn’t it be much more correct to look at this case from a different angle and realize that there is no point arguing against the facts? After all, we have a number of striking facts on a mass scale and even more telling facts on the individual scale.

Look, almost entire nations are up in arms over 70 words or a dozen street signs in a foreign language. And here are great poets who lose the gift of God as soon as they opt for a tiny, minute, harmless forgery in their hearts and say svet instead of svit and buona sera instead of bona sera. These are all facts, irrefutable phenomena which will not be changed by our condemnation or approval. We should not condemn or approve them, or judge the global order and its manifestations for that matter. Rather, we must humbly learn from them, accept life as it is in its fundamental makeup and build our worldview on this foundation.

We pass by Shevchenko’s anniversary with a reverential bow of the head, and it does not even occur to us that this is a fact of exceptional, symptomatic importance in the face of which we would need, if we were smart, to reconsider some essential elements of our worldview.

What is Shevchenko? One of the two. Either look at him as a curious freak of nature like a handless painter, a one-legged acrobat, or a rare antediluvian exhibit in an archaeological museum; or view him as a vivid expression of the national and cultural vitality of the Ukrainian people. In the latter case, we need to open our eyes more widely and take a close look at the conclusions that follow.

Here in the South, we ourselves have so thoroughly and so naively been laying the foundations of Russification in cities. Our press here has been so much concerned with the Russian theatre and the distribution of Russian books that eventually we have completely overlooked the true arithmetic reality as it is outside of our limited worldview.

Beyond these cities, there is a vast and vibrant Ukrainian sea of nearly thirty million people. Look anywhere, not only in its centre (in some district like Myrhorod or Vasylkiv) but also in its outlying districts (Kharkiv or Voronezh), right along the border beyond which the Great Russian language begins—and you will be amazed at how intact and unadulterated this Ukrainian sea remains.

There are villages along this border where the khokhols [Ukrainians] live on one bank and the katsaps [Russians] on the other. Since times immemorial, they live side by side and do not mix. Each side speaks in its own way, dresses in its own way, and maintains its own customs. They marry only their own, eschew each other, and do not understand or seek mutual understanding.

Peter Struve, who put forward the theory of “national repulsions”, would have a wise thing by going there before speaking about the common transcendental “all-Russian” essence.

They say that such pronounced repulsion is not observed even along the Polish-Lithuanian or Polish-Belarusian ethnographic border. Shevchenko knew his Ukrainian people when he lectured thoughtless girls:

My dark-browed beauties, fall in love,
But love no Muscovite,
For Moscow troopers aliens are…
[Trans: C.S. Andrusyshen & Watson Kirkconnell]

A lubok postcard in the “Little Russian” style, early 20th century.

I do not subscribe to Struve’s theory and do not believe that “repulsion” is one of the necessary and normal living manifestations of nationality. In any case, I think that this “repulsion” could only be legalized (in the scientific sense) with great and strict reservations.

I do not consider the antagonism between the Great Russians and the Little Russians, which has crystallized in the popular sobriquets khokhol and especially katsap, to be either the norm or a perpetual phenomenon. On the contrary, I am convinced that, if external circumstances improve, not only Ukrainians but also all nationalities in Russia will coexist perfectly well with the Great Russians on the basis of equality and mutual recognition. I even believe that a great and charitable role in this will be played by the Great Russian democratic intelligentsia. In a recent lecture in Kyiv, I emphasized this belief of mine so sharply that I even met with a lack of sympathy on the part of some Ukrainian listeners.

It cannot be denied that “repulsion” from an alien is a sign of national instinct, especially where national individuality cannot find expression in anything positive due to external oppression.

In such cases, the “repulsion” that we observe along ethnic borders remains, accidentally, the best proof that the oppressed nationality is putting up spontaneous resistance to attempts to transform its essence and that the true ways of its normal development lead in a different direction.

Such is the spontaneous sentiment of every great homogeneous mass. Such is the spontaneous sentiment of thirty million common Ukrainian people, no matter how much various experts from among national turncoats falsely testify to the contrary. Experts of this kind are just as competent in assessing the national sentiments of the people they have renounced as a deserter is in gauging the patriotism and morale of the army he has abandoned.

The Ukrainian people has kept intact that which is the main, invincible foundation of the national soul—the village. A nation whose roots are firmly and densely embedded in the native soil across a vast expanse has no reason to fear for its ethnic soul regardless of the horrible things others do in cities to the weak sprouts of its culture, its language, and its poets. The peasant endures everything, outlives everybody, will prove his point in spite of all, and will slowly, step by step find his way into the city from all sides. What is now considered a peasant vernacular will become there within two generations the language of newspapers, theatres, and signs—and more.

This is what Shevchenko’s anniversary means to anyone with an ability to think consequentially and look ahead.

Celebrating Shevchenko’s 100th anniversary in the town of Uhniv in Austria-ruled Ukraine.

Unfortunately, we are not rich in this kind of talent. We consider the Ukrainian movement, which is growing right in front of us, as something akin to a sport: we have ignored it and will probably continue to do so after the anniversary.

Either blinded by complacency or governed by the inertia of human thought, we are making a gross and unforgivable political mistake: instead of seeing to it that this movement of enormous consequence could develop with the support of the most influential circles of progressive society and become accustomed to viewing them as its stronghold and its natural allies, we are forcing it to go it alone, halting its successes through silence and inattention, and annoying and pushing it into opposition to the liberal and radical society.

This will not stop the growth of the movement, but it is easy to stunt this growth and direct it into the most undesirable area, which is something to beware. The gravest consequences for future relationships in this vast south of Russia can ensue from this if we fail to come to our senses in time; if we fail to understand and take into account the enormity of the mass phenomenon of which Shevchenko’s anniversary is a reminder; and if we fail to adapt to it our entire position and all of our tactics in local and state affairs…

When we have to honour Shevchenko’s anniversary in line of duty, we shyly tell each other that the deceased was a “folk” poet and wrote about the misery of plain poor people, and this is where, you see, lies all of his value.

But no, not there.

Shevchenko’s “folk” character is not of foremost importance. Had he written it all in Russian, he would not have in anyone’s eyes the enormous importance which is accorded to him now from all sides.

Shevchenko is a national poet, and that is where his power lies.

He is a national poet also in the subjective sense, i.e., a nationalist poet, even with all his outbursts of unbridled hostility towards Poles, Jews, and other neighbours…

More importantly, though, he is a national poet in his objective significance. Both to his people and to the entire world, he gave a vivid, incontrovertible proof that the Ukrainian soul is capable of the highest flight of original cultural creation.

This is why he is so loved by some and feared by others, and this love and fear would be no smaller if Shevchenko had been an aristocrat like Goethe or Pushkin rather than a man of the people.

Shevchenko’s grave, early 20th century.

You can remove all the democratic sentiments from his works (censorship did just that for a long time), but Shevchenko will remain what he was by nature—a dazzling precedent that does not let Ukrainians to stray from the path of national renaissance. This significance was well understood by the reactionaries as they raised a row about separatism, treason, and the approaching end of the world on the eve of his anniversary.

The end of the world and other horrors are still far away, but the truth is that you cannot honour Shevchenko simply as a talented Russian author number such and such. To honour him is to recognize everything associated with his name.

To honour Shevchenko is to understand and recognize that there is not and cannot be any common culture in a country of more than one hundred peoples. It means to understand, recognize, move aside, and give a rightful place to a powerful brother, the second most powerful nation in this empire.

Source: Volodymyr Zhabotynsky, Vybrani statti z natsionalnoho pytannia [Selected Papers on the National Question], translated by Israel Kleiner, Republican Association of Ukrainian Studies, Kyiv, 1991. The original title of the publication is “Nauka z Shevchenkovoho yuvileiu” [The lesson of Shevchenko’s Anniversary]. Abridged.


Vladimir Zhabotinsky
Born in 1880 in Odesa. Journalist, political writer, and poet. Wrote in Russian and Hebrew. Leader of right-wing Zionism, co-creator of the Jewish Legion and the Beitar and Irgun organizations. Died in 1940 in New York, reinterred in Jerusalem.

Istorychna Pravda’s ‘Shalom!’ media project, which explores the Ukrainian-Jewish dialogue, is made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian @ Istorychna Pravda

Translated from the Ukrainian by Vasyl Starko.
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