Shevchenko’s Russian Novelettes in Exile

In the fall of 2013, before Euromaidan, it was announced that Ukraine and Russia will celebrate together the 200th anniversary of Taras Shevchenko. While such a celebration never actualized, its aim was to emphasize not Shevchenko’s Ukrainian poetry, but the two Russian poetic experiments he wrote while still in St. Petersburg, and the nine novelettes he wrote for the Russian public while in exile. As the poet-dissident Evhen Sverstiuk noted sarcastically, “It is imperative that the reader be reminded on every occasion that Shevchenko did some writing in Russian.” The following condensed facts are from essays by Ukrainian literary critics and experts on the works of Shevchenko.

In the Russian empire, the historical and cultural situation was such that all writers, including Shevchenko, had to know and use the Russian language. But Shevchenko had a God-given talent and mission for the Ukrainian word. He fought for sovereignty of the Ukrainian language in Ukrainian society. He polished the spoken language of the nation (incorporating certain elements of various Ukrainian dialects), into a literary language capable of expressing the deepest emotions and the most sublime philosophic thoughts. This high linguistic level of Shevchenko’s poetry took Ukrainian literature to its rightful place among world literature, and inspired a national re-awakening unprecedented to this day in the history of any nation. But Shevchenko paid dearly for his Ukrainian poems: he was exiled to military duty beyond the Caspian Sea, and was forbidden to write and paint.

During the years of his exile in Asia (1847-1857), Shevchenko refused to be intimidated by police surveillance. He continued to write Ukrainian poetry secretly, which he gave to trusted friends to copy and pass on.

Shevchenko also wrote nine novelettes in Russian (1852-1857), which he hoped to publish in Russian journals. He wanted to influence Russian society with images and facts about life in Ukraine, unfamiliar to the Russians, and to agitate the public against serfdom. Writing in Russian was not a crime. He did not have to hide it, especially when a new intelligent military commander, I. Uskov, and his family arrived in Fort Novopetrovskoe (now Fort Shevchenko) and befriended Shevchenko.

This Russian prose has stirred some controversy in Ukrainian society, but it is a fact that what you write and how you write it depend on your intended audience. Shevchenko wanted to emphasize to Russian readers that the two nations have a different history and culture, and that each should cultivate one’s own traditions and language. He wrote under the pseudonym “Kobzar Darmohrai.”

A dominant characteristic of this writing is Shevchenko’s deep nostalgia for Ukraine. This is seen in the characters’ reminiscences, in Shevchenko’s authorial comments, or in the detailed descriptions of places in Ukraine that Shevchenko remembered accurately from his work with the Kyiv Archeographic Commission (1845-1847).

Three of these novelettes contain anti-serfdom themes of Shevchenko’s like-named poems: The Servant Girl, The Convict, The Princess. However, they are independent literary works, not additions to, or variations of, the poems. In The Servant Girl, Shevchenko added ethnographic material (e.g. a detailed description of the end-of-harvest celebrations).

The rest of the novelettes are not thematically similar to any particular poem: The Artist, The Musician, The Unfortunate, The Captain-Woman, The Twins. All of them are saturated with Ukrainian themes and patriotism, and contain Shevchenko’s autobiographical material, comments, and opinions. Shevchenko was very fascinated with the technical innovations of the time, which could make work easier for farmers. This information found its way into his prose. In addition, the novelette The Twins is a valuable document of the Ukrainian way of life and customs in the 1820s to the 40s, about which there is little information from other sources.

The last novelette, A Stroll with Pleasure and not Without a Moral, was finished shortly before he regained his freedom. It contains reflections on his stay in Ukraine in the 1840s (e.g. his feelings about the ruins of palaces in Volyn and Podillia and the mohyly (burial mounds) on the steppy (prairies) as witnesses of past historical glory and freedom, and later of lawlessness and pillage by foreign invaders).

These novelettes did not prove successful in Shevchenko’s lifetime. His Ukrainian friends treated them coldly, not worthy of “their Kobzar.” Neither was any Russian publisher interested, because Russian novels had evolved in a different direction in those ten years. This was a bitter disappointment to Shevchenko, who had invested a lot of time into writing them, and had really counted on their publication in Russian journals to spread the ideas dear to his heart about Ukraine.

Neither were these works studied or evaluated positively by literary scholars till years later. These experts claim that Shevchenko’s novelettes should be judged by criteria different from those used for his poems. They need to be read as documents that explain Shevchenko’s philosophical, socio-political, and artistic views, and that demonstrate his great lifelong learning, amazing memory, and extensive range of thought.

Poet-dissident Evhen Sverstiuk, who himself spent 12 years of incarceration for his essays about Shevchenko (different from the official Soviet line), tells critics of Shevchenko: “This writing in Russian does not surprise anyone who has even the slightest empathy for Shevchenko’s fate in life, especially if one has been in similar circumstances.”

One of the foremost Shevchenko scholars of the first quarter of the 20th century, Serhii Yefremov, called Shevchenko’s prose “neglected heritage.”

Halyna Kotovych,

Edmonton, AB

Sources: Ivan Dziuba, Evhen Sverstiuk, Pavlo Zaitzev, Ukrainian Encyclopedia Vol. 4.