Taras Shevchenko Month
for Ukrainian Canadians During the Bicentennial Year Since His Birth
Canadian Community To Honour the Great Ukrainian Poet and Freedom Fighter –
Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861)
The Ukrainian Canadian community scattered
honours annually in March, Taras Shevchenko – the greatest literary figure of
Ukrainian literature, a major painter – artist, and freedom fighter. The
celebrations in March (the month of his birth and death), especially in this
200th year since his birth, include
concerts, symposia and academic presentations by members of Ukrainian
organizations, churches and especially youth groups. Similar celebrations with
greater intensity also take place in Ukraine
Taras Shevchenko was born
on March 9, 1814
and passed away on March
10, 1861. He was born into a Ukrainian serf family
in central Ukraine
which was part of the Russian Empire and was orphaned at the age of eleven. He
was very bright and was mentored by the village cantor (“diak”) and became a
very good student – both academically as well as in the field of art and
painting. His talents were soon noticed by Pavlo Engelhardt who took him to Vilnius
and then St. Petersburg.
During this period he engaged in the formal study of art painting. In 1838, due to a special art commission, the
proceeds gained, were utilized to buy Shevchenko’s freedom from serfdom.
He continued to draw and paint for the next decade; winning several
major awards in the Russian Empire.
Shevchenko also had a
love for writing poetry in his earlier serf period and after his personal
emancipation. He wrote in the Ukrainian vernacular that was popular in rural Ukraine
but was considered an inferior “tongue” by the
Russians. He did this to recognize the importance of the Ukrainian language and
culture as a self-identification trait of the Ukrainians against the political
and monolingual policies of the Russian Empire.
In 1840 he published a
collection of poems entitled Kobzar. This published volume became a great
success due to its “clarity, breadth and elegance of artistic expression not
previously known in Ukrainian literature” (Ivan Franko). Later he wrote the
epic poem Haidamaky (1841), the tragedy Nykyta Hayday (1842) and the drama,
Nazar Stodolya (1843).
All of this was
accomplished while he was living in St.
but Shevchenko never forgot about Ukraine.
He visited Ukraine
in 1843, 1845 and 1846 and witnessed the difficult political, economic and
social conditions of his countrymen. This had a major impact on his writings
On his 1845 trip to Ukraine,
Shevchenko made friends with prominent Ukrainian intellectuals and joined the
Brotherhood of Sts. Cyril and Methodius – a secret political organization that
aspired Ukrainians to liberate Ukraine
In 1847 the Brotherhood was suppressed by the Russian authorities and
Shevchenko was arrested and imprisoned. During a search of his belongings, the
poem Son (The Dream) was discovered that was a critique of Russian Imperial
rule in Ukraine.
Thus he was imprisoned in St. Petersburg
and then sent to Orenburg
(near the Ural Mountains)
with the decree that “he was not to write or paint and to be placed under the
During his exile and
imprisonment, Taras Shevchenko continued to find ways to be creative as an
artist and poet. Finally in 1857 he was liberated and ordered to the Russian
city of Nizhniy Novgorod.
Only in May 1859 was he allowed to move back to his native homeland – Ukraine.
But another accusation, that of blasphemy was raised against him and again he
was ordered to St. Petersburg,
never again to return to Ukraine.
After the difficult years
of exile and imprisonment, Shevchenko’s health deteriorated and on March 10, 1861
he passed away in St. Petersburg.
Initially he was buried in the Smolensk
cemetery in St. Petersburg,
but later his friends arranged the transfer of his remains to Kaniv,
south of the capital Kyiv and he was interred on a hill on the banks of the Dnieper
Taras Shevchenko’s works
and life are revered and honoured by Ukrainians in Ukraine
and the diaspora. His literary impact on Ukrainian literature was immense and
he is known as the founder and father of the modern written Ukrainian language.
His poetry with its patriotic themes contributed immensely to the growth and
development of Ukrainian national consciousness. His volume of poems known as
the Kobzar have been reprinted many times including versions in Canada.
For Ukrainian Canadian settlers, this was a most important book that was
brought to Canada
from Eastern Europe
among their meager possessions and was read widely.
His poem, Zapovit (My Testament) is one that is often studied and recited by
children and youth across Canada
at celebrations honouring Taras Shevchenko.
Many statues of Taras
Shevchenko exist in Ukraine
and around the world, beginning with the one on his burial site in Kaniv,
On the 100th anniversary of his repose in 1961, the Ukrainian
Canadian Congress erected a monument on the grounds of the Manitoba
legislature in Winnipeg.
On that occasion, the then premier of Manitoba
– the Honourable Duff Roblin announced to the Ukrainian Canadian community that
permission was granted to have the Ukrainian
language again taught in Manitoba
schools, where the number of students was sufficient. This policy was
subsequently repeated in the provinces of Saskatchewan
Even today, Taras Shevchenko’s language is still taught in numerous
universities and schools of the Canadian prairie.
Again in 2014, Ukrainian
Canadians will be honouring Taras Shevchenko – the “poet laureate” of Ukraine
with concerts and celebrations on his 200th anniversary, and in so
doing giving homage to one of the most important figures in Ukrainian history.
Taras Shevchenko’s most
Zapovit (My Testament) - 1845
I am dead, bury me
In my beloved Ukraine,
My tomb upon a grave mound high
Amid the spreading plain,
So that the fields, the boundless steppes,
The Dnieper’s plunging shore
My eyes could see, my ears could hear
The mighty river roar.
When from Ukraine the Dnieper bears
Into the deep blue sea
The blood of foes ... then will I leave
These hills and fertile fields --
I’ll leave them all and fly away
To the abode of God,
And then I’ll pray .... But till that day
I know nothing of God.
Oh bury me, then rise ye up
And break your heavy chains
And water with the tyrants’ blood
The freedom you have gained.
And in the great new family,
The family of the free,
With softly spoken, kindly word
Remember also me