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 Moryntsi, some 120 miles
or 200 kilometres to the south of Kiev, an area which in earlier
generations had been the home of the Zaporizhian Cossacks. In 1816
the Shevchenko family moved to the village of Kirilivka (now Shevchenkove),
where Taras spent his childhood years. 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
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.
T.Shevchenko, Parents House in Kerelivka,
| 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.
At home, the life of the family was a happy one in terms of the
human relations, but a hard one in terms of material possessions
and human want. Often, there was a shortage of food, particularly
after the hard winter months. Shevchenko himself noted that his
mother would often refuse to eat after working the fields all day,
claiming she wasn't hungry. Taras later concluded that she didn't
eat because she wanted the children to be better nourished. This
interpretation was no doubt underscored by the fact that his youngest
sister, Mariyka, who was forced to fast during the lenten period
before Easter and after a winter of food shortages, went blind as
a result of malnutrition.
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.
V. Kassian, Taras Listening to Grandfather
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 following
|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.
It was soon after this that Taras, fleeing the now intolerable home life as well as the constant abuse and beatings of the drunken deacon, ran 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 chores.
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 master.
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.
V. Zaritsky, Little Taras
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
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 Vilnius 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
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 John Weir.
by Lari Prokop
Arrest and Exile
Quick facts on Shevchenko Biography
Destiny - an autobiographical essay by Taras Shevchenko