Taras Shevchenko Museum of Canada
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Museum Building

Taras H. Shevchenko
Museum & Memorial
Park Foundation

1614 Bloor St. West
Toronto Ontario
M6P 1A7
Tel: 416-534-8662
Fax: 416-535-1063


   Short Biography
   St. Petersburg Period
   Arrest and Exile
   Final Years
   Quick facts on Shevchenko Biography
   My Destiny - an autobiographical essay by Taras Shevchenko

Arrest and Exile

In 1845 Shevchenko graduated from the Academy of Art and left for Ukraine. He began to work for the Kiev Archeographic Commission and in this capacity visited many towns and villages of his homeland.

Shevchenko Art
Self-portrait, 1847

In the spring of 1846, in Kiev, Shevchenko met the young historian Kostomarov, who was an ardent admirer of his poetry.

Together with a group of young Ukrainian liberals, Kostomarov organized a political association - the Society of Cyril and Methodious, named for the legendary disseminators of reading and writing among the Slavs. The Society called for the unification of all the Slavic nations on the basis of equality, and stood for the annulment of serfdom and for close cultural and political fraternization. However, its members imagined that they could achieve their aims through sermonizing and dissemination of knowlege, ruling out any idea of revolutionary action.

The poet attended meetings of the secret fraternity, where he read his flaming poems, calling for an uprising. He headed the left wing of the society.

In March of 1847 the Society was denounced to the authorities and its members - Kostomarov, Shevchenko, Hulak and others - were arrested.

M. Shtaerman, First Arrest of Shevchenko
M. Shtaerman, First Arrest of Shevchenko

Shevchenko, whose revolutionary poems where circulated in manuscript copies, had become known to the Tsar, was sentenced to exile as a private in the Orenburg Field Batallion.

Approving the verdict, Nicholas I added with his own hand: "Under strictest surveilance, with the prohibition to write and paint."

The poet later wrote of the Tsar's sentence: "If I had been a monster, a vampire, even then a more horrible torture could not have been devised for me."

In eight days Shevchenko was delivered to his place of exile. From Orenburg he was sent further yet, to the Orsk Fortress.

The appearance of Orsk was anything but attractive. A solitary hillock rose from a dismal plan. On one side there were the poor huts of the local populance; on the other side were the barracks of the convicts. The only vegetation consisted of prickly weeds and withered sedge.

After the magnificent nature of Ukraine, the green banks of the Dnipro River, the picturesque avenues of beautiful Kiev and spacious southern steppes, Shevchenko viewed the wilderness with profound sadness.

Here began the hard and monotonous life of Private Taras Shevchenko. In the daytime he went through the drills. In the evenings, sitting with the other soldiers in his stuffy barracks, Shevchenko listened to their unhappy tales about beatings and humiliations.

Shevchenko spent ten years in exhile in the distant reaches of the Tsarist empire. The degrading treatment he suffered at the hands of his cruel superiors, and the difficult conditions of harshly disciplined army life undermined his health, but they could not subdue his spirit - on the contrary, his hatred of the Tsarist regime grew still more implacable. Nothing could break his ardent will to struggle and engage in creative work. "I am tormented, I suffer, but I do not repent," Shevchenko said at the time of his most arduous ordeals.

Violating the Tsar's prohibition and disregarding all threats, Shevchenko secretly continued to write poetry. It should be noted that among his immediate superiors there were not only rude martinets, but also some very sensitive and humane people. During his ten years of exile he composed many marvelous works, in which, disclosing his own feelings and experiences, he expressed the cherished aspirations of all oppressed people.

Writing, painting and the hope that he would gain his freedom were the sole consolations of Shevchenko, Private No.191 in the regimental rolls.

Shevchenko Art
T.Shevchenko, Langhiz-Agach, 1848

In the beginning of 1848 a group of officers of the General Staff undertook a scientific expedition to explore the Aral Sea. Taras Shevchenko was offered an opportunity to join the expedition and gladly agreed. The main thing was that he would be rid of the tyranny of his harsh sergeant-majors, and would leave the strench of the barracks.

Shevchenko made many sketches and water colors during the trip. He sketched the forbidding landscape of the Aral Sea and its shores with telling expressiveness, which became interesting artistic documents.

On Kos-Aral Island Shevchenko wrote a great deal. In his diary he termed the poetry written in exile a "Prisoner's Muse." It contained both lyrical pieces and poems - Marina, The Sotnik (Cossack Centurion), and The Sexton's Daughter. Shevchenko's lyrics of the Kos-Aral period is a poetical record of his life in an "unlocked prison". Other verses of the Kos-Aral cycle are of an intimate nature imbued with a mournful mood. However, there is no feeling of hopelessness in Shevchenko's poetry of that period. Through the misty curtain of the current reality the poet discerned the bright outlines of the happy Ukraine-to-be without lord and slaves.

Never did freedom seem so precious to Shevchenko as it did there, in exile and bondage. With all his heart he yearned for Ukraine, although she, too, was deprived of freedom.

That winter Shevchenko composed many songs in the folk-song tradition - sad songs and merry ones, serious songs and jesting ones. During the same period he wrote several autobiographical poems, which carried him back to his childhood and the years of his youth.

In the autumn of 1849 the expedition returned to Orenburg. Shevchenko's sketches and paintings of the Aral Sea were dispatched to headquarters with a petition to have the exile's lot alleviated.

In Orenburg the poet roomed in private quarters and was not subject to the rules of soldiering. He wrote and painted, and he wore civilian clothes. And then a base young lieutenent informed on Shevchenko to the authorities. A search was made of the poet's quarters and his books and letters were confiscated.

Soon after orders were received from St. Petersburg that conditions be made worse for Private Shevchenko. Nicolas I personally was behind that command. The poet was sent to the far-away Novopetrovsk Fortress on the north-eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. For the second time he was sternly forbidden to write or paint. He was now watched more closely.

Shevchenko Art
Self-portrait, 1857

The poet would not give up. At the risk of bringing the wrath of his superiors down on him, he kept writing. In his new place of exile Shevchenko wrote a number of stories in the Russian language, the plots of which unfolded against the background of serfdom.

Shortly before his long-awaited freedom, Shevchenko began to keep a diary in the Russian language. He began it "out of boredom", as he put it simply because he had " a terrible desire to write" and because he wanted to practice writing. "Just as his instrument is imperative for the virtuoso and his brush to the painter, so must a man of letters practice writing."

He had no idea that his Journal (as he titled it, according to fashion) would become one of his most remarkable works. It is more than a biographical document. It is also a unique self-portrait of the man whom Nekrasov called "a most remarkable person of the Russian land" -a self-portrait that allows us to gain an intimate knowlege of the poet, his feelings, thoughts and political convictions.

In his Journal, Shevchenko appears as a staunch fighter, incapable of compromise and firm in his belief that the final victory of the people over the powers that held them in slavery.

We have been accustomed to visualize Shevchenko as he is shown in the most popular portraits of him. He is depicted with a severe oldish face with a long, hanging moustache. But this severe frowning man was a person of gentle and sensitive spirit, of lofty and versatile thought, an advanced man of his time.

When Shevchenko was finally released in 1857, already during the reign of Tsar Alexander II, the poet seemed to have been born anew as though he had dumped the hard years of exile off his back: "It seems to me that I'm exactly the same as I was ten years ago. Not a single trait of my inner being has changed. Is that good? It is good!" he wrote in his Journal.

Short Biography
St.Petersburg Period
Arrest and Exile
Final Years
Quick facts on Shevchenko Biography
My Destiny - an autobiographical essay by Taras Shevchenko

Prints of Taras Shevchenko's watercolours are available at the Shevchenko Museum. These quality prints would be an excellent gift for Shevchenko art lovers. more...

Collection of Ukrainian handicrafts and folk art
First Ukrainian Immigration to Canada
Shevchenko Stamp Collection
Quick Facts on Shevchenko Biography
Become a Donor

The son of a serf, Shevchenko became not only an artist and academician of Saint-Petersburg Academy of Art, but one of the most versatile people of 19th century. His paintings and graphics reflect a refined world that did not resemble his own life...(more)


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Since Feb 25th 2005