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A XIX-century poet is now Ukraine’s driving force of change

Shevchenko – Superman. By Andriy Yermolenko
A XIX-century poet is now Ukraine’s driving force of change
The traditional image of Taras Shevchenko
The traditional “party icon” image of Taras Shevchenko

Ukraine’s #1 national symbol, Taras Shevchenko, is getting a major makeover. He is becoming much younger and more modern. The Ukrainian poet was born in 1814 into a serf’s family at the time when the Russian Empire had effectively eliminated Ukrainian statehood. His life was one of protest against Russian supremacy and social oppression. His poems, written in the style of romanticism, were dreams of national statehood and a decent life for Ukrainians.

Read more: Taras Shevchenko. The case of a personal fight against the Russian Empire

200 years later, the same topics are still relevant in Ukraine. But artist Andriy Yermolenko is doing everything to change that. “Shevchenko was never convenient for the ruling authorities, so they did everything for people to stop reading him,” Andriy told Euromaidan Press. According to Andriy, the exaltation of the poet to the state of a “party icon” prevents people from actually reading his writings. And that is why little changed in Ukraine over the last 200 years.

To spark up the “party icon” image, Andriy shows a contemporary Shevchenko in his project Shevchenkiana: he becomes Superman bearing the “T.Sh.” monogram, a traditional Ukrainian Kozak, a policeman, biker, rock star.

“I want him to stop being relevant, so that there would finally be no masters in Ukraine, and for the bloodsuckers to perish, and so that Shevchenko would finally lose his relevance and stop being a prophet. He demanded: ‘arise, tear asunder your chains,’ and in response we start talking about how awesome he is.”

It seems that Andriy’s efforts have not been in vain. After Ukrainians rose up in Euromaidan revolution to depose the “bloodsucking” corrupt President Yanukovych and his cohort, they are not only forced to continue their battle against a hybrid Russian invasion, but are struggling to change the corrupt system which is incompatible with a dignified life. Often, Shevchenko leads the way.

Here are some ways that Shevchenko contributes to Ukraine’s ongoing struggle against military aggression and for democracy, in pictures of various artists and translations of his poems to English.

By telling Ukrainians to rise up

“Bury me and arise
Tear asunder your chains,
And water your liberty
With blood of your foes.
Then in the great family,
A renewed people, and free
Do not forget to speak softly
And not unkindly of me.”

From Testament; hear it read aloud by Serhiy Nihoyan, the Armenian-Ukrainian protester that was the first to be shot at Euromaidan; read the whole poem translated by Stephen Komarnyckyj [expand title=”by clicking here:”]

When I die, then bury me
In a grave amidst
The width of the Steppe
In my beloved Ukraine,
So that in the broad pastures
By the Dnipro and its banks
I can see and hear
The river’s roaring waters.
When it bears from Ukraine,
Into the blue sea,
The blood of our foes… Only then
Will I abandon
The pasture and the mountain,
To ascend to God and pray…
Till then I shall not know the deity.
Bury me and arise
Tear asunder your chains,
And water your liberty
With blood of your foes.
Then in the great family,
A renewed people, and free
Do not forget to speak softly
And not unkindly of me.

Translated by Stephen Komarnyckyj [/expand]

By telling them to keep fighting

“Keep fighting—you are sure to win!
God helps you in your fight!
For fame and freedom march with you,
And right is on your side!”

From Prometheus; read full poem, translated by John Weir [expand title=”by clicking here:”]

Planted thick with human woe, laved with human blood.
Chained to a rock, age after age
Prometheus there bears
Eternal punishment—each day
His breast the eagle tears.
It rends the heart but cannot drain
The life-blood from his veins—
Each day the heart revives again
And once again is gay.
Our spirit never can be downed,
Our striving to be free.
The sateless one will never plow
The bottom of the sea.
The vital spirit he can’t chain,
Or jail the living truth.
He cannot dim the sacred flame,
The great god’s fame on earth.

‘Tis not for us to duel with Thee!
Not ours the right to judge Thy deeds!
Ours but to weep and weep, and weeping,
To knead the daily bread we eat
With tears and sweat and blood unending.
We groan beneath the yoke of hangmen,
While drunken justice sodden sleeps.
Oh, when will justice rise at last?
And God, when wilt Thou give
Thyself from all Thy toil a rest?—
And let the people live!
Yet we believe in Thy great might
And in the living soul.
There shall be liberty and right!
And then to Thee alone
All tongues will pray, all heads will bow
For ever and ever.
But in the meantime, rivers flow,
The blood of men in rivers!

Mighty mountains, row on row, blanketed with cloud,
Planted thick with human woe, laved with human blood.
‘Twas there that We, the Gracious, found
Poor freedom hiding ‘mid the crags
(A hungry thing, and all in rags),
And sick’d our dogs to drag her down.
A host of soldiers on those hills
Gave up their lives. And as for blood! ?
All emperors could drink their fill,
In widows’ tears alone they could
Be drowned together with their seed!
The sweetheart’s tears, in secret shed!
Unsolaceable mothers’ tears!
The heavy tears of fathers hoary!
Not streams, but veritable seas
Of blazing tears! So—Glory! Glory!
To hounds, and keepers of the hounds,
And to our rulers golden-crowned

And glory, mountains blue, to you,
In ageless ice encased!
And glory, freedom’s knights, to you,
Whom God will not forsake.
Keep fighting—you are sure to win!
God helps you in your fight!
For fame and freedom march with you,
And right is on your side!

A hut, a crust, but all your own,
Not granted by a master’s grace,
No lord to claim them for his own,
No lord to drive you off in chains.
With us, it’s different! We can read,
The Gospel of the Lord we know!. . .
And from the dankest dungeon deep
Up to the most exalted throne—
We’re all in gold and nakedness.
Gome, learn from us! We’ll teach you what
The price of bread is, and of salt!
We’re Christian folk: with shrines we’re blest,
We’ve schools, and wealth, and we have God!
Just one thing does not give us rest:
How is it that your hut you’ve got
Without our leave how is it we
To you, as to a dog a bone,
Your crust don’t toss! How can it be
That you don’t pay us for the sun!
And that is all! We’re Christian folk,
We are not heathens here below
We want but little!. . . You would gain!
If only you’d make friends with us,
There’s much that you would learn from us!
Just look at all our vast domains—
Boundless Siberia alone!
And prisons—myriads! Peoples—throngs!
From the Moldavian to the Finn
All silent are in all their tongues
Because such great contentment reigns!
With us, a priest the Bible reads
And then to teach the flock proceeds
About a king of ancient times,
Who took to bed his best friend’s bride,
And slew the friend he wronged besides….
Now he’s in heaven! See the kind
We send to heaven! You’re denied,
As yet, our holy Christian light!
Come, learn from us! With us, it’s loot,
But pay the shot,
And straight to God,
And take your family to boot!
Just look at us! What don’t we know?
We count the stars, and flax we grow,
And curse the French. We trade or sell,
And sometimes lose in cards as well,
Live souls … not Negroes … our own stock,
And Christians, too … but common folk.
We don’t steal slaves! No, God forbid!
We do not trade in stolen goods.
We act according to the rules!…

You love your brother as is writ
Within the Golden Rule?!
O damned by God, O hypocrites,
O sacrilegious ghouls!
Not for your brother’s soul you care,
But for your brother’s hide!
And off your brother’s back you tear:
Rich furs for daughter’s pride.
A dowry for your bastard child,
And slippers for your spouse.
And for yourself, things that your wife
Won’t even know about!

For whom, O Jesus, Son of God,
Then wert Thou crucified?
For us good folks, or for the word
Of truth… . Or to provide
A spectacle at which to laugh? :
That’s what has come to pass.
Temples and chapels, icons and shrines,
And candlesticks, and myrrh incense,
And genuflexion, countless times
Before Thy image, giving thanks
For war and loot and rape and blood—
To bless the fratricide they beg Thee,
Then gifts of stolen goods they bring Thee,
From gutted homes part of the loot!…
We’re civilised! And we set forth
To enlighten others,
To make them see the sun of truth ….
Our blind, simple brothers!!
We’ll show you everything! If but
Yourselves to us you’ll yield.
The grimmest prisons how to build,
How shackles forge of steel,
And how to wear them!. . . How to pleat
The crudest knouts!—Oh yes, we’ll teach
You everything! If but to us
Your mountains blue you’ll cede,
The last … because your seas and fields
We have already seized.

And you, my good Yakov, you also were driven
To die in those mountains! Your life you have given
For your country’s hangmen, and not for Ukraine ,
Your life clean and blameless. ‘Twas your fate to drain
The Muscovite goblet, the full, fatal draught!
Oh friend good and noble, who’ll be never forgot!
Now wander, free spirit, all over Ukraine
And with the brave Cossacks soar over her coast,
Keep watch o’er the grave mounds on her spreading plains,
And weep with the Cossacks o’er all of her woes,
And wait till from prison I come home again,
And in the meantime —I shall sow
My thoughts, my bitter tears,
My words of wrath. Oh, let them grow
And whisper with the breeze.
The gentle breezes from Ukraine
Will lift them up with dew
And carry them to you, my friend!…
And when they come to you,
You’ll welcome them with tender tears
And read each heartfelt line….
The mounds, the steppes, the sea and me
They’ll bring back to your mind.”

Translated by John Weir [/expand]

By showing an example of love to Ukraine

“Bright star! My tears fall.
Have you risen above Ukraine now?”

From “The sun sets;” read full poem, translated by Stephen Komarnyckyj [expand title=”by clicking here:”]

The birds fall silent, the field is mute
People happily lay down to sleep,
But I lay awake and look… my heart
Yearns for a dark orchard in Ukraine.
I yearn, I yearn, remembering
And in memories my heart rests.
The fields darken, the forest
And the mountains too… and a star
Rises in a sky so blue… Oh star!
Bright star! My tears fall.
Have you risen above Ukraine now
And do those dark eyes seek you
Among the sky’s expanse of blue?
Or have they forgotten all?
When they forget then let them sleep
So that they do not know my fate.  [/expand]

By reminding them not to be slaves

“I thought “If the slaves
Had not bowed down
These palaces would not stand
Above the river, defiling all…
A brother or a sister would survive
But… there is nothing now…”

From “Once, at night, while I walked.” To read full poem [expand title=”click below.”]

Once, at night, while I walked.
Beside the Neva … and thought
To myself, as my mind talked
“If it had” I thought “If the slaves
Had not bowed down
These palaces would not stand
Above the river, defiling all…
A brother or a sister would survive
But… there is nothing now…
Neither God nor Demi God
Only the dog trainers rule
And we, the most adept of them
Weep and nourish their hounds again!”
Thus I, to myself, at night
Beside the Neva as I walked
Thinking fine thoughts. I did not see
Over the river as if from a pit
The eyes of a kitten blink…
But it was just two lamps
Shining by the Apostol’s Gate.
I fell silent and crossed myself
And spat three times just to be sure
And then walked on again and thought
Of the things I had thought before.

Translated by Stephen Komarnyckyj[/expand]

Read also: Taras, Nadiya, and the empire of slaves


About the translators: Stephen Komarnyckyj runs Kalyna Language Press. Kalyna Language Press began as a small scale literary publisher in 2011.We have published a book of Ukrainian poetry in partnership with Waterloo Press, which won an English PEN award in 2013 and was subsequently voted reader’s favourite on the PEN World Bookshelf. Our recent publications include translations of two of Ukraine’s best contemporary authors, Vasyl Shkliar and Liubov Holota.  Raven’s Way is a tale from Ukraine’s independence war set in the twenties, which combines Cossacks, Amazons and Witches with graphic battle scenes. Episodic Memory is a beautifully crafted fictionalised memoir of a Steppe childhood. The book reads as if it were written in three dimensional ink. Please check out their website for forthcoming publications:

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