Who better to tell the story of Ukraine than the kobzar, a native son who walked its many roads and acquired a vast collection of experiences? It is this iconic figure, who feels the land with his feet and drinks it with his eyes, that is the prism through which Taras Shevchenko composed his pioneering collection of poems, The Kobzar.
The fate of the poems themselves is extraordinary; written over a span of many years, they mark many crossroads in the poet’s life. They were composed on the road and in the city, in prison and in exile; they are illuminated by the white nights of the imperial capitol and filled with the warm wind of the Caspian deserts. Shevchenko’s life, from serfdom to internationally acclaimed artist, is the cloth from which each poem is cut. Many of Shevchenko’s own concerns in the poems are also the cultural and national concerns of the Ukraine. Today, the poems are an enduring literary monument—a testament to the history and evolution of the Ukrainian language, to the people and their complex fate, to their hardships and triumphs.
Shevchenko’s poems show his love of the Ukraine but this love is complicated by the struggles and ideals articulated in the poems; he depicts serfdom, soldiering, Cossacks who struggle for independence, Kiev filled with shrines, life on the steppe and the life of the peasant. From this panoply, emerges a Ukrainian national icon characterized by beauty and melancholy. History and politics are intertwined with meditations on religion and morality; the poems’ epic scope is complemented with lyrical reflections on subjects ranging from affluence and poverty to the meaning of work and science. Of these, family and familial duty emerge as overarching themes, which the poet considers to be of supreme value.
As a foundational text, The Kobzar has played an important role in the formation of Ukrainian literature and its written language. There are over 125 editions of the book in the Ukraine alone. The first editions were censored by the czar, but the book still made a large impact on Ukrainian culture. Likewise, a multitude of translations attest to the book’s impact on world culture as well. There is a special museum dedicated to the book in the Ukraine, and there are several museums dedicated to Shevchenko himself around the world.
Masterfully translated by Peter Fedynsky, Voice of America journalist and expert on Ukrainian studies, The Kobzar brings awareness of the Ukraine's depth and cultural wisdom.
Peter Fedynsky is available for public speaking on topics related to the translation, life and work of Taras Shevchenko, and related subjects. To book Peter Fedynsky, please visit Glagoslav Speakers.
Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) was a Ukrainian author and painter. The Kobzar is considered his most important work, which he worked on throughout his life. His paintings earned him many awards and a professional title from the Imperial Academy of Arts. Shevchenko has a special place in Ukrainian history because his work is considered to be the foundation for modern written Ukrainian and Ukrainian literature.
Born into serfdom, Shevchenko experienced poverty from an early age. By eleven, he had lost both his parents, but before passing away his father had managed to get him an apprenticeship with a deacon who taught the young boy how to read and write. After the death of his parents, Shevchenko was an itinerant worker until, at the age of fourteen, he was hired as a servant in the house of Pavel Engelhardt.
At an early age the boy showed a propensity for art and was clearly talented. At fifteen, he travelled with Engelhardt to St. Petersburg and was given a series of apprenticeships. Eventually, he came to the attention of prominent St. Petersburgintellectuals, including the poet Vasily Zhukovsky and the painter Karl Bryullov. Together, the two men bought Shevchenko out of serfdom for 2,500 rubles by auctioning off one of Bryullov’s portraits of Zhukovsky. In 1838, Shevchenko was accepted into the Imperial Academy of Arts as a student in Bryullov’s workshop.
The first half of the 1840s is considered a propitious period for the artist. Having written poetry for a long time, Shevchenko published his first book The Kobzar, in 1840. The collection earned him critical and popular acclaim, and in the Ukraine his status as a cultural figure was on the rise. During this time Shevchenko traveled between Kiev and St. Petersburg, painted, and published poetry.
In Kiev, he became a member of the Kyrylo-Methodius Society, which would eventually be the target of state investigation. In 1847, the poet was arrested and convicted of subversion on account of his poetry, and sentenced to serve in a military detachment at the edge of the Ural Mountains. Czar Nicholas I specified in his instructions that Shevchenko was prohibited from writing or painting.
First stationed at Orenburg and later at Orsk, Shevchenko violated the czar’s orders by constantly writing poems and drawing. This insubordination led to greater restrictions on his freedom and culminated in his detention at the remote town of Novopetrovsk. (In honor of the poet, Novopetrovsk was renamed Shevchenko in 1963). He was not forgotten by his friends, however, and in 1857, due to their tenacious appeals, Shevchenko was finally allowed to return from exile.
His health was permanently affected by the ordeal, but his creative output remained strong. In 1860, the Imperial Academy of Arts bestowed the artist with a professional academic title. Shortly after this honor, Shevchenko’s health significantly declined and he died six month later, in March 10, 1861—seven days before the official abolition of serfdom.