The 9th of March 2016 marked the two hundred and second anniversary of the birth of the great poet, Taras Shevchenko, who helped form the country’s national consciousness and – apart from being its foremost national bard – is also widely known as a kind of Ukrainian prophet. In his lyrics Shevchenko condemned the autocracy of the Russian Empire and called on the nation to fight against oppression. Intimately describing the plight of enslaved peasantry, praising anti-serfdom movements and using – in the words of the authorities – ‘Ukrainian language full of outrageous content,’ he was accordingly sent to jail – an experience which deeply influenced his life and work.
For the bulk of the Ukrainian public today, Shevchenko’s sufferings thus couldn’t be more relevant. Indeed, his patriotic, revolutionary-democratic ideas make him sound near-contemporary. Modern appeals to the national spirit and invocations of the need for political change couldn’t be better expressed than in Shevchenko’s voice. One passage from the poet has gone viral on the internet – read by Armenian-Ukrainian protestor Serhiy Nigoyan, an activist later killed by gunfire amidst clashes between demonstrators and police at the Hrushevskoho Streets Riots in January 2014. Nigoyan, the first protestor to be killed, was subsequently awarded the title ‘Hero of Ukraine’.
The very same passage – from Shevchenko’s ‘Caucasus’ – was read out at at the Evening of Poetry and Music, which took place at the Ukrainian Cathedral Hall on Saturday 12th March. The annual Shevchenko celebration is a well-established tradition in Ukraine and this is the second time it’s been introduced to a London audience, the poems performed both in Ukrainian and English. To a non-Ukrainian ear Shevchenko’s poetry sounds rich, yet the difference in the language-structures is hard to ignore – Ukrainian sentences generally being longer than their English equivalent. Equally, in translation, keeping the rhyme is challenging and sometimes requires radical reordering of words. That said, the poet’s themes are universal: compassion, human dignity, love of freedom and homeland. One of the most moving quotes came from the poem ‘In Captivity’: ‘Terrible to fall in chains / Die in captivity / But worse, far worse, to sleep, sleep in liberty.’
The dramatic tone of the poetry was complimented effortlessly by an accompanying light-show, spotlights shining colour after colour on those performing, always easy on the eye – a stirring warmth fading to cold tones for the more tragic pieces. There was also a cleverly chosen musical accompaniment: Bach and Faure (among others) and works written by the event’s organiser, Alla Sirenko – cello and piano supporting leading Ukrainian soprano Alla Kravchuk. The purity and soulfulness of the music were apt to the occasion, though there were moments too when it seemed to drown out the poetry and be a distraction rather than a support.
One particularly heartfelt poem was the final ‘Testament’, in which the poet not only hymns the graces of his motherland, but again invokes the fight for freedom. Set to music by Sirenko (originally for orchestra), it was performed by her trio of artists – with Alla Kravchuk’s 100 year-old Ukrainian linen shirt and traditional dress underlying the link between the poet and his native culture. ‘Testament’ was a fitting end to the evening, being Shevchenko’s final edict to Ukrainians on their path to nationhood: ‘Make my grave there – and arise / Sundering your chains / Bless your freedom with the blood / Of foemen’s evil veins!’
Such sentiments, like so much of his poetry, are glaringly relevant to Ukraine’s situation today and, given the relative youth of the Ukrainian national consciousness (just over 100 years old), one senses the poet’s foresight too. The country’s brief earlier independence – sandwiched between Tsarist and Soviet domination, and giving way to a democracy which has, at times, seemed one in name only – has kept Shevchenko’s work triumphantly in currency: it’s significant that many of today’s Ukrainian writers are imbued with the same spirit and tackling the same themes.
Yet unlike them, Taras Shevchenko was a pioneer in his own right, and his themes – the experience of oppression, the struggle for identity, the longing to chart one’s own course – are hardly specific to his country. Sirenko is by her own admission proud to have brought Shevchenko to a non-Ukrainian audience – ‘I’m sure now they know Taras Shevchenko is a poet, not a footballer,’ she has remarked. One can only congratulate her on the obvious mix of nationalities in the full-to-capacity audience, in the hope that next year it will contain more young people too: for Shevchenko’s themes of throwing off shackles and finding your own authentic voice surely have urgent value to them: whatever country they’re from.