Taras Shevchenko

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Shevchenko, Taras Grigor’evich


Born Feb. 25 (Mar. 9), 1814, in the village of Morintsy, now in Zvenigorodka Raion, Cherkassy Oblast; died Feb. 26 (Mar. 10), 1861, in St. Petersburg. Ukrainian poet, artist, thinker, and revolutionary democrat.

Shevchenko was born a serf; orphaned at an early age, he worked as a shepherd and farm laborer for a priest. At the age of 14 he was employed as a “little cossack,” or servant boy, by P. V. Engel’gardt, the lord of the estate who was his master. Shevchenko was taught to read and write by a village d’iachok (lowranking church official). In 1829 he was taken to Vilnius by his master and lived there until early 1831, when he moved with Engel’gardt to St. Petersburg. In 1833 he was apprenticed to “a craft guild master in various forms of painting” named Shiriaev. In the spring of 1838, Shevchenko was bought out of servitude and gained his freedom.

Shevchenko’s earliest known works are the ballad The Mad Woman, the poems “Dumka” (“To the blue sea the water flows”) and “To the Eternal Memory of Kotliarevskii,” and the narrative poem Katerina. These works have been dated 1837 or 1838. A collection of Shevchenko’s poetry entitled Kobzar’ (The Bard), published in 1840, included several previously unpublished poems—”Songs of Mine,” “Perebendia,” “Dumka” (“What do my coal-black brows avail me?”), “To Osnov’ianen-ko,” “Ivan Podkova,” the ballad The Poplar, and the narrative poems Katerina and The Night of Taras.

As a summing-up of Shevchenko’s early work, Kobzar’ was indicative of the poet’s development in the mainstream of romanticism. In the ballads and narrative poems, reality is closely intertwined with the fantastic elements of folk legends and traditions. The plots are based on the unhappiness and tragedy of doomed love. At the same time, a strong realistic strain is already evident in Shevchenko’s early work; his heroines’ feelings are genuine and sincere, and concrete life circumstances can be discerned behind their suffering. Katerina, for example, is a completely realistic narrative poem about the bitter fate, despair, and suicide of a simple peasant girl, deceived by an officer and abandoned by him with her newborn child. In Shevchenko’s successive poems, love and the lot of women emerge as increasingly well-defined historical topics. In the narrative poems The Blind Woman (1842), Marina (1848), and The Princess (1847), Shevchenko justifies and sanctifies ruthless revenge against the oppressors’ violations of human dignity.

The same movement toward realism can be seen in the treatment of historical subjects. From such early works as The Night of Taras (1838) and “Ivan Podkova” (1839), which are imbued with the romance of ancient legends, the poet moved closer to the theme of struggle for national liberation. In his major narrative poem on a historical subject, The Haidamaks (1841), Shevchenko depicted the great popular uprising of 1768, known as the Koliivshchina, against the oppressive yoke of the Polish szlachta. In addition to being historically accurate, this verse epic is wholly addressed to the poet’s contemporaries. By recalling ancestral glories, Shevchenko sought to arouse the oppressed Ukrainian people to the revolutionary struggle for liberation.

In May 1843, Shevchenko journeyed to the Ukraine; he returned to St. Petersburg in February 1844, and in the spring of 1845 he set off once again for the Ukraine, intending to settle in Kiev. What he saw during his travels through the provinces of Kiev, Poltava, Chernigov, and Volyn’ (in the capacity of artist for the Archaeographic Commission of Kiev), and particularly his impressions of the hardships endured by the serfs, had a marked effect on Shevchenko and strengthened his revolutionary aspirations. In the course of his travels he wrote protest poems against serfdom, recording them in an album (Three Years). He read the poems to friends and allowed them to be copied.

In 1846, Shevchenko joined the secret Society of Cyril and Methodius, in which his position was on the left. In April 1847 he was denounced by a provocateur and arrested; he was then sent to serve as a soldier at the fortress of Orsk, in Orenburg Province, and in 1850 he was transferred to the Novopetrovskoe fortification (site of the modern city of Fort-Shevchenko) on the Mangyshlak Peninsula. Shevchenko’s crime, according to his sentence, was that “he wrote poems of the most disgraceful content in the Little Russian [that is, Ukrainian] language.” The deportation sentence provided that Shevchenko be placed under “the strictest observation in order to prevent his producing disgraceful compositions of any kind.” Confirming the sentence, Nicholas I added his own provision, placing Shevchenko “under the strictest supervision and prohibiting [his] writing and drawing” (quoted from Taras Shevchenko: Dokumenty i Materialy, 1963, p. 50).

The narrative poems The Dream (1844) and The Caucasus (1845) and other verse works for which Shevchenko was persecuted by tsarism marked a new stage in the development of Ukrainian political poetry and satire. In these works Shevchenko raised his own historical and political consciousness to a new level; he angrily stigmatized autocracy, called on all peoples to unite in human brotherhood, and glorified the struggle of the peoples of Russia against colonial oppression. The two narrative poems represented a further step in the development of Shevchenko’s realism and revolutionary democratic views. With these and subsequent compositions of Shevchenko’s during the 1840’s and 1850’s, Ukrainian poetry took its rightful place as part of advanced European literature and exercised considerable influence on 19th-century Slavic poetry.

Two poems by Shevchenko that were particularly influential are his “Testament” (1845; “When I die, O let my body”), which openly calls for the overthrow of tsarism and serfdom and envisions the wonderful future in store for the people, and the narrative poem The Heretic, or Jan Hus (1845), which is directed against religious obscurantism and political reaction and is permeated with the idea of friendship among peoples.

Shevchenko’s deportation lasted from June 1847 to August 1857; he was released after the death of Nicholas I. Exile did not destroy his talent, nor did it break his will or his revolutionary convictions. The poetry inspired by what he called the “enslaved Muse”—that is, the poems written in exile and carefully hidden during searches and arrests—bear the mark of Shevchenko’s increasingly revolutionary attitudes; a new power resounds in the cycle of poems The Tsars (1848), which proclaims the crowned tyrants’ guilt and invokes justice against them. In the cycle In the Fortress (1847) the poet pours out his passionate love for the Ukraine and its people—a love sharpened by exile. Elsewhere, Shevchenko expresses his feeling of fraternal love for all oppressed peoples—for example, for the Kazakhs in the poem “The Lord Had an Axe Behind His Door” (1848).

During his exile Shevchenko wrote, in Russian, the realistic novellas The Princess (1853), The Musician (1854–55), The Unfortunate Man (1855), The Captain’s Wife (1855), Twins (1855), and The Artist (1856). The novellas The Servant-Girl (1844) and Varnak (1845) were written before Shevchenko’s exile, and A Pleasant Stroll, Not Without a Moral (1856–58), after. The author’s opposition to serfdom permeates all these works. The central figure in Varnak, The Musician, The Artist, and A PleasantStroll is that of the educated serf, and his experiences are often autobiographical. The hero’s views on art reflect those of the author, who was a confirmed advocate of realism and was close to the “natural school” of Russian literature in both theory and practice.

The road back from exile was long and hard. Shevchenko was stopped on the way, in Novgorod, and forbidden to enter either of the two capitals. Through the efforts of friends, however, he obtained permission to live in St. Petersburg, and he arrived there in the spring of 1858. Here he became associated with the authors writing for the journal Sovremennik; those he was especially close to included N. G. Chernyshevskii, N. A. Dobroliubov, N. A. Nekrasov, M. L. Mikhailov, and the Kurochkin brothers. The note of anger in Shevchenko’s satire grew sharper, and the poet was once again placed under the strict supervision of the Third Section. During his visit to the Ukraine in the summer of 1859, Shevchenko was arrested near the village of Prokhorovka; he was then forced to leave the Ukraine and return to St. Petersburg.

A new edition of Kobzar’ —the most complete of the three editions published in his lifetime—appeared in 1860; certain poems, however, such as The Dream, The Caucasus, and The Heretic, as well as “Testament,” were necessarily excluded. Dobroliubov reviewed Kobzar’ in Sovremennik, calling Shevchenko “a true people’s poet” (Sobr. soch., vol. 6, 1963, p. 142). A number of the poems not included in Kobzar’ because of the censorship appeared in the collection New Poems of Pushkin and Shevchenko, which friends of Shevchenko’s published in Leipzig in 1859.

The works of 1857–61 represent the apex of Shevchenko’s poetry; there is now greater wealth and variety in his subjects (social, political, and philosophical), in his attitudes, in the range of colors of his nature poems, in the profound wisdom of his reflections on poetry, as in the triptych made up of “Fortune,” “The Muse,” and “Fame” (1858), in the rhythm and sophistication of poetic means, and in the skill of artistic imagery. Shevchenko’s narrative poems The Neophytes (1857), God’s Fool (1857), and Mary (1859), as well as his lyric verse of the 1850’s and early 1860’s, are among the highest achievements of this period. In The Neophytes, revolutionaries and Decembrists are glorified through allegorical images of early Christians; one can easily identify Nicholas I in the figure of Nero, and the nobles and landed gentry in Shevchenko’s patricians.

Shevchenko’s imitations of psalms and biblical motifs were another means by which he expressed revolutionary democratic ideas, as exemplified by his “Imitation of the 11th Psalm,” “Hosea, Chapter XIV,” and Mary. In his lyric masterpieces “O Blind and Wretched People,” “Archimedes and Galileo,” “There Is No Joy in Anything,” and “Although They Do Not Hit a Man Who Is Down” (all written in 1860), Shevchenko’s calls to revolution are issued with the assurance that “punishment will come! for the tsars and tsareviches of this earth.” In these and other poems (especially in “Silent Light! Shining Light!”), Shevchenko envisions the future in the light of socialist ideals.

In his poetic writing, Shevchenko was close to the folk tradition; without breaking away from that tradition, his poetry evolved toward increasingly greater originality. The rhythmic intonation of Shevchenko’s poetry is based on Ukrainian popular verse, but it is richer in its diversity of forms and rhythms and variety of strophic construction, whether syllabic (with 12-and 11-syllable or 14-syllable strophes) or syllabotonic (with, for example, 28 types of strophes in the poems written in iambic tetrameter alone). Shevchenko’s contribution to Ukrainian poetry was unique in that he radically broadened its cultural and intellectual horizons, drawing on the history and contemporary life of various European peoples and incorporating ideas and images from European literature.

Many of Shevchenko’s works were put to music by N. V. Lysenko (see his collection Music to Shevchenko’s “Kobzar’”) and other Ukrainian composers, such as K. G. Stetsenko, Ia. S. Stepovyi, and S. F. Liudkevich, as well as by the Russian composers M. P. Mussorgsky, P. I. Tchaikovsky, and S. V. Rachmaninoff. “Oh Songs, My Songs,” “Testament,” and the first part of The Mad Woman (“The mighty Dnieper roars and groans”) were made into folk songs, and “Testament” became one of the songs of the revolutionary movement.

Shevchenko’s death was perceived as a great loss for literature and for the liberation movement. His funeral was attended by many literary and public figures, including M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, I. S. Turgenev, F. M. Dostoevsky, and N. S. Leskov. N. A. Nekrasov wrote the poem “On Shevchenko’s Death,” and A. I. Herzen published a moving obituary in Kolokol (The Bell).

Shevchenko was also known as an artist. From 1838 to 1845 he studied with K. P. Briullov at the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. His early works, such as Katerina (1842, T. G. Shevchenko Museum, Kiev) and the series of etchings Pictures of the Ukraine (published 1844), were indicative of Shevchenko’s orientation toward realism, culminating in the keen accusatory force of the watercolors and drawings done in exile—for example, the series The Parable of the Prodigal Son and Running the Gauntlet (ink and bister, 1856–57).

After his return from exile, Shevchenko did a great deal of engraving, which he saw as a means of spreading art among the people; in 1860 he was given the title of academician in copper engraving. He produced a series of profound psychological portraits, such as his Self-portrait (1840–41, T. G. Shevchenko Museum, Kiev), and affecting landscapes of the Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Shevchenko was the founder of modern Ukrainian literature as well as a pioneer of critical realism and of the revolutionary democratic current in Ukrainian literature and painting. The best traditions of Ukrainian literature are linked to his creative work. Shevchenko’s literary works have been translated into many foreign languages, and their study constitutes a specialized branch of modern literature. There are Shevchenko museums in various cities and villages, including Kiev, Kanev (where Shevchenko is buried), Shevchenko, Morintsy, Leningrad, and Orsk. The University of Kiev and the Institute of Literature of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR are named after Shevchenko, and the Ukrainian republic instituted the Shevchenko Prize. In May 1861, in conformity with the poet’s wish, the coffin bearing his remains was taken to the Ukraine and buried on Chernech’ia Gora, which overlooks the Dnieper near Kanev.


Povne zibrannia tvoriv, vols. 1–10. Kiev, 1939–64.
Povne zibrannia tvoriv, vols. 1–6. Kiev, 1963–64.
In Russian translation:
Sobr. soch., vols. 1–5. Moscow, 1964–65.


Franko, I. “Stat’i o Shevchenko.” Soch., vol. 9. Moscow, 1959.
Ryl’skii, M. Poeziia Tarasa Shevchenko. Kiev, 1961.
Bel’chikov, N. Taras Shevchenko. Moscow, 1961.
Ivakin, Iu. Stil’ politychnoi poezii Shevchenka. Kiev, 1961.
Priima, F. Shevchenko i russkaia literatura XIX v. Moscow, 1961.
Kasiian, V. I. Mystetstvo Tarasa Shevchenka. Kiev, 1963.
Beletskii, A. I., and A. I. Deich. Taras Shevchenko, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1964.
Parkhomenko, M. T. G. Shevchenkovelikii ukrainskii poet. Moscow, 1964.
Shubravs’kyi, V. Ie. Shevchenko i literatura narodiv SRSR. Kiev, 1964.
Shaginian, M. Taras Shevchenko, 4th ed. Moscow, 1964.
Kiriliuk, le. Taras Shevchenko, 2nd ed. Kiev, 1964.
Svitova velych Shevchenka, vols. 1–3. Kiev, 1964.
Khinkulov, L. Taras Shevchenko, 3rd ed. Moscow, 1966.
Chamata, N. Rytmika T. H. Shevchenka. Kiev, 1974.
Shabliovskii, E. T. G. Shevchenko i russkie revoliutsionnye demokraty, 2nd ed. Kiev, 1975.
Shevchenkoznavstvo: Pidsumky i problemy. Kiev, 1975.
Burachek, M. Velikii narodnyi khudozhnik. Kiev, 1939.
Vandrovskaia, E. B. T. G. Shevchenko-khudozhnik. Alma-Ata, 1963.
Litopys zhyttia i tvorchosti Shevchenka. Kiev, 1961.
T. H. Shevchenko: Bibliohrafiia literatury pro zhyttia i tvorchist’ (1839–1958), vols. 1–2. Kiev, 1963.
Sarana, F. T. H. Shevchenko: Bibliohrafiia iuvileinoi literatury (1960–1964). Kiev, 1968.
Shevchenkivs’kyi slovnyk, vols. 1–2. Kiev, 1976–77.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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