March 5, 2021

Rethinking Shevchenko (in a good way)


For several decades now, February has been designated as Black History Month. For Ukrainian Americans, the month of March has always been the closest equivalent of Ukrainian History Month. Year after year, until the COVID-19 pandemic struck, March was the month when Ukrainian schoolchildren were taught to honor Taras Shevchenko, the quintessential spiritual leader and Founding Father of the modern Ukrainian nation.

While our Irish friends celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with wild revelry and drinking songs, we Ukrainian kids did not look forward to March with quite the same level of glee. For many of us, the weeks leading up to Shevchenko’s birthday were full of anxiety and stress as we had to overcome our stage fright and memorize long stanzas of Shevchenko’s poetry – poems full of heartbreak and cries of anguish over a nation still suffering from centuries of Tsarist colonialism, serfdom, cultural genocide and Soviet tyranny. Let’s be honest: For most of us, celebrating Shevchenko was not a “feel good” experience that generated lots of happy childhood memories. This was no happier an experience for our parents and teachers (bless their souls) who felt obligated to continue this time-honored tradition but had no idea how to make it more child-friendly, much less creative, or intellectually rewarding.

Cowering under “The Bard’s” glowering portrait, we may have been less than inspired as we dead-panned his verses with forced pathos. Still, we did our best to do him justice.
Ukraine’s struggle for freedom and justice is far from over. But as Ukraine and the diaspora prepare to celebrate 30 years of Ukrainian independence, it is worth taking a fresh look at this remarkable human being – not only as a historical figure relevant to Ukrainians, but as an inspiring role model for the entire world community – a world starved for genuine political heroes.

When Shevchenko died in 1861 at the young age of 47, there was little hope that his dream of freedom could ever be achieved. Three weeks after his death, Tsar Aleхander II began the emancipation of serfs, but the vast majority of Ukrainians continued to live in a state of abject poverty. The Ukrainian language was at risk of extinction, actively suppressed by the Russian authorities, and despite all of Shevchenko’s passionate writing, there was only a handful of Ukrainian intellectuals that were prepared to carry on his mission.

Despite our cultural tendency toward pessimism, it is worth recognizing that many of Shevchenko’s most cherished dreams are being fulfilled.

First, the Ukrainian language that Shevchenko championed is now spoken by nearly 40 million people worldwide (and this number is growing, now that more Russian speakers in Ukraine are making a concerted effort to learn their ancestral language). Compare this to less than one million Irish citizens that still speak Gaelic (Even the most zealous adherents of the radical Irish Republican Army and Sinn Fein speak the King’s English – their oppressor’s language, albeit with a heavy brogue). Only 6 million people speak Danish. Yet no one would deny that for all its similarities with other Scandinavian languages, Danish is distinctive with its own value and literature. There are other beautiful languages that face extinction. Navajo, Chippewa and Lakota, for eхample, are spoken by no more than 200,000 Americans each. And Cheyenne – one of the most beautiful of the Native American languages – has only 2,000, mostly elderly fluent speakers.

Beyond the advancement of the Ukrainian language and literature, Shevchenko was a passionate advocate for economic justice and an end to serfdom. Here, too, there is reason for hope. Despite chronic corruption that has crippled its economic growth, Ukraine has achieved 98 percent literacy. Advanced technology and higher education have enabled millions of Ukrainians to work their way out of poverty and to create a viable middle class. And Ukrainians are gaining worldwide recognition as some of the most innovative and successful professionals on the planet.

Ukrainians no longer need to assimilate into Russian society in order to gain recognition for their accomplishments.

As one of the first exemplars of non-violent resistance to Russian tyranny, Shevchenko helped to inspire at least five non-violent revolutions in Ukraine – revolutions that would rival the greatest accomplishments of Mahatma Gandhi, Lech Walesa or Martin Luther King, Jr.: the Ukrainian dissident movement of the 1960s thru the 1980s; the Zeleny Svit environmental movement that challenged the Soviet coverup following the Chornobyl nuclear disaster; the Rukh movement for independence; the student hunger strikes of 1990; the Orange Revolution of 2004; and the Euro-Maidan Revolution of Dignity of 2013-2014.

We could add the 40 years of martyrdom, spiritual witness and resistance by the underground Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

The poetic seeds that Shevchenko scattered across the Ukrainian countryside have led to a rich harvest. Shevchenko has inspired millions of Ukrainians to show remarkable courage and resiliency. Despite decades of brutal reprisals, forced famine and genocidal policies, Shevchenko’s ghost and his passionate poetry have taught generations of Ukrainians how to speak truth to power, to defy evil, to denounce hypocrisy and to fight for human rights.

What our parents and Ukrainian schoolteachers never quite taught us was that Shevchenko was also a man far ahead of his time. He was not a bigot or a chauvinist. As a Ukrainian patriot, he was also a multi-culturalist. He respected other cultures and the inherent rights of other nationalities. When he wrote “і chuzhoho nauchaites” (and learn about others) that was not just a polemical nicety. Shevchenko understood that by respecting other cultures, by “learning what is foreign to us,” and by honoring other nations’ struggle for freedom, we win respect for our own. And by honoring the dignity of other peoples, we will not be so easily tempted to become bigots or racists or oppressors in our own right.

When the tsar exiled him to Kazakhstan for 10 years of hard labor, Shevchenko befriended his Kazakh neighbors. He did not treat them as racially or culturally inferior, and the Kazakhs returned his respect. When the tsar prohibited Shevchenko from writing and painting, the Kazakhs provided him with the supplies he needed to pursue his artistic passions. Although their Asian heritage and Islamic faith was different from his own, Shevchenko was one of the first white Slavs to treat them as equals. The Kazakhs honored Shevchenko by naming a city, a harbor and national monuments after him (Why were we never taught this in Ukrainian school?).

In his own life, Shevchenko was a practitioner of non-violent resistance. But he also believed that a nation has the right to defend itself militarily from outside aggressors, and to depose tyrants by violent means if necessary.
In one of his poems, Shevchenko asked plaintively when Ukraine would be blessed with a leader of Washington’s stature.

But unlike America’s Founding Fathers, Shevchenko was not a slaveowner. Shevchenko was himself born a serf – an indentured servant who was born into abject poverty. As a youngster, he was subjected to savage beatings, and he had to be bought out of servitude by an aristocrat who admired his genius and his talent as an artist. So, Shevchenko was an abolitionist who befriended Ira Aldridge and made common cause with blacks who fought for emancipation in the United States as well as Russians who fought for the end of serfdom.

Shevchenko was not a Marxist. Beyond his hatred of feudalism and serfdom, he did not subscribe to any particular economic theory – either socialist or capitalist. But he certainly fought for social justice and he demanded that the poor be treated like human beings. He understood the power dynamics and institutional structures that kept entire swaths of society oppressed and downtrodden while oligarchs and aristocrats accumulated wealth, depriving the poor of fair wages or financial security.

During the turbulent year 2020, after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Americans have been forced to confront the ugly legacy of white supremacy and the impunity with which black men and women are still being murdered in broad daylight.
In 2020 America grappled with its complicated past and many Americans sought to cling to their old illusions about some of their national heroes, condemning what has been called “cancel culture.” From Columbus to Francis Scott Key to Robert E. Lee, Americans were challenged to face up to the most sordid aspects of their history: slavery, Jim Crow, institutional racism, police brutality, white supremacy and the suppression of human rights. Many heroes were torn down from their pedestals.

Many of our Founding Fathers do not hold up well under the scrutiny of history or the passage of time. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson may have been champions of liberty in the abstract, and we can be grateful for their vague vision of a society where all men (and women) are created equal. But in their private lives, these were men who fell far short of their lofty ideals.

There is much to admire about our first president. His farewell address showed how a president can uphold democratic values and relinquish power with grace and dignity. His visit to a synagogue in Rhode Island showed his deep commitment to religious liberty. But Washington was also a slaveholder who kept more than 300 human beings in bondage. When one of them escaped, Washington had her whipped ruthlessly.

Similarly, Thomas Jefferson had ambivalent feelings about slavery. But during his lifetime, like many slaveowners, Jefferson used his power to coerce Sally Hemmings, and possibly other slaves, to bear his children – children that were born into slavery, though they were emancipated following Jefferson’s death.

In poems like “Naimychka” (the “Hireling” or “Servant Girl”), Shevchenko wrote eloquently and compassionately about the plight of countless Ukrainian women who fell victim to the brutal realities of economic inequality, male domination and sexual exploitation.

We are all sinful people, and even our heroes fall short of the traits we would like to ascribe to them. But even with the passage of time, Shevchenko’s integrity holds up remarkably well – even under the harshest spotlight and the most stringent values of the modern era.

Unlike many European countries that have fallen under the influence of Vladimir Putin and his lavish financing of right-wing parties, white supremacists and anti-immigration extremists, the vast majority of Ukrainians have refused to stoop to bigotry or hatred of “the Other.” Even after Mr. Putin invaded Crimea and war broke out in the Donbas, Ukrainians welcomed Crimean Tatars and refugees from the east. Despite seeing 1.3 million people displaced from their homes, Ukraine did not experience a refugee crisis.

As descendants of Shevchenko’s political maturity and multicultural patriotism, we can take pride in knowing that modern Ukraine elected a man of Jewish heritage by a landslide. He received 70 percent of the vote. Unlike many of its neighbors, Ukraine has maintained a firm commitment to religious freedom and ecumenism. Ukrainians have demonstrated not only superficial, inter-ethnic “tolerance,” but they have expressed a deep solidarity with other oppressed peoples.

As the world changes, and as our understanding of history evolves, hopefully our political vision in the diaspora will also mature. And as we mature, it is worth rethinking Shevchenko as a complex figure and genuine hero whose basic human decency measures up to even our most stringent moral standards.

Alex Kuzma is the chief development officer of the Ukrainian Catholic Education Foundation, a U.S.-based organization that supports and funds the growth and operation of the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) in Lviv. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of any organization with which he is affiliated.