Shevchenko and the Diaspora

Volodymyr Kish.

Every March, Ukrainian communities throughout the world, celebrate the life of Ukraine’s foremost literary figure Taras Shevchenko, who was born on March 9, 1814 and died on March 10, forty seven years later.

I have always been impressed by how deeply and universally respected and loved Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko is by the Diaspora, and particularly all the original Ukrainian immigrants and their descendants that came to Canada starting in the 1890’s, through to the large wave that followed World War II, and more recently those that came to Canada after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Of all the vivid characters and heroes in Ukrainian history, none can even come close to the awe and reverence that Shevchenko inspires. Not Volodymyr the Great, nor Yaroslav Mudry, Hryhoriy Skovoroda, Bohdan Khmelnitsky, Ivan Mazepa, Ivan Franko, Mykhaylo Hrushevsky, Simon Petliura, Andriy Melnyk, Stepan Bandera, or the countless others that we learned about in Ukrainian school or through our personal research into Ukrainian history.

As a child, I always wondered why he was such a heroic figure to the Ukrainian community. He was not a ruler or a king or a hetman. He was not a Cossack warrior. He fought no battles, conquered no armies, and built no castles or empires. He was neither tall nor dashing nor handsome. He was a short, balding, quiet man who spent most of his life as a serf or a prisoner, was a talented painter, and wrote some poetry on the side.

Yet ask any knowledgeable Ukrainian who is the most important figure in Ukrainian history, and the answer you will get almost every time is Taras Shevchenko. Those of you, like I, who were born and raised here in Canada, undoubtedly have at one time or another asked the big question as to why? Why is Taras Shevchenko, practically speaking, the secular patron saint of Ukrainian history and culture? Why does he hold such an esteemed and honoured place in our hearts and souls? It is a question that I have pondered over many times over the years. Let me share with you my own personal thoughts and conclusions as to why I think this is so.

The key factor that we should remember about his life is that more than two thirds of it was spent in forced exile away from his beloved homeland. Except for several brief visits, all of his adult life was spent in imposed separation from the land of his spiritual and cultural roots There is a cliché about how absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I think in Shevchenko’s case, his physical separation from his spiritual roots made his feelings more acute and fueled the imagination and emotion of his creative efforts. Some of the greatest works in world literature were the end products of authors displaced by choice or by circumstance from their home environments. James Joyce spent most of his life in self-imposed exile on the European continent. Voltaire wrote his greatest works while forced to live on the French border far away from the French capital he so loved. Solzhenitsyn produced his monumental trilogy on the Gulag while exiled in the frozen Siberian wastes. Physical separation has a tendency to concentrate and focus the emotions, while forcing the creative spirit to rely mostly on the imagination. In Taras’ case, it resulted in poetry of uncommon power and beauty.

This aspect of separation and displacement is also precisely the reason for his deep hold on the psyches and loyalties of the all those countless Ukrainians that were forced by fate and circumstance, like Taras, to be exiled far away from their native land. To all those immigrants of the past century that found themselves in Canada in the distant prairies or the remote mining country of northern Ontario and Quebec, Shevchenko was a metaphor of their own experience. They too had been unwillingly separated from their roots. They too had become orphans far from home. Their fate, like Shevchenko’s, was in the hands of foreign powers that at best cared little, and at worst were antagonistic to their cultural and national aspirations. They too harboured a strong desire to see Ukraine freed from Russian domination.

Shevchenko’s life was a reflection of their own experience, and so he became a powerful icon around which they could organize their cultural lives and their national aspirations. Their suffering, their challenges, their struggles and their hopes and dreams were a recapitulation of Shevchenko’s own life, and this created a strong spiritual and psychological bond. For the farmer struggling to clear the virgin lands in the prairies, the miner in the wilderness of northern Quebec, the lumberjack in the forest camps of BC, or the labourer on the assembly lines of the auto plant in Oshawa, Taras Shevchenko was more than just a symbol. His life reflected their own. He too was exiled from home. He too was forced to toil in harsh and demanding environments. He too had to suffer the put-downs of foreigners who looked down upon and often insulted his culture and his language. Above all, he too had to endure the denial from all levels of officialdom that his nationality even existed.

Taras Shevchenko lives in the hearts of and souls of all Ukrainians displaced from their homeland, because in many ways, he is part of us and our experience, as we are part of his. May his memory be eternal.