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Shevchenko, Taras Grigoryevich

Taras Grigoryevich Shevchenko

Considered the greatest poet of Ukraine and the founder of modern Ukrainian literature, Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) rose from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of the 19th-century St. Petersburg literary world. His writings draw upon the peasant traditions of his boyhood.

Early Years as a Serf

Taras Grigorievich Shevchenko was born March 9, 1814 into a family of serfs in the village of Morintsy in Ukraine, then part of the tsarist Russian Empire. The Shevchenkos soon relocated to the village of Kirilivka, where Taras grew up. He led an early life of misery. His mother died when he was nine years old, and his stepmother mistreated him and those of his siblings who were still living at home (an older sister, Katerina, had married and moved to another village). His father died when Taras was 12, and he was given over to the care of a local priest, for whom he worked as a shepherd and farmhand.

Shevchenko studied art with numerous local icon painters, but each time his lessons proved short-lived. When Shervchenko was 14, his master, P.V. Engelhardt, took over his training and employed him as a house servant. He was taught to read and write. In 1829 Engelhardt and his wife brought Shevchenko with them to Vilnius, where they lived until 1831. Shevchenko, with Engelhardt's encouragement, enrolled in the Art Academy. In 1831 the Engelhardts moved to St. Petersburg, and Shevchenko became an apprentice to the painter Shirayev, who was primarily a theater decorator. Shevchenko served under Shirayev from 1832 to 1836.

In 1837 Shevchenko met and befriended the Ukrainian artist Ivan Maksimovich Soshenko. The latter quickly recognized Shevchenko's artistic potential and suggested that Shevchenko enroll in St. Petersburg's Imperial Academy of Arts. But as a serf Shevchenko could not do so alone. Fortunately for Shevchenko he had two influential men to champion his cause: the secretary of the academy, V. I. Grigorovich, and the artist and professor K.P. Bryulov. Both sought to obtain Shevchenko's freedom, but Engelhardt demanded 2,500 silver rubles in exchange. Soshenko and the others convinced V.A. Zhukovsky to join Shevchenko's cause. As tutor to the tsarevitch–the Russian crown prince–Zhukovsky traveled in the highest circles in Russia. He consented to have his portrait painted by Bryulov and sold, with the proceeds to go toward Shevchenko's freedom. Shevchenko was granted his freedom in the spring of 1838 and at once enrolled in the academy as Bryulov's pupil.

This was Shevchenko's formative period intellectually. Not only did he study painting, but under Bryulov's influence he became interested in classical antiquity and began to read Ukrainian history and its nascent national literature. Shevchenko started to write poetry during this time, though a few scholars believe he had begun to write before his emancipation. His oldest known poem is "Prychynna" (The Mad Girl).

Growing Nationalism

When a patron who had come to Shevchenko's apartment to have his portrait painted noticed his poems lying about, he asked to borrow them. So enthused was he that he arranged for their publication. Thus, in 1840, Kobzar was produced. The title refers to ancient wandering bards who traveled throughout Ukraine singing epic and heroic tales, often playing the stringed instrument, the kobza. Though this slim book of eight poems, which were really ballads, was attacked by Russian and Western critics, Ukraininans wholly embraced it. In their view Shevchenko's verse was the next step in the evolution of their national literature, and he was hailed as the successor to Ivan Kotlyarevsky, who had died two years earlier and for whom Shevchenko wrote "To the Eternal Memory of Kotlyarevsky."

In fact Shevchenko's work was far more mature artistically than Kotlyarevsky's. The main complaints against Kobzar was that it was peasantlike and thus insignificant. But that tone of the ancient bards was exactly what Shevchenko had set out to achieve. Another major literary influence on Kobzar was historical romanticism. Add to this was Shevchenko's growing awareness of Ukrainian nationalism and a newfound desire to see his country independent of Polish domination–just as he himself had gained independence–and the major themes of Shevchenko's work and life are in place. The poems of Kobzar include: "Dedication," "Perebendya," "The Poplar," "Dumka," "To Osnovyanenko," "Ivan Pidkova," "The Night of Taras," and "Katerina."

In 1841 Shevchenko published The Haydamaki. The longest of his epic poems, The Haydamaki recounts a mid-18th-century Ukrainian peasant revolt and the massacre of Poles. It is often seen as the culmination of themes Shevchenko first presented in Kobzar. Polish and Russian critics predictably disliked the work, and Ukrainians hailed the poem and Shevchenko. The Haydamaki cemented Shevchenko's literary reputation and made him a central figure among St. Petersburg's Ukrainian population. It also transformed him into something of a national hero.

All during this time Shevchenko continued his studies at the Imperial Academy of the Arts, but his painting (mostly portraits) had reached a plateau. After 1841 he received no prizes for his artwork.

In 1843 Shevchenko visited the Ukraine, where he was given a hero's welcome. It was his first time back in his homeland since 1829, when he was a serf. Shevchenko's appeal to the peasants was natural, but the landowners and others of the Ukrainian upper classes also admired him for his nationalism. Many from the Ukrainian upper class commissioned Shevchenko to paint their or their family members' portraits. These commissions renewed Shevchenko's interest in painting, and after a brief side trip to Moscow he returned to St. Petersburg to finish his studies. He graduated from the Imperial Academy of the Arts in December 1845. Before he had even received his diploma Shevchenko had again returned to Ukraine. Though he was now a "free artist of the Academy" it was his literary pursuits that engaged him most.

While finishing his studies at the Academy he wrote the narrative poem "The Dream" (1844), which he subtitled "A Comedy." The subtitle may have been a calculated bit of disingenuousness designed to deceive the censor, for by this time Shevchenko had undergone a political epiphany. He used the narrative device of the dream in order to ward off any charges of sedition for, as he now saw it, Russia, not Poland, was the main oppressor of Ukraine. "The Dream" was the first in a series of poems that addressed this new idea. It follows Shevchenko as he visits, in his dream, Ukraine, Siberia, and St. Petersburg, all the while decrying the deceit, oppression and poverty which the Russian aristocracy has imposed on Ukraine and Russia. At the end of the poem the narrator wakes up. There is a touch of the sacred imbued in the poem, as "The Dream" is prefaced by a quote from the Gospel of St. John: "The Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him" (John 14:17).

In 1845 Shevchenko published Three Years, a collection of protest poems and impressions written during the years 1843-1845. The poems were sent to friends who later copied them for publication. That year he also published "The Caucasus" and "The Testament." He also wrote two novellas during this period, The Servant Girl and Varnak.

Arrest and Exile

In 1846 Shevchenko joined the Society of Saints Cyril and Methodius, founded by young progressives in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. While the dream of this organization was to create a pan-Slavic nation, a republic possibly modeled after the United States, the group was largely theoretical. Its stated goals of education, democracy, and autonomy for each Slavic group and a general Slavic council were seen as a threat by the autocratic Tsar Nicholas I.

During this period Shevchenko brought out a second edition of Kobzar. He also sketched the countryside around Kiev and did other painting. In his "Preface" to the second edition of Kobzar Shevchenko took a public stand for Ukainian literature. He criticized Kotlyarevsky for vulgarizing Ukrainian literature and opposed those who sought to imitate him. He also took a stand against his contemporary, writer Nikolai Gogol, for forsaking the Ukrainian language for Russian, which Shevchenko considered to be the language of the oppressors. This was Shevchenko's last publication for a while; he was arrested in Kiev on April 5, 1847, after being denounced by a student.

After spending a night in jail in Kiev, Shevchenko was taken to St. Petersburg, where he was interrogated. He denied being a member of the Society of Saints Cyril and Methodius and hedged his associations with some other members who had also been arrested. The interrogators recommended to the tsar that Shevchenko be placed on military duty in Orenburg, in southeastern European Russia. The tsar ordered that Shevchenko could not write or paint. Shevchenko spent ten years in exile and was not released until after the death of Tsar Nicholas I. During the period of his arrest and exile Shevchenko secretly wrote some verse.

Shevchenko disliked army life, but eventually the prohibition against Shevchenko doing any artwork was slightly altered and he was allowed to make government sketches on an expedition to the Sea of Aral. This expedition lasted for a year and a half. In late 1849, having returned to Orenburg, Shevchenko petitioned to be allowed to resume painting. He was supported by his military unit's officers, who allowed him to live in Orenburg and wear civilian clothes. They also turned a blind eye to his portrait painting. However, after a few months of this relative freedom, Shevchenko was denounced by an officer and rearrested on April 27, 1850. Following a weeklong trial he was exiled to an even more remote outpost-Novopetrovsk on the east coast of the Caspian Sea.

Exile did not stop him from writing, however. In the years between his first and second arrests Shevchenko wrote "In the Fortress" (1847) and "The Tsars" (1848). During his exile Shevchenko wrote the long narrative poem "The Princess," and the shorter poetic works "The Musician," "The Captain's Wife," "The Artist," "Fortune" and "The Muse." In addition to the government sketches Shevchenko's watercolors and drawings done in exile include a series titled The Parable of the Prodigal Son and Running the Gauntlet.

Last Years

In 1857, Shevchenko was released. He traveled to Ukraine then to Moscow and finally to St. Petersburg. In the years just after his release he wrote "A Pleasant Stroll" and "Not Without a Moral." He published "Fame" in 1858 to complete the trilogy begun with "Fortune" and "The Muse." In 1859 some of his friends published New Poems of Pushkin and Shevchenko in Leipzig, and in 1860 he brought out a third edition of Kobzar. During this period he wrote his best lyric verse as well as the long, narrative poems "The Neophytes" and "God's Fool" (both written in 1857) and "Mary" (1858).

Shevchenko fell ill late in 1860 and never recovered his health. He died on March 10, 1861. His funeral in St. Petersburg was attended by such literary notables as Saltykov-Shchedrin, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Leskov. Herzen published an obituary of Shevchenko, and Nekrasov contributed a poem to mark the occasion. Many of Shevchenko's poems were later set to music by Ukranian and Russian composers including Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff.


Great Soviet Encyclopedia, Trans. Of Third Ed., Vol. 29, Macmillan, 1982.

Manning, Clarence A., Taras Shevchenko: Selected Poems, Ukrainian national Association, 1945.

Zaitsev, Pavlo, Taras Shevchenko: A Life, trans. by George S.N. Luckyj, University of Toronto Press, 1988.

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Shevchenko, Taras Gregorevich


(18141861), Ukraine's national poet.

Born a serf, Taras Shevchenko was orphaned early in life. His owner noticed his artistic ability while he was serving as a houseboy and apprenticed him to an icon and mural painter. In 1838 some Russian and Ukrainian intellectuals in St. Petersburg organized a lottery and used the proceeds to buy his freedom. Afterwards, Shevchenko studied under Karl Briullov at the Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1845. While still a student, he published a short collection of romantic poems, Kobzar (The Bard, 1840), that established his reputation as a poet. His early folklorism and idealization of the Cossacks soon gave way to poetry of social critique that prophesied rebellion. Shevchenko's poems of the 1840s denounced serfdom and the Russian autocracy and celebrated Slavic brotherhood. In 1847 he was arrested in Kiev on the charge of belonging to the secret Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood. A search by the gendarmes discovered his satirical poems, including an unflattering portrayal of Nicholas I and his wife, and in consequence the tsar sentenced Shevchenko to military service in Central Asia, adding a special prohibition on writing and painting. Following his release in 1857, Shevchenko was not permitted to reside in Ukraine. He settled in St. Petersburg, where he died in 1861.

Shevchenko was a realist artist of note. Even during his lifetime, his contribution to the development of modern Ukrainian culture and national consciousness earned him the reputation of Ukraine's "national bard." His sophisticated poetical works transformed folk idioms into a modern literary product, while his vision of popular justice and democracy influenced generations of Ukrainian activists. After Shevchenko's death, Ukrainian patriots transferred his remains to Chernecha Hill near Kaniv, in Ukraine, which immediately became a place of pilgrimage. The cult of Shevchenko continued to grow in Ukraine during the twentieth century, for patriots viewed him as a symbol of national culture and statehood. In the eyes of the communists, however, Shevchenko was a symbol of social liberation and friendship with Russia. In post-Soviet Ukraine Shevchenko is the most revered figure in the pantheon of the nation's "founding fathers."

See also: cyril and methodius society; nationalism in the soviet union; nationalism in tsarist empire; ukraine and ukrainians


Grabowicz, George G. (1982). The Poet as Mythmaker: A Study of Symbolic Meaning in Taras Ševčenko. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.

Shevchenko, Taras. (1964). Poetical Works, trans. C. H. Andrusyshen and Watson Kirkconnell. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Zaitsev, Pavlo. (1988). Taras Shevchenko: A Life. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Serhy Yekelchyk

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Shevchenko, Taras

Taras Shevchenko (tä´rəs shĬvchĕn´kō), 1814–61, Ukrainian poet and artist. Born a serf and orphaned early, Shevchenko passed a wretched childhood in the service of a brutal sexton. He was apprenticed to icon and mural painters until he was bought and freed in 1838 by a group of intellectuals who recognized his talent. Shevchenko became a prominent realist painter and his Ukrainian ballads, dealing with peasant life, were published in Russian. He joined a Ukrainian nationalist society, writing bitterly against serfdom and Russian autocracy. The Heretic (1845) professed his dream of a free brotherhood of all Slavs. Banished to an appalling military existence in Central Asia for his liberal ideas, he wrote exquisite lyric poetry and numerous novels in exile (1847–57). Dogged by terrible misfortune in love and life, the poet died seven days before the Emancipation of Serfs was announced. Shevchenko had tremendous influence on Ukrainian literature.

See editions in English of his work by C. A. Manning (1945) and C. H. Andrusyshen and W. Kirkconnell (1964); R. Smal-Stocki, Shevchenko Meets America (3d ed. 1964).

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"Shevchenko, Taras." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 16 Jan. 2018 <>.

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