Shevchenko Essay Contest Winners

Love your Ukraine,
Love her at all times.
In the last tough moment
Pray for her to God.
T. Shevchenko

We learn Shevchenko’s poems since childhood, we read about his hard life, about his sufferings and struggles and tears that he couldn’t hold because it was unbearable to endure everything that was happening to his dear Ukraine. Every conscious and educated Ukrainian can recite at least one of Shevchenko’s poems by heart. Each and every book that has ever been written about him says that he was one of the greatest and most outstanding figures in Ukrainian history, a hero, whose heart was beating and aching for the Ukrainian nation till it stopped. No matter how arduous it was, no matter what he was going through, Shevchenko never stopped pursuing the goal of his Fatherland’s revival. And his dream did come true.

I am 19 years old and I was blessed to be born in a free and sovereign country. Fortunately, I don’t know what slavery is. Fortunately, I don’t know how is it to be forced out of my own country. Fortunately, I don’t know what suffering is. And no matter how many times we are being told about this in school, no matter how many times we read Shevchenko’s poems we cannot fully empathize with the poet’s feelings. We are a new generation. We are the free generation. This was Shevchenko’s main goal and this is what I’m really grateful for.

But while I’m writing this essay my heart is heavy from the pain and my eyes are full of tears because my country is hurting. Because being already independent, we have to fight for our true liberty. I’m ashamed to acknowledge that it is not foreign invaders that we are fighting against, but our own brothers and sisters: ”… in her struggle, our Ukraine/ Reached the last climax of pure pain: /Worse than the Poles, or any other, /The children crucify their mother…”, Shevchenko says in one of his poems. He imbued every word he wrote with pain and, unfortunately, I can feel it now.

2014, a year that will be carved in the hearts of Ukrainian people. It is a turning point in our minds and our history. It is a year that gave us a new Shevchenko. And this new hero is Maydan. Yes, the whole Maydan, because it is not just one person, but everyone who is standing there for freedom, independence, justice, everyone who is fighting against slavery and dictatorship. Among those people are ordinary students, businessmen, pensioners, housewives. It is hard not to be aware of what is happening in Ukraine right now. It is impossible to disregard it. One can ask, what does Shevchenko have to do with all of this? The answer is simple: everything he and people like him did when they lived gives hope and strength to all of us who are standing at Maydan nowadays. Yes, they are not here with us today, but their words have been imprinted on our hearts.

Why does Shevchenko matter today? His words are the main words of Maydan’s anthem. You can hear people singing: “As Shevchenko commanded, we will break the chains and defend together our truth and freedom!”. The poet was sure that his people will win, and called them to fight: “… get up, /Break the chains,…”. These lines are the culmination of the poet’s thoughts, the explosion of passion, his most cherished desire. He gave up everything he had, while pursuing his dream. It was the program of the poet’s life and today it is the program of our lives.

Why does Shevchenko matter today? The portrait of the freedom fighter can be seen in many places in Maydan. People remember Shevchenko and other Ukrainian heroes and it gives them hope, strength and patience to stand till they receive the desired victory.

This year we celebrate Shevchenko’s 200th anniversary and no matter how strange it may sound, but I am inclined to believe that Maydan is our best gift for his birthday. All his life he fought for freedom, suffered from the authorities, but he always saw Ukraine as a free and joyous country.

As a soldier uses a sword to fight in a battle, Shevchenko used a vociferous poetic word to fight his battle against the cruel treatment of his fellow compatriots. Every verse he wrote was full of pain for his beloved and tortured land, “I love so much, /I love my dear Ukraine…”, he says. I am sure that Shevchenko’s heart would be blissful watching his people fight for freedom, watching Ukrainians who are not afraid of anything, not even death.

Why does Shevchenko matter today? One of the Maydan heroes, a young man just a few years older than I, was reading Shevchenko’s poem “Caucasus” a day before he was killed by riot police: “Fight – and you shall overcome! / God is helping you!”. It was a real tragedy and unfortunately he wasn’t the only one killed for his county’s freedom. Surprisingly, this didn’t stop Ukrainians, but incited them to keep fighting. People read Shevchenko’s poems on the stage of Maydan and it inspires them even more: “Your own Ukraine, before your eyes; /Then let your heart, in love sincere, /Embrace her mighty ruin here! /Break then your chains, in love unite,… ” Isn’t it what Shevchenko wanted? Didn’t he want us to fight?

He always worried about the fate of Ukraine and its future. And our holiest duty is to build the country which Shevchenko and others saw in their dreams. It is a laborious task, but we can’t give up, we are Ukrainians: “… Then shall our day of hope arrive, /Ukrainian glory shall revive,… ”. So why does Shevchenko matter today? I think the answer is obvious now.

By Alona Liashenko, 19 years old, Kherson

“…It makes great difference to me
That evil folk and wicked men
Attack our Ukraine, once so free,
And rob and plunder it at will.
That makes great difference to me.”

He – our great poet of genius – while writing these lines, hoped that his strong feelings of a boundless love and yearning for the native Ukrainian land would reach the hearts and minds of his fellow countrymen and obviously all the people with the same full-blooded patriotic beliefs. And never mind the passing of time, his immortal poetic word is alive and will be embedded in our souls forever. What is the impact of Taras Shevchenko – an outstanding Ukrainian poet, artist, democrat, philosopher and prophet? Why does he matter today? I would like to put emphasis on the predominant motifs of his poetry that have considerable significance nowadays.

One of the distinctive features of Shevchenko’s “Kobzar” is a high freedom-loving spirit. His poetry – is an ode to “sacred liberty” as an indispensable prerequisite to welfare and happiness. Sorrow for lost freedom and a desire to get it back, a strong belief that people won’t tolerate social slavery and national oppression – these motifs permeate the whole poetry of “Kobzar”. Throughout his life, Taras Shevchenko fought for the abolition of serfdom and autocracy, hoped for such a sociopolitical system that would ensure freedom for the people and the all-round development of an individual. He wanted Ukrainians to rise against despotism and build a new independent Ukraine with no place for exploitation and betrayal.

“…Oh bury me, then rise ye up
And break your heavy chains
And water with the tyrants’ blood
The freedom you have gained…”
(“My testament”)

Considering the events in Ukraine in winter 2013-2014, when half a million of people took to the streets to protest against corruption, social inequality, the self-will of the politicians and express their support for European Union Integration in order to gain the long-awaited democracy, sovereignty, prosperity and modernity for their country, Shevchenko’s appeal to all conscious Ukrainians to “break their heavy chains” greatly inspires and gives hope for a better future.

Taras Shevchenko’s poetry has an anthropocentric and cordocentric character. The problem of human destiny, as well as the destiny of the whole nation, played a central role in his outlook. Shevchenko’s protagonist (a serf, a widow, an orphan or a rebel, a folk hero, a fearless Cossack) although humiliated by poverty and social injustice, is the living embodiment of the highest human values and a bearer of the national idea. Shevchenko says to us all: never mind our social status or nationality – the most important things are the spiritual wealth of our hearts, a longing for kindness, honesty and fairness, the superiority of the heart over the mind and sincere patriotic love for our country – this idea is so noteworthy today – when materialistic values reign supreme!

Taras Shevchenko put forward the principles of the equality, unity and friendship of nations. He believed that every nation had the right to defend its national dignity, culture, language and traditions without establishing superiority over other nations but showing respect and seeking unity and understanding with them to meet future challenges. His conception of brotherhood between Slavic nations is transferred to the international arena and this is especially topical nowadays at the time of the global integration processes. Shevchenko emphasized the importance of “brotherly love” for one another – as the fundamental principle of the Christian doctrine and a basis for solving social issues.

“…Love one another, my brothers,
I pray you – I plead”.
(“My friendly Epistle”)

Shevchenko showed a great interest in the Ukrainian past and wanted it to live, to be the basis for understanding the present and laying the foundation for the future. Without the knowledge of the past there is no future, as well as it gives invaluable experience from the mistakes and triumphs of our ancestors – this idea, conveyed in Shevchenko’s lines, mustn’t be forgotten nowadays.

The poetic and artistic works of Shevchenko are the reflection of beautiful Ukrainian nature. The mighty Dnieper River, wide green meadows, picturesque villages, spreading willows and poplars were depicted not only to make us admire the beauty of nature but also strive to keep this beauty alive for years to come. It sounds especially significant today at the time of global environmental change and pervasive urbanization and serves as a reminder for the present generation that a person, being an inseparable part of nature, need to take drastic steps to protect the environment.

Shevchenko considered land to be sacred and depicted Ukrainians as the ploughmen who greatly appreciated to work the land. This cult of Mother Earth is transferred to the deification of a woman, a wife, a mother as the keeper of hearth and home and the source of love, tenderness, care and forgiveness. She gives birth and keeps national traditions alive by passing along her life experience to the next generation, that’s why she must be treated with the utmost respect. Fostering such an attitude to a woman in terms of gender equality is one of the primary issues in the present era.

Shevchenko expressed sociopedagogical and ethical views. He stressed the importance of education and family upbringing based on religion and high moral values in the shaping of a child’s personality. He attached great importance to the theme of a harmonious christian family as the basis of a state and society. Being an orphan himself, he raised the problems of orphanhood, poverty and public attitude towards it.

In conclusion, it must be stated that Taras Shevchenko as a unique national poet, ardent patriot and a spiritual leader, devoted all his life to serving Ukrainian people, arousing national self-consciousness and declaring the universal ideals of democracy, social equality, justice, freedom, unity and brotherly love. He enriched the spiritual potential of humanity and wished for a better and truer life for all people everywhere, that’s why he is a world poet and a universal genius.

By Ulyana Tatsakovych, 18 years old, Ivano-Frankivsk

Great poets are great and bright companions of their people, they are called to serve them faithfully and lighten up the people’s way. Taras Shevchenko is such a faithful companion for the Ukrainians, Ukraine’s pious son, the fame of whom does not subside through the years, but on the contrary, grows. Shevchenko’s great deeds, for the past almost two centuries, have been inspiring conscious people, not only Ukrainians, for new achievements and victories that leave a significant mark in history.

So why does this versatile personality who was living and thinking in a qualitatively different historical space, matter today? For me this question is more than relevant, it is urgent and requires an unusual, interesting answer. For anyone who has ever touched “Kobzar”, had a chance to be familiar with the poet’s creative work, discovered various Shevchenko, and of course because of it answers to this question will be genuine, passed through the personal outlook of each of us.

In my opinion, Shevchenko has never lost his very important and symbolic meaning over these two tumultuous centuries. For the work of the Great Poet is progressive in nature, clear for different generations, different nations and is designed to exist in various kinks of history. We live in the XXI century. In the dimension of relentless changes and new ideas. And, what is the most important, the twenty-first century is the time of the most flourishing democracy, equality, the fight for freedom and independence. It is exactly what Taras supported, he had always been against the brutal and greedy emperors and masters-enslavers who shackled free people in chains without giving any hope. Shevchenko was an ardent humanist – fighter who aspired to peace, faught against injustice and iniquity. And these efforts were directed by the poet not only for his brothers Ukrainians, but also for other disadvantaged by executioners-autocrats. From the recent events of the policital and social life of the global community, we can see that the struggle for human rights and liberty continues. It was Shevchenko’s dream and it comes true as we see. Shevchenko’s importance, even in this modern century, does not and will not subside until there is no injustice.

“Wherever he saw oppression, injustice or humiliation, be it on Volga steamship, or in Asia deserts, or came with a loud moan from the Caucasian Mountains – everywhere evil and lies caused the explosion of the poet’s protest, and every time he was ready to fight against violence and evil “- noted the known Ukrainian literary critic and writer Oles Gonchar.

Another aspect of Shevchenko’s importance in the present is his ardent and unbreakable patriotism, which has over a long time inspired young people and aims to do it now. It is youth who has always been a driving force for progress and a source of change. Today, when the patriotic feelings of youth develop unevenly and often go out for various reasons, Shevchenko’s patriotic words are especially important and relevant. Patriotic tones in souls should be developed from childhood, in order for conscious sons and daughters of their Motherland like Shevchenko to grow up. In the works “Haidamaki”, ” Hamaliya”, “Night of Taras’, the poet extols the heroic deeds of the Ukrainian people, their age-old struggle against the oppressors, their chivalry and courage. These works are imbued with patriotic energy of incredible strength. I’m sure every conscious patriot of their land must read them.

As for purely Ukrainian dimension of the importance of the “Great Poet”, we can confidently assert that this true defender and fighter for a better future of his country, has been important for his people at all stages of Ukraine’s historical development. Nowadays Shevchenko is extremely important for patriotic Ukrainians who often set him as an example of faithful service to his people. Shevchenko is important for those who came to “Euromaydan”, those who decided to fight aganst the renewal of shackles, who came to fulfill the dream of the Poet about a good fortune for Ukrainian people, and conscious daughters and sons of mother Ukraine that will not “sow rye for the masters”, but will build their own lives on this land given to them by God. No wonder that in every Ukrainian school there is a portrait of Taras near the portrait of the president. Only one difference separates them: the images of presidents change, and Shevchenko’s does not. His portrait is symbolic, it is like a model for the presidential ones.

The importance of the versatile poet who became a symbol of Ukraine in the present cannot be described in one essay, for Shevchenko will be important as long as he lives in the hearts of thinking people…

By Mykhailo Lomonosov, 19 years old, Chernihiv

By Ruric Ellings, 16 years old, Washington State

After living in America for nearly half a century, my Dido (grandfather), moved back to his native Ukraine at the age of 82. He hoped that after the victory of the Orange Revolution, Ukraine would finally establish a true democracy. He wanted to live out the rest of his life in the homeland he had to leave as a young man. He wanted to die on Ukrainian soil.

When the Russian Red Army invaded western Ukraine in 1943-4, Dido joined other young men from Halychyna (Galicia) to defend Ukraine. Many of his friends died, but Dido survived, and fled to the West, leaving his family behind. He would never see his mother or father again. Like thousands of other Ukrainian refugees, he settled in the United States to work and raise a family.

Dido never forgot where he came from, and he never let us forget, either. There was a big poster in his house of a balding, mustachioed man sternly pointing his finger, (like those WWI army recruitment posters proclaiming, “Uncle Sam wants you!”) The caption on Dido’s poster asked, “Do your children speak my language?”

I eventually figured out that this serious character in the poster was the 19th century Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko, and that his message challenged us to know and use our Ukrainian language. (That explained a lot to me, like why my mother made me memorize those lengthy poems for our community’s Shevchenko celebration every March. It explained the tiny bust of Shevchenko planted on my bookshelf, along with series of Ukrainian language books and a thick tome of the Kobzar)

Dido loved America. He wholeheartedly embraced the freedom he found here as an immigrant. Still, deep in his heart, he yearned for his homeland. Vivid memories remained with him for decades: the taste of his mama’s “pampukhy” (donuts) on Christmas Eve, and the aroma of spring in his family’s fruit grove. He seemed to have photographic recall about the streets and buildings of his town; he could name the species of all the trees at the town’s edge, where his family lived. Often, his eyes would water, making him unable to continue his stories about some of his most difficult years. And so he started to write them down, and published a book about his life and the struggle he and thousands of Ukrainians experienced in the 1940s when their stateless homeland became a bloody battlefield of German and Soviet forces. In his book, (My Struggle for Freedom) he was able to convey his grief about having to leave “a land that was ours, but not our own” as Shevchenko put it. (Shevchenko Museum, online)

Years later, I recognized that same deep yearning in Shevchenko’s poetry. Although Shevchenko and Dido lived almost a century apart, both were forced to leave their country because of oppressive governments. Shevchenko wrote a lot about his love and longing for Ukraine, and his desire to live in a free Ukraine. (William Matthews, University of London 1951) In 1847, Shevchenko was exiled from Ukraine for 10 years for his association with a group of Ukrainian intellectuals who worked towards social reform. His dream of living out the rest of his life in Ukraine never came true; he died at the age of 47 in 1861. Below is a part of a poem written by Shevchenko during his exile in 1848. (Translated by Peter Fedynsky, The Complete Kobzar, The Poetry of Taras Shevchenko. 2013)

“O my dear Lord!
How much more am I to roam the world
Along this useless sea and this open jail?
Silent is the yellowed grass,
Which sways amid the steppe as
If it were alive…”

In Zapovit, (translated by Peter Fedynsky in The Complete Kobzar The Poetry of Taras Shevchenko. 2013) Shevchenko expressed his deepest wish that his final resting place be in his country:

“When I die, then bury me
Atop a mound
Amid the steppe’s expanse
In my beloved Ukraine,
So I may see
The great broad fields,
The Dnipro and the cliffs,
So I may hear the river roar…”

While banished to a foreign land, Shevchenko tried to recreate the country he yearned for in his poems with depictions of Ukrainian steppes and groves. The Dnipro River appeared in Shevchenko’s works as a symbol of the strength of his nation. ( Michael Naydan, The Complete Kobzar The Poetry of Taras Shevchenko) Such images represent what Dido referred to as “ridne”. This Ukrainian word describes a relationship with something or someone known and cherished. It implies kinship and belonging. Shevchenko was an orphan. For most of his life, he felt alone and yet he wrote a lot about belonging to a family. The family addressed in his poems were his fellow Ukrainians; he called them his brothers and sisters.

I wonder whether Shevchenko could imagine that the family his work was written for would grow to include future generations of people like my Dido, and me, who live in different time periods, and even on different continents. Shevchenko made the struggles of the millions of enslaved serfs a part of my history. Similarly, Dido’s descriptions of the battles Ukrainians waged 70 years ago have also become a part of my history.

As a sixteen year old who grew up in the United States, in the Pacific Northwest, I never lived through the traumas of 19th century Ukrainian peasants; I haven’t had to fight for my very existence as my Dido did, or stand up to my corrupt government as millions of Ukrainians are doing right now. But as part of Shevchenko’s family, I stand with them. I hope that my now 90 year-old Dido will live to see Shevchenko’s dream of a truly free and independent Ukraine. And when the sad day comes when we have to lay Dido to rest, I pray that we will do it on the land “that is truly our own”. (Shevchenko)

Essay Contest winners