By Ihor Siundiukov, The Day Weekly Digest,
Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, July 8, 2003
Where there is no sacred freedom
There will never be good...
This clear and truly universal formula, true for all times and peoples, is
not just the fruit of Shevchenko's own soul-searching. These lines are the
quintessence of his inimitable spiritual experience, the philosophy of an
individual for whom Freedom is a vital and overriding idea that can only be
discussed with utmost piety and awe. Shevchenko is one of the world's
greatest singers of freedom (shrewd contemporaries understood him, for the
Ukrainian Bard's words are of a far greater than only literary import).
A FRAGMENT OF G. MELIKHOV'S PICTURE YOUNG
TARAS SHEVCHENKO AT ARTIST KARL BRIULLOV'S STUDIO
The great Taras knew from childhood what it meant to constantly suffer both
crude physical and refined moral humiliation (from a birch whipping for
talent to a cold snub from landlord Engelhardt who looked through you as if
you were not there...). This is why Shevchenko came early to the conclusion
that freedom and a dauntless spirit is normal and the only possible
condition for any person. Yet, he was himself a serf, an absolutely
downtrodden and helpless being.
The Bard's liberation from serfdom is a page extremely interesting and still
to be studied in Ukrainian-Russian spiritual relations. There still are many
myths, stereotypes, and even outright slanders surrounding this story. What
is clear is that our common past is rich not only in Russian imperial
domination but also in something that unites the Ukrainian and Russian
peoples and is the common asset of Ukraine and Russia. For, to take an
impartial view of that distant time, one must remember the way the best
Ukrainians and Russians treated each other.
DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH
Let us mentally go back to 1836-1837. The young Taras Shevchenko is a
struggling painter, apprenticed for three years to Petersburg master Stepan
Shiriayev. But this is not the point. The point is that Taras is a serf of
guards officer Pavel Engelhardt. A serf is a creature unable to shape his
THIS PORTRAIT OF VASILY ZHUKOVSKY BY BRIULLOV
LOOKS ALMOST IDENTICAL TO SHEVCHENKO'S FAMOUS ONE,
ONLY MORE COMPLETE
Engelhardt was once brilliantly described by Oleksandr Konisky, the author
of a perhaps still unsurpassed biography of Shevchenko. He was "if not an
example then at least a notable representative of the 'hodgepodge' Ukraine
is now crawling with. He seems to be a German by birth, an Orthodox by
faith, a Pole or a Frenchman by language, and a devout Russian officer by
career. A man of cosmopolitan customs - a signor, a mister? Owner of
Ukrainian serfs on Ukrainian soil.
A haughty 'pig in Torzhok slippers,' as Briullov said, when he dealt with
the common people and all those whom he considers inferior, and a toady when
he encountered somebody superior. In general, a typical landlord." It was up
to this man to decide what Shevchenko was to do, whether Taras's radiant
talent of a artist and poet would perish or flourish.
Shevchenko could not have survived had he not demonstrated willpower. The
first and essential step toward the coveted liberation was an "accidental"
meeting (but can there be anything accidental in the life of geniuses?) with
a compatriot born in Vilshana (Cherkasy province), Ivan Soshenko, the son of
a poor townsman and a young student at the Academy of Arts. Soshenko played
a special role in our great poet's liberation and further spiritual growth:
it is he who gave the future Bard the initial and very crucial impulse to
strive for his coveted Freedom. He thus won the everlasting gratitude of
This meeting occurred around 1836 in Petersburg's Summer Gardens. Taras was
painting the statue of Apollo at the time. Once, walking down the Gardens on
a moonlit summer night, Soshenko noticed that "a barefoot and bareheaded
ragamuffin, with a pied shabby gown on, was drawing a statue in pencil"
(This was also told by another Cherkasy fellow countryman, Father Petro
Lebedyntsev). A humane man Soshenko decided to "exercise supervision" over
the poet and saw very soon what exceptional talents were hidden in this
diamond in the rough (as Briullov and Zhukovsky later wittily said).
The latter began to organize the "golden relay race" (or diamond chain) of
Ukraine's and Russia's best people who did their best to wrest the future
luminary of Slavic and world culture from servitude. Among the Ukrainians
were (in addition to Soshenko), above all, poet, writer and public figure
Yevhen Hrebinka, and Vasyl Hryhorovych, conference secretary of the St.
Petersburg Academy of Arts (Shevchenko dedicated his poem "Haidamaky"
to him). They understood only too well that the young Taras should study
at the Academy of Arts to keep the "sacred fire" burning in his soul, but
was impossible so long as he remained a serf.
The poet's friends (above all, Soshenko) introduced him to the circle of
contemporary Russian culture stars, such as the prominent painter Karl
Briullov, famous poet Vasily Zhukovsky, and recognized painter Aleksei
Venetsianov. Out of heartfelt sympathy for the young man, Briullov decided
to personally negotiate with Engelhardt the conditions of his liberation.
This conversation (in the spring of 1837) can be considered the departure
point of further developments.
Consider these two figures. On the one hand, a haughty and conceited typical
landlord and, on the other hand, an individual known without exaggeration
the world over as Karl the Great (this is how the painter of "The Last Days
of Pompeii" was referred to, without a trace of irony). Naturally, Briullov
had every reason to hope that Engelhardt would heed his appeal to be human
and set Shevchenko free. Briullov began with the basics, such as humanity,
Then the dialog took a more specific shape, but the host, who at first
seemed to show a favorable disposition, showed the true colors of a "pig in
Torzhok slippers" (as Briullov immediately nicknamed him). Engelhardt made
it clear he would only set his serf free for a handsome sum of money, the
more so that he was aware of Taras's artistic talent (this pushed up the
price considerably in the eyes of this market-oriented swine).
Fragment of a postard, Kyiv, early 1900's
It is no accident that in the last years of his life Shevchenko asked
publisher V. P. Zotov, who was going to print his biography, to note that
"it was precisely Briullov who bought Shevchenko out of serfdom." Apart from
being noble and humane, Karl Briullov possessed such a trait as
determination to achieve his goal. He requested Soshenko to discuss on his
(Briullov's) behalf with Engelhardt the concrete price of the Bard's
liberation. Being a bit shy, Soshenko turned to Venetsianov for help in this
Venetsianov began his conversation with the serf-owning toad not with basics
but with a concrete proposal that he quote the price. Engelhardt quoted 2500
rubles, a staggering sum at the time. What was to be done? Briullov,
Zhukovsky, who, unable to bear this tyranny, also offered his services (as a
sign of gratitude, Shevchenko dedicated his "Kateryna" to him), as well as
Hryhorovych, Venetsianov, and young artist Apollon Mokritsky conferred.
They soon reached a decision. Mokritsky wrote in his diary on April 2, 1837,
"Briullov called me after lunch. In his house I saw Zhukovsky, who wanted to
know details about Shevchenko. Thank God, our project (liberation. - Author)
is likely to succeed. Briullov began to paint Zhukovsky's portrait today - a
This portrait played a decisive role in the liberation of Taras. Briullov,
known for his charity, and Zhukovsky "blazed a trail for Taras to walk way
from despair to normal life" (Konisky). To be more exact, they decided to
dispose of Zhukovsky's portrait by lottery and use the money earned to buy
Shevchenko's freedom. Although this was the only possible way out, it took a
year, due to various circumstances, for the scheme to materialize (although
Shevchenko says in his story "The Artist," "The portrait was soon
that was not quite the truth).
The point is that when Nicholas I's courtiers learned about the future
portrait and lottery, they also wanted to have the picture. So Zhukovsky had
to hold the lottery at Anichkov Palace, where the royal family was staying
at the time. This delayed the whole process. Moreover, from July to December
1837, Zhukovsky made a tour of Russia with the heir to the throne, future
Tsar Alexander II, as his mentor. Meanwhile, Briullov was taken ill and, in
addition, overburdened with tsarist orders that he could not refuse.
Finally, the finished portrait was raffled in mid-April 1838, at Anichkov
Palace "by means of playing cards," as custom dictated. The participation of
the tsarist family (let us note, as private individuals) later gave rise to
speculation that Shevchenko paid the monarch back "with black ingratitude."
But it should be pointed out that members of the imperial family donated
1000 of the required 2500 rubles as private persons only.
They did not care about Shevchenko: what really mattered was the ardent
desire of Princess Maria, the tsar's daughter and a great "connoisseur of
arts," to get the portrait. Moreover, another private lottery was held "in a
narrow circle," which in fact fetched the main part of the required funds
(this was confirmed by artist N. D. Bykov, a contemporary of Shevchenko).
For this reason Shevchenko had ample reason to write in his "Journal" on
19, 1857, "The heartless satrap and the tsar's confidant (Orenburg governor
V. A. Perovsky - Author) imagined that I was liberated from serfdom and
educated at the tsar's expense and, instead of thanking my benefactor, drew
a caricature on him... I do not know whence this tall tale has come. All I
know is that it cost me not so cheaply."
But on that day, April 22, 1838, the happy Taras (he even rushed to hug
Soshenko, crying out, "Freedom! Freedom!") received his instrument of
manumission with the coveted words "He, Shevchenko, is free to choose any
profession he wants." Later, when he won glory, he expressed gratitude to
both the Ukrainians and Russians, to whom he owed his freedom. And, to sum
up his life, the poet devised one more clear-cut formula, a bitter reproach,
Oh, people! Poor people!
What's the use of tsars?
What's the use of dog-catchers?
For you are people, not dogs
The Day Weekly Digest, Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, July 8, 2003
FOR PERSONAL AND ACADEMIC USE ONLY