Ukrainian literature’s history as a mouthpiece for a denied community

While Zabuzhko’s novel is set in sophisticated Cambridge, Massachusetts, everyday life in 1990s Kyiv is at the heart of Death and the Penguin (also 1996), one of the most popular books by Andrei Kurkov (b. 1961). Kurkov, born in Soviet Russia, grew up in Kyiv and has become the most influential Russian-language author of today’s Ukraine. A living demonstration of the fact that an unequivocally Ukrainian identity is also possible through the Russian language, Kurkov is currently president of the Ukrainian PEN.


But none of these names has the evocative power of Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), the national poet par excellence and a symbol of the Ukrainian nation cherished by Ukrainians all over the world. Shevchenko shaped modern Ukrainian as a literary language able to function in different styles to deal with a variety of themes. His biography of him can be said to be symbolic of Ukraine’s own fate. Born a serf in a village in central Ukraine, Shevchenko was later taken to St Petersburg, where his artistic talent allowed him to become a free man and to study at the Academy of Arts. After several trips to Ukraine in the early 1840s, he joined a pro-democratic, anti-imperialist clandestine society also attended by other prominent Ukrainian intellectuals.

Once the police found about the Brotherhood in 1847, Shevchenko was arrested and sent into exile for 10 years to remote parts of the Russian Empire. He returned to Petersburg in the late 1850s, where he died in 1861. His poetic work by him, available in English in several translations, including a recent volume by London-based publisher Glagoslav, is remarkable for both its emotional and rhetorical intensity, and its stylistic diversity.

Yet, although abundant and multifaceted, Shevchenko’s poetry has its cornerstone in its representation of and preoccupation with Ukraine. Torn between a mythically glorious past, a tragic present of colonial subordination and an uncertain future, Ukraine is one of the two fundaments of Shevchenko’s poetic world, the other being the titanic poetic subject’s self and her emotions. One of the most powerful examples of Shevchenko’s writing is his 1844 revolutionary long poem dream with its Dante-inspired subtitle, comedy, in which the lyrical subject dreams of flying over the earth. His ability to fly gives him the chance to better see the reality of the Russian state, including Ukrainian soldiers who have forgotten their mother tongue and are now part of the repressive system of the empire. But the best part of the poem is the vivid representation of the Tsar and the Tsarina in all their grotesqueness and squalor.

The literary history of Ukraine is long, stretching back to the Middle Ages. What any reader of modern Ukrainian literature – from Shevchenko and his 19th-century successors to the present day – cannot fail to notice or appreciate is the emotional intensity that has accompanied and shaped its role as the mouthpiece for an often denied or repressed national community.

The strength of Ukrainian literature in dealing with the woes of history is something that can also be observed in texts written in these days of war and distributed through social media. These texts, mainly poems, often poignantly reflect a remarkable coexistence of pain and hope.

Alessandro Achilli is a lecturer in Ukrainian Studies at Monash University.

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