Taras Shevchenko: Poet, Painter, and Ukraine’s Greatest Hero

Years after his death in 1861, Ukraine’s celebrated writer, painter, and national hero, Taras Shevchenko, continues to stir the country’s consciousness with his fiery passion for “this land of ours that is not ours”. Born into a serf family and orphaned as a teenager, Shevchenko spent much of his early life as an indentured servant until a master discovered his artistic talent. Apprenticed to a painter in St. Petersburg, Shevchenko’s paintings caught the eye of others and admirers raised 2,500 rubles to purchase the young man’s freedom. As a painter, Shevchenko gained attention for his portraiture and landscape yet, it was his portrayal of historical events that spoke to Ukraine’s subservience to Tsarist Russia that brought the most notoriety.

Shevchenko’s poetry holds a lasting place in the heart of Ukrainians, too. While Shevchenko’s first book of poetry, Kobzar, was a nostalgic reflection of Ukraine, his writings soon shifted to an indictment of his country’s Russian oppressors. A voice for Ukrainian independence, Shevchenko was later arrested, sentenced to ten years in Siberia, and sent into a frozen exile, pencil and paper ripped from his hands. Shevchenko managed to write and paint in secret and today, much of his work done during his years of exile is on display in museums in Kyiv and Kharkiv.

In contemporary Ukraine, school children memorize Shevchenko’s poems. Statutes of Shevchenko have replaced the visages of Lenin in many Ukrainian cities and streets, buildings, and universities are named for Ukraine’s warrior poet. Standing the test of time, Shevchenko’s passionate words were even heard in the streets of Kiev amidst the heady days of the Orange Revolution – “Oh bury me, then rise ye up and break your heavy chains and water with the tyrants’ blood the freedom you have gained” – securing his place in history once more.