IN SAINT PETERSBURG
Taras Shevchenko arrived in St. Petersburg from Vilnius, along with the rest of the servants of Paul Englehardt, in February of 1831. He was on the eve of his seventeenth birthday. It was here, in the Tsarist capital and the centre of the cultural life of the Russian Empire, that Shevchenko was to mature, first as an artist, and as a poet, writer and activist.
His master, still realising that the youth would not make a good house servant and wanting a "court painter", apprenticed young Taras in 1832 to the master painter V. Shyrayev; known to be both stern and arbitrary. Shyrayev was also a famous painter, decorator and art expert, who ran an enterprise engaged in painting the walls and ceilings of the homes of the St. Petersburg elite and public buildings.
As such, Shyrayev was in contact with and entertained the cream of Tsarist society and it is only logical to assume that the young apprentice Shevchenko also became exposed to many of the ideas then circulating in the Russian capital. Popular amongst the intelligentsia were ideas of reform, many borrowed from the ill-fated 1825 Decembrist uprising by young officers who had borrowed heavily from the philosophy of the French Revolution. In later life, a more politically mature Shevchenko referred to the Decembrists as "the first Russian heralds of freedom". While in Vilnius, Taras also had the experience of having witnessed first hand the Polish uprising against Tsarist rule.
While a good part of Shevchenko's apprenticeship was spent mixing paints and delivering items to various of Shyrayev's projects across St. Petersburg, he also honed his own talents and learned much from the master painter. Although he was still officially a serf, his apprenticeship nonetheless allowed him a certain degree of personal freedom in the city. In his spare moments, normally in the evenings, he would wander the city making sketches, often in the Summer Gardens during the northern "white lights".
It was because of this habit that Shevchenko met a fellow Ukrainian and artist, Ivan Soshenko, in July of 1835. A friendship was formed and Soshenko took Shevchenko under his wing, teaching him some of the basics of painting and introducing the talented youth to some of the most enlightened and cultured elements of St. Petersburg society, including the Russian artist Karl Bryulov, the poet Zhukovsky (who had been a tutor to the Tsar's family), Ukrainian writer Hrebinka, the conference secretary of the Academy of Arts V Hrihorovich and others.
Moving in this circle of the Russian intelligentsia, Shevchenko won the hearts of this enlightened segment of society, which quickly recognized the young man's talents and realized that they could only be properly developed if he were a free man.
Accordingly, the artist Karl Bryulov; whose works were much in demand, painted a portrait of the poet Zhukovsky which was raffled off, raising the 2500 roubles necessary for Shevchenko to receive his certificate of freedom on April 22, 1838.
An interesting aspect of this story is that, on his arrest in 1847, Shevchenko was reproached for his "black ingratitude", as the rumour had circulated that the Tsar's family had bought all the raffle tickets and, as a result, had purchased the freedom of the serf who then went on to attack and ridicule them through his poetry. While it is true that the tickets were no doubt bought in the most part by members of the court, it was not through any altruism on their part, but to cheaply obtain a fine work of art. What was ingratitude for some, was perhaps more realistically an ironic form of nemesis.
With his freedom attained, in 1838 Shevchenko became an external student at the Academy of Arts, studying under Karl Bryulov. In January of 1839, he was accepted as a resident student of the Association for the Encouragement of Artists and at the annual examinations at the Academy was awarded a silver medal for a landscape. The following year, he again won a silver medal for his first oil painting The Beggar Boy Giving Bread to a Dog.
As his artistic talent developed, Shevchenko continued to move in the circles of the progressive intelligentsia and also broadened his world view. He took courses in zoology, physics and philosophy, studied the French language and avidly read literature - Homer, Goethe, Schiller, Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Shakespeare, Defoe, Mickiewicz, Pushkin, Gogol and many others. In art, he became a critical realist and applied his approach to portraiture, etching and illustrating.
However, it is for his written work that Shevchenko is best remembered. According to his own memoirs, he first began to write verse during his visits to the Summer Gardens in 1837. However, he had become so immersed in this that, by 1840, his first collection of poetry appeared - the Kobzar, containing but eight verses, with a forward in verse form, the now famous Dumy moyi.
The Kobzar met with mixed reaction. Chauvinistic elements of society scoffed at his efforts and suggested Shevchenko cease writing in the Ukrainian language, calling him a "peasants' poet", an epithet which never bothered the poet himself.
The more enlightened, though, greeted Shevchenko's poetry for its lyricism, deep feeling and love of his native land and people. In Ukraine, Shevchenko's poetry became an almost overnight sensation.
The appearance of the Kobzar, aside from being a turning point in Shevchenko's life, was also a milestone for Ukrainian language and culture, often denigratingly referred to as "Little Russian", giving it a legitimacy which had to that point been denied or ridiculed. The appearance of Ivan Kotlyarevsky's Aeneida in the early 19th Century was regarded as the true beginning of Ukrainian literature; the appearance of the Kobzar and subsequent works by Shevchenko rounded out the process.
It should be noted, however, that Shevchenko was not exclusively Ukrainian in his work. A few poems, his drama Nazar Stodoyla and his prose were written in Russian. However, the bulk of his work was in the Ukrainian language. And his themes were overwhelmingly based on Ukrainian history, tradition and conditions of serfdom, the fate of common people.
This latter point, as well as the obvious despise he feels for the Tsarist system and his ridicule of its aristocracy, has led some critics to view Shevchenko as a "nationalist", as anti-Russian. And there is no doubt that Shevchenko's poetry, as it develops, does increasingly call on the Ukrainian people to overthrow their rulers. What should be noted, however, is that Shevchenko's heroes include the Czech Jan Hus (The Heritic) and the oppressed peoples of the Caucasus (in the poem of the same name), and that he attacks not only Russian masters (The Dream), but Ukrainian masters as well, (To the Dead, the Living and the Yet Unborn). For Shevchenko, the enemy is always theoppressor, regardless of ethnicity, a view reinforced by his 1843 visit to Ukraine. During this visit, already as an adult, Shevchenko came face to face with the cruel realities of the economic, social and national oppression of the Tsarist regime.
Further adding credence to this international aspect of Shevchenko's political attitudes is the fact of his involvement, in 1846-47, in the Kyrylo-Metody Society, an underground anti-serfdom grouping with Pan-Slavist tendencies.
Following his visit to Ukraine, Shevchenko returned to St. Petersburg to finish his studies and to continue writing and publishing poetry, as well as to produce a series of etchings entitled Pictorial Ukraine. He graduated from the Academy of Arts in 1845 and almost immediately returned to Ukraine.
In Kiev, Shevchenko first made contact with the Kyrylo-Metody Society and quickly became one of the leaders of its radical faction. While some members of the Society saw reform as the solution to the ills of Tsarist society, the radical faction saw rebellion and popular uprising as the sole means of overthrowing their masters.
During this period, Shevchenko was hired by the Archeological Commission to travel through Kiev, Poltava and Volyn provinces to record in sketches and paintings significant cultural sites.
In 1847, the members of the Kyrylo-Metody Society were betrayed by a police informer and Shevchenko was arrested on April 5 and transported to St. Petersburg for disposition by the Tsarist authorities. The more liberal, or reformist, members of the Society apologized for their actions and received very lenient sentences. Shevchenko reftised to repent for his actions, which included reading subversive and "openly unlawful" verses, some of which ridiculed the Tsar's family. In his defence, Shevchenko denounced Tsarist repression in Ukraine and throughout the Empire.
Shevchenko received a sentence of exile as a rank and file soldier to Orenburg in the East. He was to be kept under strict scrutiny so that "from him wouldn't come, in any form, any outrageous or libellous works". To this order, the Tsar personally added, "He is to be under the most strict surveillance, with prohibition to write and to paint".
It is interesting to note that Shevchenko's colleague in the radical wing of the Society, M. Hulak, who also refused to repent, received a three year jail sentence. Shevchenko's sentence, if Tsar Nicholas I had not died ten years later, would have been for life. His treatment by the Tsarist regime is perhaps the greatest possible tribute to Shevchenko's dedication and effectiveness in the cause of freedom.