Taras Shevchenko in Postcolonial Dialogue: The Rise of Ukrainian Nationalism in Literature

James Renwick Fleshman

Judson University



Taras Shevchenko in Postcolonial Dialogue:

The Rise of Ukrainian Nationalism in Literature



Postcolonial theory is a theory still in process. Thus far, the development of this theory has focused on the literatures of non-Western nations colonized by Western European powers, creating a literary dialogue of circuitous exchange between colonized and colonizer. The relationship between Russia and Ukraine has the unique opportunity to reveal new insights about the development of a hybrid national identity, even when ethnic and geographical identities are similar. In order to establish literary independence, postcolonial theory must be applied to the literature of the Ukrainian nation, even as it exists in hybrid identity as a land “on the edge” of other nations (1). Perhaps the best figure given for this purpose is poet Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), who wrote in his native Ukrainian language despite academic subjugation and exile to Russian Siberia. Shevchenko’s Kobzar poetry must be reread and reinterpreted in light of a widened postcolonial theory, rejecting the literary and systemic oppression of the Russian imperial narrative.


As a historical figure, Taras Shevchenko is more than merely a poet, he is the poet of the Ukrainian people and the voice of the nation. Ukrainian poet Panteleimon Kulish gave tribute to Shevchenko at his graveside, saying, “There have been great warriors in our native Ukraine; there have been great rulers. But you rise above them all and your family is the largest.” (2)  Previous studies of Shevchenko have looked at his life and works in light of linguistics (3) and semiotics (4), but have failed to interact meaningfully with contemporary literary theory. Most notably, there is almost no interaction with postcolonial theory, despite the wealth of connections available. These potential connections can be found throughout Shevchenko scholarship, for example when George Grabowicz, a Shevchenko scholar at Harvard University, writes that “Ševčenko’s ‘historicism’ is perceived almost exclusively as assertion and glorification of Ukrainian freedom and nationhood in battle against foreign, especially Russian, domination.” (5) Essentially, Grabowicz interprets Shevchenko’s interaction with Ukrainian history as a continual battle against foreign domination. Grabowicz’s interpretive “historicism” could help to connect his theoretical and literary framework with the larger realm of literary theory. As he argues for the nationhood of Ukraine throughout its colonial history, Grabowicz interprets Shevchenko in light of Ukrainian freedom, rather than in romantic literary terms. Yet there is little discussion of how this freedom exists in spite of and in relation to Russian colonization. Shevchenko himself presents a particular view of Ukrainian history that is strictly Ukrainian. He does not view Polish or Russian rule as a valid expression of Ukrainian nationhood, but rather writes the literature of Ukraine’s national spirit. He is the ideological national hero of independent Ukraine.

Shevchenko criticism must be continued in a modern Ukraine, but it should adapt from basic nationalism to an expression of their postcolonial experience. Serious Shevchenko studies has the potential to continually foster independent nationhood even in light, and perhaps because of, their subaltern experience. In describing nationalism, Homi K. Bhabha writes that “the very concepts of homogenous national cultures, the consensual or contiguous transmission of historical traditions, or ‘organic’ ethnic communities – as the grounds for cultural comparativism – are in a profound process of redefinition.” (6) Much of this process of redefinition is oriented in the experience and recording of exile, displacement, and cultural subjugation. In this same vein, Bhabha writes of the “unhomely paradigmatic colonial and post-colonial condition.” (7) This notion of “unhomeliness” captures the reality of the colonial and displaced nation, which must now define itself in light of what it knows both before and after foreign occupation.

Despite the trauma of foreign and non-local oppression, the nation defines itself in light of its experience, a sort of hybridity that recognizes change within itself. Shevchenko fits this unhomeliness notion well, recognizing that he is both defined by his independent nationality and by his status as a colonial Russian subject. In fact, his decade of exile in Kazakh Siberia fits that notion even more, as discussed below, revealing both his literal and emotional unhomeliness.  His condition is one of waiting, both in his exile and in his longing for the creation of an independent Ukrainian state with “Cossack Freedom.” This is the duality of identity that defines the nation that has undergone trauma and must now redefine itself (8). 

No longer a colony, Ukraine now has the freedom to develop its own literary sensibilities. Olena Haleta, comparative literary theorist at Ivan Franko University in Lviv, Ukraine, describes this unique time that “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian literature found itself in new historical circumstances: it became the literature of an (at least nominally) independent state presented with new opportunities, but burdened with old dependencies.” (9) Rather than continuing in Soviet socialist realism, Ukrainian literary criticism should adapt to the expression of its own national theory through a postcolonial lens. Taras Shevchenko, the “national hero” of Ukraine, continues to provide a strong starting place for the development of this theory even today. He is not a symbol of village tribalism as the Russian literary critics of old may describe him; rather, he is the voice of the nation speaking into the national longing for independence. 

The Ukrainian national story has been told primarily from the Russian perspective, but their national identity exists separately from that.  Discussing Ukrainian literary development, the renowned Ukrainian literary critic Ivan Franko wrote in his forward to Shevchenko’s “Perebendia” that “In recent years a heated debate about the new Ukrainian literature, its genesis and evolution, has been waged in Russian academic circles.” (10) In challenging Russian literary and cultural oppression, Franko argued that Ukrainian literature is in fact separate from Russian literature and is not “only a weak echo” (11) of it. This set of conditions described by Franko is precisely how post-colonial theorists describe the foundation of national identity, and highlights the unique independence of Ukrainian literature.

As such, Ukrainian literature also fits into a markedly different category than Russian literature. It is not a literature of the colonizer; rather, it is the literature of the colonized. Writing shortly after Shevchenko’s death, Franko cited M. Dashkevych in arguing that “Ukrainian literature is not a product of foreign influence, but arose as a result of local conditions, from a positive national awareness (narodnist’) and from the need for self-knowledge and self-expression.” (12) This significant distinction creates a hybrid identity of Ukraine as both independent nation and colonial result. Yet in the modern world, it is the aim of postcolonial literary studies to reject the “Russian discovery of Ukraine.” (13) More specifically, Marko Pavlyshyn calls this aim the “anti-colonial project of the construction of the Ukrainian nation on the ethnic territory of Ukraine.” (14) Postcolonial theorists can adapt to this literary narrative, even in relation to its ethnically similar Russian oppressors. This, of course, includes the anti-colonial reinterpretation and criticism of great Ukrainian literature like Shevchenko’s Kobzar


Shevchenko’s work was largely inspired by his life in Ukraine and its identification in Slavic ethnography. At a very basic level, Shevchenko’s ideology was pan-Slavist, affirming the belief that all Slavic peoples should be united together by a shared culture. This cultural grouping was a rejection of colonialism, as it was inherently the rejection of all things German and Russian, which were the forces of cultural imperialism that most dominated eastern Slavic culture at the time. He loved Ukraine and the peasant populace in its borders, and his nationalism developed in response to the struggle of living under the Russian tsarist regime. He wrote extensively in support of the enslaved peasants and the nostalgia of Cossack liberty (15). During the nine years of freedom in which he was neither imprisoned nor a serf, he developed most of his

muzhik philosophy, which was essentially an embrace of the peasant soil and consciousness of the Ukrainian people. Many of these works turned out to be some of his greatest pieces. 

As a significant cultural and intellectual movement of the time, Shevchenko’s nationalism fits into the larger pan-Slavist movement. Shevchenko also shared his pan-Slavist conviction with the Czech pan-Slavist Pavel Šafarik. Together, these two intellectuals argued that the Russians had lost their truly Slavic way by colonizing other Slavic cultures, and that a non-Russian Slavic union should be formed (16). Ukrainian communist critic Andrii Richytsky writes that “his is a nationalism of a poor people and not that of its class oppressors, a muzhik nationalism…” (17) It was this international understanding of the world that gave Shevchenko a perspective on the larger Slavic society and gave him grounds to oppose Russian imperial control in favor of a larger Slavic union. Shevchenko’s work and belief was grounded in this school of thought rather than the Russian imperial view. The goal for Shevchenko was never to “westernize” Ukraine, as so many support today, but rather to embed its history deeply in the larger Slavic culture and ethnolinguistics. Together with Šafarik, he stood against the colonial oppression in his nation, even when this necessitated the opposition of another Slavic nation. 

As the concept of nation-forming continued to develop during the mid-1800s, Ernest Renan, a French contemporary of Shevchenko studying the development of nationalism in Europe, argued that one of the unique facets of European nationhood comes in the lack of difference that defines ethnicities and peoples on the continent. Renan writes that “The instinctive consciousness which presided over the construction of the map of Europe took no account of race, and the leading nations of Europe are nations of essentially mixed blood.” (18) Thus, in the construction of European nationhood from a historical perspective, nationhood is not defined by race but rather by a national consciousness. As small ethnic communities consider their larger nationality, the resulting awareness of culture becomes the foundation of the modern nation. Nationalism, then, is much more difficult to define and defend when it is separated from race. Regarding the formation of the nation, Renan even argues that, “Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principal of] nationality.” (19) Applying this concept of nation formation to colonial settings, the challenge becomes more difficult as some of the population undoubtedly identifies with the culture and ways of the colonizing power. This challenge summarizes the divide, yet it also shows the necessity for such a narrative literary formation.

This divide is significant namely because of Shevchenko’s interactions with the Russian literary establishment. One notable Russian literary critic was Vissarion Belinsky, who was obsessed with the idea of nationality in literature. In harmonizing post-colonial theory with the study of Shevchenko’s literature, the idea of narodnist’, Народність or national awareness, plays an important key connection. Belinsky himself formulated a theory of nationality which, in the words of Andrea Rutherford, argued that “nations exist, not for their own sake, but in order to prepare people for a higher historical purpose.” (20) For Belinsky, this meant that Ukraine should assimilate into Russian culture. Thus, his theory was divided into three levels of humankind, which included the narod stage, the nation (natsiia) stage, and the stage of “organic unity.” (21) The first of these levels is characterized by a sort of slave mentality, meaning that these narod communities do not participate in human progress or world history. Belinsky argued that narodnost’ (22), or nationality, developed during this stage as a result of race.  In Russian fashion, he argued that “Russian substance… is of unparalleled greatness…(23)” The Ukrainian culture and citizenry, in Belinsky’s view, could not rise past the narod stage without assimilating into the “greatness” of his own Russian society.

The problem, however, is that Belinsky failed to recognize the national sense of identity that existed in the Ukrainian character apart from his own Russian character. Shevchenko’s muzhik philosophy embraced the Ukrainian peasantry as the truest expression of their society, the real exemplification of narodnist’. Belinsky’s understanding of the narod was simply not the same as Shevchenko’s, and this caused significant cultural misunderstanding and even a type of literary colonialism over his work. He, as the literary critic in power of interpretation, rejected the Ukrainian narodnist’ and sought to submit Ukrainian nationhood to his own theoretical framework. Shevchenko, on the other hand, made an argument that Russian cultural oppression could not destroy Ukrainian narodnist’, a truly radical anti-colonial argument for the day. 

Ukraine’s narodnist’ is represented in the literature of Shevchenko in a markedly different way than in Belinsky’s narodnost’. Perhaps the oppression of people with only a slightly different language seems minor and even unnoticeable. The simple fact of the matter, however, is that both words are representative of separate nations and ethnic backgrounds. The narodnist’ of Ukraine is formed by the experience of its hybrid identity as a colony of imperial Russia. Ideologically and linguistically, the two nations are separate narodi, “nations.” Shevchenko is able to define his own sense of narodnist’ through his poetic works in a way that Belinsky is unable to as a force of colonial oppression. 

It is also important to note how Shevchenko distinguishes народ and країна, meaning “country.” The concept of the nation is more connected with the people and culture of the land, whereas the concept of the country is more closely connected with the land itself. Shevchenko loves the країна of Ukraine, but his argument is deeper than that. Shevchenko is thoroughly anti-colonial in the sense that speaks directly about the nation and national character of Ukraine, separate from that of Russia. The definition of narodnist’ from a Ukrainian perspective is problematic in the way it has been blurred by the Russian colonial project. Yet despite his position, Belinsky argued that a natsiia was defined by dynamism, progress, and the nation existing in history. Similarly, he argued against the encouragement of peasant culture and said that nationality exists only where there is education and rationalism against peasantry. Belinsky did not equate narodnost’ with nationhood, and he certainly did not see any way for the narod (i.e. Ukraine) to reach the state of European civilized “organic unity.” 

One Ukrainian public intellectual and literary critic, M. Riabchuk, writes about confusion of national identity as an example of Russian cultural imperialism, saying that “Throughout the 18th century… Russia developed and firmly established the official view of Ukrainians as ‘almost the same people’ and the Ukrainians largely internalized that view, even though the content and scope of the adverb “almost” had never been fully agreed upon or clearly specified.” (24) Historically, many Ukrainians lost their sense of narodnist’ which allowed for the continued degradation of the Ukrainian national ideal. Yet the distinct nature of the Ukrainian people could not be totally suppressed by the Russian colonizers. This distinct national identity is why Myroslav Shkandrij writes that “nationalism presupposes the nonexistence of an independent state and therefore concludes that the existence, or creation, of such a state is imperative.” (25) In Shkandrij’s view, the very desire of nationalism is to create that which does not yet exist. Thus in response to foreign political oppression, the need for state creation and national independence is precisely why narodnist’ is invaluable to the national movement for hybrid identity. This sense of nationalism allows for the development of a new understanding of the subaltern nation where it does not yet exist as a state. While some may deny the value of nationalism in light of the ethnic biases it creates, there is still significant scholarship that supports that development of a distinct national mindset (26).  George Grabowicz describes this mindset as the Ukrainian communitas, which presents in literature the sacred truth of the Ukrainian story, istorija-pravda (27). This is the “national destiny” which binds people together and for which Shevchenko “is both a spokesman for the entire group and its past and a mediator between that past and the future.” (28)

Belinsky and the Russian intellectuals held power over the Ukrainian literary development in the way that they viewed their civilizing mission over Ukraine, namely because they viewed that only Russian nationality could allow for Ukrainian literature to improve. Belinsky publicly derided Shevchenko’s work because it was written in the Ukrainian language, writing that “The readers of Otechestvennye zapiski (29) are familiar with our opinion regarding the works of the so-called Little Russian literature.” (30) In rejecting Ukrainian literary independence, Belinsky also encouraged another Ukrainian author, Kvitka-Osnov’ianenko to “follow Gogol’s example and write in Russian. He assured him that if he did he would enjoy much greater fame.” (31) The pride of this argument, combined with the cultural control of the Russian literary and political establishment, continues to show the colonized/colonizer relationship that exists between Ukraine and Russia, which was largely unnoticed due to their Slavic ethnic similarities. This is precisely the sort of oppression that many faced under colonialism all around the world as European powers saw their role in “civilizing” backwards peoples. For this reason, postcolonial theory is valuable for investigating the marginalized voices that exist within Ukraine as independent communicators of the national ideal. (32)


One common example is the figure of the abandoned orphan found throughout Shevchenko’s poetry, which highlights the loss of glory and sovereignty of Ukraine. Russian literary critic Kornei Chukovsky writes that “when you read his Kobzar, the most poignant circumstance seems to be neither hunger nor madness, neither sickness nor death but being orphaned, the state of orphanhood, when one is cast aside, rejected.” (33) This theme is repeated throughout the course of Shevchenko’s poetry, but it serves more than just a literary agenda. The theme also serves a strictly national agenda, revealing how Ukraine has been suppressed through the control of foreigners. Stepan Khorob, a modern Ukrainian scholar, writes that “Ukraine’s whole history is disharmony, though on the other hand, it seems to perfectly reflect the myth [of past glory]. The past, full of blood, struggle, and sins, is still better than the present one.” (34) It is this history of disharmony and reality of present dysfunction that perfectly depicts the nationalist mindset of Shevchenko. Orphanhood, in the symbolic literary sense, implies sincere and total abandonment, leaving the child helpless and alone. Shevchenko’s symbolic use of powerless orphanhood fits in well with the interpretive framework of postcolonial theory, working out the power dynamics between the colony / colonizer in literature. It is the regular practice of colonization to deny power to the colony, leaving the minority nation to defend itself against an overbearing oppressor. This helplessness defines the orphan both in literature and as a symbol for the nation.  

This theme of abandonment continued to develop throughout Shevchenko’s own lived experience and is notably expressed in his pre-exilic poetry. Shevchenko’s own experience was defined by serfdom, which was an effective tool for the Russian Empire to colonize, control, and “civilize” Ukraine. Though he was given little freedom as a serf, he did learn more of the Cossack Ukrainian spirit through his bondage, repeating this proverb to himself: “Suffer, Cossack, and you will be an otaman.” (35) It was also during this time that Shevchenko wrote the famous poem Kateryna, which explores the traditional Ukrainian tale of a young Ukrainian woman who marries a Russian officer only to be abandoned. Pavlo Zaitsev, Shevchenko biographer, writes that this poetic story “grew into the larger dimensions of Ukraine’s fate under Russia.” (36) Even in his earliest works, Shevchenko wrote with a distinctly Ukrainian bent, arguing for the national independence and detachment of Ukraine from Russian oppression, a theme which is evident throughout his work.

Shevchenko begins his famous 1838 poem Kateryna with that same notion of abandonment. He writes “Fall in love, you dark-browed girls / But not with Muscovites. / For Muscovites are strangers, / They will do you wrong. / A Muscovite loves jokingly, / and joking he’ll leave you.” (37) Apart from the clear ethnic-national tensions that exist between the “dark-browed girl,” a poetic representation of Ukrainian femininity, and the Muscovite, there is also a deeper level to the national-symbolic value of this poem. First of all, the translation of москаль (moskal’) as “Muscovite” in English fails to reveal the truly derogatory nature of this Ukrainian term. Being called a moskal’ was not the same as being merely a Russian, rather it carried with it the implication of a dirty, foul, Russian soldier. This force was not welcomed in Ukraine, resulting in the creation of this derogatory slang term. This is further solidified by Shevchenko’s later statement that the Russian husband was “off to Turkey,” (38) where the Russian empire had fought in the late 1820s. Yet, the story of Kateryna is not merely poetic, but also symbolic of the colonial abuse of Ukraine under Russian oppression, which is invoked through the “orphanhood” imagery that Chukovsky discusses. After the Russian lover inevitably leaves Kateryna with a child, Shevchenko writes, “Kateryna, O my sweetheart! Hardship is your future! Where on earth are you to go with a little orphan child?” (39) Again, the national image of Ukraine as the abandoned orphan is continued, the result of Ukrainian purity being mixed with Russian abuse and carelessness.  The former glory of Ukraine exists in the beauty and innocence of Kateryna, which is simultaneously abused by the violence and corruption of war portrayed in the Russian soldier-husband.

Throughout the rest of Kateryna, she is depicted as a wanderer desperately trying to reach Moscow, only to be made fun of by a group of moskali speaking in Russian. Yet as she desperately seeks her former lover, Ivan, to show him their son, she is “Shoeless, [as] Katie runs around the woods, She runs and shouts; she curses her dear Ivan.” (40) Using the affectionate form of the name, Katrusia, Shevchenko continues to show the increasingly desperate situation of the Ukrainian mother. She is abandoned symbolically, like an orphan, and is left with a child that isn’t quite orphaned, but is left fatherless. This image of poverty is unapologetically connected to Russian abuse and abandonment, which Shevchenko locates thematically in this story and politically through his support of the Ukrainian national cause. The postcolonial interpretation of this poem recognizes the attraction of the Russian moskal’ father because of the former attraction and desire between them, but also shows that the fault of abandonment rests upon the colonizer. The Ukrainian nation is represented by the abandoned mother, and the hybrid identity of Ukraine as both independent and abused continues to develop in Shevchenko’s literature. The national identity exists in both the abandonment of the mother and the future hope of the orphan child, who has hybrid genealogy of both Russia and Ukraine. The future of Ukraine, as portrayed by Shevchenko, is in the hopeful interpretation of this child “of hybrid genealogy” to reject the abandoning Russian father and embrace the caring but abused Ukrainian mother. 

Shevchenko continues this optimistic trend of national development in his poem Haidamaky. Epic in proportions, this poem recounts the eighteenth century Ukrainian peasant rebellions against the Polish ruling nobility, Uniate Catholics, and Jews. Though some of the language is problematic in its portrayal of these ethnic and religious groups, the poem also depicts ethnic Ukraine through a particularly nationalistic light. He writes to these Ukrainian rebels,

Хто вас щиро без матері / Привітае в світі? / Сини мої! Орли мої! / Летіть в Україну / Хоч і ліхо зострінеться / Так не на чужині. (Shevchenko) (41)

Continuing the symbolism of the orphan-child, Shevchenko speaks to the Ukrainian rebels as a lost and wandering child in need of a mother. In the fear of death and the insecurity of rebellion, Shevchenko again portrays the Ukrainian land as a place of safety, even despite foreign oppression. Here, “the father rises / and tells us in our language / About his glorious hetmans. / As is, some fool spins tales / in dead language.” (42) In the home symbolism of Ukraine, Shevchenko creates nostalgia for the Ukrainian past with myths of Cossack warriors (hetmans). This is, in his words, the glory (“slava”) of Ukraine. Yet, he also presents a challenging dialectic reality in the second half of that section, ridiculing the Russian literary perspective that Ukrainian was a dead language that would eventually succumb to merely being a “dialect” of Russian (43). While he sees the glory and wisdom of the Cossack Ukrainian father “telling tales of Ukraine, of how they built the Sich,” he also recognizes the challenging reality of the Russian colonial oppression, which has left the Ukrainian warriors “all alone / In my own home… Just like a little child.” (44) The divide continues to grow throughout Haidamaky as Shevchenko balances both the former glory of Ukraine and the present abandonment of the nation. This is the current subaltern state of Ukraine, yet returning home presents the hope of revived national identity. 

Orphan language continues to reinforce the confused state of Ukrainian national identity, which is juxtaposed by the concept of Cossack glory. Shevchenko writes, “Як то тяжко блукать в світі / Сироті без роду; / А до того – душа щира, / Козацького роду.” (45) In this reading, the image of the orphan is again portrayed as one plagued with difficulty. The orphan is forced to roam the world, not able to settle down peacefully. Even this concept of roaming or wandering, blukat’, is one of immense sadness and terror for a young orphan, yet it is further exacerbated by the extension of the adverb tyazhko. The presence of this word meaning “oppressively” or “heavily” serves to show the real desperation that this orphaned child has. Yet interestingly, these two lines about his “roots” serve different purposes to show both sorrow and hope. First, he is described as wandering without roots or ancestors, but then he is described as having Cossack roots. These roots, which portray the genealogy of this orphan, are also the parenting factor within the poetry of his “honest soul,” which further shows the innocence of the orphaned Ukraine and narodnist’. Overall, this orphan is described as one who “loves the ballad of the truth, That of Kozak glory.” (46) Despite the traumatic nature of his lonely orphanhood, he still somehow managed to maintain a grasp of the Ukrainian “truth,” and desires the national glory of his people. 

That national ideal continues in the personal lives of the characters in the poem, namely how there is the promise of the Ukrainian warrior to take care of his wife after the foreigners are ousted. Shevchenko recounts that: 

Їй Ярема розказував, / Як жить вони будуть / Укупочці, як золото / І долю добуде, / Як виріжуть гайдамаки / Ляхів в Українію. (Shevchenko) (47)

Not only does the main character of this section of the poem, Yarema, speak to his lover Oksana about how he will benefit from ousting Poles from the land, but he does so in a very particular way. Seeking to gain wealth and fortune, Yarema plays the role of the traditional Ukrainian warrior-hetman who will receive loot from ousting the Polish class oppressors. In postcolonial fashion, Shevchenko created Yarema to oppose the foreign rule of the historic Polish oppressors. He further continues this by using the negative slang for “Poles,” lyakh, which depicts a similar negativity as moskal’ would for Russians. Yet English translations fail to portray this negative slang, and they also fail to show the true meaning of the verb виріжуть, which quite literally means “to cut out.” This verb virizhut’ is violent and merciless, reflecting the way that Yarema and the Haidamak warriors will oust the Polish foreigners. As such, Shevchenko’s real poetic thrust is found in the war language that he uses, and the systematic way that he defines Ukrainian identity in light of wealth and independence apart from foreign rule. Furthermore, there is an optimistic spirit in the Ukrainian husband-warrior providing for his wife, which acts as a poetic foil to the abandonment found in Kateryna. Yarema, as the archetypal Ukrainian husband-warrior, seeks to provide for his wife in national fashion, rejecting the presence of foreign invasion and oppression.

This resolve for the glory of Ukraine in the midst of orphanhood fits in well with the notion of hybrid identity after colonization. Even despite the attempted “uprooting” of this orphaned Ukraine, there is still a pride that exists within the desire for national glory and freedom. That desire continues through the course of Haidamaky, and drives the character of Yarema to fight the battle that rages throughout the poem, to which Yarema says, “The Kozak will then sing: ‘Neither Jew nor Pole,’ And in the steppes of Ukraine.” (48) While this lack of tolerance is troubling for modern sensibilities, there is also a particular value to seeing the desire for a Ukrainian state as portrayed in this poem. Throughout the course of the entire poem, the aim and desire is for an orphaned and abused state to reestablish itself in light of its experience. Yet, at the end of the poem, Shevchenko reveals the challenging reality of the Ukrainian state, writing, “Injustice is what thrives… Haidamaks dispersed / To any place that each had known… (49)” In light of this injustice, Shevchenko writes these words to show the truly challenging position of Ukrainian freedom subjected to foreign rule.

Shevchenko’s optimism, however, is challenged in the darkness of his own lived experience, as he was forcibly exiled to Kazakh Siberia after being arrested on April 5, 1847. The official police documents charged that his poems were “‘written in order to sow dissatisfaction among the people with the government.’”(50) He became both a colonial subject in this situation and was given the expectation of joining “Russia’s civilizing mission.”(51) Roman Koropeckyj, a leading Shevchenko scholar, writes that Shevchenko was “himself willy-nilly implementing the absorption of yet another oriental frontier into the imperial fold.” (52) Traditional Russian practice of the time was to deport Ukrainians from their homeland to settle the colonial outposts of the Russian empire. He was expected by the Russian colonizers to culturally subdue and Christianize the Central Asian lands, and was effectively imprisoned for that purpose. His view of the Kazakhs under Russian colonization, however, was not one of superiority, as was the Russian desire, but rather of understanding and sympathy. He was therefore supporting the oppressed Kazakh nation even in his own exile at the hands of the Russian empire.

That darkness is continued in the poetry of this period of his life. Previously, he had longed for Cossack freedom, as mentioned earlier, but now he longs for his homeland, Ukraine. This is evidenced even more clearly in his poem “Roads Leading to That Country”, in which he shares his longing for home. Shevchenko writes, “Заросли шляхи тернами / На тую країну / Мабуть, Я її навіки / Навіки покинув.” (53) The repetition of the word навіки, meaning “forever,” serves to show the sheer hopelessness that Shevchenko is experiencing, which is further emphasized by the juxtaposition of these words across adjacent lines. This desperation that espouses Shevchenko’s exilic writing is further exacerbated by the use of мабуть, which can be translated as “probably, apparently, or perhaps.” Peter Fedynsky, the translator of the most recent edition of Kobzar in English, translates this as “perhaps,” yet this is too optimistic for understanding the existential desperation that Shevchenko found himself in. Shevchenko clearly feels that the way back to Ukraine from Kazakh Siberia is simply impossible, and he recognizes that he may never have the opportunity to go home again to his nation. This desperation is further emphasized through his exclamation to God that his fate has not been kind, when he exclaims “Не дав єси ніколи, / Ніколи! Ніколи!”(54) This trifold repetition of ніколи, meaning “never,” continues to reveal the desperation with which Shevchenko saw his situation. He has been imprisoned and sentenced to the Russian colonial project in Kazakh Siberia, but he also mentions that he was never granted the ability to marry.

Yet the final wish and cry of Shevchenko is not marriage or a family, but rather he exclaims “Дай мені хоч глянуть / На народ отой убитий / На тую Украйну!”(55) These words are telling of Shevchenko’s truest national desire and national character. He was not merely a great poet; he was a national hero who stood by his народ “nation” even when they were убитий “murdered.” While recognizing the real struggle of his own nation, his only final wish to God was to see his homeland again. This longing of nationality is what really sets Shevchenko aside for his national character. Shevchenko’s narodnist’ is significant because it shows that even with his great literary talent, he still placed the nation as his top priority. He did not become detached from the national cause, as other Ukrainian authors and poets did (56), but rather continued to fight for his nation’s existence in the darkness of colonial oppression and personal exile.  


As a microcosm of the Ukrainian experience, Shevchenko’s life and work represents the struggle for nationhood under the political and cultural oppression of the colonizing Russian empire. Whereas postcolonial literary criticism has previously focused on the non-European nations that have experienced domination at the hands of European colonizers, I have argued that this theory does not go far enough to reach all subaltern national experiences. In conjunction with this new perspective, Shevchenko scholars must also embrace postcolonial interpretation, applying research to the wider field of literary criticism. Ultimately, the aim of this adaptation of Shevchenkonavstvo is to bring Shevchenko and his work into the modern age, where it can continue to serve in the development of a specifically Ukrainian literary consciousness. Thus, Shevchenko’s Kobzar is rooted deeply in Ukraine’s history but also in the independent Ukrainian present. In this interpretive lens, Shevchenko continues to write to his compatriots – “the dead, the living, and the unborn.”(57) As Ukraine continues its pursuit of literary and political independence, Shevchenko can continue to be the voice of the hybrid Ukrainian identity in literary interpretation. Such a literature will serve both Shevchenko studies and postcolonial theory, extending their arguments beyond Ukraine and into new non-Western and non-English literary territories.

Works Cited


  1.  The literal meaning of Ukraine is land on the edge. Anna Reid, Borderland. (Basic Books, 2015) 1. 
  2.  Kulish, Panteleimon, “Graveside Oration.” Shevchenko & The Critics, edited by George S.N. Luckyj. (University of Toronto Press, 1980) 55.
  3.  George Grabowicz, The Poet as Mythmaker. (Harvard UP, 1982).
  4. Anna Makolkin, Name, Hero, Icon: Semiotics of Nationalism through Heroic Biography. (Mouton de Gruyter, 1955) 19.
  5.  Grabowicz 17.
  6.  Babha 7
  7.  Ibid 13.
  8.  Ibid 55.
  9.  Olena Haleta, “Literary CombiNation: Memory in Space in Contemporary Ukrainian Anthologies,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of European Studies, 5, no. 2 (2013) 71.
  10. Ivan Franko. “Foreward to Shevchenko’s ‘Perebendia.’” Shevchenko & The Critics, edited by George S.N. Luckyj. (University of Toronto Press, 1980) 96.
  11.  Ibid 97.
  12.  Ibid 97.
  13.  Marko Pavlyshyn, “Literary Travel: Ukrainian Journeys Toward the National and the Modern,” Australian Slavonic & East European Studies, 23, no. 1/2 (2009) 2.
  14.  Ibid 5.
  15.  Andrii Richytsky. “Muzhik Philosophy.” Shevchenko & The Critics, ed. George S.N. Luckyj. (University of Toronto Press, 1980) 145.
  16.  Ibid 151.
  17.  Ibid 152.
  18.  Ernest Renan. “What Is A Nation?” Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Babha (Routledge, 1990): 15
  19.  Ibid 11.
  20.  Rutherford 500.
  21.  Ibid 503.
  22.  Russian term for the Ukrainian narodnist’, i.e. national character.
  23.  Ibid 504.
  24.  Mykola Riabchuk, “Ukrainians as Russia’s negative ‘other’: History comes full circle,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies (2015)3.
  25. Myroslav Shkandrij, Ukrainian Nationalism. (Yale UP, 2015) 4.
  26.  Shkandrij 97.
  27.  “The true story”; Grabowicz 43.
  28.  Ibid 43.
  29.  A Russian literary journal to which Belinsky often contributed.
  30.  Victor Swoboda. “Shevchenko and Belinsky.” Shevchenko & The Critics, ed. George S.N. Luckyj. (University of Toronto Press, 1980) 309.
  31.  Ibid 310.
  32.  Edda Sant, “Can the Subaltern Nation Speak by Herself in the History Curriculum?” Educational Studies, 53, no. 2 (2017) 106.
  33.  Kornei Chukovsky. “Shevchenko’s ‘Abandonment’” Shevchenko & The Critics, edited by George S.N. Luckyj. (University of Toronto Press, 1980) 135.
  34.  Stepan Khorob, “The Poetic World of Taras Shevchenko: Principles of Artistic Thinking,” Journal of Vasyl Stefanyk Precarpathian National University, 1, No. 4 (2014) 14.
  35.  Otaman – a hetman, an Ancient Ukrainian Cossack warrior. Pavlo Zaitsev, Taras Shevchenko: A Life. (University of Toronto Press, 1988) 29.
  36.  Ibid 49.
  37.  Shevchenko 14.
  38.  Ibid 14.
  39.  Ibid 15.
  40.  Ibid 22.
  41.  “Who will welcome you in earnest / With no mother in this world? / My sons! My eagles! / Fly to our Ukraine / Though grief will meet you there, / It won’t be in a foreign land.” Taras Shevchenko, Kobzar (Glagoslav Publications, 2013) 36.
  42.  “Поки батько встане / Та розкаже по-нашому / Про свої гетьмани. / А то дурень розкауе / Мертвими словами” Taras Shevchenko, Kobzar (Kyiv: Solomiyy Pavlichko ‘OSNOVI’, 2001) 75.
  43.  Nataliia Oleksiienko, “The Notion of Personal Moral Culture and its impact on Ukrainian language formation,” Journal of Vasyl Stefanyk Precarpathian National University, 5, no. 1 (2018) 152.
  44.  Shevchenko 37.
  45.  “How heavy it is to roam the world, an orphan without roots / and besides that – an honest soul, of Kozak roots” Shevchenko 80.
  46.  “Любить її, думу правди / Козацькую славу” Шевченко 80.
  47.   “Yarema said to her how they would live together / How he will come by gold and fortune, How the Haidamaks would cut out the Poles in Ukraine.” Shevchenko 94.
  48.  “Козак запіва: <<Ні жуда, ні ляха>>, а в степах Украйни.” Шевченко 114.
  49.  Shevchenko 77
  50.  Zaitsev 141.
  51.  Roman Koropeckyj, “Taras Shevchenko’s Encounters with the Kazaks,” Journal of Ukrainian Studies 27, no. 1-2 (2002): 31.
  52.  Ibid 10.
  53.  Poem Unnamed. My translation: “The paths are overgrown with thorns to that country. Probably I have left her forever and ever” Taras Shevchenko, Kobzar (Kyiv: Solomiyy Pavlichko ‘OSNOVI’, 2001) 582.
  54.  “You have given nothing, Nothing! Nothing!” Ibid 583.
  55.  “Give to me look though / at that murdered nation / at that Ukraine!” Ibid 583.
  56.  Such as Mykola Gogol, who wrote in Russian to achieve a wider audience.
  57.  Shevchenko (2013) 174.



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