Dear God, calamity again!
It was so peaceful, so serene;
We had just begun to break the chains
That bind our folk in slavery
When halt! Once again the people’s blood
Is streaming …
The poem is called “Calamity Again.” The original version was written in Ukrainian, in 1859, and the author, Taras Shevchenko, was not speaking metaphorically when he wrote about slavery. Shevchenko was born into a family of serfs—slaves—on an estate in what is now central Ukraine, in what was then the Russian empire. Taken away from his family as a child, he followed his master to St. Petersburg, where he was trained as a painter and also began to write poetry. Impressed by his talent, a group of other artists and writers there helped him purchase his freedom.
By the time Shevchenko wrote “Calamity Again,” he was universally recognized as Ukraine’s most prominent poet. He was known as Kobzar or “The Minstrel”—the name taken from his first collection of poems, published in 1840—and his words defined the particular set of memories and emotions that we would now describe as Ukraine’s “national identity.” His language and style are not contemporary. Nevertheless, it seems suddenly important to introduce this 19th-century poet to readers outside Ukraine, because it seems suddenly important to make this same set of memories and emotions tangible to an audience that isn’t going to read Shevchenko’s romantic ballads. So much has been written about Russian views of Ukraine; so many have speculated about Russian goals in Ukraine. The president of Russia on Monday even informed us, in an hour-long rant, that he thinks Ukraine shouldn’t exist at all. But what does Ukraine mean to Ukrainians?
The Ukrainians emerged from the medieval state of Kyivan Rus’—the same state from which the Russians and Belarusians also emerged—eventually to become, like the Irish or the Slovaks, a land-based colony of other empires. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Ukrainian noblemen learned to speak Polish and participated in Polish-court life; later some Ukrainians strived to become part of the Russian-speaking world, learning Russian and aspiring to positions of power first in the Russian empire, then in the Soviet Union.
Yet during those same centuries, a sense of Ukrainianness developed too, linked to the peasantry, serfs, and farmers who would not or could not assimilate. The Ukrainian language, as well as Ukrainian art and music, were all preserved in the countryside, even though the cities spoke Polish or Russian. To say “I am Ukrainian” was, once upon a time, a statement about status and social position as well as ethnicity. “I am Ukrainian” meant you were deliberately defining yourself against the nobility, against the ruling class, against the merchant class, against the urbanites. [Continue reading…]