I am sitting in the shiny-tiled, overheated kitchen of my apartment, listening to cars whizzing past and the sickly whirring of my poor, battered, perpetually overheating Compaq, staring down at a greasy, crumpled piece of paper in my hand. This particular piece of paper is one of those annoyingly worthless things that inexplicably has a set value many times higher than the materials it is made from, like a passport, or a marriage certificate, or the deeds to a house. It is a 100 UAH (about 10 Euros) note, kind of yellow with reddish brown writing, mischievously similar to the 1UAH notes that constantly plague my wallet.
On this banknote (to the right of the tear and above the suspicious orange stain) there is the face of a young man with bushy hair and prematurely receding hairline, a broad forehead topples into a dished nose and a pinched chin. The eyes look bulgy, the eyebrows literally laying claim to the brow like a couple of invading caterpillars, jeering and throwing beer bottles at the rest of the face. All in all, it has to be said, it is not a very prepossessing face, certainly not one that I would have noticed if it hadn’t been pointed out to me by my ever vigilant student/teacher.
It was at one of our coffee “lessons” that we began another of our fantastically twisty, mind-stretching dialogues, finally settling onto the subject of literature. “Next time” she said, “I will tell you about Shevchenko, our national poet! You have to know about Shevchenko…he is Ukraine!”
I duly added his name to the growing list of great Ukrainians who I shamefully know nothing about. The discussion proceeded to meander its way until it was time to pay the bill. As I drew out my money, she pounced. “Here he is! He is Shevchenko!” This is how I became acquainted with him. In the process of paying for pseudo-Brazilian coffee, packaged in Mexico, transported to Ukraine, marketed by Russians in an American-style café…I discovered Ukraine.
Currency is one of the main ways a country can present itself to the outside world. It was national pride that finally persuaded Churchill to make the disastrous decision to go back to the gold standard after World War I. The desire to see the pound sterling once again a benchmark of stability, strength and Britishness in a rapidly changing global hierarchy. It is because of this that only the most eminent national icons find their way onto paper money. It isn’t like a commemorative stamp which in ten years time will be forgotten by all but the philatelist. These faces will be printed again and again, they will survive hundreds of thousands of exchanges, pass through millions of pairs of hands, maybe even the same hands! What an incredible idea, that of all the people in the world currently handling a chosen currency, you may get the same note or coin more than once? It takes a lot of wear and tear before anyone will refuse a banknote, whatever state it is in. Certainly, to gain a picture of a society’s history, values and traditions one could do worse than to check out who is given pride of place on the banknote. But how is it possible for anyone to represent the ever-evolving social world we call nation? Is anyone truly timeless?
I find this question intriguing. Sure, Shevchenko was a hugely influential historical figure, not only in the realm of literature, but also in that of politics and of national identity – but what is he today? Does he still speak to and for the mysterious Ukrainian soul? Or has he been outgrown by Gucci, Sushi bars, international banks and shopping malls? By the way, if anyone is thinking of attending the 2012 UEFA Football Championship then take a look inside the tall building across from the stadium, a ghastly temple of glitz, modernism and expensive shops, where the only respite from the constant neon glare can be found in the reassuringly fluff-filled corridors backstage.
Well, whatever his role today, Shevchenko’s life story is certainly one to rival any Hollywood fiction. Born into a serf family in 1814, he failed so consistently to fulfil any of the various duties expected of someone of his position, that his master soon gave up trying to mould the hopeless daydreamer into something resembling a good servant. Seeing that he had some talent for drawing, he was sent to Poland and then St Petersburg to become the official portrait painter of his master’s house. Whilst there he soon discovered the plume and its many vagaries, which he followed tirelessly, winning countless titles and accolades along the way. It is here that he also met some of the greatest minds of the century who not only had a huge influence on him, but also helped him buy his freedom.
His first book of poetry was called “Kobzar”, a shrewd title which expresses both the subject matter and his peasant origins. Kobzar was the name given to travelling minstrels, usually poor, blind men who subsisted on the pennies thrown to them by village children, and who sang of freedom, revolution and great battles, accompanying themselves on a traditional Ukrainian instrument called a kobza. This is truly a great title, it summarizes in one word the national pride he was soon himself to embody and the voiceless masses he would continue to represent throughout his artistic career. The poems consisted of tributes to Ukraine, yoked and shackled and beautiful. Of laments about the harsh existence of the serf, about girls seduced then abandoned by cossacks, and about famous hetmen of the past. He redefined and revived Ukrainian literary genius, inspiring generations of young poets and revolutionaries, preached unity without advocating discord or violence, and expressed himself in a clear, sparkling language that would form as much of a basis for the Ukrainian language as Pushkin did for the Russian.
However, perhaps the most astonishing part of the story occurs after a calamity. In 1847 he was arrested along with many other members of a society dedicated to liberalising the Empire and creating a federation of Slavic nations. In the subsequent ransacking of the premises the soldiers discovered a poem he had written slamming Slavophilism, but more importantly personally mocking the current Tsar and Tsarina. An incensed Emperor Nicholas I exiled Shevchenko by making him a private in the Russian military with strict instructions that he not be allowed to write, draw or paint – the worst possible punishment. Fortunately for him, the garrisons were not without art lovers and the enforcement of the ban was lax. With a combination of personal guile and the generosity of others, he was able to procure writing materials, hiding the results in his long leather boots. However, ten years later when the pardon finally came, his health had already been broken by the hardships of military life. He would suffer with poor health until his death in 1861, once again in exile, this time under charges of blasphemy in the rather more comfortable quarters of St Petersburg.
The tragedy of his latter years perhaps added to the cultural kudos that got him on the 100 UAH bill. Here was someone who had not only lived, breathed, spoken, written and painted Ukraine, here was someone who had sacrificed his freedom and ultimately his life to defend her children. What better candidate could there be?
I am pretty certain no one would deny his historical credentials. Every schoolchild is taught the story of Taras Shevchenko, anyone on the street could recite snippets of his verses or name his books. Indeed, he seems to be treated with a great deal more respect and honour at home than our national Bard is. Wandering newbies arriving in Kiev are confronted with dozens of different places named after him: there is a Shevchenko Street (right in the centre of town), a Shevchenko metro station, a Shevchenko plaza…and it’s not only in Kiev, not only in Ukraine! In Paris there is a Shevchenko square and bronze statue, in Canada there is a whole Shevchenko town, in St Petersburg there are also Shevchenko statues and streets. But does he still speak for Ukraine and for Ukrainians?
Some people I have asked have been dogmatic. Yes, of course he speaks for Ukraine! There is still a feeling of political helplessness, gigantic disparities between rich and poor, with mafia-like families concentrating the vast majority of natural resources and wealth to themselves next to old babushki living on 900 UAH (90 Euros) per month. Workers’ unions are corrupt and/or ineffectual. Many young girls I have spoken to tell me about tyrannical bosses, forcing them to work weekends, refusing holidays, demanding impossible services in return for tiny salaries. They argue that there is still no real freedom, that the only way to be free is to buy your way out like Shevchenko did and to buy yourself justice. There is a very topical and very chilling example of the reality of this statement. Recently, the son of a well-known Rada (Parliament) deputy was filmed in a bar assaulting a twenty-year-old girl foolish enough to turn down the older man’s advances. He threw a drink at her, choked her, and dragged her around the bar by the hair causing her severe concussion amongst other injuries. During this ordeal nobody moved a muscle to help her, only the man’s friend tentatively tried to pull him off, though with no real conviction, and the waiter stepped in when she was thrown to the floor unconscious. Even more shocking, when the girl took him to court not only was she intimidated and threatened into accepting an out of court settlement, but he actually had the cojones to accuse her of assault for defending herself!
There is definitely a strong case to be made for Shevchenko’s poems to be taught, whispered, shouted in the main squares and for people to heed his message still. However, the majority of younger people I have asked, whilst acknowledging his historical significance, object to reading him. Once again, I turn to the goldmine of wisdom that is my room-mate. Why is it that some people love Taras and some people think he is defunct? She sighs, thinks for a moment. “I don’t think we shared the same country. We aren’t serfs, we don’t want revolution, we aren’t being controlled by an imperial power…certainly not by Russia. We are free.” I can almost feel the rush of wind whooshing into a frenzy by the number of eyebrows being raised at this comment. Not under imperial control? Russian military personnel are still stationed on Ukrainian soil, just as the new armies of Western imperialism are being installed in the white concrete buildings around the centre and industrial zones of the city. “Maybe” she concedes, “but then…maybe I do live in this world, I don’t want to read about it as well! I would rather read Pushkin, his funny and beautiful stories about love and descriptions of the sea…”. I suddenly realise that this may be the actual crux of the matter, and I can see her point. I guess for the generations growing up in the shadow of the Soviet Union, not old enough to really remember it, but old enough to witness new hope fade to cynicism, why would you want to be plagued by rallying calls to unite again, to fight again, to hope again? Can’t you leave us alone? Let at least have a go at hedonism?
This reminded me of something I had read some time ago, but had forgotten about until recently. In a short history of the rise of British cinema post WWII, I particularly remember reading about a brilliant documentary film made about the battle of the Somme. It was first presented to the King and other important political figures, who were so excited by it that they immediately commenced a campaign to bully cinemas across the country into showing it, in an attempt to both educate and whip up a fresh wave of patriotism. But this film was only a moderate success. Why? As one theatre owner wrote on a sign outside his theatre: “We are not showing The Battle of the Somme, this is a place of amusement, not a chamber of horrors.”
Image by dbking