I wanted to introduce you to the Ukrainian painter, poet, prophet Taras Shevchenko. Little known in the west, he is the most formative presence in Ukrainian cultural and political history. For generations of Ukrainians, Shevchenko has become the father of his nation. Born a serf, he was bought out of slavery and became recognized in Russia and Ukraine for his remarkable genius. His complex, opulent poetry stands alongside the work of the greatest world poets: Whitman, Goethe, Byron, Pushkin. For his incendiary poetry, in which he asked Ukrainians to break the chains of slavery and rebel, Czar Nikolai the First condemned Shevchenko to exile and forbade him to paint or write poetry.
In his poem “Rozryta Mohyla,” (“A Plundered Grave”), written in 1843, Shevchenko asked:
“Світе тихий, краю милий, моя Україно, За що тебе спльондрували за що мамо гинеш?”
“My Ukraine, why are you plundered, why mother are you dying?
One hundred and seventy-nine years ago, Taras Shevchenko was asking why Ukrainians, their language and culture were persecuted by the Russians. His words reverberate today as we ask, “Why is Putin, a war criminal, invading a peaceful country?”
Why have Russian forces bombed Mariupol where hundreds of thousands civilians are trapped without food and water and at least 2,000 residents are dead, why did they bomb a maternity hospital killing pregnant women and babies? Why are women and children being killed in the streets outside Kyiv as they seek to escape the destruction of their homes? Why are architectural jewels, libraries and museums across Ukraine being destroyed?
Russia is creating mass genocide so a malignant madman can let loose his murderous instinct to wipe out Ukraine, a democratic thorn in his side. At the inception of the invasion Putin was certain that Ukrainians were weak and easily intimidated. He expected the Russian army would install a puppet government in a matter of days. He miscalculated the bold and fiery resilience of the Ukrainian army, the defiant spirit of Taras Shevchenko which lives in his people.
Delusional Putin was unprepared for President Zelensky’s remarkable leadership. The battle for survival brought out rare qualities in Zelensky, bravery, honesty, nobility, which have disappeared in our tedious technological age. Each day president Zelensky talks to the Ukrainian people and inspires them with his unwavering moral strength and self-reliance, his ability to strip away the platitudes and empty slogans dominating Western political vocabulary. He keeps calm amid the daily recognition that he is marked for assassination.
Anderson Cooper, a CNN journalist, said a few days ago: “In my 25 years as a journalist I have never seen an invaded country as determined and unified as Ukraine.” Does he know why? The resilience and will of the people have been in the making for centuries. In the 20th century Stalin murdered the Ukrainian elite and starved to death 4 million peasants in a genocide called Holodomor, Death by hunger. In 2014 in a revolution of dignity Ukrainians amassed in the Maidan [city square] in Kyiv from all over the country. For two months they stood in bitter cold and rebelled against president Yanukovich who promised them entry into the European Union and sold them down the river to Russia.
Today we stand with a bold, resilient people who will never return to a mythical empire. Putin will not capture Ukraine, no matter how many soldiers he sends, no matter how many nuclear missiles he threatens the world with. Ukrainians will pursue their own future of self-determination. And our democracy must challenge a desperate megalomaniac who flagrantly shows his contempt for Western values.
Every day people are packing medical equipment to send to Ukraine. They’re writing letters to their legislators asking for further sanctions on Russia and organizing rallies and fundraisers while international volunteers have come to Ukraine to fight for her sovereignty.
We exist in a world where brute force is crushing the pillars of civilization, the process of law and human rights. Ukraine is bearing the cost of Putin’s aggression and fighting not only for its own freedom but for all of us. Ukrainians have shown the world the meaning of bravery, deep commitment and love of their country.
We cannot take our liberal values for granted. Taras Shevchenko, the champion of liberty, told us to fight and never give up. Let his words from his Zapovit, his testament, ring in our hearts:
Поховайте та вставайте,
І вражою злою кров’ю
Bury me and rise up
break your heavy chains
and water with the tyrant’s blood
the freedom you have gained.
~ Irene Kowal ~
Table of Contents