Shaping Ukrainian Identity Through Works of Prose

By Mackenzie Pickering


Taras Shevchenko’s “Testament” for Sale on Embroidered Cloth in Kyiv, 2011.

For those Ukrainians who want to be independent of the country’s ties to Russia, the struggle to assert their own unique identity is complicated and still on going. So many people try to lay claim to Ukraine’s past that often the lines between who should actually be considered Ukrainian and who should not become blurred. Taras Shevchenko, the country’s beloved poet, on the other hand, had little trouble defining ‘Ukrainian’ for himself or for his readers. And in the country’s national anthem, there are multiple instances of rhetoric use that ultimately lead to a strong sense of patriotism. For this reason, works of prose have become an essential factor in helping form Ukrainians’ national identity.

            In his poems, Taras Shevchenko clearly outlines what he sees as the Ukrainian identity and this, coupled with his continued popularity, has greatly impacted the way Ukrainians now view themselves. As Serhy Yekelchyk explains, for most of the nineteenth century, Russians believed in “blindness to ethnic distinctions” (38). For Shevchenko, this was clearly not the case. Very often, he uses details in his works to establish and emphasize exactly who the Ukrainians are not. For instance, in “Night of Taras,” a poem about a hetman’s revolt against Poland, Shevchenko casts the “Russkies, Horde and Poles” as the obvious opposition to the Ukrainian Kozaks (63). As a result of the conflict between these groups, a young Kozak dies, leaving everyone to mourn. In this loss, the kobzar finds a much deeper meaning. To him, this one Kozak becomes symbolic of the whole, of the fact that “Kozakdom is dying” – and at the hands of the Russians and Polish too (63). By causing the death of this symbolic Kozak, these peoples have therefore not only killed a young man, but also brought about the decline of the Kozaks in general. Moreover, the kobzar then draws a connection between the Kozak loss and Ukraine. He sees that the state of the country is directly dependent upon the state of the Kozaks, so that when the Kozaks begin dying in their conflicts with outsiders Ukraine is consequently “saddened and…crying” (63). To make matters worse, there are also further consequences of these blows to the Ukrainian state, as it leads to “Kozak children grow[ing] unchristened” and “The faith [being] peddled to the Jews” (63). In short, everything that Shevchenko sees as inherently Ukrainian is being disrupted by foreigners, by people he considers to have identities that are completely separate from his homeland. For, if they were truly linked to Ukraine – as they often believe themselves to be – then they would be just as impacted by the changes occurring there. For Shevchenko then, the image of the Kozak and Ukraine are thus inextricably tied together; as one begins to fail, so too does the other. On top of this, by causing the decline of Kozaks, the Russians and Poles, in a sort of domino effect, have also contributed to the collapse of conditions in Ukraine. And in Shevchenko’s eyes, anyone who caused problems in such a vein and did not also experience their negative repercussions could never be considered part of the country or the people they were harming.

            The Ukrainian national anthem, “Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished,” works in a similar way by stressing a collective identity among those who sing it. Throughout the song, certain words are used that evoke a sense of fellowship, reinforcing the idea that those considered to be Ukrainian are a part of one united group while anyone else is treated as an outsider. For example, the second line says that “Upon us, compatriots, fate shall smile once more” (Chubynsky 2) By using inclusive words like ‘us’ and ‘compatriots,’ the anthem implies that its singers are part of a much larger group – that is, in this case, those who are Ukrainians. The song also includes other comparable words such as “we,” “brothers,” and “our,” all of which further emphasize a collective feeling (4). More than that too, there are phrases within the anthem which suggest that not only are Ukrainians one group, but that they also share common goals. As one line states, “Souls and bodies we’ll lay down, all for our freedom” (5). This characterizes the effort for freedom as something that every Ukrainian will take part in, regardless of age, gender, or political affiliation. Ultimately, the Ukrainian people will not “rule…in a free land” as individuals, but together (4). It is therefore on “us,” on those who sing the national anthem, to uphold the independence and honor of Ukraine. In relying on this kind of phrasing, the anthem suggests that those who do not take part in the anthem, those who are considered enemies rather than compatriots, do not also have this duty. Indeed, these people “will vanish, like dew in the morning sun” (3).

            Sergey Loznitsa’s documentary Maidan, which details the civil unrest that took place in Kyiv’s central square during 2013 and 2014, perfectly captures the continued impact of both Shevchenko and the national anthem. Part way through the film, Loznitsa’s camera turns to one of the stages where, during the daytime, people could come up and share their own works of poetry. Hanging just behind the speakers, in pride of place, was a picture of Shevchenko. By so blatantly according him a spot behind the barricade, the protestors were, in a sense, claiming him. In his poems and beliefs, they clearly found a connection to their own ideas. The poets on stage seemed to use Shevchenko as inspiration as well, drawing on him not only as a symbol, but also as an overriding influence in their works. Many of the poems read aloud were written in a style very close to that of Shevchenko’s, often relying on language that simultaneously cast its listeners as the Ukrainian ingroup and inspired nationalistic feelings. All in all, for the people who took part in Euromaidan, Shevchenko, with his strong sense of Ukrainian identity, became a reference point, someone whose ideas the protestors could call upon and utilize. Throughout Maidan, it also becomes apparent how important “Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished” was to the protestors. The documentary opens with a crowd of people gathered in the square and singing the anthem all together. Later too, one man stops in the middle of a pathway and begins singing by himself, only to be joined by several other protestors. In this way, the song acts as a force that brings the Ukrainian people together; the anthem and all of its inherent meanings appear to resonate so strongly with the protestors that they become willing to set other things aside and begin singing. Additionally, “Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished” cannot be sung alone either, as evidenced throughout the documentary. It is for groups of people to sing together, joined, if only for a moment, to their fellow Ukrainians by a shared desire for their country to move forward. The persistence of Shevchenko’s poems and the national anthem across time thus shows just how big a part they have played in forming Ukrainian identity. At a time when the Ukrainian people were trying to reshape their collective identity, they turned, not solely to politicians or the law, but to poems and song as well.

For this reason, Taras Shevchenko’s works and the national anthem can be seen as pieces of rhetoric that help to clarify the often debated definition of ‘Ukrainian.’ To Shevchenko, Ukrainians are the descendants of Kozaks and are inseparably tied to the state of their country. Everyone else – the Russians, the Polish – are simply foreigners, people who have no true stake in Ukraine. “Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished” portrays the Ukrainian identity as a collective and, more specifically, a group bonded by their shared goal of obtaining freedom for their country. In order to see just how much of an impact these prose works continue to have on Ukrainians, one need only look to Maidan, which shows both Shevchenko being used as inspiration for new poems and the national anthem being sung by multitudes of people. In the end, regardless of the more tangled specifics of defining the country’s identity, there is a good chance that many Ukrainians’ beliefs about their own identity stem from Shevchenko or the national anthem.

Works Cited

Serhy Yekelchyk, Ukraine:  Birth of a Modern Nation.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007.

The Complete Kobzar:  The Poetry of Taras Shevchenko.  Translated by Peter Fedynsky.  London:  Glagoslav Publications, 2014.

Mackenzie Pickering is a junior at Miami majoring in English literature and psychology.


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