A Poignant Commemoration Against Backdrop of Renewed Russian Aggression
UNITED NATIONS — Taras Shevchenko’s profound talent proved once again everlasting and universal as the bicentennial of his birth was celebrated at the United Nations on March 27. The 500-seat ECOSOC Chamber was filled with guests as UN officials and ambassadors, NGO representatives, members of the Ukrainian community and friends of Ukraine gathered at UN headquarters in New York City.
Speaking at the event, Orysia Sushko, President of the World Federation of Ukrainian Women’s Organizations, noted, “The celebration of Shevchenko’s bicentennial takes on an especially poignant significance today in the face of renewed aggression on Ukraine’s young independence and territorial sovereignty. We of Ukrainian heritage very much need, in this time of crisis, to come together with our true neighbors and friends as we have today. And we need to share with you our devotion to the vision of Taras Shevchenko, whose life was so deeply rooted in love of homeland, respect for mother tongue, and advocacy for human dignity. We want to put a spotlight on Shevchenko as we understand and experience him – as an early champion of the core values that are at the very center of the United Nations Charter.”
The bard, no doubt, would have been deeply distressed but not shocked by the turn of events in Ukraine as a modern Russia, in the mold of the 19th century Russian Empire he knew well, continues a relentless effort to break Ukrainian independence and resolve. Also on March 27, only hours before the beginning of the bicentennial commemoration, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning Russia’s actions against Ukraine, including the invasion of Ukraine’s sovereign territory in Crimea, and a dubious referendum uniting the peninsula with Russia.
When planning for the bicentennial first began, the occasion of International Mother Language Day, celebrated annually at the United Nations on February 21, was seen as an appropriate event with which to unite the celebration of the poet’s birth. The event, titled “Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861): Champion of the Ukrainian Language, Self-Determination of Peoples, Human Rights and Social Justice” was scheduled originally for February 27; however, the horrific bloodshed on Maidan in Kyiv on February 18-20 required a postponement.
Master of Ceremonies Peter Fedynsky led the full program, introducing the person and importance of Shevchenko to the audience. A journalist who retired as Moscow bureau chief for Voice of America, Fedynsky has translated Shevchenko’s iconic work, the Kobzar, from Ukrainian into English. Fedynsky noted that the reality depicted in much of Shevchenko’s poetry is relevant today. Understanding Shevchenko, said Fedynsky, “is a bit of a Catch 22 – to know Shevchenko, one must know Ukraine – to know Ukraine, one must know Shevchenko.” Shevchenko brought the world to his readers, said Fedynsky, “he was a mini United Nations”, and the day’s gathering at the UN was an appropriate manner in which to honor the poet.
Representing Amb. John W. Ashe, President of the 68th General Assembly, Amb. Noel Sinclair called Shevchenko “one of the best-known poets in the world,” adding that the national ethos of Ukraine is reflected in Shevchenko’s work and that the timeless nature of his principles and aspirations, including for love, for peace and fairness, are shared worldwide.
“The road to Shevchenko,” said Amb. Sinclair, “is the eternal road; it is the road to oneself.”
Andrii Deshchytsia, Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, at the United Nations for meetings with world leaders, attended the event. In his remarks he commented that not only is Shevchenko an integral part of world culture, his legacy is essential for Ukraine today: “Those demonstrating on Maidan consider his poetry current, not just a part of our past.” Serhiy Nigoyan, said Deshchytsia the young activist of Armenian heritage who was the first to be killed on Maidan, was citing Shevchenko’s poem “Kavkaz” for a film, in both Ukrainian and Russian not long before his death.
According to Deshchytsia, “This year, we were supposed to celebrate this anniversary jointly with Russia and Kazakhstan, where Taras Shevchenko lived. Instead, in March, Ukraine was met with aggression. … However, we remember his words – fight and you will win. When we follow the bard’s words, we will find our way to dignity and truth.”
Maher Nasser, Director of Outreach at the UN Department of Public Information, spoke on behalf of the Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal and accepted a presentation of Shevchenko publications, to be included in the United Nations’ Dag Hammarskjold Library.
The program included selections sung by Prometheus Ukrainian Male Chorus of Philadelphia, Roman Kucharskyy conducting; performances by the duet Lisova Pisnia; readings from Shevchenko’s poetry by Sofika Zielyk in Ukrainian and Xenia Ferencevych in English; and vocal selections from a young trio, The Dobriansky Brothers, sons of renowned Metropolitan Opera artist Andrij Dobriansky.
Shevchenko was not only a prolific and exceptional poet, he was also an artist and the program included a visual presentation of his artwork, courtesy of the National Taras Shevchenko Museum in Ukraine, and the Shevchenko Institute of Literature at the National Academy of Arts and Sciences of Ukraine.
Representing Eugene Czolij, President of the Ukrainian World Congress, was Tamara Gallo, President of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, who underscored that “today’s modern, independent Ukraine could not have happened without Shevchenko’s poetry.” Shevchenko spoke against social oppression, a universal message reflected in the more than 1,000 monuments in 40 countries built in his honor and more than 100 languages into which his poetry has been translated. However, Shevchenko also had a specific message, one where he envisioned freedom and sovereignty for Ukraine. “And Ukrainians, once again,” said Gallo, “find themselves in a struggle for freedom … (for an) independent and democratic, European state, placing dignity and human rights at the center of the struggle.”
The theme of Shevchenko as an opponent of oppression was also echoed in the statement of WFUWO President Orysia Sushko, “… from his own life, Shevchenko exquisitely understood political subjugation. …. as a subjugated male, Shevchenko also empathized deeply with the specific position of the subjugated female. His poems convey unadorned accounts of the multifaceted exploitation suffered by Ukrainian women in an imperialist, colonial context—female bodies used for their labor, for their beauty, for their sexuality. Without undue pathos, Shevchenko presents the plight of girls and women, making him one of the earliest reporters of both subtle and overt violence against women. The scenarios unfortunately appear to be timeless, reflecting persistent features of the female experience that still cause immeasurable pain today.”
Dr. Maxim Tarnawsky, associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, in his keynote address, explored the complexity of Shevchenko’s situation, who not only wrote in Ukrainian, but frequently in Russian, a factor sometimes used by Russian nationalists to discredit Shevchenko as a Ukrainian patriot, and an element of concern for some Ukrainians.
While Ukrainians today may see Shevchenko’s writings in Russian as some kind of betrayal of his native language, noted Tarnawsky, it is better understood as a reflection of the reality of his day. “Shevchenko was not an anti-Russian nationalist … he understood the value of a developed culture, but he remained loyal and patriotic to his own.” Shevchenko was, above all else, a defender of the oppressed, both in social and national terms. His commitment to his native language was always a matter of maintaining the dignity and respect that an oppressed people and their culture deserve, stated Tarnawsky.
“He consistently advocated for the dignity of his mother language,” said Tarnawsky, “not by rejecting foreign, but by focusing on those Ukrainians who thought that French, Russian, German were more impressive or valuable than Ukrainian. He sacrificed his life and career to be a Ukrainian poet. … He fought against those Russians who denied Ukrainian and those Ukrainians who believe that Ukrainian was not worthy of cultural discourse.”
Among those people with whom Shevchenko struggled was his own family. “Shevchenko pleads with brother Mykyta to write in Ukrainian,” said Tarnawsky, “reprimands his brother for writing in surzhyk – write to me in ‘our’ language he admonishes his brother.”
Amb. Yuriy Sergeyev, Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations had first asked the WFUWO and UWC to be co-sponsors of the event more than a year ago. Offering the final word, he expressed his visibly deep gratitude for the organization of the event, for the support from the Ukrainian community and UN member nations of both the Shevchenko holiday and Ukraine in particular, and to all the guests, many who had traveled from Pennsylvania, Connecticut and upstate New York to attend.
The event organizing committee, headed by Dr. Martha Kichorowska Kebalo, UN ECOSOC Main Representative from WFUWO with Marta Kokolskyj, the Advisor for Diaspora Affairs at the Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the United Nations, involved the assistance of each of the members of the WFUWO representation in New York, in particular Sofika Zielyk and Natalia Sonevytsky; also Alex Shapoval and Yegor Pyvovarov from the Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the United Nations, and Iryna Forostyan, CEO of the Fund for Research of Ancient Civilizations.
Generous support came from several Ukrainian credit unions, foremost the Self Reliance (New York) Federal Credit Union, as well as the Selfreliance Ukrainian American Federal Credit Union of New Jersey and Illinois, the SUMA (Yonkers) Federal Credit Union, and the Ukrainian National Federal Credit Union in New York City.