27 July 2023
The Ukrainian poet, writer and artist Taras Shevchenko (1814-61) is considered the founder of modern Ukrainian literature. His poetry shaped the development of Ukrainian national consciousness and, more widely, is symbolic of the universal fight for freedom from oppression.
Shevchenko is the focus of a new display in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery. Open until autumn 2023, the display brings together different editions of his works published between 1860 and 2012, as well as examples of how his image and poetry have been reimagined today. Through these items, it demonstrates the strength and resilience of Ukrainian culture and language, which flourished despite centuries of Russian colonial oppression.
Shevchenko was born into serfdom (a form of peasant servitude) in Ukraine – then under the Russian Empire. In 1847, he was arrested, imprisoned and exiled for his political views and anti-tsarist satirical poems. Tsar Nicholas I personally banned him from writing or painting while in exile, but he managed to continue doing so in secret. Many of Shevchenko’s works were censored during his lifetime. His poetry, which ranges from romantic ballads to heroic poems, has since been published and translated into more than 100 languages. Shevchenko has inspired generations of writers, and continues to serve as a rallying figure for Ukrainians today.
In this blog post, we bring you a digital version of the display.
Photograph of the display in the British Library Treasures Gallery
Taras Shevchenko, Kobzar (St Petersburg, 1860). 11585.d.43. Digitised.
In 1840, the Russian censor in St Petersburg granted permission for the publication of a small volume of poetry by an unknown Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko. Consisting of eight works (with some censored passages), this small book had a momentous impact on the history of Ukrainian literature. Its title, Kobzar, refers to a Ukrainian bard who played a stringed instrument called the kobza. The book was so important that Shevchenko himself became known as ‘Kobzar’. This more complete edition of 17 works was published in 1860, the year before Shevchenko’s death, and contains a portrait of the author.
Forbidden in the Russian Empire
Taras Shevchenko, Kobzar. (Volume one), (Geneva, 1881). 1451.a.42.
Measuring just 7 x 11 cm, this pocket-sized edition of Kobzar was published outside of Ukraine. At the time, printing and importing Ukrainian-language publications was forbidden within the Russian Empire. Its small format would have made it easier to smuggle into Ukraine – similar editions were disguised as packets of cigarette papers. Published by the Ukrainian scholar and political thinker Mykhailo Drahomanov, it is one of only two known copies to have survived.
Kobzar for displaced persons
Taras Shevchenko, Kobzar. ([Munich?], 1947-48). 11588.a.94.
At the end of the Second World War, there were over two million Ukrainian displaced persons (DPs) in Western Europe. While most returned to the Soviet Union (many against their will), around 200,000 remained in Allied-occupied Germany. Ukrainian DPs set up schools, places of worship, theatres, hospitals, and published newspapers and books. This edition of Kobzar was produced in Germany in 1947. It includes the stamp of the Central Ukrainian Relief Bureau, a London-based relief agency established after the end of the war to assist Ukrainian DPs.
Modern children’s edition of Kobzar
Taras Shevchenko, Dytiachyi Kobzar. Illustrated by Maryna Mykhailoshina (L’viv, 2012). YF.2013.b.1660
This modern edition of Kobzar has been specially adapted for children. Its vibrant illustrations by Maryna Mykhailoshina capture the beauty of Ukraine’s landscape. Born into serfdom, Shevchenko was orphaned when he was 12. He displayed artistic talent from a young age and was apprenticed by his master to a painter in St Petersburg. It was through his painting and artistic connections that he was eventually able to buy his freedom in 1838.
Shevchenko as a superhero by Andriy Yermolenko. Part of the series ‘Shevchenkiniana’, 2013-2014. Reproduced by permission of the artist.
Patch featuring Shevchenko in Ukrainian military clothing, 2022. Private Loan.
Shevchenko’s image and work continue to inspire and resonate today. During the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine, protestors recited his poetry and artists reimagined him in various forms, including as a superhero and Elvis Presley. Some of the most widely quoted lines, ‘Fight – and you’ll be victorious, God is helping you!’, are from Shevchenko’s 1845 poem ‘Kavkaz’ (‘The Caucasus’), a revolutionary work addressing Russian imperialism and colonialism. They have taken on increased significance following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and feature on a range of items, such as this 2022 patch featuring Shevchenko in Ukrainian military clothing.
Olga Kerziouk, 'The First Kobzar', European Studies Blog, 12 February 2014.
Olga Kerziouk, 'Shevchenko: a voice for unsung heroines', European Studies Blog, 9 March 2015.
Nadiia Strishenets, 'Rare editions of Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar in the British Library', European Studies Blog, 10 March 2022.
Nadiia Strishenets, 'Digital Shevchenkiana – a Joint English-Ukrainian Project', European Studies Blog, 10 March 2023.