Skola was a small town in the west of The Ukraine.
We were renting an apartment there and going for walks in the nearby forests, as well as walking around town and observing life. With a population of 6000 Skola was small enough to familiarise yourself within a day or two. And the streets were not exactly busy given that there were relatively few cars. Yes, it was quiet little backwater of a place, Skola – or so it seemed.
One afternoon, with our walking sticks in hand, we were approaching the town square on our way back to our apartment when we heard loud music. Rounding a corner we were met by a crowd of people. Striking in a town where the streets were usually silent.
At one end of the square was a statue of an old man with a book under one arm. We assumed that this was another one of the statues we had seen over the previous weeks during our travels in The Ukraine. In other words, the statue of one or another communist era hero which no one had got around to pulling down: statues of Marx and Lenin for example, or of a brave Russian soldier symbolising the ‘liberation’ of The Ukraine from the Nazis in 1945. Some liberation: exchanging one brutal dictatorship with another.
Passing the square every day, we had made jokes about the old man with his book.
Until that fateful afternoon, that is.
The air reverberating to music and singing, we made our way through the crowd and saw: on either side of the old man with the book under his arm people standing in a row holding large Ukrainian flags….
What was going on here?
We watched the proceedings in a state of disbelief.
Evidently this particular statue held some sort of significance for the locals.
This wasn’t one of those statues whose existence was ensured because of the sheer weight of apathy.
Who was this man?
And why was he so revered?….
When the ceremony was over, I began asking around to find out who he was.
No one spoke any English. .
Then someone held out a phone with the translation service on: ´Taras Shevchenko´.
I wrote the name down.
Two days later in a hotel in Kosice, Slovakia (Skola was near the border of Slovakia) I ran a search on the net.
Then I understood.
That old man with his book…..
‘The father of Ukrainian literature’.
He was an artist and writer born in the early 19th century and man at odds with the Tsarist Russian domination of his country. Shevchenko was born into a very poor family. His natural abilities only got the chance to be realised after his parents died at a young age and he ended up working in a menial job for a local aristocrat – who realising his potential, sent him to St Petersburg to be trained as an artist. It was here that Shevchenko displayed his talents in the visual arts as well as a writer and poet. Had he kept his opinions to himself he would have gone far in Russian society. He had been offered an opportunity of a life time but chose to bite the hand that had fed him.
His Russian education made him all too aware of the injustices perpetrated on the people of The Ukraine. Mixing with Russian radicals probably encouraged him. He became conscious of his identity as a Ukrainian and not a Russian. During frequent visits to the Ukraine he articulated, in prodigious output of poems, writing, and sketches, in a way never done before of a Ukrainian people with their own identity – and not surrogate as well as inferior Russians.
He also lampooned the Russians and portrayed them as an occupying force. Fatally he ridiculed the Tsar and his wife. He was arrested and spent most of his short life in prison camps, enduring terrible hardships, until dying at the age of 47.
Apparently his popularity had soared after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, along with a potent spirit of Ukrainian nationalism.
Now I understood who that old man with the book was.
And that the statue in the square was very much a modern, post-communist era construction.
Until then I had assumed that the Ukrainians and Russians had much in common.
After all said and done, they shared the same Orthodox brand of Christianity.
Prior to crossing the border into The Ukraine, we had travelled in Moldova and Eastern Romania, where Orthodox Christianity was also dominant. One of the great heroes of this version of Christianity, which had its origins in Constantinople, was King Stephen. In the Middle Ages, Constantinople was conquered by the Islamic Ottomans, the precursor of today’s Turkey. Based in an area roughly corresponding to today’s Moldova and part of Romania, Stephen had refused to pay taxes to the Ottomans. When they sent massive armies to teach him a lesson, he had defeated them, despite being greatly outnumbered. Statues of King Stephen were a familiar sight in Moldova and Eastern Romania but as we discovered, in The Ukraine as well. King Stephen was also revered in Russia.
Religion and King Stephen aside, what we witnessed in Skola refuted my idea that religion formed some kind of bond between the Russians and Ukrainians.
There was no bond and had never been. Only a relationship: master and slave.
What we had picked up during our month of travelling around The Ukraine was the widespread hope of joining the EU.
‘Good luck with that one!’ I thought to myself.
During our time in The Ukraine, we travelled a lot in the outlying rural areas. We were surprised at the poverty; the unpaved roads, run down houses, the horse and carts. The cities were drab and the infrastructure poor. The more I saw of The Ukraine the more surprised I was that being one of the biggest suppliers of grain in the world hadn’t led to any perceptible prosperity or anything like decent infrastructure.
It went beyond the flagrant failures of communism, the system imposed on Eastern Europe by the Russians for 45 years and which we had witnessed first-hand travelling around Eastern Europe in the early 1990’s, shortly after the collapse of communism.
Flagrant corruption rivalling anything in a Third Word dictatorship was the story. Whilst proclaiming high ideals in public, successive communist leaders in The Ukraine had siphoned off the national income into their private bank accounts (they denigrated the capitalist West in pubic, but in private, didn’t have any qualms about parking their ill begotten millions there}.
Even after the collapse of communism, the same brand of politics continued. Corruption, cronyism and self-enrichment had become entrenched after 40 years of communism.
I was able to understand the reticence of the EU to admit The Ukraine, given that nation’s parlous socio-economic condition as well as the corruption. Not to mention the danger of stirring up trouble with Russia, whose gas and oil was necessary for Europe.
I can remember the first time I heard about a man named Volodymyr Zelensky.
It was in May 2019, less than a year after our visit. We were in Australia at the time – trapped there because of the arrival of the Covid pandemic and the borders being closed.
I read that this man, who had been elected President of The Ukraine, was a famous comedian. He was popular not only in The Ukraine but also Russia.
A comedian for President?
‘Wow’, I thought, ‘the Ukrainians must have been so fed up with the mainstream politicians and their corrupt ways that they were even prepared to vote for a funny man, a TV clown.’
It didn’t exactly bode well for The Ukraine.
I read that in his acceptance speech, Zelensky made a promise to his people:
‘I will never let you down.’
Who could have ever predicted what happened?
The TV clown metamorphosing into a Ukrainian Churchill.
He didn’t let his people down.
In the future his name will become famous in Ukrainian history as a reincarnation of the spirit of Taras Shevchenko.
In the 19th century Shevchenko had challenged an empire established on the basis of ruthlessness and brutality. In the early Middle Ages, Russia was a small nation with Moscow at its heart. Then it began conquering it neighbours. A normal development for the times except for the fact that the expansion was based on the tactics of Ivan The Terrible; murdering anyone who challenged the State. Ivan’s later admirers including Stalin and Putin. In the 1990’s, Mikhail Gorbachev had offered the Russian people the option to renounce their claims to empire and to live under a democracy. They had rejected it and a modern Ivan The Terrible had taken over.
To challenge an empire built on skulls was a daunting challenge indeed.
The TV comedian was up to it and so were his people.
The spirit of Taras Shevchenko was still very much alive.
Flags – Rotterdam, The Netherlands, October 2022