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13 July, 2019  ▪  Sviatoslav Lypovetsky

A timely cult

The idea of Ukraine survived in Halychyna in the mid-19th century thanks to Taras Shevchenko’s works

Vasyl Shchurat, a well-known academic from Halychyna, met Fedir Kruzhylka, then 80, when he travelled across Volyn, then under the Russian Empire, in 1905. Kruzhylka shared an episode from 1846 when Shevchenko stayed in Volyn and enquired about the possibility of crossing the border to Pidkamin, a town in the Austro-Hungarian part of Ukraine, even for an hour.

Apparently, Shevchenko never managed to do that – or there is no evidence that he did. But his works found their way to the Austro-Hungarian part of Ukraine 15 years later. While several editions of Kobzar, Shevchenko’s most famous collection of poems, came out in his lifetime between 1840s and 1861, Halychyna discovered him after his death when merchant Mykhailo Dymet brought Ukrainian books from the Dnipro Ukraine in 1862. The printed Kobzar immediately turned into a bibliographical rarity barely seen by anyone. But handwritten copies spread through the network of Hromadas as students copied and learned the poems by heart. 

“The long-buried Ruthenian nation” 

Halychyna was far from its present-day image of “Ukrainian Piedmont” in the mid-19th century. The harbingers of Ukrainian revival here were the Ruthenian Three, an association ofthree students that started it in the early 1830s. They were the only ones in the entire Greek-Catholic college who would switch to what was then referred to as Ruthenian language. Rusalka Dnistrova (The Dniester Mermaid), a journal of ethnographic works they compiled, was confiscated, and police director Paiman was ruthless: “We’re up to our ears in trouble with the Poles, and these crazies want to revive the long-buried Ruthenian nation”.   

The 1848 Spring of Nations briefly reinvigorated Ukrainians, but the wave of revival was followed by a greater wave of disappointment. The clergy turned towards the tsarist Russia, and it was the only higher class of Ukrainians in Halychyna. As a result, the term moscowphiles was replaced with the more palatable St. Georgians derived from the St. George Cathedral, the chief Greek Catholic church. 

Opening of an early monument to Taras Shevchenko on September 28, 1913. Vynnyky near Lviv. The first monument was erected in 1898 in Kharkiv at the private mansion of the local banker Oleksiy Alchevsky. In Halychyna, at least a dozen monuments were built by the community by World War I


“Instead of inspiration – indifference, instead of aspirations – passivity, instead of initiative and movement – gravely silence, instead of confidence in their strength – complete apathy. Wherever the frosty northern wind blew, it turned the most fertile land into desert where nothing could be seen but huge fogs of dust.” This is how literature and folklore researcher Mykhailo Vozniak wrote about the 1850s in Halychyna. 

Ukrainianness was too weak as an independent idea, and the young generations of Halychans seeking their own path, different from that of their predecessors, had a problem: they did not have anything to grasp or rely on beyond Eastern Christianity to make different from the Polish domination. The appearance of Shevchenko’s first works in the time of the Ruthenian Three did not have the necessary impact. These were rather separate poems which the mass audience did not understand. Still, Ivan Vahylevych, one of the Ruthenian Three founders, referred to Shevchenko as “an outstanding poet” in 1848 already, while writer and priest Mykola Ustyianovych described him as “loud Shevchenko”. 

RELATED ARTICLE: The forging of unity

The young Halychans first learned about Odesa-based Volodymyr Bernatovych, a Ukrainian from beyondthe Austrian Empire, on the year Shevchenko died. Markian Shashkevych’s son later described the impression Bernatovych made on those present: “We were reading the works of our great genius Shevchenko in a small rooftop room, with fragments of manuscripts added (by Bernatovych – Ed.). As we looked at the very live Ukrainian, the first one we met, we were listening, remembering every word about Taras, the Kyiv community, life there. We were mesmerized by the beauty of his language and growing in courage.”

Danylo Taniachkevych was present at the meeting too. Bernatovych inspired him with the concept of hromadas or communities. In the 1860s, communities turned into a cornerstone of shaping the new generation of Ukrainians in Halychyna, alongside Shevchenko’s writing. Tyniachkevych himself referred to the poet as “our father Taras” in his piece for the Vechernytsi (Nighttime) magazine. That description defined Shevchenko in the years to come.

When Mykhailo Dymet first brought the copies of Kobzar to Lviv in 1862, they were nearly not enough: students rushed to copy the poetry and spread it among the like-minded. “Each of us had an ambition to know as many of Shevchenko’s poems by heart as possible”, Yevhen Olesnytsky, a member of the Ternopil Hromada recalled. Similar things were happening in gymnasiums around the region. “When one copy of the Haidamakas appeared in Stanislaviv (modern Ivano-Frankivsk – Ed.) in 1863 or 1864, sent by some kind man to a student from Lviv, it was almost torn into pieces in a couple of days,” Olesnytsky wrote. “You couldn’t give it everyone to read at once, so the owner was followed by a crowd of boys to whom he was forced to read the entire poem out loud until he lost his voice. Then someone pulled the book out of his hands and read on at the gymnasium corridor or on the street or anywhere.” 

The handwritten texts included Ukraine Has Not Died Yet (Ukraine’s modern anthem – Ed.) which was ascribed to “father Taras” (actually written by Pavlo Chubynskyi – Ed.) and sung at the meetings. It was very different in sense and tone from the Peace to You, Brothers anthem approved by the Supreme Ruthenian Council in 1848. 

One of the earliest monuments to Taras Shevchenko in Zhukiv, a village in Berezhany region (the photo is from WWI period). Some community-built monuments, including the one in Zhukiv, were demolished under the interwar Polish rule


The discovery of the poet, albeit after he died, fascinated young people in Halychyna. The moscowphile Slovo (Word) and the Polish Tygodnik Naukowy (Scientific Weekly) magazines published positive reviews of the poetry. Polish students re-published the article from Tygodnik Naukowy as a separate brochure and Ukrainian gymnasium students were learning Shevchenko’s biography “from Polish hands”. Not everyone in Poland shared this reaction to Shevchenko’s name, however. It soon turned out that the older generation of the clergy lost a favorable view of his poetry: “... The church authority seemed ready to anathemize him,” poet Ivan Franko wrote in Young Ukraine. They banned commemoration of Shevchenko because they treated him as a schismatic. When the youth asked the Orthodox Church for the commemoration, St. Georgians flagged the police. It got to the point where Shevchenko’s portrait was tossed from the premises of the Rutheanian Conversation association, then brought back on the walls when it was no longer possible to turn a blind eye to the fame of the “greatest Ruthenian poet”. This uncertainty from the older generation pushed the youth to get together in secret meetings. 

“Closed door and windows, one of our friends on the watchout, several of us, guys from the lower gymnasium and classmates in the mood of celebration in a small room,” student Bohdan Lepkyi wrote. “One spoke about Shevchenko’s life, another spoke about his writing and recited two or three. The Caucasus and fragments from his address To My Fellow-Countrymen, and his poem For Osnovianenko. We did not sing the Testamentbut recited it as a prayer in unison. There was more goodwill in the speeches than wise sense, because what could we possibly say about Shevchenko as third- or fourth-graders? We didn’t hear much about him in school, nor could we read much of his work beyond school. We filtered what was in the introduction to Shevchenko’s poetry (edition by Sushkevych) and in Kobzar published in Leipzig. The declamations we almost whispered could not tear anyone to pieces nor fuel anyone. Still, those nighttime gatherings that seemed like a conspiracy excited us and put us in a higher tone. Nobody could know about them, the participants were united by a secret. The spirit of the great poet soared over them.” 

The followers of the testament

Shevchenko’s texts ignited in the Halychans an interest in history. While the Poles developed a trend of wearing authentic aristocratic clothing, such as konfederatkas and kontuszs, in 1863, Ukrainian students responded by wearing Cossack hats, wide pants and belts, and zhupan robes. “An embroidered shirt, wide blue sharovary (Cossack equivalent of sirwal pants – Ed.), a “Ukrainian” svyta robe with a tassel, and a Cossack hat with the velvet base and a mandatory golden tassel, a silk belt in blue or red and gold, and a zhupan in the same colors – such popular style developed with time,” wrote Ostap Terletskyi, a member of Hromada. “That look was completely different from the traditional clothing worn by Ukrainians in Halychyna. But the youth was persistently looking for blue fabrics and templates for sharovary. This fascinating trend was taking over the Lviv Greek Catholic seminary. Its students had been speaking Polish and had been in some illegal Polish groups just two decades ago, while now they would impress any eye-witness: “Theology students lined in sharovary, with zhupans and belts, making a bonfire, playing trembitas… and singing shepherd songs at the seminary garden!” an observer wrote. 

Shevchenko’s books had a similar influence on the language, inspiring students to spontaneously switch to phonemic orthography in Ukrainian. It was not officially adopted until 1892, so that was a revolutionary step for the 1860s amidst bitter wars between the supporters of the russified option and phonemic orthography used in modern Ukrainian. The young started using plenty of words and phrases unfamiliar to people in Halychyna but common in the Cossack legacy. Some of the greetings a contemporary found in correspondence included “In good health, Mr. Osaul” (an elected military-administrative position in the Ukrainian Cossack state – Ed.), “I am sending you Cossack greetings, Mr. Brother” or “My dear Brother, my falcon, my Hetman!”. 


Shevchenko march in Lviv on June 28, 1914. Nearly 10,000 Ukrainians represented paramilitary organizations with the total of 100,000 members between them. Thanks to their organized effort, Ukrainians got their own voluntary legion known as Ukrainian Sich Riflemen

There was no better time for the evolution of the semi-mystical cult of Shevchenko in Halychyna: the Dnipro Ukraine was facing the Valuev Circular and the Ems Ukaz later, both banning the use of the Ukrainian language. Despite its limited opportunities, the youth in Halychyna did contribute to the promotion of Shevchenko’s works. A group of students decided in 1866 to publish a full volume of Shevchenko’s works. Given the timing and the context, this was almost Sisyphean labor – all they had in Halychyna was handwritten pieces spread from person to person, and their authenticity was difficult to establish. Some poetry was published in Vechernytsi and Meta (Goal), both Lviv-based magazines, and in the St. Petersburg-based Osnova (Foundation) brought by the travellers from the Dnipro Ukraine. The Poetry of Taras Shevchenkofinally came out in Lviv in 1867 during Easter celebrations. While the friends preparing the collection went for vacations, one of them, Hnat Rozhansky, got too impatient to wait for the first prints in Cyrillic to arrive and ordered the first copies from the Polish publishing house of the Ossolińskis. The book of almost 300 pages featured poems The CaucasusDream and Ukraine Has Not Died Yet, all banned in the Russian Empire. Two more volumes were published in the years to come.  

I look – the dawn has come. A painting by Osyp Kurylas of December 15, 1918. A rare image of a smiling poet, it was painted during the Polish-Ukrainian war when Ukraine still hoped to get its statehood. The original painting had profiles of riflemen in the background but the soviet authorities had them painted over


In 1867, composer Mykola Lysenko, then 25, travelled from Kyiv to study in Leipzig via Lviv. His meeting with the students in Halychyna was not in vain: when they held the first public commemoration of Shevchenko several months later, they had a problem with the music part. Oleksandr Barvinskiy, the drive behind the publication of Shevchenko’s works, asked Lysenko to compose a melody for the Testament for the event. “They sent me Shevchenko’s Testament in the letter asking me to compose music for it. Given the favorable references about my arrangements from the Czechs, they do not find anyone more suitable to ask this,” Lysenko wrote in his letter to the family in 1868. In fact, they asked the same thing from Mykhailo Verbytsky, the composer of the anthem Ukraine Has Not Died Yet. As a result, Lviv unexpectedly saw two melodies for the Testament that were first performed at the event commemorating the 7th anniversary of Shevchenko’s death. For Lysenko, this was the beginning of his long-time fascination and work with Shevchenko’s poetry. 

The youth published another edition of Kobzar, arranged the first public commemoration and promoted the cult of the poet in gymnasiums. They also created a new movement of narodovtsi or Ukrainophiles. They mentioned Shevchenko in their program brochure in 1867: “We are the followers of the great testament of our unforgettable kobzar Taras Shevchenko… We are proud of our people of 15 million… its name is Ruthenian, or Ukrainian, its land, its mother is Rus-Ukraine. Its bitter enemies are the lachy and the moskals (old words for Poles and Russians – Ed.)… With that simple people covered in its armor we will stand together as its loyal children.” 

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The commemoration of Shevchenko eventually became official and allowed. This still bothered the clergy for some time, but the students did their best to avoid controversial situation. In Lviv they would ask an Orthodox priest to do the commemorations. A piece in Meta described what happened beyond the region’s capital: “In the province where there were no Orthodox churches, the students did the following: one of them came to a priest (Greek Catholic of course) and asked him to serve a mass to commemorate his “father”. All students gathered for the service early in the morning before school and the “son” told the priest that his “father’s” name was Taras…”

A school in Ustyluh, Volyn, 1917. A decorated portrait for Taras Shevchenko is in the background. This school, and nearly 80 others, were opened during WWI by the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen in Halychyna. This was also the first time the students could learn about the Ukrainian poet from Halychyna teachers


Taras Shevchenko Society, the first one where his name was mentioned, appeared in 1873. Funded by Ukrainians living in the Russian Empire, it grew to flourish as an academic society under the Dnipro Ukraine historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky. The figure of Shevchenko took the leading role in the pantheon of Ukrainians in Halychyna. Monuments popped up for him across Halychyna before World War I. The climax of the Shevchenko cult in the Austro-Hungarian Empire came with the celebration of his 100th birthday on June 28, 1914. Nearly 10,000 Halychans in different firemen, scout or athlete society uniforms marched in Lviv that day. On that same day, Bosnian Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, pushing the world towards the global war. The military march of Ukrainians to commemorate Shevchenko opened a new stage in the development of Ukrainian idea. It showed that the Halychans were ready to form military units. Soon enough, Ukrainian Sich Riflemen appeared as the first such official military formation.


Translated by Anna Korbut 

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