Bright, ambitious and curious about the world, the three Ukrainians have other things in common: a deep affinity for Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet, and strong views about his legacy and continued impact on Ukrainian society. They are also the top three winners in the Ukrainian Institute of America’s (UIA) essay contest on the topic “Taras Shevchenko—Why Does He Matter Today?”
They were among the more than 200 youth from around the world—Ukraine, the U.S., Canada, Germany and Australia—who entered the contest, which the Ukrainian Institute organized in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Shevchenko’s birth.
Ms. Liashenko won 1st prize and the $3,000 that went with it. Ms. Tatsakovych took away the 2nd prize of $2,000, with 3rd prize winner Lomonosov receiving $1,000. Ten other contestants received Honorable Mention prizes of $300 each. The Institute also decided to recognize an additional 30 essays with Merit Awards ($100), “because there were so many worthy essays submitted,“ according to the Institute.
The contest was open to young people ages 14 to 21. According to its organizers, the contest was focused initially on Diaspora youth, which unlike youth in Ukraine has to make a special effort to learn about Ukrainian culture and its heroes. Surprisingly, about twice as many essays came from Ukraine than the U.S, even though, to encourage Diaspora submissions, the contest stipulated that essays be written in English. Most encouraging was that essays—which were limited to a maximum of 1,000 words — came from all over Ukraine: in fact, every Ukrainian oblast was represented in the contest, including Kharkiv, Donetsk, Kherson and Crimea. The contest was judged blind, with the names of contestants not revealed to the judges, though they were asked to take the age of the writer into account when weighing the merits of an essay.
“Almost all the submitted essays, even the ones that did not achieve a prize, had something interesting and personal to say about Taras Shevchenko and his legacy,” said Zwen Goy, a UIA Board of Directors member who spearheaded the essay project. “These young people were composing their essays during the early period of Maidan, before the height of the violence there, and most made the connection between what the protesters were trying to achieve and what Shevchenko extolled the Ukrainian people to do—to break their chains and become truly free.”
1st prize winner Liashenko exemplified that view in her essay, writing that “This year we celebrate Shevchenko’s 200th anniversary and no matter how strange it may sound, but I am inclined to believe that Maidan is our best gift for his birthday. All his life he fought for freedom, suffered from the authorities, but he always saw Ukraine as a free and joyous country. As a soldier uses a sword to fight in a battle, Shevchenko used a vociferous poetic word to fight his battle against the cruel treatment of his fellow compatriots. Every verse he wrote was full of pain for his beloved and tortured land; ‘I love so much, /I love my dear Ukraine…’, he says. I am sure that Shevchenko’s heart would be blissful watching his people fight for freedom, watching Ukrainians who are not afraid of anything, not even death.”
Echoing that view, Yevhenii Bosiuk, 20, an Honorary Mention winner from Rivne, Ukraine, wrote that Shevchenko “lit the torch of freedom and Ukrainians’ dignity. Now it’s our turn to carry it. Our ancestors must be proud of us. Shevchenko must be proud of us…He is proud. He is proud of our unity. East and West are together…One nation, one country, one goal.… He is proud. He is proud of our strength, our invincible spirit. He looks upon us with a hope and faith that everything will be fine. He is proud. He is proud of the fact that we did not give up. We are not broken. You can hear our breathing, our heartbeat. The nation is alive. In the current situation people need a support. And they find this support in the words of Shevchenko, in his ideas. They connect us, give us the strength and inspiration to get up off the knees. “
For 3rd prize winner Lomonosov, Shevchenko’s reach is global. An excerpt from his essay reads: “The twenty-first century is the time of the most flourishing democracy, equality, the fight for freedom and independence. It is exactly what Taras supported, he had always been against the brutal and greedy emperors and masters-enslavers who shackled free people in chains without giving any hope. Shevchenko was an ardent humanist-fighter who aspired to peace, fought against injustice and iniquity. And these efforts were directed by the poet not only for his brothers Ukrainians, but also for other disadvantaged by executioners-autocrats. From the recent events of the policital and social life of the global community, we can see that the struggle for human rights and liberty continues. It was Shevchenko’s dream and it comes true as we see. Shevchenko’s importance, even in this modern century, does not and will not subside until there is no injustice.”
Others, like Honorary Mention winner Kristina Milay, 19, of Kharkiv, Ukraine, take a more pessimistic view of events in Ukraine, but see Shevchenko as a guiding light to a better future: “Unfortunately, patriotism does not figure very prominently in our system of values any more,” she writes. “In more than 20 years of independence, a national idea that could unite Ukrainians has still failed to take shape. In such a situation, more and more people in my country are turning to Shevchenko’s spiritual heritage as a source of strength and inspiration in order to reconsider their present values and life priorities.”
Anastasiya Radiyevska, 17, an Honorary Mention recipient from Australia, sees in Shevchenko a transformative figure whose words can unite people and cultures despite their differences: “In Shevchenko’s own life we find a model of appreciation and respect for other cultures, not least through his friendship with Shakespearean actor of African-American descent, Ira Aldridge, and his connection to the people of the Caucasus region. His works explore themes which penetrate deeply into the human experience, and therefore have the power to unite despite differences. One has only to look at the public reaction to the video of Euromaidan’s first martyr, Serhiy Nihoyan, reading Shevchenko’s poem ‘The Caucasus’ to see the unifying power of the writer’s poetry.”
But Radiyevska also cautions against viewing Shevchenko’s poetry and art through the prism of an earlier time: “Such is the Shevchenko of our national mythology, whose works and life saga have been venerated by scholars and school plays alike – a figure that towers above all others in the pantheon of Ukrainian literature. This elevation, however, can be a dangerous thing,” she argues. “If consigned to these studies and trite recitals, the gem of Shevchenko’s genius risks becoming dull. His works are not simply ruminations on times gone by or passive observations – they brim with activity, passion, humanity and revolution. Their values transcend the time in which they were written, and have the power to inform the choices we make today, giving us a canvas on which to paint, a method and blueprint for building the Ukraine Shevchenko and countless others dreamed of. Kobzar no longer belongs on bookshelves – its place is on the barricades of a new Ukraine.”
Merit Award winner Ksenia Bilaniuk, 16, from Ontario, Canada, similarly views Shevchenko as a transcendental figure whose words can inform mankind’s fight against all sorts of injustices. “Shevchenko’s works take on new relevance today, even if their details seem dated,” she writes. “The themes of freedom, hope, desire for love, peace and dignity that permeate his works are timeless and ever-relevant. With the recent protests in Ukraine, initiatives for bullying awareness around the world, and the ongoing fight for human equality, it is clear that Shevchenko’s powerful works have not fallen by the wayside and still rally Ukrainians and others alike against all that is evil.”
Some essay writers connected Shevchenko to their families’, and their own, experiences. Alluding to his grandfather, a WWII Ukrainian freedom fighter, Honorable Mention winner Ruric Ellings, 16, of Washington state, observes: “Shevchenko was an orphan. For most of his life, he felt alone and yet he wrote a lot about belonging to a family. The family addressed in his poems were his fellow Ukrainians; he called them his brothers and sisters… I wonder whether Shevchenko could imagine that the family his work was written for would grow to include future generations of people like my Dido, and me, who live in different time periods, and even on different continents. Shevchenko made the struggles of the millions of enslaved serfs a part of my history. Similarly, Dido’s descriptions of the battles Ukrainians waged 70 years ago have also become a part of my history.”
“As a sixteen year old who grew up in the United States, in the Pacific Northwest, I never lived through the traumas of 19th century Ukrainian peasants; I haven’t had to fight for my very existence as my Dido did, or stand up to my corrupt government as millions of Ukrainians are doing right now. But as part of Shevchenko’s family, I stand with them.”
While researching his late grandmother’s life, Pete Chudolij, 18, a New Jersey resident who received Honorable Mention for his essay, found that like Shevchenko, she too was born into “uncertainty”: “Ripped from her Ukrainian homeland, she spent five years, from the age of eight to thirteen, in a German displaced persons’ camp,” he writes. “Like Shevchenko, she displayed talents as a youngster. She exhibited a keen aptitude for languages, cooking and sewing. She enjoyed listening to the elders share folktales and sing folk songs. She was tremendously nationalistic even as she remained oppressed and depressed by her captivity. Baba Ivanka found solace in Taras Shevchenko’s collective writings published in Kobzar and in his biography. Her copy was what she treasured most and what accompanied her to America as her best friend. During her next five years as an indentured servant on a farm, she related to Taras’ experiences out in the fields at the hands of a master. A lot of people go to the Bible for answers when they are miserable. Whenever she lacked self-confidence, I was told that Baba always searched Kobzar for answers and courage.”
Another Honorary Mention winner, Olha Muzychenko, 19, of Cherkasy, Ukraine, recalls in her essay “the experience my great grandfather Petro used to tell us about: since he was repressed as a public enemy, he was sent to Kolyma (gulag). There my grandpa was disputing with one Georgian. ‘Your Shevchenko is a nationalist!’ that man claimed. My grandpa simply recited him the poem ‘The Caucasus’ that is about the anti-imperial struggle of the Caucasians. The Georgian exclaimed with admiration: ‘Oh, your Shevchenko is OUR Shevchenko!’”
Still other essay writers look to Shevchenko for personal inspiration. Merit Award honoree Lilia Sagan of New York writes: “Life is not about accepting what society hands to one. Life is about creating oneself; it is about choosing hope; it is about believing that an individual has the power to make a change… One person who chose to act upon this hope and who made something more of himself, was Taras Shevchenko… (Shevchenko) is still important today because he is a symbol of the power of hope that is within every single person. His life taught the world that it does not matter what kind of life is given to a person, with the power of hope, anyone can rise above hardships and impact the world.”
Hope also features big in the essay by Connecticut resident and Merit Award winner Maria Shevchenko-Masnyi, 17: “The secret that lies behind Shevchenko’s language is that it floats like a wake-up song for many Ukrainians and inspires them with hope, and the belief that this hope is worth dying for. Kobzar is a book, given to people when they are in desperate need of a positive belief that one-day they will wake up in a newer happier world. His poetry is like a prayer, like a song about our nation’s fate that will eternally be a part of our lives. “
And for 14-year old Honorable Mention winner Oleksandr Shlieienkov, of Kirovohrad, Ukraine, the image of Shevchenko as a “hero” is “very important for Ukrainian nation”: “People need heroes to cope with their worst fears. They demonstrate the power of character and courage, and so show us that we can also confront and overcome all these dangers and fears. Heroes show us that nothing worth doing is easy. They don’t accept defeat, and they will never give up. They believe in themselves and their aims, and they do everything to achieve their goals. By showing us that even very powerful people have to fight and struggle, they help us deal with the fears that we all face. So, it will be tough. So what? We can do it.”
Many essay contestants, like 2nd Prize winner Ulyana Tatsakovych, offered uniquely argued observations that go beyond the obvious in Shevchenko’s works. “Shevchenko considered land to be sacred and depicted Ukrainians as the ploughmen who greatly appreciated to work the land,” an excerpt from her essay reads. “This cult of Mother Earth is transferred to the deification of a woman, a wife, a mother as the keeper of hearth and home and the source of love, tenderness, care and forgiveness. She gives birth and keeps national traditions alive by passing along her life experience to the next generation, that’s why she must be treated with the utmost respect. Fostering such an attitude to a woman in terms of gender equality is one of the primary issues in the present era.”
Elsewhere in her essay, Tatsakovych writes that “Shevchenko’s poetry has an anthropocentric character. The problem of human destiny, as well as the destiny of the whole nation, played a central role in his outlook. Shevchenko’s protagonist (a serf, a widow, an orphan or a rebel, a folk hero, a fearless Cossack) although humiliated by poverty and social injustice, is the living embodiment of the highest human values and a bearer of the national idea. Shevchenko says to us all: never mind our social status or nationality – the most important things are the spiritual wealth of our hearts, a longing for kindness, honesty and fairness, the superiority of the heart over the mind and sincere patriotic love for our country – this idea is so noteworthy today – when materialistic values reign supreme!”
Or consider the words of Julia, an essay contestant from Crimea, who received an Honorary Mention for her essay: “Ukraine is like a dying sprout which needs caring hands to grow it cautiously and make it a big strong blooming tree. Those are our hands, the hands of the descendants of great Kobzar. Kobzar who could redeem the spirits of the nation which were in a state of sluggishness with his poetry also believed that ‘chained people would free themselves’ and make everyone else respect them as a great nation.”
The essays of the top three prize winners, as well as a Merit Award winning essay, can be seen in their entirety on the UIA’s website.
This article was originally published in The Ukrainian Weekly.
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For the admission to the MA programme in Human Rights and Democratization in the Caucasus a list of required documents was elaborated. One of the requirements is to submit an essay on one of the topics suggested for 2017/18 cohort admission.
Essay Topics 2017-2018:
1. Is democracy a universal value?
2. What is humanism, and how can you contribute to making the “world a better place to live?
3. Human Rights and traditions: discrepancies and similarities
4. How Human Rights have evolved in your country?
5. Essay on Free topic (it should relate to Human rights and democratisation topics)
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