When I die, let me rest, let me lie amidst Ukraine’s broad steppes. Let me see the endless fields and steep slopes I hold so dear. Let me hear the Dnipro’s great roar. And when the blood of Ukraine’s foes flows into the blue waters of the sea, that’s when I’ll forget the fields and hills and leave it all and pray to God. Until then, I know no God. So bury me, rise up, and break your chains. Water your freedom with the blood of oppressors. And then remember me with gentle whispers and kind words in the great family of the newly free. – Testament, Taras Shevchenko
Taras Shevchenko was born in the village of Moryntsi, in the Kyiv Governorate of the Russian Empire (present-day Ukraine), on March 9, 1814. He was the seventh and youngest child of Taras Shevchenko and Kateryna Zakharova. His father’s family were Cossacks who had settled in the area in the 16th century. Taras’s grandfather, Mykhailo Danilovich Shevchenko (1727–1806), was a colonel in the Hetmanate Army. Shevchenko’s mother, Kateryna Yakovlevna Zakharova (1775–1837), was the daughter of a Ukrainian nobleman, Yakym Zakharov, from the town of Sorochyntsi.
Shevchenko’s parents died when he was young. His father drowned in 1823 while swimming across the Dnieper River and his mother died of tuberculosis in 1837. Shevchenko was orphaned at the age of 11 and was brought up by his older brother, Mykhailo. He spent much of his childhood in poverty.
When he was 13, he was apprenticed to a local icon painter named Dmytro Bezhyntsev. He remained with Bezhyntsev for four years, during which time he was able to continue his education and learn to read and write.
In 1838, Shevchenko left Bezhyntsev’s workshop and enrolled in the newly opened Kyiv Art School, where he studied under the artists Karl Briullov and Vasily Tropinin. Shevchenko was a student at the Kyiv Art School from 1838 to 1845. He excelled in his studies and was soon recognized as one of the school’s most promising students. He also wrote and published several of his own works while at school, including the poetry collection Kobzar (1840) and the novel Taras Bulba (1842).
Shevchenko’s time at the Kyiv Art School coincided with a period of great political turmoil in Ukraine. In 1848, Shevchenko was arrested for his involvement in the Ukrainian nationalist underground and was exiled to Siberia. He spent ten years in exile, during which time he continued to paint and write poetry.
In 1858, Shevchenko was pardoned and allowed to return to Ukraine. Shevchenko’s return to Ukraine in 1859 coincided with a new wave of Ukrainian nationalism. He quickly became one of the most important figures in the Ukrainian nationalist movement. His poetry and prose were widely circulated, and his speeches inspired many Ukrainians to fight for their country’s independence.
Shevchenko was arrested again in 1861 for his involvement in the Ukrainian nationalist underground. He was tried and sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to 20 years of hard labor. He was imprisoned in Saint Petersburg and then exiled to Siberia.
Shevchenko was released from prison in 1868 and was allowed to return to Saint Petersburg. He continued to work as a painter and illustrator and wrote several new works, including the poetry collections Haidamaky (1869) and Zaporozhian Cossacks (1870).
In 1876, Shevchenko traveled to Ukraine for the first time in over 20 years. He was warmly welcomed by the Ukrainian people and his visit was a great boost to the Ukrainian nationalist movement.
Shevchenko returned to Saint Petersburg in 1877 and continued to work as a painter and illustrator. He also wrote several new works, including the poetry collection Haydamaky (1878) and the novel The Dream of Little Tichon (1880).
Shevchenko’s health began to decline in the 1880s and he died of heart failure on March 10, 1861. He was buried in Saint Petersburg, but his body was later moved to Kyiv, where he is now buried in the Baikove Cemetery.
Shevchenko is widely regarded as the greatest Ukrainian poet and writer. His works have been translated into many languages. Taras Shevchenko is still considered an important figure in Ukrainian history and culture. His poetry and artwork continue to be celebrated and studied, and his legacy remains an inspiration for Ukrainians around the world.