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In divided Ukraine, inspiration from a poet of the underdog

Taras Shevchenko, a 19th century poet, is a unifying figure for Ukraine, whose prime minister cited him today as inspiration for the Maidan protest movement. But the poet’s legacy is more complex. 

KIEV, Ukraine  — In 1845, the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko wrote these stirring lines: “Fight!—you will prevail. God is helping you!”

The couplet’s passionate cry and the legacy of the man who wrote them are still in play in this deeply divided nation, where thousands turned out today to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth. From the heart of Ukrainian nationalism in the western city of Lviv to Russian-occupied Crimea, wreaths were laid at the feet of memorials to the poet and artist. Even in the eastern city of Donetsk, where pro-Russia passions run deep, bouquets of flowers were left at the base of the city’s Shevchenko statue.

While the Maidan protest movement that last month ousted a president has claimed him as their own, Shevchenko never billed himself as a Ukrainian nationalist. In fact, his often-repeated couplet about noble resistance – a clarion call for today’s revolutionaries – comes from a poem depicting the Russian empire’s march into the Caucasus. The famous lines were written in support not of Ukraine but of the Circassian nation of the North Caucusus, which the Russian empire had crushed by 1865.

“Shevchenko didn’t have a nationalist bone in his body,” said Rory Finnin, the director of the Center for Ukrainian Studies at Cambridge University. “For him, it wasn’t a question of ethnicity. It was a question of who is powerful, and who is powerless, and the struggle for the little guys to overcome their oppressors. That theme points to the issues that are there today in Ukraine.”

It’s not the first time Shevchenko’s image has been manipulated. The Soviet Union also used his image—and sometimes the exact same couplet – during the Second World War to inspire Ukrainian Soviets to fight against Nazi Germany. Ukrainian school children were taught to recite his poems, and as a result, practically every city in Ukraine has a statue and street in his name.

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“Shevchenko united Ukraine because his message represents all of Ukraine,” says Andrei Kuzetsov, as he stood outside the recently remodeled National Shevchenko Museum in Kiev. Mr. Kuzetsov, a designer, said he had brought his young son to introduce him to a Ukrainian hero, one whose appeal transcends ethnic divisions.

“There are plenty of well educated people in the east who respect him. They aren’t all idiot titushki out there,” he said, referring to thuggish pro-Russian protesters.

Four months after antigovernment protests first erupted here, the poet’s mustached face is plastered on billboards and poles across the battle-scarred Maidan. To demonstrators who remain camped out on the streets, Shevchenko’s legacy is clear: He’s a true Ukrainian hero, whose writings about the country and devotion to the Ukrainian language should be the inspiration to the rebirth of a new, united Ukrainian nation.

“This new government is here because 1 million Ukrainians came out to Maidan and did what Shevchenko told us to do—fight for Ukraine,” Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a gathering today at the Shevchenko statue in central Kiev. “We won’t give up a centimeter of our land, and the Russian president should know this.”

Crimean referendum

In the tense Crimean capital of Simferopol, pro-Ukrainians used today’s celebration of Shevchenko’s birth to stage a protest against a Mar. 16 referendum on independence that paves the way for Russian annexation. Thousands of Russian troops continue to block Ukrainian military bases in Crimea in what Mr. Yatsenyuk calls an occupation.

Although a majority of the Russian-speaking population of Crimea support closer ties with Russia, about a quarter of the peninsula’s 2 million population prefer to stay an autonomous region of Ukraine. Many of these supporters consider themselves to be ethnic Ukrainians or Crimean Tatars, or Russians living in Ukraine.

Defining who is who in Ukraine is complicated; the country’s borders and inhabitants have changed several times in past centuries. During the Soviet era, Moscow moved Russians and other ethnic groups into the east and south, and expelled Muslim Tatars to Central Asia. As a result, Ukrainians today are a mixture of many ethnicities. Distinctions are usually drawn by which language is spoken, Russian or Ukrainian.

Exile and return

The life and career of Shevchenko mirrors this entanglement. Born a serf in central Ukraine in 1814, he spent much of his life in St. Petersburg, after an envoy for the Russian tsar bought his freedom and sponsored his art studies there. He became a regarded artist and writer in its salons and wrote many of his famous lines in the Russian language.

Like many Ukrainians today, he spoke both Russian and Ukrainian fluently, though it is his contribution to Ukrainian literature that made him famous. In 1847, Tsar Nicholas I had him arrested and sent in exile to Central Asia for writing poems that spoke out against the empire’s oppression of smaller nations, like Ukraine.

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“The story that this movement in Ukraine is about ethnicity is coming directly from the Kremlin,” Mr. Finnin said. “People have overly politicized Shevchenko and said he was fermented discord and division between Ukrainians and Russians. This is what the Kremlin is trying to do with the Ukrainian identity in general, by calling them nationalists.”

Kiev’s largest memorial to Shevchenko depicts the poet in his later years, with a broad moustache and a furrowed brow. He stands facing the national university now named after him.

On Sunday, Mikhail Lamazyon, joined the crowds in Kiev’s Shevchenko park to pay his respects to the man he believed was a true patriot, one who would stand up to a bully like Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Putin says Ukrainians and Russians are one people, like brothers,” said Mr. Lamazyon, who came to Ukraine 40 years ago from Armenia. “I don’t know what kind of brotherly love Putin is trying to show us, but I’m not interested in being part of his family.”