Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A young Shevchenko for a new generation of Ukrainians

While the weather in Ottawa had been less than ideal for the entire previous week, when Sunday June 26, 2011 finally rolled around, the day set for the unveiling of the newest monument to Ukraine's bard and poet Taras Shevchenko, the sky was blue and the sun shone all day long.

It was a day on which I saw a lot of old friends and made a number of new acquaintances, and while there may have been a few in the Ukrainian community who had their knickers in a knot over the selection of the site, next to St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church, it was a complete day of celebration.

Like an old friend I ran into at the event, whom I hadn't seen for over ten years, said: “It used to be that we attended christenings, then it was weddings, but in the last while we have all been attending a lot of funerals. So for something like this we have good reason to celebrate.” He was absolutely right that the demographics of the Ukrainian community in Canada is changing, particularly in Eastern Canada where a majority of those who arrived, arrived after the Second World War. Though unlike the population that is growing older, the newest monument to Taras Shevchenko, unlike previous ones, espouses youth and exuberance and in the opinion of some I spoke to, is a milestone for a new generation of Ukrainian Canadians and a symbol of youth.

While Ukrainians who read this blog need no explanation as to who Taras Shevchenko was, let me put this in perspective for those who don't. Taras Shevchenko for the Ukrainian people regardless of where they are domicile on the face of this planet carries the same cultural weight as Robert Burns does for the world's Scots. When Ukrainians left their homes to find a better fate elsewhere they carried with them the family bible, and often a copy of the Kobzar, a collection of poetic works of the people's bard. The Kobzar was a traditional Ukrainian bard, they were often blind and lead by an orphaned child. It was a symbiotic relationship with one helping the other make their way through the difficulties of everyday life. The Kobzar passed on the people's history orally through song. The first publication of Shevchenko's poems under the title of Kobzar was printed in St. Petersburg in 1840. This had great significance, as it manged to get by the Russian Imperial censors, as it was printed not in Ukrainian but in Russian transliteration of the Ukrainian language.

The first publication, unlike the thousands of those that followed, it was of a convenient size, printed on the best of papers and finely bound. Recently, amongst a collection of Ukrainian literature that was given to me to a very close friend of family, was a copy of Kobzar. Unlike those printed in the mid to late 1800s, this publication measures about 9.5 cm by 5.3 cm and is about .8 centimeters thick, was printed in post-war Germany in the city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, by Ukrainians far from home living in Displaced Persons camps and at time when paper was not always easy to come by. Yet the imprint it self gives no indication of the year of printing. This is but a simple example, of what value Taras Shevchenko's written works meant and still mean to the Ukrainian people.

Excerpt of Kateryna from that Kobzar in miniature.

The unveiling took place nearly exactly at 16:00 local time but it was not without a little drama. Representatives of Canadian youth organizations were chosen to unveil the monument and this seemed to be appropriate as this monument to Shevchenko is like no other, it was one of Shevchenko his early twenties. They tugged on the cord, the sheet did not release itself, as we so often see in movies, but decided to stay put. Eventually, with the assistance of a number of others, and if I'm not mistaken the young Deputy of the Parliament of Ukraine, Yevhen Suslov, the sheet covering the focal point of the sculpture of a young Shevchenko, finally did come down to a round of thunderous applause. To me, and many others I spoke to, the image of a young Shevchenko has a great deal of symbolism – he can speak out to a new generation of Ukrainian Canadians and Ukrainians wherever they may be. The other three elements include the figure of Kateryna, the Kobzar and the Haydamaky.

The sculptures themselves are by world-renowned Ukrainian-Canadian sculptor Leo Mol, and about the fifth or sixth sculpture to the great poet and bard, the architectural design by Radoslav Zuk, Professor Emeritus at McGill University in Montreal. The monument committee was headed by Orest Dubas of Ottawa. This unveiling of the newest monument to Taras Shevchenko is the culmination of the many years of hard work by Dubas and his committee members. Like I thanked Orest in person as he sat on a chair by the stage in the early evening on Sunday, I would like to thank him here publicly. "Thank you Orest, you and your committed did a wonderful job!"

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