Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Over the weekend, rallies were held across Ukraine to remember the man who wrote these words:

[Andrey Kurkov reads poem]
Bury me, be done with me,
Rise and break your chain,
Water your new liberty
With blood for rain.
Then, in the mighty family
Of all men that are free,
May be sometimes, very softly
You will speak of me?

Werman: The final lines of “The Testament”, by Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko. Yesterday would have been his 200th Birthday, and his words resonate strongly with many Ukrainians now, during the crisis with Russia. But Taras Shevchenko is also hardwired into the Ukranian soul. That’s what Ukranian writer Andrey Kurkov says, and he, by the way, read Shevchenko’s poem for us.

Andrey Kurkov: He’s a great poet in Ukraine, and he wrote also in Russian, poetry, but his Ukranian poetry, his Ukrainian language became the basis for Ukrainian literary language, for Ukrainian literature. He was the serf, He was actually a slave who had a very difficult destiny. He became also some kind of symbol for uprising, for the desire to be free, for the whole of Ukraine.

Werman: So give us a quick bio. I know that he was born about 200 years ago. Who is he?

Kurkov: Well, he was born in Kiev’s region as a serf to a landowner, Engelgardt. He lost his mother I think when he was 7 or 8 years old, and when he was 12, his father died. He wanted to learn, but of course, there was no school, so he was helped by a local monk. At some point, he started going to monks who were painting icons, to help them, and he learned basics of painting or drawing from them. And for many people, actually, he is also a very great artist.

Werman: When Shevchenko started writing poetry, what kind of topics did he deal with?

Kurkov: He started writing poetry very early. It was always poems about Ukraine, about difficult destiny of Ukraine men and women, about his beloved Ukraine with is not independent, which is controlled by Moscow, and you can find lots of lines in his poems again Moscow and, of course, against the Tsar.

Werman: When you talk about the difficult destiny that he kind of talked about in his poetry for Ukrainian men and women, what did he mean?

Kurkov: They are all slaves. They have to serve to Germans, to Russians, to Moscow’s Tsar, and they cannot be happy because they’re not free.

Werman: Is that a view of Ukrainians that you think Ukrainians still think is valid today?

Kurkov: Well, of course. I mean, it’s not legitimate for you anymore, but in today’s situation with Russia occupying Crimea, the poems of Shevchenko get the new, which is also the old meaning, that Moscow is trying to dominate and to control the destiny of Ukraine. Of course, he remains a father-figure for Ukrainian nations, spiritual father. But also, he was a spiritual father for Ukraianian nation in the Soviet time. The Soviet ideologies recognized him as the most important poet of Ukraine. He was taught in the schools. Children had to learn his poetry by heart. At the same time, on the 9th of March every year, the KGB officers and police would control who will lay flowers to his monuments all around Ukraine, because it was considered that the Nationalists of Ukraine and the Soviet activists would go with flowers to his monuments, and the pro-Soviet Ukraine intelligence would gather in [??] or upper houses to commemorate with the Communist party.

Werman: He died, interestingly, Andrey Kurkov, at a young age ; 47. And the story of his burial, I gather, is highly symbolic in Ukraine today.

Kurkov: He died in St. Petersburg, having planned actually to return to Ukraine. He was dreaming about coming back to Ukraine. And then, actually, when he died, his body was carried from St. Petersburg to Kiev. It was definitely a very symbolic act because, of course, there were lots of stops overnight, and all the places where the body layed became at that time some kind of shrines. In the very center of Kiev, just 20 meters from Mydon, where we had the pro-European protests. There is a small house also dedicated to him, which is also now part of his museum.

Werman: Just getting back briefly to those rallies yesterday, Andrey Kurkov, there are reports of violence at the rally in Sevastopol commemorating Shevchenko - Reports of attacks by Cossacks even. What do you make of this latest news?

I mean, Moscow was also publicly sort of celebrating his anniversary, but at the same time, the Russian government yesterday announced that if Taras Shevchenko were alive, [he] would not like today’s Ukraine and today’s Ukrainian politicians and their actions. Of course, I mean, his figure probably provokes hatred because it is so powerful and because it is used by the Ukrainians so much these days.

Werman: Andrey Kurkov, a Ukrainian writer, living in Kiev. Thank you very much for your thoughts on Taras Shevchenko. Appreciate it.

Thank you.