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A Lesson on the Anniversary of Taras Shevchenko

UV is presenting an article written 101 years ago by Volodymyr Jabotinsky, one of the founders of Zionism.


Volodymyr (Ze’yev) Jabotinsky

Volodymyr (Ze’yev) Jabotinsky Born in Odessa (1880) Jabotinsky was a journalist, a writer and poet. He wrote in both Russian and Hebrew. He was the leader of the right wing of Zionism, a cofounder of the Jewish Legion, and of both the “Beitar” and “Irgun” organizations.  He died in 1940 in New York and is reburied in Jerusalem.

He was a friend of Simon Petliura and wholeheartedly supported the Ukrainian National Republic.

During the meeting of the World Jewish Congress in 1923 he and his ideological allies were forced out of the leadership of this organization. They were defeated by the socialist wing of the movement, led by Chaim Weizmann (who later became the first president of Israel). For Ukrainians the difference of the views of the two wings became apparent during the trial of Schwartzbard, the killer of Petliura. The World Jewish Congress under Weizmann took a pro-Bolshevik position, while Jabotinsky defended the good name of Petliura.

In 1911, Jabotinsky wrote (in his native Russian, of course) a very interesting article on the anniversary of the birth of the great prophet, Taras Shevchenko. UV is presenting this English translation of the original. What is most interesting is Jabotinsky’s attitude and understanding, albeit from a pre-war imperial viewpoint, of Shevchenko, Ukrainian nationalism, as well as his vision and foresight of future events.

The article paints a unique picture of the Russian Empire in the years before World War 1, giving insight into events such as the Russian Revolution, Ukraine’s Declaration of Independence, the War of Independence and even the reasons for creating the Holodomor. 

(The following is a translation by Mirko Petriw from the Russian language original. Clarifications in brackets and the highlighting of segments of text are the translator’s.)

It is surprising how inconsistent people can be. When we say A, we usually do not think that we need to pronounce B as well. We approach a social fact as though it were isolated, torn from life and having no consequence.

And today we honor the memory of Shevchenko or at least we respond to its celebration. But at the same time — we draw no conclusions. Not only do we not listen to the words that were read, but often even in print it cannot be seen that anyone gave any thought to that which the recognition of this anniversary demands of us.

It can only be one of two things: either Shevchenko is a cultural misunderstanding, a philological curiosity and rarity, and then it makes no sense at all to celebrate his anniversaries, or else Shevchenko is a natural and characteristic phenomenon that comes to life as a sign of what is to come, and then each of us, having said A must utter B — that by recognizing this anniversary is to define one’s attitude towards this great phenomenon, the inevitability of which is prophesized by this celebration.

But it seems few people think about this.

This may be explained by the possibility that, to ourselves, many of us really do believe that Shevchenko is a philological curiosity.

There is no hiding the truth, that is in fact what many of us think. It seems to them to be a whim, a caprice: behold a man who knew the Russian language well and could have written the same poems in the “universally understood” language, but instead he stubbornly wrote in the “khokhol” language.

Others go even further asking whether there is any serious difference between the two languages except for mere stubbornness, a petty insistence on certain letters?

What an oddball — to insist on writing like this:

“Dumy moyi, Dumy moyi, Lykho meni z vamy! Nashcho staly na paperi Sumnymy ryadamy?”

– If one could write the following just as easily:

”Contemplations, meditations, Woe for me is with you! Why do you stand here on paper In melancholy sequence?”

One gentleman recently showed me a volume of poems by Oles’ just to prove that these poems can be read in Russian and almost everything would remain in perfect order: the spacing would not change and almost all the rhymes would still rhyme.

It may be that he was right: I did not listen to the end and while he recited in the Muscovite language: “Oh, why did you give the little child to the steppes?” — I was thinking something else. I remembered that Shevchenko actually wrote some things in Russian.

The journalists of the newspaper “Kyevlyanyn” recognized this as a great merit and tried to embarrass today’s Mazepists: as you can see, he does not write like you, he has “not shied away from the universally understood language”! Even if that were true, somehow the “universally understood ” language managed to shy away from the Ukrainian poet, and he pasted together nothing of worth in that language.

And Shevchenko — is not the lone example of that phenomenon. In the [18]40’s there was in Rome, a great poet, Belli. I think there is mention of him somewhere in Gogol’s works. He wrote mainly in the Roman dialect. The Roman dialect, when compared to other local dialects of Italy, almost coincides with the Italian language and if it would not nauseate my reader, I could explain all the differences between the two in exactly fifteen lines of script.

Belli wrote many wonderful things in that dialect, however in Italian — his work totally sucks. His sonnets in Romanesque are amazing, but his Italian elegy is watery, rhetorical and — forgotten.

It’s obvious, he was very stubborn. So stubborn that God himself abandoned him as did his creative impulses, the moment that he crossed that subtle border — and Belli, who on this side was a great poet by the grace of God, on the other side became but a miserable scribbler…

Mother tongue! We need all of our Russian naïveté, inexperience, our social ignorance, all our Pegasus-like flights of wisdom, all the rough practical empiricism professed by us in relation to so many holy matters of the spirit, to look surprised and wonder why any normal person, of sound mind and memory, should stubbornly insist on writing “svit”, and not “svet”.

Oh folly, oh folly! Hungarians have for many years been fighting for Magyar commands in the Hungarian army, although the required lexicon consists of exactly only 70 words. Because of these mere 70 words ministries fall and the most important reforms remain abandoned while cracks appear along the seam of the river Leyte on the political map of Europe.

In the Hungarian parliament, among four hundred or more Hungarians, sit but forty deputies from Croatia and religiously retain their right to speak from the podium in Croatian, in a language that no one but they can understand and whose use in the parliament, it would seem, is not only useless but even harmful in itself to the Croatian cause.

These same Croats rebelled when Hungarian authorities tried to have signs on some government agencies in Zagreb, posted in Magyar as well as Croatian: there were street demonstrations and clashes with troops. Blood was spilled…

Oh folly, oh folly! — Say we, we, the inhabitants of a distant backwater of this country, we from the heights of our political understanding and experience. Is it possibly not more correct to look at things from the other side and realize that there is no arguing with facts?

After all, we behold a number of clear facts both of the masses, but even more significantly, those of the individual. Here we have entire nations in turmoil over seventy words or ten signs in a foreign tongue: we also see that great poets, instantly lose the gift of God, as soon as they try to do a little, tiny, innocent forgery, to say “svet” instead of “svit”  or “buona sera“ instead of “bona sera “.

These are all facts, immutable phenomena of life that will not change whether we approve of them or not. One should not condemn nor approve, one should not judge as pass or fail the very order of the world and its manifestations — instead we must modestly learn and gain wisdom by accepting life as it is in its essence, and on this basis build our worldview.

Despite the fact that we celebrate Shevchenko’s anniversary with a respectful bow, it has not even occurred to us that it is a fact of exceptional symptomatic importance, on the basis of which, if we were smart, experienced and prudent, we would have to change some of the essential elements of our worldview.

What is Shevchenko? One of two possibilities.

We either look at him as a curious quirk of nature, something like an armless artist or an acrobat with one foot, or something like a rare antediluvian exhibit at the Archaeological Museum. Or we need to look at him as a brilliant manifestation of the national and cultural vitality of the Ukrainians, and then we have to open our eyes wider and look carefully at the conclusions that follow from here.

Here in the cities of the South (in Ukraine) we have so carefully and so naively planted our Muscovite seed, our press has so fussed about Russian theatre and the spread of Russian books that in the end we did not notice the very real, tangible, mathematical reality as it manifests itself outside our chicken coop world.

Beyond the cities roils a massive, almost thirty million strong Ukrainian sea. Have a look, but not only in its center at any Vasilkovsky or Mirgorod district: but look at its edges, in Kharkiv and Voronezh, at the very borders beyond which begins the “Great Russian” language — and you will be surprised to what extent that solid Ukrainian sea has remained intact and unpolluted.

There are villages on this border, where on this side of the river live “khokhly”, on the other side – “katsapy.” They live next to each other since time immemorial but they do not mix. Each side speaks in its own manner, they dress in their own way, each has preserved its customs: they marry only their own kind; they shun each other; they do not understand nor seek to understand each other.

P.B. Struve the author of the theory of “national repulsion” should have travelled there, before talking about a single transcendental “all-Russian” existence. There is no more expressive a “repulsion”, they say, neither at the Polish-Lithuanian nor at the Polish-Belarusian ethnographic border.

He knew his people well, this Ukrainian poet, when he taught foolish young girls:

Love and make love, But not with the Muscovites, For Muscovites are an alien people …

I do not agree with the theory of PB Struve and do not think that a “repulsion” is necessarily part of the required and proper identification of nationality — in any case I believe that the legalization (in the scientific sense) of such “repulsion” should be allowed only with great and severe reservations.

I do not think it is a normal or an eternal phenomenon, this antagonism between a Moskal and Ukrainian, which is reflected in the vulgar nickname “khokhol” and especially “katsap”. I am sure, however, that by improving the external environmental influences, not only Ukrainians, but in general all the peoples of Russia (Russian Empire) will coexist well with Russians on the basis of equality and mutual recognition, and I even believe that a great and beneficial role in this is to be played by Moscow’s democratic intelligentsia — and recently, in one of my Kiev lectures, I expressed this faith so sharply that it was even met with resistance by some Ukrainian students.

But it is undeniable that the “repulsion” of the stranger is one of the signs of the presence of a national instinct, especially where national identity is suppressed through external oppression, and there is no other channel, no positive channel, for its expression. In such cases, the “pushing back”, which is observed on ethnographical limits remains by default the best proof that the oppressed nation spontaneously resists the mutation of its very self, and that the true path for its normal development lies in another direction.

This is a groundswell of the feelings of a great homogenous mass; this is the spontaneous mood of thirty million Ukrainian common people, no matter how much this is denied by experts from among national changelings. The experts of this kind are as competent in the assessment of national feelings of the people whom they abandoned, as a deserter can be competent in evaluating the patriotism and morale of the army, from which he ran.

The Ukrainian people have preserved intact that which is the major, undefeatable support of the national soul, the village. A people, whose roots are firmly and densely rooted into a huge continuous area of its native land, have nothing to fear for their native soul, no matter what happens in the cities to the weak sprouts of its culture or its language and its poets.

The villager will withstand everything, he will survive, he will prevail and slowly, step by step, steady and undefeated he will crowd into the city from all sides, and what is now considered a peasant dialect, will after two generations be the language of newspapers, theatres, road signs — and more.

That is what the Shevchenko anniversary means for anyone who can think consistently and look into the future. We, unfortunately, are not rich in these talents. We think that the Ukrainian movement that is growing under our very nose is some kind of sport, we ignore it, we ignored it before this anniversary and we will probably ignore it after this anniversary.

This complacency, or blindness of self-satisfaction, or disconnectedness of human thought that directs our actions results in a gross, unforgiveable political mistake. Instead of having this movement, huge in its potential consequences, develop with the support of influential circles of elite society, accustomed to seeing them as their support, their natural allies – we are forcing it to break through on his own, we slow its progress through silence and inattention, we annoy it and push it to the opposition (of Empire) — to the liberal and radical community.

This will not stop the growth of the movement, but it will distort its growth and direct it toward the least desired channel — this is what is easy, and this is what we (Muscovites) should beware.

The worst consequences for future relations of this vast southern Russia (Russian Empire) will be born here if we fail to awaken and fail to understand and do not take into account the spreading reach of this mass phenomenon which the anniversary of Shevchenko reminds us of, and to coordinate with it all our policies, all our tactics in both local and state matters.

Let me express a concern that I have long had which is supported by the study of Western European experience, but in response to which, the reader will probably shrug his shoulders.

Our South (Ukraine) has become the favorite arena of the Black Hundreds, and they act there with substantial success, especially in cities and towns. And still we have not come to terms whether there is a way to fight against this phenomenon, and if so, how, and with what weapons.

We should pay attention to this matter because, given the current mood, our regional or municipal governments nor even the right to send deputies to the State Duma are not beneficial to our country. Members of the South — are the main pillar of reaction, and that  was the case even before the change to the electoral law, the third Duma.

How does one fight against the mood of the urban masses of the south? Pure, abstract liberalism of any brand is not suitable: the petty bourgeoisie does not follow liberals, unless they decide to promise additional things.

Socialist propaganda is organically unpalatable to them: economic ideals of this movement are inevitably reactionary and in the best case revolve around the ideals of a medieval guild system, at worst – as we see in Vienna, Warsaw, at the last craftsmen’s’ congress — around the economic and legal displacement of foreigners.

The only idea, which, in these conditions, can appeal to the urban bourgeois masses, and to cleanse and ennoble their worldview — is the national idea.

If they now favour the right, it is not because the right promises them wealth, but only because the right resonated with their nationalist chord. But this was not the chord of creative, positive nationalism, but the string of “repulsion” from foreigners.

And no bright flags can distract our southern townspeople from hate slogans, except for one: that of one’s own national protest. I am not competent to judge how ready some Slobidka-Romanivka is to the acceptance of a Ukrainian national consciousness: but I can confirm but one thing: either the Ukrainian movement will find allies here, or no one will.

I repeat: all this is so far from the current state of affairs, that the reader, I know, will shrug his shoulders and call it fortune telling, or fantasy. But I think that the soothsayers and fantasizers are those who can only see that which is sticking out in front of their face, and look neither to statistics, nor to history nor to the wise expertise of the West. We’ll wait and see. Or maybe, if we do not change our tactics in time, then we’ll feel it too…

When it is our official duty to honor the anniversary of Shevchenko, we sheepishly tell each other that the departed, you see, was a “people’s” poet that sang about the sorrows of simple poor people, and in this, you see all his greatness.

No, that is far from the point. The “populism” of Shevchenko is less than secondary, for if he had it all written in Russian, he would not have nearly the same level of importance in anyone’s eyes compared to the immense importance all sides recognize in him now.

Shevchenko is a national poet, and this is his strength. He is a national poet in a subjective sense that of a poet-nationalist even with all the faults of a nationalist, with wild outbursts of hostility to the Pole, to the Jew, and to other neighbors…

But more importantly, he is a national poet in his own right. He gave his own people and the world a brilliant, immutable proof that the Ukrainian soul is capable of the highest flights of original cultural creativity. It is for that that he is so loved by some, and so feared by others, and this love and this fear would not be any less if Shevchenko were not a populist in his time, but an aristocrat in the style of Goethe or Pushkin.

You can throw out all the democratic notes from his works (as the censorship did for so long) — and Shevchenko will remain what nature has created: a dazzling precedent that does not allow Ukrainians to deviate from the path of national renaissance. This meaning was well understood by the reactionaries when they screamed of separatism, treason and incitement of the mob, (in the days before this anniversary).

It is still far from the mob and other horrors, but the truth remains the truth: for it is not possible to honor Shevchenko as just another talented Russian writer of some grade or other, but to honor him is to recognize all that is associated with that name.

Honouring Shevchenko — is to understand and acknowledge that there cannot be a single culture in a country in which there are one hundred or more nations: it is to understand, recognize, and make room to give a rightful place to a mighty partner, the second power in the empire.


UV thanks Istorychna Pravda for the Russian language original

Read This Article in Ukrainian

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