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Taras Shevchenko's 'Kavkaz' and the Chechnya conflict

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March 16, 2000, 1 a.m. |
Each March, Ukrainians worldwide honor their great poet, Taras Shevchenko (March 10, 1814 - March, 9, 1861), at commemorative concerts and gatherings. Those who have attended these affairs with any regularity have undoubtedly heard the following lines recited: Boritesia - Poborete, Vam Boh pomahaie! Za vas pravda, za vas syla I volia sviataia! Struggle, and ye shall overcome the foe: For God shall succor you in battle's throe; His strength is on your side, and freedom stands With justice on the threshold of your lands! When I first heard these lines recited as a boy, I understood them as an attempt by Shevchenko to inspire Ukrainians in their fight for national liberation. However, as I later learned, Shevchenko wrote these lines in the poem 'Kavkaz' (The Caucasus) in support of the Caucasian peoples in their struggle against Russian subjugation in the 19th century. After reading 'Kavkaz' in its entirety as a young adult for the first time, I recognized it was a very powerful poem. However, it was not until some time during the first Russian-Chechen war of 1994-96, when I reread it, that I became aware of the poem's universal validity, timeliness and timelessness. Last year, when preparing a lecture for a course on Ukrainian history and culture, I chose 'Kavkaz' in English translation as one of the three poems by Shevchenko that would be read and discussed in class. In preparation for the lecture I also read a short work by Ivan Dzyuba, 'Zastukaly serdeshnu voliu' (Wretched Freedom Cornered), first published in the journal Suchasnist in 1995, and an article by Ivan Franko, 'Temne tsarstvo' (The Kingdom of Darkness), first published in 1881. The Russian invasion of Chechnya last fall, which marked the beginning of the latest Russian-Chechen war, caused me to turn to 'Kavkaz' once again. This time what struck me was Shevchenko's understanding of the principle of equality among nations. I also felt great sorrow for the Chechens, who today have been largely abandoned by the international community to a horrible ordeal in their fight for independence, and admiration for their bravery, both for having fought the Russian invaders in the 19th century for 50 years and for facing, against seemingly insurmountable odds, the same foe twice at the end of the old and beginning of the new millenium. Shevchenko wrote 'Kavkaz' in 1845 upon learning of the death of his close friend Yakiv de Bal'men, a nobleman who died fighting in the ranks of the Russian army 'pacifying' the Caucasus peoples. It is for this reason that Shevchenko lamented toward the end of the poem that de Bal'men had shed his blood not for Ukraine but 'for her executioner.' Remarkably, Shevchenko held no animosity toward the mountaineers who had killed his friend. Instead, Shevchenko flung all his fiery invective, irony and searing sarcasm against the Russian imperial machine, the real executioner of his friend and destroyer of the freedom of the peoples of the Caucasus. According to Dzyuba, Shevchenko's defense of the 'small,' 'uncivilized,' and 'non-historical' nations was a phenomenon not known in European poetry of the time. The Greek struggle for freedom from Ottoman Turkish rule in the 19th century had been popular among the European intelligentsia, and the English romantic poet George Gordon Byron lost his life fighting in the ranks of Greek insurgents. However, the Greeks were Christians, who were fighting Muslim Turks. Moreover, they were seen as a nation with a long history who had bequeathed classical civilization to the world. In comparison, who were the Chechens and other Caucasian peoples? They were viewed as 'uncivilized' tribes who had no future as nations, and the idea of allowing some form of self-government for them was unthinkable. Shevchenko's defense of these 'primitive' peoples was even more remarkable when one considers that the Caucasian nationalities were largely Muslims fighting a Christian power. In some of the more ironic and sarcastic passages in 'Kavkaz,' Shevchenko exposed the crass hypocrisy and moral degeneration of the Russian Orthodox Church, which supported and was an integral part of the imperial machine. (It seems that not much has changed when one reflects on the support of the Russian Orthodox Church today for Russia's latest attempt to reconquer Chechnya.) Despite this sharp criticism of the church by Shevchenko, 'Kavkaz' is a deeply spiritual poem, in which the poet turns to or invokes the name of God on several occasions. Another strong point in Shevchenko's poem is the way he emphasized what he valued most in life. He noted the outward splendor and wealth of the Russian Empire, but concluded that its subjects were really 'naked' because they were slaves. In well-known lines he characterized Russia as a country that 'teem[ed] with tribes and prisons, past all counting,' where each of its many peoples 'in his own language holds his tongue,' afraid of the consequences of speaking out against oppression. Shevchenko made clear that he valued not external wealth and imperial power, but 'this wretched thing called freedom,' which the Caucasian peoples possessed and which the Russian conquerors did not have, but wanted to take away. In his article, Ivan Franko wrote that 'Kavkaz' was a fiery invective against the 'kingdom of darkness' written from an ecumenical point of view, and that it perhaps contained the poet's strongest expression of what it meant to be a human being. Reflecting on today's news on the war in the Caucasus, one is astounded at how successful Russia has been in dehumanizing and demonizing the Chechens, and in devaluing the struggle of its victim for independence. In Shevchenko's day, the Chechens and other peoples of the Caucasus were referred to as 'savages'; today they are besmirched as 'terrorists' and 'bandits.' While many Chechens may not support the actions of some of their own warlords, it is not they who have been indiscriminately bombing and shelling Chechen villages and cities, and committing atrocities against civilians. Viewed historically, today's brutal war is merely a new act in a 200-year-long drama of Russia's subjugation of Chechnya, and the latter's struggle to be free of colonial rule. In its essence, then, Russia's bloody campaign is a classical colonial war, which has very little or nothing to do with fighting terrorism. Yet, international political leaders have continued in their public statements to 'acknowledge Russia's right to fight terrorism.' The Kremlin, for its part, has correctly interpreted this as giving tacit consent to the destruction of Chechnya, the president of which was elected in an internationally monitored vote in 1997. Statements by President Clinton on Chechnya have been particularly shameful and despicable. During the 1994-96 war, he compared Boris Yeltsin with Abraham Lincoln. In an essay published in Time magazine's first issue of 2000, he wrote that Russia's challenge in Chechnya was to turn the war into a 'model' on how to deal with 'terrorists and separatists,' and described Russia's brutal assault on Grozny as aimed to 'liberate' it. Clinton obviously did not read the December 6 issue of Time in which a leading Russian general referred to the Chechens as 'monkeys,' complaining that there was no point in trying to make 'whites' out of them. While world leaders have criticized Russia for its actions in Chechnya, most statements have condemned the use of force that has harmed civilians. Not one leading political figure has openly stated that, under international law, the Chechens have the right to self-determination. Moreover, none have pointed to the fact that Russia has violated its 1996 and 1997 agreements with Chechen leaders ending the last war, in which it pledged to conduct relations with Chechnya on the basis of international law, and to solve outstanding problems without resorting to force. This spineless policy of appeasement has done nothing to discourage what now can be described as genocide against the Chechen nation. Although it appears that the 'kingdom of darkness' is once again enveloping Chechnya, as Shevchenko wrote in 'Kavkaz,' the spirit of freedom, symbolized by Prometheus (a relief of whom stands next to Taras Shevchenko's statue in Washington, DC) will never die. Imperialism, which leads to colonial or neocolonial wars, will suffer defeat, eventually. Imperial thinking, which justifies the domination of the strong over the weak, and acts of barbarity on the part of great powers in the name of 'higher principles,' will be condemned and abandoned. The Chechens, and other less fortunate peoples, will take their rightful place in the international community. In the meantime, rereading Shevchenko's 'Kavkaz' shows its relevance even today, more than 150 years after it was written. As such, it is a classic of anti-colonial literature. Ukrainians can justifiably be proud of their great poet who raised his voice against those on 'the lofty throne' in defense of 'wretched freedom'. Bohdan Klid lives in Edmonton, Canada, and works as Assistant to the Director at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta.
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