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Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse/Shevtchenko's Autobiography

< Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse





Being a letter to the Editor of Narodnoë Chtenye

(Reading for the People)


I fully appreciate your wish to acquaint the readers of the N.C. with the biographies of those men who through their capabilities and achievements have worked their way upwards from the obscure and inarticulate ranks of the common people. Narratives of this kind—so it seems to me—might rouse many to a realisation of their human dignity, without which all chances of a general development among the lower classes in Russia appear to me impossible. My own destiny, presented in the light of truth, may lead to deeper contemplation, not only on the part of the common man, but also those from whom the masses are so completely dependent; and thisshould be of profit to both sides. Such, then, is the reason why I propose to reveal in public a few sad facts concerning my life. I should have desired to present them with the same completeness as that shown by the late S. T. Aksakov in his account of his childhood and youth—all the more so, since the history of my life forms, in part, the history of my native place. But I lack the enterprise to go into all the details. That could be accomplished only by a man who is in possession of inner calm and, as is usual with such men, has become reconciled with the external conditions of his life. All, however, that I can do now to fulfil your wish is to give a concise account of the actual course of my life. When you read these lines, then, I hope you will realise those feelings which oppress my heart and afflict my spirit.

I am the son of Grigor Shevtchenko, villager and serf. I was born on February 25, 1814, at Kerelovyetz, a village in the district of Zvenigorod, government of Kiev, upon the estate of a landed proprietor. In my eighth(?) year I lost father and mother, and found shelter with the parish sacristan as a servant-pupil. Such pupils bear the same relationship to the sacristans as the lads who have been apprenticed to craftsmen by their parents or some other authority do to their masters. The master's power over them has no definite limits—they are actually his slaves. They have to perform unmurmuringly all domestic duties, and fulfil every possible caprice on the part of the master himself and the members of his household. I leave it to your imagination to conjecture what a sacristan—a sorry drunkard, pray consider—could demand of me, and the things that with slavish humility I had to do, not possessing a single being in the world who troubled or could be expected to trouble about my condition. In spite of all this, in the course of two hard years in a so-called school, I had been through the grammar ({spelling-primer), the sum-book, and, finally, the psalter. Towards the end of my school course, the sacristan used to send me in his stead to read the psalter for the souls of departed serfs, and was so gracious as to reward me, by way of encouragement, with every tenth kopeck. My help made it possible for my harsh teacher to devote himself, in a higher degree than before, to his favourite occupation, in the company of his friend Jonas Limar, so that on my return from my exploits as precentor I nearly always found the pair dead-drunk. My sacristan treated not only me, but also the rest of the pupils, with harshness, and we all hated him terribly. His senseless truculence caused us to be crafty and revengeful towards him. We used to deceive him on every occasion that offered, and did him all possible mischief. This was the first despot I ever met, and my whole life long he filled me with loathing and contempt for every kind of coercion practised by one man upon another. My childish heart was injured a thousand times by the products of such a despotical schooling, and I concluded, even as defenceless people are wont to conclude, when their patience is finally broken—with revenge and flight. When I came upon him one day in a state of complete drunkenness I turned upon him his own weapon, the rod, and as far as my childish strength permitted I got even with him for all his cruelty. Among all the chattels of this drunken sacristan, the most precious thing always seemed to me a certain little book with pictures, that is, engravings, truly of wretched workmanship. Whether it was that I could not reckon it a sin, or whether I could not resist the temptation to purloin this rarity, I took it, and ran away by night to the township of Lesyanka.

There I found a new teacher in the person of a painter-deacon, who, as I very soon discovered, differed in his principles and habits very little from my former master. Three days I patiently dragged buckets of water uphill from the river Teketch, and crunched copper dye on an iron disc. On the fourth day I lost patience and ran away to the village of Tarasovka to a sacristan painter who had gained renown in the locality by his effigies of the great martyrs Mikita and Ivan Voyin. To this Apelles I now turned with the firm resolution to overcome all the trials of destiny which at that time seemed to me inseparable from study. I fervently wished to acquire his skill, if only in a tiny degree. But, alas! Apelles observed my left hand attentively and refused my request point-blank. He informed me, to my bitter sorrow, that I had no aptitude for anything, not even for cobbling or coopering.

So I lost all hope of ever becoming even a medium painter, and with a saddened heart I returned to my native village. I had in view a modest destiny, which, however, my imagination endued with a certain artless blics. I wished to become, as Homer puts it, the herdsman of stainless flocks, intending, as I roamed on bebind the assembled drove, to read at leisure my beloved stolen picture-book. But in this, too, I was unlucky. My estate-owner, who had just come into his paternal heritage, needed a smart lad, and so the ragged scholar-vagrant, having donned just a twill jacket with trousers to match, became a full-blown page-boy.

The discovery of such page-boys is due to the Poles, the civilisers of the Ukraine beyond the Dnieper. The landed proprietors of other nationalities adopted, and still do adopt, from them these page-boys—undeniably an ingenious device. To train up a handy lackey from very childhood means as much in this whilom Cossack region as the subjugation to man's will of the swift-footed reindeer in Lapland. The Polish estate-owners of a former age kept these so-called "Kozatchki" not only as lackeys, but they made use of them also as musicians and dancers. . . The modern representatives of the illustrious szlachta (Polish nobility), proudly conscious that they are thus enhancing culture, call this their patronage of the Ukrainian national spirit—a proceeding in which, so they allege, their ancestors always distinguished themselves. My master, being a Russianised German, looked at the affair in a more practical way, and patronised my national spirit in his own manner, by assigning me a post in the corner of the ante-chamber and enjoining me to motionless silence, until he should lift his voice and order me to hand him his pipe which stood quite close to him, or to fill a glass with water before his nose. Owing to my innate unruliness I transgressed my master's order by singing melancholy bandit songs in a barely audible voice, or on the sly copying the pictures in the old Russian style, with which my master's rooms were embellished.

My master was a restless man. He was continually travelling, now to Kiev, now to Vilna or St. Petersburg, and he always dragged me in his train, so that I might sit in the ante-chamber to hand him his pipe and other necessaries. I cannot say that I then felt my position in life as burdensome to me; only now does it fill me with horror and appears to me like some wild, incoherent dream. Probably many of those who belonged to the Russian nation will be disposed some day to regard my past life with my eyes. As I roved with my master from one house of call to another, I took advantage of every opportunity to filch a woodcut from the wall, and in this way I brought together a valuable collection. To my particular favourites belong the historical heroes such as Solovey Rozboynik, Kulnev, Platov the Cossack, and others. I should add that it was not the craze for collecting which led me to this, but the invincible desire to produce the most faithful copies possible of these drawings.

One day, at the time of our sojourn in Vilna, December 6, 1829, my master and his wife had gone to a ball at the so-called ressources (gatherings of the szlachta) to celebrate the name-day of His Majesty Nikolai Pavlovitch, now resting in God. The house was completely wrapped in slumber. I lit a candle in my solitary room, spread out my stolen treasures, and, selecting Platov the Cossack, began to copy with devotion. The time passed by unnoticed. I had just got to the Cossack offspring who romp about the mighty hoofs of the general's horse, when behind me the door opened, and my master, returning from the ball, entered. He seized me by the ears and gave me a few cuffs—not because of my artistic endeavours (no! to art he paid no attention), but because I might have set fire not only to the building, but to the whole town. On the next day he ordered the coachman Sidor to give me a sound hiding, and this was carried out with all due zeal.

In the spring of 1832 I completed my eighteenth year. As the hopes which my master had placed in my ability as a lackey had not been justified, he gave in to my unceasing requests and hired me by contract for a period of four years to a guild-master of painting, a certain Shiryayev in St. Petersburg. This Shiryayev united within himself the qualities of the Spartanic sacristan, the painter-deacon, and the other sacristan, the cheiromant. Regardless of the pressure which proceeded from his threefold genius, I spent the clear spring nights in the Summer Garden (Lyetny Sad) at St. Petersburg, and made drawings of the statues which embellish that rectilinear structure of Peter the Great. At one of these seances I made the acquaintance of the artist Ivan Maximovitch Soshenko, with whom I still maintain the most sincerely fraternal relations. On the advice of Soshenko, I began to try my hand at water-colour studies from Nature. During my numerous early and smudgy attempts I had a model in the person of Ivan Netchyporenko, a Cossack, another fellow-countryman and friend of mine, and one of our estate-owner's farm-servants. One day the estate-owner noticed my work in Netchyporenko's possession, and it pleased him so much that he employed me to paint portraits of his mistresses, for which he now and then rewarded me with a whole silver rouble.

In 1837 Soshenko introduced me to V. I. Grigorovitch, secretary of the Academy of Fine Arts, begging him to liberate me from my unhappy lot. Grigorovitch conveyed this request to V. A. Zhukovsky,[1] the latter made provisional overtures to my master and commissioned K. P. Brulov to paint his portrait, with the object of making it the stakes in a private lottery. The great Brulov immediately expressed his readiness, and in no great length of time he had Zhukovsky's portrait ready. Zhukovsky, with the help of Count Velehorsky, organised a lottery to the amount of 2,500 roubles in coupons, and at this price my liberty was purchased on April 22, 1838.

From that day on, I began to attend the sessions at the Academy of Fine Arts, and soon became one of Brulov's favourite pupils and comrades. In 1844 I attained the dignity of a free artist.

Concerning my first literary attempts, I will merely say that they had their beginning on those clear moonlit nights in the Summer Garden. The stern Ukrainian muse long shunned my fancy, which had gone astray in the life at school, in my master's ante-chamber, in houses of call, and in town-lodgings. But when the breath of freedom restored to my sentiments the purity of my childhood spent beneath by father's humble roof, she embraced and fondled me—all thanks to her!—in a foreign clime.

Of my early feeble attempts, written in the Summer Garden, only the ballad "Pritchinna" has been printed. When and how I wrote the subsequent verses I would now rather not discuss. The short history of my life which I have indited as a favour to you in the present disjointed narration has cost me more, I must confess, than I would have expected. What a succession of wasted years! And what have I, through my endeavours, redeemed from destiny? To survive with my bare life! Or, at the most, this terrible insight into my past. It is terrible, all the more terrible for me, since my own brothers and sisters—whom I could not bring it upon myself to mention in my narrative—have remained serfs to the present day. Yes, they are serfs to the present day. I remain, etc.,

February 18, 1860.
  1. V. A. Zhukovsky (1783-1852), a prominent Russian poet of the Romantic period, especially famous for his ballads. He was tutor to the future Tsar, Alexander II.