A Russian Soldier Put a Bullet in the Head of the Poet, Part II, by Luis Martínez-Fernández


“But how can we remove Stalin from Stalin’s heirs?” Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked in his 1962 poem “Stalin’s heirs”. “While Stalin’s heirs walk this land,” Yevtushenko concluded the poem, “Stalin, I imagine, is still hiding in the mausoleum.”

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is a shameless heir to Stalin: personality cult, militarism, disinformation, political assassinations, dungeons, mass graves, genocides and all.

Among the victims of the savage Russian attack and temporary capture of Borodyanka in March and April this year was a renowned 47-year-old intellectual, whose head was pierced by a bullet in the middle of the city’s central square . Of peasant origin, his pro-Ukrainian poems had previously earned him persecution, imprisonment and even conscription into the Russian army.

But persecution, imprisonment and conscription occurred not only under Stalin and his heirs, but under two of Stalin’s predecessors, Tsars Nicholas I and Alexander II. Among Ukrainians, he needs no introduction. This is Taras Shevchenko born in 1814 in the village of Morintsy, Ukraine.

Deported from his beloved Ukraine, Shevchenko died in St. Petersburg not in March but in March 1861. And the poetic bullet pierced not his head but that of his statue.

Nine decades later, Putin was born in the same city, then called Leningrad and since renamed Saint Petersburg. He grew up on the streets and lived in a rat-infested apartment, resentful of the Nazis who brought misery to his family, starved one of his siblings, and seriously injured his father. When he calls President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian leaders “Nazis”, Putin triggers a deep emotional reaction against the objects of his violent revenge. In her mind, Ukrainians are responsible for her brother’s death, her father’s incapacitation and her impoverished childhood.

Shevchenko was born a peasant serf, i.e. a slave; like the rest of his family, he was owned by a local landlord. After working for several masters in and around his hometown, he was taken by a new owner to Saint Petersburg, where he studied painting, making designs for statues in the Imperial Summer Garden of the Tsars. Members of St. Petersburg’s artistic community raised funds to buy Shevchenko’s freedom when he was 24 years old.

While the Russian soldier who shot the Shevchenko statue probably had no idea who his victim was, the action is very poetic. Shevchenko was a lifelong Ukrainian patriot, proud of his country’s Cossack origins. He grew up hearing stories of Zaporozhian Cossack ancestors, runaway serfs who rose up against Russian and Polish/Lithuanian rule in the 1600s and 1700s. The Russian occupation of the Zaporozhian nuclear power plant (the most of Europe), at the beginning of the month, echoes the ancient battles between Russians and Cossacks.

In the poem “My friendly epistle” (1845), Shevchenko sang ancestral praises: “Our history was bathed in blood / And slept on corpses in the mud, / On corpses of Cossacks, freer / But here stripped of freedom!”

A lifelong opponent of Russian servitude and oppression in his native Ukraine, Shevchenko died in St. Petersburg just a week before the 1861 announcement of the abolition of serfdom. Originally buried in Saint Petersburg, his remains were taken to Kaniv, Ukraine, where he was reinterred two months later according to his will: “My tomb on a high tumulus / In the middle of the spreading plain, / So that the fields, the boundless steppes, / The dipping shore of the Dnieper / My eyes could see, my ears could hear / The mighty river roars” (“My Testament,” 1845).

Testimony to Shevchenko’s immortality is Russia’s continued persecution of the dead poet and his literary legacy. Tsarist officials banned the publication of his works in the Ukrainian language in 1863 and again in 1876 and sent troops to his tomb near the plunging bank of the Dnieper in 1914 to suppress pilgrims commemorating the 100th anniversary of the poet’s birth . Later in the century, Stalin’s commissars banned the study of Shevchenko’s works.

Earlier this month, when Ukrainian soldiers and civilian authorities returned to the desolate town of Borodyanka, they found hundreds of civilians dead – many of them executed, some with their hands tied behind their backs. They embarked on the grim task of identification, then gave them a dignified, albeit temporary, burial. An anonymous man took it upon himself to bandage the head of the late poet, whose last lines foresaw: “Dnipro and Ukraina us / We will remember, gay villages / In the woods, the hills of the steppes, / And we will sing merrily.” (“Last Poem”, 1861).

Watercolor of ruins in Ukraine drawn by Taras Shevchenko during a trip to Ukraine in 1845.

Luis Martinez-Fernandez is the author of “Revolutionary Cuba: A History” and “The Key to the New World: A History of the Beginning of Cuban Colonization”. Readers can attach it to [email protected] To learn more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read articles by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www. creators.com.


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