Friday, July 28, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy, excerpt five)

from The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy:

In February 1847, a student of law at Kyiv University named Aleksi Petrov turned up in the office of the Kyiv educational district to denounce a secret society that aimed to turn the Russian Empire into a republic. The investigation launched into Petrov’s allegations uncovered the clandestine Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius, named for the Christian missionaries who had enlightened the Slavs not only with a new religion but also with a new language and alphabet. Its members included a professor of history at Kyiv University, Mykola (Nikolai) Kostomarov—he would later become the founder of modern Ukrainian historiography—and a newly appointed drawing instructor, Taras Shevchenko. Born to the family of a Russian noble in Voronezh province on the border with Sloboda Ukraine, Mykola Kostomarov often stressed that his mother was a Ukrainian peasant woman. Whether that was true or not, mid-nineteenth-century Kyiv intellectuals prized peasant origins—they all wanted to work for the people and be as close to them as possible.

No member of the brotherhood had better populist credentials than Kostomarov’s coconspirator Taras Shevchenko. Born in 1814 into a family of serfs in Right-Bank Ukraine, the young Shevchenko joined the household of a rich Polish landlord and first went to Vilnius and then to St. Petersburg as a member of his court. There Shevchenko showed his talent as an artist. A Ukrainian painter in St. Petersburg discovered him while he was drawing in the city’s famous Summer Garden. Shevchenko was introduced to some of the leading figures of the Russian cultural scene of the time, including Russia’s best-known poet before Pushking, Vasilii Zhukovsky, and a founder of Russian romantic art, Karl Briullov. Shevchenko’s work, personality, and life story made such an impression on the artistic community of St. Petersburg that its members decided to free the young serf no matter what. They bought his freedom with 2,500 rubles, an astounding sum by the standards of the time; the funds were the proceeds of the auction of a portrait of Zhukovsky, painted specifically for that purpose, by Briullov.

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