My Destiny

An autobiographical essay by Taras Shevchenko

I FULLY APPRECIATE your wish to publish in your magazine Reading for the People life stories of those men who, coming from the obscure and inarticulate ranks of the common people, have worked their way upward to some achievement.

Stories of this kind might help many to realize their human dignity, and it seems to me that without such realization the lower classes cannot arise from their present condition in Russia.

My own destiny, truthfully presented, may lead to deeper reflection, not only on the part of the common man, but also those upon whom this common man is so completely dependent. Both sides should profit by this. Such is the reason why I cannot refuse to reveal in public a few sad facts about myself. All that I can do now to comply with your wish is to give a brief account of the actual course of my life. After having read these lines you will appreciate those feelings which grieve my heart and oppress my spirit.

I AM THE SON of Gregory Shevchenko, peasant and serf. I was born on March 9, 1814, in Kerelivka, a village in the county of Zvenihorod, province of Kiev, upon the estate of a landowner. In my eighth year I lost both father and mother, and found shelter with the village sexton who accepted me as one of his pupils. Such pupils find themselves in a condition of actual bondage just as the boys who have been apprenticed to craftsmen. The master's power over them has practically no limits. They have to perform all domestic duties and to fulfill every possible whim of the master and members of his household. You can imagine what the sexton in question, a wretched drunkard, could demand of me, and the things I had to do with the self-abasement of a slave.

Notice of a birth of a son, Taras, on February 25 (March 9), 1814 in a family of Hrehory Shevchenko of Moryntsi Village. There was nobody in this world who would trouble or could be expected to trouble themselves about my unhappy lot. Nevertheless, I was in a so-called school and in two hard years I had been through the elementary Reading-book, the Sum-book, and finally, the Psalter. Toward the end of my school education, the sexton used to send me in his stead to read the Psalter for the souls of departed serfs, and gladly paid me a few kopecks for this.

My help permitted my teacher to devote himself even more to his favorite occupation, drinking with his friend Juno Limar, so that on returning from my psalm singing exploits I nearly always found them dead drunk.

My sexton treated all his pupils with extreme harshness, and we all hated him. His unreasonable cruelty made us cunning and revengeful. We used to deceive him, and did all the mischief we could think of. He was the first despot I ever met, and my whole life long he filled me with hatred and contempt for every kind of coercion as practiced by one human being upon another. My childish heart was wounded by such educational methods a thousand times a day, and I concluded - as all defenseless people are bound to conclude when they cannot bear injury any longer - with revenge and flight.

One day I came upon my teacher in a state of drunken stupor and, turning upon him his own weapon, the rod, I used it as well as my childish strength permitted. This was my only chance to get even with him for all his brutality. Among his earthly possessions this drunken sexton had a little book with pictures, and although the engravings were of extremely poor workmanship, at that time they appeared to me as the most precious work of art. I could not resist temptation. I took the little picture book and ran away by night to the town of Lysyanka.

THEN I FOUND a new teacher, only to discover that in his educational principles and methods he hardly differed from my former master. Three days I dragged buckets of water from the river Tikich and ground my green paint on an iron plate. On the fourth day, I ran away to the village of Tarasivka, where there lived a sexton with a certain artistic renown. He had gained it through his paintings of the great martyrs Nicetas and John the Soldier. To this Appeles I now applied, with the firm resolution to overcome all the hardships and trials which at that time seemed to me an essential part of study. I had no luck. Appeles could read my character and divine my future on the palm of my left hand. After looking at it with much attention he informed me point-blank that I had no aptitude for anything, not even for shoemaking or barrel making.

With no hope of ever becoming even a mediocre painter and with a heart saddened by experience I went back to my native village. I could not expect to be anything else but, as Homer puts it, a herdsman of stainless flocks. There was, however, some comfort in the thought that in his humble pursuits the village shepherd should have at least enough leisure to peruse his stolen picture book. But it seems that my dreams never come true. My landlord, who had just come into his paternal heritage, needed a clever page-boy. I was told to discard my rags and put on a twill jacket with trousers to match, and as a full fledged page-boy I entered upon my new duties.

Such page-boys were invented by the Poles, the old "Civilizers" of Ukraine. [4] The landed gentry of other nationalities adopted from them this ingenious device of training handy flunkies from very childhood. The Polish noblemen of old kept these so-called "little Cossacks" not only as servants but also as minstrels, dancers and entertainers. For the pleasure of their masters the "little Cossacks" played gay, ambiguous songs which had been composed by the people to ease their sufferings. They danced wriggling in front of their lords pretending to be intoxicated.

THEIR ILLUSTRIOUS DESCENDANTS of today not only preserve the tradition but do it with the proud consciousness that thus the Ukrainian culture is being advanced and the national spirit cultivated. My master was a Russianized German, and, as such, a man of a more practical trend of mind. He cultivated my national spirit in his own way, by posting me in a corner of his ante-chamber, where I had to stay silent and motionless until he should order me to hand him his pipe, which stood quite close to him, or to fill a glass with water. Because of my stubborn character, I broke my master's order and sang sad Haidamak songs in a hardly audible voice and secretly copied the pictures of the Suzdal school decorating the rooms of my master. I drew with a pencil which I confess, with no feeling of guilty conscience, I stole from the storekeeper.

My master was a traveling man. He was always making trips, to Kiev, to Vilna or St. Petersburg, and he always dragged me along, so that he might have his pipe and other necessities of life handy.

I cannot say that at that time I regarded my duties as especially burdensome or disgraceful. Only now all this appears to me like some dreadful, unreasonable nightmare. Very likely many Russian people who will look into their past would agree with me. As I followed my restless master from one house of call to another, I took advantage of every opportunity to pilfer as many woodcuts from the walls as I could. I should add that it was not the collector's craze that made me do this but the irrepressible desire to paint or, rether, to make copies of every drawing I had seen.

ONE DAY DURING OUR STAY in Vilna, my master and his wife went to a ball of the local nobility to celebrate the name day of His Majesty Tsar Nikolai Pavlovich. The servants were asleep and the house was wrapped in complete darkness. In my solitary room I Lit a candle, uncovered my stolen treasures and having selected from among them the picture "Cossack Platov," I began to copy.

I did not notice how quickly the time had passed by, and I did not even hear when behind me the door opened and my master, returning from the ball, entered. He seized me and gave me a few cuffs on the ear - not because of my devotion to art (by no means! he was not concerned with art at all (but because I might have set fire not only to the building but to the whole town. The next day he ordered the coachman Sidor to give me a sound hiding which he did with more than proper zeal.

In the Spring of 1832 I completed my eighteenth year, still a lackey but as such a complete failure and a disappointment to my master. This might have been the reason why he, finally, gave in to my unceasing requests and allowed me to learn how to paint.

It was not much of an opportunity as I was only hired out, for a period of four years, to an ornamental painter and decorator in St. Petersburg. This man, Shirayev, combined within himself the talents and the habits of both the hard-drinking sexton and the other sacristan, the practitioner of palmistry.

BUT ALTHOUGH I DID NOT LEARN anything in the daytime, I could spend the moonlight Spring nights in the St. Petersburg Summer Garden and make drawings of the statues which embellished that creation of Peter the Great. It was there that I made the acquaintance of the artist lvan Maximovich Soshenko, a fellow countryman who has been like a brother to this day. Upon his advice, I began to try my hand at watercolor studies from nature. During my early and feeble attempts I had a model in toe person of Ivan Nechiporenko, another fellow countryman and friend of mine and also one of my master's servants. One day the master discovered one of my paintings in Nechiporenko's hands, and he liked it so much that he employed me to paint portraits of his mistress. Now and then he even rewarded me with a ruble.

Document of Shevchenko's freedom April 22, 1838 signed by Zhukovsky, Briullov, Vielgorsky, and Engelhardt, his owner. In 1837 Soshenko introduced me to V. I. Gregorovich, [6] secretary of the Academy of Fine Arts, and begged him to deliver me from my low misfortune, my condition of serfdom. Gregorovich transmitted this request to the poet V. A. Zhukovsky, who immediately made a provisional offer to my master and commissioned K. R Bryullov to parnt his portrait, with the intention of making it the prize in a private lottery. In a brief time the great Bryullov had Zhukovsky's portrait ready. Zhukovsky, with the assistance of Count M. Yu. Vielhorsky, organized a lottery, the tickets were easily sold and, at the price of $2,500 rubles, my liberty was bought on April 22, 1838.

From that day on I began to study at the Academy of Fine Arts, and soon became one of Bryullov's favorite pupils and friends. In 1845 I was given the degree of free artist.

As to my literary work, I will say only that it had its beginning on those moonless white nights. For a long time my strict Ukrainian muse, distorted by experiences in school, in the ante-chambers of manors and in various city quarters, kept away from me. However, when the breath of freedom returned to my senses the purity of my childhood passed under the roof of my father's poor home, the blessed Ukrainian muse came and embraced me in a foreign land. From my first poor experiments written in the Summer Garden only one ballad, "Prychyna," was published. When and how I wrote my later poems, I would rather not discuss now.

I must confess that this short story of my life cost me more than I would have expected. How many years wasted, one after another! And what have I, through all my efforts, redeemed from destiny? I have survived, that is, preserved my bare life and, with that, this dreadful insight into my past. It is dreadful, all the more dreadful for me, as my own brothers and sisters - I was not strong enough to mention this in my story - have remained sers to the present day.

T Shevchenko
1860, February 18.


This short Autobiography of the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, written but a year before his death on March 10, 1861, is of special interest because it is his only autobiography. One other autobiographical work is his novel The Artist a fictionalized account of his own life. Of interest in the version we have reprinted (the one which was printed in 1860) is the complete omission of the ten years, 1847-1857 when he was exiled to Asia. Apparently the Russian censor prevented mention of this in print.

By profession Shevchenko was an artist. His essay clearly indicates his deep interest in art and his burning desire as a child to become an artist. His fame as a poet has surpassed his fame as an artist but to understand his life both careers must be studied.

This essay may be found in the original Russian version as Document No. 11 3, in the book Taras Shevchenko: dokumenty i materialy, 1814-1963. Edited by S. D. Pil'kevich, Kiev 1963, pages 93-98. It was originally sent to the editor of the journal Narodnoye Chteniye (Petersburg) and published in Book 2, 1860, pages 229-236. We have omitted a few minor words.

A different English language version, based on the manuscript, may be found in: Taras Shevchenko: Selections, translated by John Weir, Toronto 1961, pages 137-142. The major difference between the two is in the concluding passages. For comparison we reprint here the manuscript version translated by John Weir:

"In 1844 he was awarded the title of Master of Fine Arts and in 1847 he was arrested along with Kostomarov, Kulish and many others on the basis of information by a certain Petrov, a student of Kiev University. They were sent to various fortresses without trial or examination, and on May 30th of that same year T. H. Shevchenko was transported from the casemate of the Third Department (Tsarist secret police - Ed.) to the Orsk fortress and later to the Novopetrovsk fortifications with the most strict prohibition to write and to paint.

"On August 22nd, 1858, due to intercession by Countess Anastasia Ivanova Tolstoy, he was freed from Novopetrovsk fortress. And thanks to her solicitations he was by the highest clemency permitted to exist in the capital under police surveillance and occupy himself with his art.

"In the summer of 1859, after a lengthy and painful separation, he saw his lovely homeland, his serf brothers and sister, and in the autumn returned safely to the Academy of Arts where, thanks to the people at the head of the Academy, he devotes himself to aquatint and aquafort (engraving, Ed.) with the passion of a true artist.

After a lengthy delay, which lasted two years, the Chief Censorship Committee has permitted him to publish only such of his works as had been printed prior to 1847, striking out dozens of pages from them (that's progress!)."