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Read a New Translation of “The Caucasus” by Ukrainian Poet-Hero Taras Shevchenko

“The bones / Of many soldiers languish there. / And what of blood, and what of tears?”

In 2014, Russia responded to the protests in Ukraine known as the Revolution of Dignity, which drove out corrupt President Yanukovych, by annexing Crimea and destabilizing eastern Ukraine. These events overlapped with the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Taras Shevchenko, the great Ukrainian poet of the Romantic era. During the dramatic, euphoric and tragic days on the barricades at Independence Square, Ukrainians recited Shevchenko’s poetry, and street art featuring his image—stylized as Superman, a street protester, Elvis Presley, and Buddha—was a source of both humor and strength for Ukrainian citizens fighting to safeguard their country’s independence and European-oriented future.

The first martyr of the Revolution of Dignity was Serhiy Nigoyan, a Ukrainian of Armenian descent. He was shot to death on January 22, 2014, by the special police forces known as “Berkut” (“Golden Eagle”). Nigoyan was 20. During protests a month earlier, he had been filmed on Independence Square reciting a passage from Shevchenko’s poem “The Caucasus,” lines that continue to inspire Ukrainians today:

Fight—and you’ll be victorious,
God is helping you!
On your side is justice, on your side is glory,
And holy liberty!

In Nigoyan’s moving recitation of Shevchenko’s lines and his violent death soon after, the Caucasus and Ukraine were again joined against Russian aggression and oppression. “The Caucasus,” written in 1845, is Shevchenko’s portrait of the nineteenth-century Russian imperial frontier, where Russia waged a bloody war for nearly fifty years. The poem is the most poignant invective against Russian imperialism and colonialism to be found in any language.

In this complex and revolutionary poetic work, Shevchenko establishes the connection between Russia’s brutal conquest of the Caucasus in the name of progress, civilization, and security, on the one hand, and on the other, the oppression, rapacity, and depravity of an imperial system based on serfdom, corruption, and hypocrisy perpetrated throughout the territories of the Russian Empire.

The insight and power of Shevchenko’s poetry are no less remarkable and relevant today, as Putin’s Russia attacks Ukraine’s sovereignty and the freedom, human dignity, and cultural identity of its people. No other poem captures the force of this historical moment as poignantly as “The Caucasus.” This work, written nearly 180 years ago, is uncannily, eerily prophetic, and, for the Ukrainian people fighting for their lives and for the very existence of their country today, remarkably affirming.

“The Caucasus” is remarkably complex in its shifting rhythms and emotional registers.  

Yet Shevchenko, despite his genius and acknowledged greatness in the Ukrainian literary tradition, is largely unknown outside of it, and his works have not received the attention they deserve. The neglect of this important literary voice, and, by extension, the entire culture that stands behind him, is a reflection of the dominance of Russian colonializing narratives in the West. In other words, we have fostered the so-called “great” Russian literary tradition to the point that it dominates the Eastern European literary canon and cultural discourse, with the result that Ukrainian and other non-Russian literary voices have been silenced.

Putin’s unprovoked war of genocidal aggression and terror illuminates the profound dangers and injustices inherent in this silencing. When Putin claims that Ukrainian culture has no basis for existence as a pretext for unleashing mass destruction on a scale unseen since the Second World War, it becomes clear that the cultural sphere is inseparable from the political, and that literature matters to people’s real lives.

Shevchenko’s brilliant, ground-breaking critique of great power imperialism are revelatory, and no introduction to his work is more fitting than his poem “The Caucasus.” At the time of its writing, Shevchenko took on and dismantled the conventional image of the Caucasus as found in Russian literature in the works of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy, who wrote about the Caucasus through the lofty imperial lens as a place of sublime grandeur and beauty. Shevchenko wrote the poem after his friend Iakiv de Balmen, a fellow visual artist and writer, was killed in a battle between Russian troops and Chechens. Remarkably, Shevchenko’s poem continues to have the power to eviscerate arguments that cast Russia’s current military conquest as a “civilizing” project and deny moral responsibility for the resulting violence and suffering.

“The Caucasus” is remarkably complex in its shifting rhythms and emotional registers. Moving from intimate, lyrical rumination, to grievances against divine and political authority, it employs biting political sarcasm and elevated prophetic ardor. The opening passage evokes the image of the mythical rebel Prometheus, eternally suffering at the claws of a ruler-sent eagle, yet indestructible in his vitality—a symbol of the undying pursuit of goodness, liberty, and humanity. In the sections that follow, the poet turns to the horrors of war and oppression and challenges both God and the world order. Mimicking the “superior” voice of the colonizer, Shevchenko exposes the brutality, avarice, and hypocrisy of Russian imperialism.

Who was this man who saw and expressed what others could not, and why is his position in Ukrainian literature so unique?

Taras Shevchenko (March 9, 1814-March 10, 1861) was born a serf in a village in the Kyiv region and was orphaned when he was eleven years old. As a boy, he was an agricultural worker and engaged in menial labor. A deacon at his church taught him to read and write. From his early years, he showed a passion for drawing, learning from local icon-painters and doodling whenever the opportunity presented itself. At the age of fourteen, he became the personal servant of the man who owned him. While accompanying his master on a trip to St. Petersburg, Shevchenko became acquainted with artists at the Imperial Academy.

Recognizing his talent, the artists launched a fundraising campaign, and in 1838, he was bought out of serfdom from his owner for 2,500 rubles. Shevchenko enrolled in the Imperial Academy of the Arts and his career as an artist progressed. All the while, he found emotional and creative refuge in poetry.  His first collection, Kobzar (Blind Bard), appeared in St. Petersburg in 1840 and was noticed by the critics and enthusiastically received by the Ukrainian intelligentsia and educated gentry.

In the 1840s, while traveling in Ukraine with a plan to draw a series of landscapes and historical sites, Shevchenko befriended members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia. This circle of friends became the basis of the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius, an organization that supported a federalist union of Slavic peoples, the emancipation of the serfs, and pondered plans for reviving Ukrainian cultural life. During this time, Shevchenko wrote some of his most forceful and radical poems, including “The Caucasus,” which were gathered in the collection Try lita (Three Years).

In 1847, the members of the Brotherhood were arrested and taken to a St. Petersburg prison and interrogated, their papers confiscated and closely examined by the police. Of these papers, Shevchenko’s poetry proved the most grievous, and he received the harshest punishment: exile to the steppes of Kazakhstan, where he was conscripted as a rank-and-file soldier into the imperial army for a term of 25 years. Russian Tsar Nicholas I personally forbade Shevchenko from writing and drawing.

Despite the prohibition, Shevchenko continued to write in secret, in small self-made notebooks that he hid in a boot leg. Only after the death of Nicholas I did the appeals by various high-positioned supporters to free Shevchenko meet with success. Released in 1857, he revived his skills as a graphic artist. He continued to write until his death in 1861—a month short of the imperial decree abolishing serfdom in the Russian Empire.

The poems that comprise the album “Three Years” were prohibited in the Russian Empire and were circulated in manuscript form clandestinely. Many were first published in 1857 in a collection of political verses by Pushkin and Shevchenko that appeared in Leipzig, beyond the purview of the Russian censorship and secret police. Among these works is “The Caucasus.”

While there have been previous attempts to render the poem in English (by Vera Rich, John Weir, Peter Fedynsky), it remained for Alyssa Dinega Gillespie to convey the full emotional, poetic, and polemical impact of the work.

Shevchenko never visited the Caucasus, and yet his poem was unprecedented in its exposure of the brutality, exploitation, oppression, and duplicity of colonizers who perpetrate genocidal violence there under the guise of enlightenment, modernization, and religious faith. His insights were born of his experience as a Ukrainian poet, former serf, artist, self-educated thinker, and critic.

Shevchenko’s uncompromising cry for an unmasking and condemnation of imperial “beneficence” continues to inspire. Ultimately, the poet presents a vision of a future in which justice may prevail—over the imperial eagle, the Berkut police, and authoritarian rulers who think they can crush the quest for human dignity and freedom.

–Taras Koznarsky, University of Toronto

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Translator’s note: Shevchenko’s text is structurally complex, written in a combination of distinctive meters, each roughly corresponding to a separate speaker with his own social, linguistic, political and cultural vantage point. The two major meters that alternate throughout are iambic tetrameter (associated with the Russian classical poetic tradition) and the Ukrainian folk meter kolomyika, but the poem’s memorable opening couplet and its repetition, along with a longer transitional passage that introduces the finale, are written in amphibrachic tetrameter. I preserve all of these metrical modulations in my translation, both for aesthetic reasons, and because they are an important clue to identifying the poem’s frequent, sometimes dizzying shifts in voice, attitude, and mood.

–Alyssa Dinega Gillespie

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The Caucasus, by Taras Shevchenko

Translated by Alyssa Dinega Gillespie

For my dear Yakiv de Balmen[1]

Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain…[2] Jeremiah 9:1

Past mountains, more mountains: enshrouded in clouds,
Deep-seeded with mourning, deep-watered with blood.
There, since ancient times, the eagle
Mutilates Prometheus,
Each new day it claws to tatters
Ribs and heart still beating.
Crushes, though it won’t devour
His blood: throbbing, vital —
Once again, his mauled heart quickens,
Once again it smiles.
Never will our staunch soul perish,
Nor our cherished freedom.
The Devourer won’t plough furrows
On the ocean’s bottom.
Living souls he won’t enshackle,
Living words enfetter.
And he won’t come near God’s glory,
Great God in His splendor.

It’s not for us to feud with Thee!
It’s not for us to judge Thy deeds!
Our lot is just to weep, weep, weep!
And mix into our daily bread
A bloody mash of tears and sweat.
The executioners torment,
While still our drunken justice sleeps.
When will she awake from slumber?
When wilt Thou, exhausted,
Settle down to rest already,
God? Let us live also!
We believe in Thy vast power
And Thy living spirit.
Rise up justice! Rise up freedom!
Then to Thee entirely
Every tongue will speak in worship
Always and forever.
Meanwhile, rivers hasten onward,
Tainted, bloody rivers!

Past mountains, more mountains: enshrouded in clouds,
Deep-seeded with mourning, deep-watered with blood.

And that’s the place where we, benign
In our great mercy, hunted down
Pathetic freedom — naked, gaunt —
And set the dogs on it. The bones
Of many soldiers languish there.
And what of blood, and what of tears?
Enough to slake all emperors’ thirst,
Their kids’ and grandkids’ too; to drown
Them in the tears of widows. Or
In maidens’, shed without a sound
At night! Or mothers’ hot outpourings!
Or elder fathers’, wrung like blood.
Not rivers—but a full sea rush,
A fiery sea! O glory! glory!
To hounds, borzois, brute huntsman-boors
And to our little father-tsars
Glory.

Glory to you too, blue mountains,
Locked in ancient glaciers.
And to you, our noble warriors —
God has not betrayed you.
You are fighting—and will triumph,
God is helping, leading!
At your back are justice, glory,
And our sacred freedom!
Churek and saklya[3]are yours alone,
They weren’t begged for or bestowed,
No one will claim them for his own,
Nor lead you, boy, away in chains.
But in our land!… We’re literate,
So we can read the Holy Writ!…
And from the prison cell most crude
Up to the most exalted throne —
We’re all alike: gold-clad and nude.
Join us, and be enlightened! taught
What price we set for bread and salt!

For we are Christians: churches, schools,
All virtues, God Himself lives here!
Except your saklya mars our view:
Why is it standing there, austere,
Without our say-so? Why don’t we
Just lob your stale chureks at you
Like dogfood! Why aren’t you obliged
To pay us for the sun and moon!
That’s all we ask! We aren’t pagans,
We’re true-believing, real-deal Christians,
We’re satisfied with little!… Although!
If only you’d make friends with us,
You’d learn an awful lot of stuff!
Most of the world is ours, you know —
Siberia alone is infinite,
And prisons! peoples!… Countless sum!
From the Moldovan to the Finn,
In all their languages they’re mum
Because they’re prospering! We have
The holy monk who reads us speeches,
Recites the Holy Bible, preaches
About some tsar who pastured swine,[4]
And snatched away his best friend’s wife,
Bumped off the friend. Now’s in paradise.
So there you see, what sorts we have
That get to heaven! You’re still blind,
The Holy cross will light your mind,
Come learn from us!… Our way is gouge,
First gouge then give,
And straight to heaven,
And all your kin pack off there too!
Here in our land! What can’t we do?
We count the stars, sow buckwheat seeds,
We curse the French. Get good receipts
For selling serfs, or else we lose
Them playing cards… not Negroes, hmmm,
But you know… Christians, only… dumb.
We aren’t Spaniards; God forbid
That we should deal in stolen goods.
We heed the law! Not like those Yids…
By the laws of the apostles
You should love your brother!
Hypocrites and idle gossips,
Damned by God our Father.
It’s your brother’s hide you fancy,
Not his soul you cherish!
And you’ll flay him by the lawbook,
For your daughter’s leather
Coat, your bastard’s future dowry,
Wifey’s fancy slippers,
For yourself, a treat that neither
Kids nor wife gets wind of!

For whom were you crucified, O
Christ, God’s Son, Creator?
Was it for us, good folks, or for
Words of truth… or maybe,
So we’d make a mockery of you?
Well, that’s what it’s come to.
Temples and chapels, icon stands,
Broad candelabras, incense clouds,
And, posed before Thy image grand
Untiring genuflections, bows.
For theft, for bloodshed, and for war,
For shedding brethren blood, they pray
And then they bring as alms to Thee
An altar cloth swiped from a fire!!
We’re enlightened! but still hanker
To enlighten others,
Show the true word’s dazzling sunshine,
See, to those blind numbskulls…
We’ll reveal all! Only let us
Get you in our clutches.
How to brick up solid prisons
How to forge strong fetters,
How to wear them!… how to fashion
Knotted knouts for lashings —
All this we’ll teach: only let us
Seize your last blue mountains…
Since we’ve heretofore impounded
Both your sea and meadows.

And you, too, they drove here, my unequaled friend,
My dearest, good Yakiv! No, not for Ukraine
But for her oppressor they forced you to spill
Your gentle, sweet blood. You were fated to swill
Foul Muscovite poison from the Muscovite chalice!
O dear friend of mine! Unforgotten companion!
Anon may your living soul soar in Ukraine,
And fly with the Cossacks above river banks.
On fresh-plundered graves in the steppe cast your eye,
Pour out bitter tears with the Cossacks in pain,
And watch in the steppe for me when I’m set free.
But, meanwhile, my meditations
And my savage grieving
I’ll sow deep — and may they flourish,
Whisper with the breezes.
Quiet breezes from Ukraine will
Carry on the dewdrops
All my thoughts to you so distant!…
With a brotherly tear
You, my dearest friend, will greet them,
Read them, soft and tender….
And these graves, steppe, sea and me, you’ll
Suddenly remember.

1845

_____________________________

I would like to warmly thank Svitlana Melnyk, Senior Lecturer of Ukrainian and Russian at Indiana University, for her wonderful online beginning Ukrainian course in spring 2022, which she offered for free to learners from around the world; for her continuing cultivation of a tight-knit community of Ukrainian learners that has grown out of that course; and for her helpful comments on an earlier draft of my translation. If it were not for Svitlana’s generous instruction, this translation could not have come into existence.

Alyssa Dinega Gillespie

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[1] A close friend of Shevchenko’s during the period 1843-44, a Ukrainian count of Scottish descent who illustrated a collection of Shevchenko’s poetry and presented it to him as a gift. De Balmen was soon called into active military service in the Russian Imperial Army in the Caucusus and killed there in the mountains of what is today Chechnya on 26 July 1845.

[2] New International Version, https://biblehub.com/jeremiah/9-1.htm, accessed 25 May 2022.

[3] Churek is a flatbread, and saklya is a house constructed from stone; both are characteristic of the Caucacus mountain cultures.

[4] The Israelite King David (approx. 950 BCE), who sent the military leader Uriah to war, where he was killed, in order to marry Uriah’s beautiful wife Bathsheba.

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Alyssa Dinega Gillespie is a scholar and translator of Russian literature. She is the author and editor of several scholarly books on the poetry of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) and Marina Tsveteva (1892-1941) and the recipient of a 2022 National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship for her book-length collection of Tsvetaeva’s verse in English, forthcoming from Columbia University Press. She began translating from Ukrainian this past spring and plans to continue.

Taras Koznarsky is an associate professor at the University of Toronto where he teaches courses in Ukrainian, Russian, and comparative Slavic studies. His research focuses on Ukrainian-Russian literary relationships in the nineteenth century and the text of Kyiv in Ukrainian, Russian, Jewish, and Polish cultural imaginations. His recent publications include articles on Mykola Markevych’s historiography and language choices, on Bely’s Petersburg and urbanism in the modernist novel, and on the case of Beilis as reflected in serialized newspaper novels at the time of the trial (1913).

Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), Ukraine’s national bard, laid the foundations of Ukrainian literature and had a profound impact on the shaping of Ukrainian national identity. Born a serf, he was bought out of serfdom and then studied at the Academy of the Arts in St. Petersburg, where he emerged as a poet. He styled a lyrical persona after the image of the kobzar, a Ukrainian blind folk bard, prophetic visionary, and vessel of Ukrainian collective memory and ethos. His revolutionary poems attacked the oppressive social order, Russian colonialism, and the imperial family while expressing Ukraine’s strivings for freedom, for which he was imprisoned and exiled to Central Asia.






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