Taras Shevchenko and Islamic civilization

Eurasia News

By Petro Kralyuk,

Ukraine has long been at the border of Christian and Islamic civilizations, and Ukrainians have been in direct contact with representatives of the Muslim peoples, primarily the Crimean Tatars. Of course, these contacts were dramatic.

Crimean raids on Ukrainian lands, in the minds of Ukrainians formed a persistent negative stereotype of “evil Tatar”. But on the other hand, the contacts of Ukrainians with the Muslim, mainly Turkic world were also peaceful in nature, even the nature of cooperation and led to a kind of symbiosis of Slavic and Turkic elements in the Ukrainian lands.

Taras Shevchenko and Islamic civilization

It is a well-known fact that when fighting against the Poles, Bohdan Khmelnytsky took an ally of the Crimean Khan, and Zaporizhzhya Sich emerged as an original phenomenon, generated both by the Slavic and Turkic worlds. In the Ukrainian culture itself, Turkic elements are visibly present. These are numerous Turkic words ​​in the Ukrainian language, the Turkic roots of some Ukrainian names, some details of everyday life borrowed from the Turks, and so on.

The above-mentioned borderline of Ukraine between Christian and Muslim civilizations could be visualized in the work of Taras Shevchenko, whose poetry accurately conveyed the worldview and mentality of Ukrainians. In Shevchenko’s work we see repeated appeal to Islamic, mainly Turkic issues.

This appeal can be traced back to the poet’s early work. In early poems, Shevchenko refers to the topic of Cossacks’ campaigns on Turkish lands, in particular, in the poems “Ivan Podkova” and “Gamalia”. Actually, Gamalia (1842) is a romanticized account of such a hike. The story of the Zaporizhzhya Cossacks’ hiking to Istanbul was the background of this work. The poet could obtain information about them both from folklore tales he had heard in his childhood and from some works of a historical nature. Shevchenko’s impressions of traveling the Baltic Sea were also reflected in this poem.

However, another factor influenced the creation of the poem. These are Orientalist hobbies of Shevchenko’s teacher, famous Russian painter Karl Bryulov. In general, at that time, interest in the exotics of the Orient was characteristic of many European intellectuals, including and Russian. Bryulov traveled to Greece and Turkey, where he sketched a lot (KP Bryulov in letters, documents and memoirs of contemporaries. – M., 1952. – P.99-106). His Oriental hobbies somehow transmitted to Shevchenko. The latter created the watercolor “In the Harem” (1843). Also, probably under the influence of Bryulov, in his poem “Gamalia” Shevchenko described the outskirts of Istanbul, Scooter. Scooter is the main action area of the poem, and as it is known, Bryulov has a watercolor “Turkish Cemetery at Scooter”.

Of course, there are some anti-Turkish points in Gamalia. For example, with a twist of irony, we are talking about a Turkish woman who can be seen as a generalized image of Turkey. About the same irony is put on the “Sultan” who naps in the “harem.” In general, Turkey is presented as a rich and at the same time lazy, divided country. But in this country, the Ukrainian Cossack-slaves, who go to free Gamalia with the boys, suffer. This suffering of the slaves generates hatred against the Turks. Hence the call that the author puts into Gamalia’s mouth: “Cut and beat! Mourn the disbelief-Busurman!”(Shevchenko TG Works: In six volumes. – K .: Naukova Dumka, 2003 – Vol. 1 – P.236).

However, such anti-Turkish aspects are by no means decisive. In the poem, we have a romantic vision, where the fictional character Gamalia performs “unusual” actions. After all, the hike through the Black Sea and the attack on well-fortified Istanbul is something extraordinary. It is interesting that in this poem, Shevchenko calls Turkey Byzantium. Here inadvertently there are associations with the campaigns of ancient Ruses on the Byzantine lands. It is also interesting that the fictional character of the poem does not have a Slavic name. Rather, it is a Turkic name. Whether Shevchenko did this consciously or not, giving his character such a name, one can only guess.

Outspoken commitment to Muslim nations

Shevchenko’s famous works include the poem “The Caucasus” (1845). It raises the theme of the conquest of the North Caucasus, where Muslim nations lived, by imperial Russia. “Caucasian theme” occupied a prominent place in contemporary Russian literature. O. Pushkin writes the poem “The Caucasian Defender”, and he owns a work of memoir character “Journey to Arzrum during the campaign of 1829″. American researcher E. Thompson quite rightly pointed to imperial ideas in these works, the fact is that they deliberately justified the Russian conquest. Neither O. Pushkin nor M. Lermontov, she wrote, “…had no doubts about the fairness of their case, even if sometimes they divided the characters into decent ones… and negative ones… They had no doubt that the lands they visited would be richer as parts of a civilization clad in the unicorn of the Russian Cossacks. ”

Shevchenko’s “Caucasus” stands out in the background of these works by its anti-imperial orientation. The author dedicates a poem to his friend Count Jacob de Belmen. He met Shevchenko in the summer of 1843. They had a quick friendship, which lasted about a year. In the summer of 1844, where Belman was sent to the Caucasus in the active army, as the adjutant commander of the 5th Corps, General O.M Leeders. During the Dargins march, when Russian troops destroyed Shamil Dargo’s residence, the General Leeders’ Corps was trapped. This time, in the battle with the Highlanders, de Belman died.

It seemed that the murder of one of his greatest friends should have caused Shevchenko’s hatred of the Highlanders. Instead, we see a completely different reaction in the “Caucasus”. The author blames the imperial policy of Russia for death of de Belman and wrote that, thanks to her, “The Bones / Many Screwed Men lied there…” And “the tears and blood, shed for the glory of the “father-king”, was enough to “feed all the emperors.”

Interestingly, Shevchenko links Russia’s imperial policy to Christianity. He writes:

“From Moldovans to Finn

All languages ​​are silent,

For it is prospering!

The Holy monk reads

Holy Bible and teaches … »


At the same time, the author demonstrates a clear commitment to the Muslim peoples of the North Caucasus. He is impressed by the fact that they are fighting for their freedom on their own land, for their bread (churek) and their house (saku). Shevchenko, unlike the Russian authors, does not show any “civilizational superstition” over the Caucasian peoples, respecting the way they live and their faith. They are heroes, knights to whom “God helps”:

“And glory to you, blue mountains,

Icy shackles.

And you, great knights,

Not forgotten by God.

Do Fight – then overcome,

God help you!

For you truth, for you glory

And the will is holy! ”-

read in the poem. Such an outspoken anti-imperial interpretation of the “Caucasian theme” Russia did not know.

From the context of the poem, it follows that Shevchenko is more adherent to Islam than to Christianity. Of course, this can be interpreted as a momentary emotion that triggered such misunderstanding. After all, Shevchenko, despite the critical attitude to Russian Orthodoxy, still remained a Christian. However, a Christian of “non-confessional type”.

However, such unconscious emotional bursts of sympathy for Islam, which is opposed to Christianity, are found not only in the Caucasus. In 1847, Shevchenko was exiled to Kazakhstan, where he had the opportunity to become acquainted with the local Turkic-speaking population who professed Islam. This population he called Kyrgyz. The poem “Dream” (“My High Mountains …”), written by the poet in 1848 in the Fortress of Ors, contains the following words:

“I have wandered the world a lot

Wore both a suite and a zupan…

Why is it the evil of the Urals?

So, Kyrgyz people are there,

Oh God, they have better live,

Than here in Ukraine.

Or maybe it because that Kyrgyz

Not Christians yet?.. »

(Shevchenko TG. Works: In six volumes. – K .: Naukova Dumka, 2003 – Vol. 2 – P.41).

Kazakh theme in Shevchenko’s work

Shevchenko showed genuine interest in the local Kazakh population. Although he was a man who knew the privileges of imperial civilization, he did not actually demonstrated any superiority as per “uncivilized” peoples. On the contrary, the poet repeatedly shows his interest in Kazakh life, folklore and religious beliefs. Although he calls Kazakhs savages, he does not use this word in a negative sense. It should be borne in mind that Shevchenko acted as an opponent of “civilization”, opposing her “naturalness”. Wildness of local people is often treated by him as natural one.

Indicative in terms of the poet’s interest in Kazakh customs and beliefs is the poem “God Has an Ax Behind the Door…” (1848). Obviously, the concept of this work arose when Shevchenko moved from the fortress of Ors to Raim fortification. Along the way, he saw a lone green tree in a deserted area, which struck his imagination. He writes about it in the story “Twins”: “Usually, the transport was removed from the sunrise, but I did not usually remain in the rear guard. Ore remained to the right, the steppe still taking on its monotonous, dull appearance. At the halfway point, I noticed that people began to separate from transport, who was on horseback and who was walking. And all in one direction. I asked the reason for the Bashkir prisoner who was driving near me, and he told me, pointing with a nod to a dark spot: “Manna aulia agach” (here is a holy tree). I was already standing around him a decent crowd, surprised and even (so it seemed to me) with awe looking at the green guest of the desert. Pieces of multicolored fabrics, ribbons, strands of dyed horse hair are hung around the tree and on branches, and the richest victim is the skin of a wild cat, firmly tied to the branch. Looking at all this, I felt respect for the savages for their innocent sacrifices. I last left the tree and looked around for a long time, as if not believing the miracle I saw. I looked back once more and stopped the horse for the last time to admire the enriched green giant of the desert. A light breeze blew, and the giant nodded to me with his curly head. And I, in oblivion, as if to a living being, said to him: “Farewell” – and went quietly for transport in the dust…”(Shevchenko TG Works: In six volumes. – K .: Nauk. dumka, 2003. – Vol. 4 – P.95).

Under this impression, Shevchenko drew a watercolor “Jangis-agach” (1848) and wrote a poem “”God Has an Ax Behind the Door…”. The poem uses the legend that Kazakh stole an ax from God, and that ax cut down all the trees. So, here is only one tree in this desert by now:

“One by one at the valley,

Near by the road,

The tall tree stands,

Abandoned by God.

Abandoned by the ax,

The fire is incombustible,

Whispers with the valley.

Many ages along….

And the Kazakhs do not pass

The tree of the saint.

They come to the valley,

They are surprised at it

And pray and sacrifice.

Begging the tree,

To shoot sprouts

In their poor country »

(Shevchenko TG Works: In six volumes. – K .: Nauk. Dumka, 2003 – Vol. 2 – P.80).

It is believed that when writing the poem Shevchenko used an authentic Kazakh legend (Mochulsky M. Cult of the tree and ax in Shevchenko’s poetry // Ukraine. – 1930. – №3-4. – P.80-88). However, this legend has never been discovered. It is quite possible that it was created by the artistic fantasy of the poet, who relied both on certain legends and on the impression of his journey from the fortress of Ors to Raim.

The poet describes this journey in great detail in his story “Twins”. This description is far from the impression of a colonial “civilizer” (which, for example, we have in Pushkin’s “Journey to Arzrum during the 1829 march”). Rather, it is the impression of a person who wants to know “alien” (both alien to nature and people). At the same time, Shevchenko repeatedly shows admiration for this “stranger”. Here is just one sketch of the poet, where he tells of a fire in the steppe, when the Kazakhs were burning a dry thighs there: “The fire was still in front of us, and we could only see one smoke, and the flames were still not visible from beyond the horizon. With the sunset, the horizon began to illuminate the pale glow. As night approached, the glow blushed and drew closer to us. Due to the dark horizontal, slightly curved lines began to show red jets and tongues. In transport everything went quiet, as if expecting something extraordinary. Indeed, an unprecedented picture appeared to my astonished eyes. All the space I saw in the afternoon, as if expanded and flooded with jets of fire in almost parallel directions. A wonderful, undescribed picture! ”(Shevchenko TG. Works: In six volumes. – K .: Nauk. Thought, 2003 – Vol. 4 – P.94).

Under the influence of these impressions, Shevchenko painted one of his best watercolors, Fire in the Steppe (1848). In writing this painting he also used his observations on the lives of Kazakh tribes. The foreground of this picturesque work depicts Kazakhs sitting at a burning fire.

In general, the Kazakh theme occupied a prominent place in Shevchenko’s painting. While traveling to Raim and staying in the Aral Sea, he created about two dozen drawings depicting the lives of Kazakhs and other peoples of the region – “Kazakhs in the yurt”, “Kazakh parking at Kosarali”, “Kazakh boy ignites the rough”, “Shepherd on horseback” ” and other. Shevchenko’s Self-Portrait with Baigushes is interesting. This work is a testimony to the fact that the author not only observed the life of a “foreign” people, but also in some way sought to fit himself in the context of the life of the Kazakhs. Shevchenko also owns a number of other paintings of a later period where he painted not only landscapes but also landmarks of the region. Among them are the watercolor “Turkmen Aby in Kara Tau” (1857) and the sepia drawing “Prayer for the Dead” (1856-1857).

Kazakh impressions were reflected in some of Shevchenko’s letters, but perhaps the strongest topic of life of Kazakhs and other Muslim peoples of the “Kazakh region” is in the “Diary” (1857-1858). The diary entries suggest that his author showed tolerant and even positive attitudes toward Islam. For example, he speaks positively as per Muslim ideas about paradise (Shevchenko TG Works: In six volumes. – K .: Naukova Dumka, 2003 – Vol. 5 – P.30).

Some of the popular beliefs of the Turkic peoples fascinated him. “The Turkmen and the Kyrgyz,” we read in the Diary, “do not erect splendid tombs for their holy people (auliyas), like batyrs, and put on the corpse of a saint a pile of stones, and throw camels, horses, and lamb bones – the remains of the sacrifice. Then they place a high wooden pole, sometimes topped with a spear, they twist this pole with colorful cloths, and then the honored tribute to the saint come to an end. The sinners, however, as they leave their wealth, may have a more or less magnificent monument. In front of the monument, on two small pillars they put the plates, in one at night close relatives burn mutton fat, and in the other plate in the afternoon pour water for the birds. So, the birds, after drinking water, prayed to God about the soul of the sinful and beloved dead. The silent poetic prayer of the savage, in the purity and elevation of which our enlightened Christian pastors would probably doubt and forbid as pagan blasphemy ”(Shevchenko TG. Works: In six volumes. – K .: Nauk. Dumka, 2003. – T. 5. – P.56-57). Shevchenko also portrayed this “silent praying” on his sketch “Pray for died”.

Shevchenko seems to be more likely to find common ground with “foreign” Kazakhs than with almost “same-blooded” Russians. He was negative about the Russian schismatics (old style orthodox Christians). In one of the places, “Diary” states: “No one is dirtier, rougher than these hardened dissenters, at least I know nothing. Their neighbors, the steppe savages of Kyrgyzstan, are a thousand times more sociable than these direct descendants of Stenka Razin”(Shevchenko TG. Works: In six volumes…)

Shevchenko’s impressions of being acquainted with Eastern cultures were so strong that he even planned to write a poem “Satrap and Dervish,” which was to take place in the East. True, he noted, “I don’t know just how to be with women. In the East, women are silent slaves but in my poem they should play the first roles. They need to be spent, as they really were, dumb, soulless levers of shameful action”(TG Shevchenko: In six volumes. – K .: Naukova Dumka, 2003 – Vol. 5 – P.62 ). However, this plan has not been fully realized. Later, it was only partially implemented by Shevchenko in the poem “Yurodivy” (Tomfool), which was begun but not finished.

To conclude, characterizing Shevchenko’s attitude to the Islamic civilization as a whole and to the Turkic world in particular, we can state that it was positive. This positivity has been determined by several points. First, Shevchenko was opposed to Russia’s imperial policy. He believed that the Islamic peoples of Russia were as much victims of this policy as the Ukrainians. In this sense, he understood them as “companions of misfortune.” Second, Shevchenko was a rather tolerant person. This is evidenced by his literary creativity, as well as his creative work. He was able to overcome “native” myths and stereotypes and learn “alien”. The lives of the Turkic peoples of Kazakhstan and Central Asia aroused considerable interest. Hence his numerous drawings of Kazakhs, reflections of the “Kazakh theme” in poetry and prose works.

If, in the context of globalization, such an attitude is considered normal and desirable, you could not say the same about the 19th century. At that time, European culture was clearly dominated by colonial discourse, in a frank or hidden form, negative attitudes towards “uncivilized peoples” were observed. Shevchenko is definitely the exception here.


Note: Writer of this academic article is Petro Kralyuk, Doctor of Philosophy, Professor, Vice-Rector of the National University of Ostroh Academy)