Protesters in the Ukraine have been told President Viktor Yanukovych “intends to sign” the trade agreement with the European Union that he had previously rejected. Ukrainians had called for Yanukovych’s resignation after he and other government officials rejected a European Union (EU) trade agreement over Russia’s long held control. Police in riot gear swept through Independence Square in the capital city of Kiev on Wednesday as citizens stood their ground.
Ukraine’s natural gas supply comes from Russia. Demonstrators numbering into the thousands had wanted Yanukovych to take advantage of the proposed agreement for Ukraine’s future with the EU or step down. They are also demanding the release of the president’s main political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been in jail since 2011. According to the EU and others, the abuse of power charge against her was a “sham.” She is calling for the immediate resignation of Yanukovych and his supporters.
One of Ukraine’s most respected historical figures was known for fostering an independent, nationalistic spirit. Taras Shevchenko was a 19th-century poet and artist whose works reflected the peasant life of poverty during the time of tsarist Russia. He was born into serfdom in 1814. By the age of 14, he was a domestic servant with a flare for drawing. Under “contract,” he was sent to study with a master painter in 1832.
His talent was such that writers and artists bought his release from serfdom in 1838. That same year, Shevchenko’s drawings were approved by the Association for the Encouragement of Artists. The next year, he was awarded the Silver Medal for a landscape upon his examination at the Academy of Arts.
His poetry, like his paintings, reflected peasant life in the natural beauty of his home country. One of his poems, Testament, begins: “When I am dead, bury me in my beloved Ukraine.” Despite opposition from tsarist rule, Shevchenko continued to write poetry attentive to Ukrainian nationalism. At one point, he wrote of himself as being “the son and brother of our unfortunate nation.”
Much of his work was censored by the rulers of Russia. Lines were deleted, yet his talent could not be suppressed. He wrote about the suffering of peasants, their struggles and conditions they had to endure. Shevchenko was in prison and exiled for awhile but even in prison, he kept a small book hidden from the guards and wrote.
Today, he is an iconic figure, not only for his contributions to art and poetry, but for his influence over the Ukrainian language. Statues of him exist in 20 countries, including the United States and Canada. Several cities in Ukraine have a statue. The monument shown here is in Kiev, across from the Shevchenko State University in Shevchenko Park, and was erected in 1939. There are also several Taras Shevchenko museums. Ukraine has eight, Russia – three, Kazakhstan – one, and Canada has one in Toronto.
The poet used his art and words to stand in favor of his native Ukraine. Despite the struggles, he was an effective voice. Today’s protesters raised their collective voice, calling for change against Russian control. The nations of the European Union and the United States are listening, watching and participating in negotiations. The U.S. was considering sanctions but did not reveal details. Ukraine hasn’t seen protests of this size since the 2004 Orange Revolution which ousted Yanukovych in favor of pro-democratic leaders.
By Cynthia Collins