Dear fellow travellers
Grab your coat and come with us. It is a beautiful spring day, still a little chilly of course, but we want you to join us on the banks of the River Dnieper. There have been no frosts these past days, and the sullen, unwashed skies of winter have gone. The turf on the low hills which line the river is soft and springy. Rough fescue rising from the Ukrainian soil. Not long hence, and we'll see the first catkins on the poplars.
This walk we'll make together is important, and this week - more than any other in the year - is the time to do it. Important because, if we want to understand Ukraine, then we need to know the poetry of Taras Shevchenko. And there's no better place to read Shevchenko than overlooking the River Dnieper just downstream from Kaniv. The poet loved these landscapes. The spirit of Ukraine runs through Shevchenko's poetry.
"But why this week?" we hear you ask. Because these March days top and tail the poet's life. Today is the anniversary of Shevchenko's birth in 1814. Tomorrow we'll recall his death at the age of 47 on 10 March 1861.
Here's the opening stanza of Shevchenko's Zapovit (Testament), written in 1845. The English translation is the 1961 version by the Canadian Communist writer John Weir:
When I am dead, bury me
In my beloved Ukraine,
My tomb upon a grave mound high
Amid the spreading plain,
So that the fields, the boundless steppes,
The Dnieper's plunging shore
My eyes could see, my ears could hear
The mighty river roar.
Shevchenko died in St Petersburg, far from the plunging shores of his favourite river. He was initially interred in St Petersburg, but his remains were later moved to a hillside south-east of Kaniv. The spot has a fine view of the Dnieper, though no longer is there quite the same mighty roar from the river. As you'll see, when we are up there on the hill, the Dnieper has been tamed by a series of great dams.
But it's still the Dnieper, still the river whose waters carry all the humility, all the hopes, all the prayers of Ukraine from the forests of the north through the wild lands of the Pontic steppe down to the Black Sea. So come, come. We must go if we are to beat the crowds to the burial mound that stands proud about the spreading plain. That hill is one of Ukraine's sacred spaces. So let's walk and then read together, for these days were made for Taras Shevchenko. This spring, surely more than any other in its troubled history, Ukraine needs its poets.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)
A new English-language anthology of Taras Shevchenko's poetry was published in October 2013. The book, with the title 'The Complete Kobzar', is published by Glagoslav.