Thursday, February 4, 2010

Freedom Fighters

One was born in America, the other in Ukraine. One had slave ancestors, the other was a serf who bought his freedom with the help of friends. They were both freedom fighters. Martin Luther King, Jr., meet Taras Shevchenko.

They lived at different times, and worlds apart. King was a preacher and a civil rights activist in America in the 20th century. Shevchenko was an artist and poet from the Ukrainian regions of what was then the Russian empire, ruled heavy-handedly by the Tsars in the mid-nineteenth century.

Their belief in freedom connects them across the ages, across time and place. Both fought against human bondage and both suffered and died for their beliefs.

Martin Luther King had a dream, and he gave voice to it with the passion and cadence of the great orator and consummate leader that he was. "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood....I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.'"

King reminded us of our ideals. He held us to them. He died before his dream was realized, murdered in cold blood on a gray day in Memphis. He had foretold as much, but we had hoped to get to the "promised land" with him. Today we hope he is happy with the progress we've made.

Shevchenko died in Russia on the eve of the American Civil War, in March 1861. He died the day after his 47th birthday, worn down by exile and jail, and seven days before the Russian government announced the Emancipation of the Serfs. The "heavy chains " of slavery were being broken around the world.

Shevchenko, too, was ahead of his time. He dreamed of creating a federation of independent but united Slavic states--a United States of Russia, a dream that never did happen the way he hoped it would. I never knew that such an idea had floated around in 19th-century Russia. What a different world it would have been if this dream had become a reality!

Shevchenko was an outspoken Ukrainian nationalist, drawing and painting its landscapes and writing about the land and cultures in a Ukrainian dialect. Today he is considered the founder of modern Ukrainian language and literature. There are monuments to his memory all over Ukraine, including here in Starobilsk (photo above), and indeed all over the world, including one in Washington, DC. Shevchenko, like King, belongs to the ages.

In the poem "Testament," written before his death, Schevchenko shared his dreams:
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.

Oh bury me, then rise ye up
And break your heavy chains,
And water with the tyrants' blood
The freedom you have gained.
And in the great new family,
The family of the free,
With softly spoken, kindly word
Remember also me.

We remember Shevchenko with gratitude. He was first buried in Saint Petersburg, Russia, but fulfilling his wishes in this poem, his friends arranged to transfer his body to his native land. Shevchenko is now buried on Chernecha Hill by the Dnieper River near Kaniv. The tall mound built over his grave stands as a tribute to the freedom fighter and Ukrainian nationalist who, like Martin Luther King, had a dream: "To join the great new family, the family of the free."

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