Zinaida Tulub: В степу безкраїм за Уралом (The Exile)
The original title means In The Endless Steppes By The Urals.
Taras Shevchenko is the great Ukrainian poet and undoubtedly their national poet. He has been mentioned/quoted in many of the Ukrainian novels I have read so it is appropriate to read this book, a novelised biography of a part of his life, his first enforced exile.
Shevchenko was born a serf in 1814 (serfs were not freed in Russia till 1864). Both his parents died before he was seven. He learned to paint and was severely punished for painting a portrait of a Cossack. He continued to paint and was admired by other painters who raised the money to buy his freedom in 1840. He studied painting and continued to have success. He also took up writing, starting with poetry. His first collection Kobzar, was published in 1840. It had considerable success as did his subsequent work. he was living in Saint Petersburg, but visited Ukraine and was very much affected by the hard conditions under which most Ukrainians lived. He became associated with members of Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius, which sought to revive the ideals of the traditional Ukrainian brotherhoods and envisioned a Ukrainian language revival, including national autonomy. However he did not join the Society. The members of the Society including Shevchenko were arrested. Shevchenko had written a poem called Dream which was fairly flattering about the Tsar but far less so about his wife. The Tsar read the poem and was furious. Shevchenko was sent into exile. It is a this point that the novel begins.
Before we get onto Shevchenko’s story, we follow another story that of semi-nomadic sheep herders in the South of the country (modern-day South Russia/Kazakhstan). In particular we follow the story of a relatively poor family, beholden to a rich man (bai). The son, Jaisak, had bravely defended the bai’s sheep from an attack by wolves and was badly injured but he has fallen in love with the bai’s daughter Kuljan, whose mother is dead and who is hated by her stepmother. Kuljan seems very keen on Jaisak but she has been promised to a rich man.
The stories alternate so as we follow the sheep herders, we learn of Shevchenko’s arrival in Orenburg, in the South of the country, not far from modern-day Kazakhstan. He meets fellow sympathisers working for the Russians but learns he is to be sent to Orsk (about 170 miles South-East of Orenburg) as an army private.
In Orsk, Shevchenko has a hard time as the commandant is a martinet and favours drilling on a regular basis, regardless of the weather (it both gets very hot and very cold in Orsk). There is an elderly general who helps him but when he dies the commandant turns the screws. He does have some people who befriend him but he contracts severe rheumatism. He makes friends with exiled Poles who also opposed the Tsar and there are others who have read his poetry. However he does compare himself to Ovid in Tomis.
One of the problems for the Russians and the
reason for the fort (and others like it) is that the locals do not like the Russians and are revolting against them, with the help of the British. Kenessary Kassymov is their main opponent. Shevchenko cannot understand why anyone would want this seemingly barren steppe but learns it is because it is on a key trade route, hence the British interest.
The Tsar has expressly forbidden him to write or paint but he does and writes poems in a notebook he keeps hidden and he discusses art and literature with the Poles.
Inevitably, our nomads end up parking in front of the fort and Shevchenko paints then, and befriends Jaisak, who speaks Russian. He even organises a wolf hunt, which the officers of the fort love and which gets rid of a threat to the nomads and their sheep and horses.
However, there are plans to help him. Through the intervention of Pyotr Pletnyov, he is assigned as a painter on an expedition to the Aral Sea, led by Alexey Ivanovich Butakov, which he really enjoyed. We follow the course of the two expeditions Butakov makes with Shevchenko and, though there is a lot of hardship (bad weather, shortage of food), the expedition is a success. We still don’t believe we are alive after that voyage. We went hungry, suffered immensely from thirst and lack of firewood, chewed musty rusks with cold wafer, ate maggot-infested corned beef and porridge of mouldy millet.
Because of this, he is sheltered from the outside world and only later learns of the 1848 revolutions in France, Poland and elsewhere and the turmoil in Russia with a group of people opposed to the Tsar, including a young Dostoevsky, facing a mock firing squad.
He also meets up again with the Kirghiz nomads and he helps advance Jaisak’s cause and learns how the Russians, including the tax collector, exploit the nomads for their own ends.
Back in Orenburg, things do not go well as there is plotting going on between two Russian factions and Shevchenko is inadvertently caught up in it. The novel ends abruptly at this point. We know he will be sent into exile again and has a terrible seven years before being released. The exiles, however, took their toll and he died in 1861, aged forty-seven. He has since become a huge figure in Ukraine (though little known in the West). Tulub tells her tale well, giving us a huge amount of detail about this key period in Shevchenko’s life and showing him very much as a man of the people, supporting the underdog wherever he goes .
I am unaware of only one biography of him in English – Dmitro Chub’s Shevchenko, The Man : The Intimate Life Of A Poet, not readily available. There are plenty in Ukrainian. This site gives some details.
First published in 1964 by Державне видавництво художньої літератури (State Publishing House of Fiction)
First published in English in 2015 by Glagoslav
Translated by Anatole Bilenko