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Taras Shevchenko

Encyclopedia of the life and works



Taras Shevchenko

“Shrovetide has passed already, as did Lent and, finally, the Easter holidays, but I still have not written you a single word. Do not think, my dear, unforgettable benefactor, that I am forgetting you! God forbid me for committing such a sin. In all my thoughts, in all my deeds, you are present like the brightest and most comforting being in my grateful heart. The reason for my silence, though, is very simple: there is nothing to write about, what with my monotonous life. I cannot say, however, that it has been dull. On the contrary, my days, weeks and months have been flying past imperceptibly. What a beneficent thing work is, especially when it is encouraged. And I, thank God, do not lack in encouragement: during examinations I am always among the top three in class. Karl Pavlovich is always pleased with me – so what more gratifying and substantial encouragement can there be for an artist? I am boundlessly happy. The study I entered in the competition was accepted without the slightest change, and I am already working on the program. I am fond of the subject, it is absolutely to my liking, and I abandoned myself to it with all my heart. It is a scene from the IliadAndromache over the body of Patrocles.

It is only now that I have understood completely how necessary it is to study the ancients and the life and art of Greek antiquity in general. The French language has stood me in good stead in this case. I do not know how to thank the kindly Demski.

Karl Pavlovich and I celebrated Easter in a very distinctive way. In the daytime he told me that he intended to go to matins at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan to have a look at his painting when the candles were lit and the procession was underway. At ten o’clock in the evening he ordered tea to have served so that the time would pass less tediously. I poured him and myself tea. He lit up a cigar, lay down on the couch, and began reading aloud The Fair Maid of Perth, while I was pacing up and down the room. That is the only thing I remember. Then I heard an indistinct sound like a peal of thunder, and opened my eyes. It was bright in the room, the lamp was barely giving off light, and Karl Pavlovich was sleeping on the couch, the book was on the floor, while I was lying in an armchair, hearing the roar of cannon. Turning off the lamp, I quietly went out of the room to my quarters. Sternberg was still sleeping.

I washed myself, dressed and went outdoors. People were already coming out of St. Andrew’s Church with sanctified Easter cakes. The morning was truly festive. And what do you think was on my mind at that time? I am simply ashamed to tell you. But tell you I must, because concealing from you any of my thoughts and feelings would be a sin on my part. I behaved like a real child at that time. What occupied my mind most was my new water-proof raincoat. Strange, isn’t it? I enjoy a new holiday attire. So on the other hand, there is nothing strange about it. Looking at the skirts of my glittering raincoat, I was thinking: only a short time ago, wearing a shabby, soiled smock frock as I did then, I dared not even dream of such glittering garb. And now! I threw one hundred rubles to the wind just for a raincoat. It is simply an Ovidian metamorphosis. When I used to earn a paltry fifty kopecks, I took it to the theatre and bought myself a ticket in “the gods,” without choosing the performance. For the fifty kopecks I’d have such rib-aching fun and shed such bitter tears others never experienced in their entire lifetime. Had all that been so long ago? Yesterday, no later, and today I am living through a wonderful metamorphosis. Whenever I go to a theatre now, for instance, I buy myself a ticket only in the stalls and rarely in the back seats. I do not attend just anything but try to get to a benefit performance, a repetition of a benefit play, or else I choose something of the best I saw before. To tell you the truth, I have already lost the unfeigned laughter and sincere tears of yesterday, but I almost do not regret them.

Recalling all that, I am recalling you, my unforgettable benefactor, and that divine morning when God Himself directed you to me in the Summer Garden in order to pull me out of the dirt and worthlessness. I celebrated the holiday at the home of the Uvarovs. Do not think I have the counts in mind. God forbid, but I am not flying that high yet. Theirs is a simple, modest family of merchants, but it is so kind, sincere, and concordant – God grant other families in the world to be like them. They accepted me as someone near and dear. Karl Pavlovich also sees them quite often.

We spent the holiday merrily. Throughout the week we did not have a single meal at Madame Jurgens’, but always dined out at the homes of either Joachim, the Schmidts, or Fitztum, and the evenings were spent at the theatre or at the Schmidts’. Our neighbours’ girl is still visiting us, and is as frolicsome as before. It is a pity she cannot serve me as a model for Andromache: she is too young and subtle, as it were. Her aunt surprises me. She does not seem to care for her prankish niece at all. At times the girl romps around in our room for two hours in a row, but the aunt does not so much as show up. It is strange! Sternberg told me her life story to the end. She does not remember her mother, while her father was some poor clerk and a drunkard, it seems, because when they lived in Kolomna, he used to come home from his office “bright red” (as she put it) and angry every day, and if he had any money about him, he would send her to a tavern for vodka; if there was no money, he sent her out into the street to beg for alms.

The formal uniform he wore was always torn at the elbows. Her aunt, her current guardian and her father’s sister visited their home occasionally and asked him to give Pasha for upbringing, but he just would not hear about it. Whether they lived in Kolomna for long or not, she does not remember. But one winter day her father did not return to his home for the night which she spent alone, without being afraid of anything. He did not show up on the second night as well, and on the third day an attendant from the Obukhovsky Hospital came to take her to him. On the way the attendant told her that her father had been picked up on the street by some gendarmes on duty at night and delivered to their unit. The next day he was taken to the hospital with a fever, and the following night he came to for a short spell, told his name and address, and asked that she be called to him. The sick father did not recognize her and chased her away from his bedside. So she went to her aunt to stay with her.

That is all there is to this sad story. The other day Sternberg gave her The Vicar of Wakefield. She seized the book like a child seizes a nice toy, and after playing with it just like a child, she looked through the pictures, threw the book on the table; when she was leaving, she did not so much as remember the book. Sternberg is absolutely sure that she is illiterate, and I think the same, judging by her sorry childhood. I even have an idea (if she is really illiterate) to at least teach her to read. Sternberg approved and offered me his help. He was so sure about her being illiterate that he went to a bookstore and bought her an ABC with pictures that same day. But our good project did not materialize. Here is the reason: the next day, when we were about to get down to the first lesson, Aivazovsky arrived from the Crimea and stopped at our quarters. Sternberg received his friend with great enthusiasm. But, I do not know why, I did not like him from the first. For all his refined manners there is something not likeable about him that does not fit an artist, but is politely chilly and repelling.

Не does not show us the content of his portfolio, saying that he left it with his mother at Feodosia; on his way he did not draw anything, since he was in a hurry to catch the first steamship sailing abroad. He lived at our quarters for over a month, however, and I do not know because of what circumstances. Throughout the duration of his stay our neighbours’ girl did not visit us a single time: she is afraid of Aivazovsky, for which reason I am prepared to see him off abroad any day. But to my sorrow my priceless Sternberg is leaving together with him as well. Several days later we saw Sternberg off to Kronstadt. About a dozen people gathered around him, but none around Aivazovsky. A strange thing to happen among artists!

Mikhailov was also among those who came to see off Sternberg. And did Mikhailov give us a treat! After a friendly and merry dinner at Steward’s, he sank into a deep sleep. We tried to rouse him, but failed, and so picking up two bottles of Clicquot, went with Sternberg on board the steamship. We downed the wine on the deck of the Hercules, handed our friend over to Tyrinov (the captain of the ship), said farewell, and returned to the tavern in the evening. Mikhailov had awakened by then. We told him how we had seen off Sternberg – but he was silent, then we told him what occurred on board the ship – he still kept silent, and how we had downed the two bottles of Clicquot. On hearing the word “Clicquot,” he muttered: “You’re scoundrels for not having roused me to see off a friend!” I miss my dear Sternberg. I miss him so much that I am prepared to run away not only from my quarters, where everything reminds me of him, but even from the neighbours’ playful girl. I do not write you anything more, because I am bored, and I do not want to drag you into boredom with my tedious message. I’d better get down to my program work. Goodbye.”

“My summer flitted quickly by, much faster than one minute with a professional dandy. After the exhibition I barely noticed that summer had faded into oblivion. Throughout the summer, by the way, Joachim and I visited old Kohlmann several times on Krestovsky Island, and under his guidance I made three studies: two spruce trees and one birch. Kohlmann is the kindest of men I know! The Schmidts returned to town, and it was their reproaches that reminded me that summer was already over. I did not visit them a single time. They lived far away, and all my days and nights were devoted to fulfilling the program. But you should have seen how sincerely they congratulated me on my success. Yes, on success, my unforgettable benefactor! What a great thing a program work is for a student! It is his touchstone, and how great is his happiness, when he has proved on that stone to be not a sham but a genuine artist. I experienced this happiness fully. I cannot describe you this wonderful, inexplicably sweet feeling.

It is a prolonged presence of everything of the world’s beauty in a person. But what a bitter, tormenting state of the soul precedes this divine happiness. It is expectation. In spite of the fact that Karl Pavlovich assured me of success, I suffered as much as a criminal before his execution.

No, I suffered much more. I did not know whether I would die or remain alive which, as I see it, is more distressing. The verdict had not been pronounced yet. While waiting for the horrible verdict, Mikhailov and I visited Deli’s for a game of billiards, but my hands were trembling and I could not send a single ball home, whereas he played on successfully as if nothing mattered. After all, he, too, had been arraigned for trial. His program work stood beside mine. Such indifference made me mad. I threw my cue aside and went to my quarters. In the corridor I was met by the laughing, happy neighbours’ girl.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I replied.

“What do you mean – nothing? I cleaned up your room as if for a bright holiday, and here you come along so sad looking.” She, too, wanted to take on a sad mien, but failed much as she tried. I thanked her for her attention and asked her into the room. She started comforting me in such a childishly unfeigned way that I burst out laughing against my will.

“Nothing is certain yet; the examination is still in progress,” I said.

“So why did you have to deceive me, you unscrupulous man! If I knew, I would not have cleaned up the room,” she said, pouting her rosy lips. “I didn’t clean up Mikhailov’s room,” she continued. “Let him and his midshipman wallow in it like bears in a burrow for all I care.”

I thanked her for showing a preference to me, and asked whether she would be happy if Mikhailov received a medal instead of me.

“I’ll break his hands. I’ll scratch out his eyes and kill him!”

“And if I’ll get the medal?”

“I’ll die of joy then.” “What makes me deserve such a preference?” I asked

“What… it’s because… because… you promised to teach me to read and write in the winter.”

“And I will keep my word,” I said.

“Go to the Academy and find out what’s going on there, and I will wait for you in the corridor.”

“Why not here?” I asked.

“What will I do when the midshipman shows up?”

Indeed, thought I, and without saying a word, went out into the corridor. She locked the door and put the key in her pocket.

“I don’t want them to enter your room without you, lest they spoil something there.”

What made her think they would spoil something in my room? I thought. It must have simply been a childish whim of hers.

“Goodbye,” I said, walking down the stairs. “Wish me luck!”

“From the bottom of my heart,” she said enthusiastically and vanished. I went out into the street. At the Academy I was afraid of going in. The Academy gates seemed to me to be a horrible monster, its mouth wide agape. After rambling along the street until I was drenched with sweat, I crossed myself and ran through the horrible gates. On the first floor my impatient comrades were wandering about the corridor like the shadows at the ferry place of Charon.

I mingled in their crowd. The professors had already left the round hall and walked into the conference hall. The horrible moment was nearing. Andrei Ivanovich (the inspector) came out of the round hall. I was the first he came upon, and as he passed me, he whispered:


I have not heard and will not ever hear such a sweet, harmonious sound in my life. I rushed headlong to my quarters and covered our neighbours’ girl with kisses from rapture. It was a good thing nobody saw it, because I met her on the stairway. There was nothing wrong in what I did, but thank God nonetheless that nobody saw it. In this manner, more or less, did this stupendous examination occur. What I have written you is only a vague outline of mortal existence, a faint shadow of the true event. It is beyond description – either by pen, brush, or even the spoken word.

Mikhailov failed the examination. God forbid, if any such misfortune had befallen me. I would have gone out of my mind, but he came into the room as if nothing had happened at all, put on his warm overcoat, and went to see his midshipman in Kronstadt. I do not know what makes him like that midshipman. I do not find anything attractive in him, but Mikhailov is simply crazy about him. At first, truth to tell, I had liked him too, but it did not last long. My poor tutor – Demski – that’s a truly likeable person for you! He, poor, is sick, incurably sick, suffering from consumption at its last stage. He is on his feet yet, but barely drags them along. The other day he came by to congratulate me on the medal, and we spent the evening in the sweetest, friendly conversation. He foretold me my future with such conviction and in so a natural and vivid manner that I believed him against my will. Poor Demski, he does not even suspect he is sick. He is so sincerely carried away by his future as only a completely healthy young man can be. A happy man he is, if a dream can be called happiness.

Не says that the main and the most difficult part of his life, that is, poverty, has already been done away with; he does not have to stay up nights anymore in order to copy lectures for a paltry ruble; he is now absolutely free of poverty and can devote himself to the science he loves; he will, if not surpass, at least be the equal of his idol Lelewel in Polish history; and his future dissertation will open opportunities for the attainment of his greatest hopes. In the meantime, the poor chap coughs blood and tries to conceal it from me. Dear God, what would I do to make those ardent dreams come true! But alas! There is no hope whatsoever. He probably will not live to see the day when the ice breaks on the River Neva.

At the height of Demski’s effusion the door was noisily opened and the heady midshipman entered.

“Is Mishka in?” he asked, without taking his cap off.

“He went to see you yesterday,” I said.

“So we missed each other. The trip will do him good. By the way, I’m staying for the night.”

He went into Mikhailov’s room. I gave him a candle. What else could I do? I proposed that Demski sleep in Mikhailov’s bed, being absolutely sure that nobody would claim it. Demski saw that I was at a disadvantage, gave me a smile, picked up his cap, and shook my hand on parting. I, too, picked up my cap and without saying a word, went into the street with him, leaving the midshipman to his own resources. After seeing Demski off to his quarters, I reluctantly went home, and what do you think I saw there? Our neighbours’ girl, not knowing I was out, had come running into my room; the half-dressed midshipman had seized her and was about to lock the door when I arrived to forestall his plan. The girl shook herself lose, spat in his face, and ran off.

“Some quicksilver for you,” the midshipman said, wiping his face. The scene left me feeling insulted. But I did not give him the pleasure of noticing my reaction, and since it was not yet late, I left him in the room and went to seek a better comrade to while away the autumn night.

My visits were a failure, because all my friends were out that night. It was too late to got to the Schmidts. Karl Pavlovich was not at home either, so I did not know what to do with myself.