Skip to Content Skip to Main Menu

Faculty of Arts & Science

Arts & Science News

Maxim Tarnawsky helps honour Ukraine’s National Bard Taras Shevchenko

Photo of: Maxim Tarnawsky

Maxim Tarnawsky. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

Taras Shevchenko — the greatest poet of Ukraine who gave voice to his people’s national and social consciousness — is being celebrated at the United Nations today with some help from Maxim Tarnawsky of the University of Toronto’sDepartment of Slavic Languages & Literatures.

Tarnawsky, who teaches a course on Shevchenko’s poetry, will give the keynote address, which can be live-streamed.

“Shevchenko is a wonderful poet and an enormously important and influential figure in Ukrainian literature,” says Tarnawsky. “I am honoured to be able to speak at this event. It’ll be an opportunity to highlight his defence of the dignity of the Ukrainian language.”

In his talk, Tarnawsky will explore why the poet — known for his passionate dedication to his mother tongue — lived in Russia and wrote some of his work in Russian.

“While Ukrainians today may see this as some kind of betrayal of his native language, it is better understood as a reflection of the reality of his day. He was not a nationalist extremist with anti-Russian sentiments. That may seem too obvious to need mentioning, but it is often the fate of defenders of mother languages to be branded by their opponents as racist enemies of the culturally superior colonizers. Shevchenko was, first and foremost, a defender of the oppressed, both in social and national terms. His commitment to his native language is always a matter of maintaining the dignity and respect that an oppressed people and their culture deserve.”

The fact that Tarnawsky is speaking on Ukrainian nationality in the heat of a crisis in the home country is not lost on him. “I won’t speak directly on the invasion of Crimea, but the arguments the Russian government uses to destabilize Ukraine still involve the familiar issues that Shevchenko faced in the nineteenth century,” he says. “By deliberately playing off Russian and Ukrainian culture, the Putin government attempts to diminish Ukrainian culture and divide the citizens of Ukraine, using these points of friction to political advantage.”

The event — which was planned to coincide with International Mother Language Day on February 21 — was organized by the Ukrainian World Congress(UWC) and the World Federation of Ukrainian Women’s Organizations (WFUWO) with the support of The Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the United Nationsin hopes of bringing attention to Shevchenko’s efforts to defend his mother language, as well as champion human rights for the people of Ukraine.

WFUWO President Orysia Sushko says that the bicentennial arrives at a historic moment of renewed imperialist aggression on Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

“Shevchenko’s deep morality, social conscience, reverence for shared history and the dignity of his sense of Ukrainian selfhood are our armour for today,” she said.

Martha Kebalo of the event’s planning committee invited Tarnawsky to speak.

“We’re looking forward to his wonderfully insightful talk on the way languages compete in a colonial context and how imperial language policies favor the one official language of the empire as the only viable and most beautiful vehicle for expression and advancement,” she said.