Insight and Blindness in the Reception of Ševčenko: The Case of Kostomarov

George G. Grabowicz

Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 17, No. 3/4 (December 1993), pp. 279-340

In the broad and formal sense, the reception of Ševčenko began with the reviews in the Russian press of his first slim volume of poetry, the Kobzar of 1840. While at times positive (and once or twice even enthusiastic), their basic imperial perspective allowed them to see only an instance of talented regional writing, highlighted by a rare lyrical sensibility; the qualities, themes and topoi that became touchstones in the subsequent understanding of the poet went largely unnoticed. (At the same time, one recurring leitmotif in these reviews – “Why write in Ukrainian?” or, more pointedly, “Is it not a shame for a talented writer to waste his talent writing in Ukrainian?” – did become in the course of the nineteenth century a major issue in Ukrainian- Russian literary relations.) In a narrower and more essential sense the reception of Ševčenko, in effect the recognition of the immense impact of the poet and his poetry, began, still during his lifetime, among his fellow Ukrainian writers, first through the rudimentary responses of such as Hryhorij Kvitka-Osnovjanenko and Jevhen Hrebinka, and then, with unexpected power and depth, through the analytical overviews of Pantelejmon Kulis. Kulis’s response to Ševčenko, covering the gamut from apologia and paean to diatribe and parody, is in fact sui generis, but at the same time highly indicative of (and still fundamentally unexamined in) the context and the polarities of nineteenth-century Ukrainian literature.