Sunday in the Park with Taras: On Shevchenko’s 200th birthday.

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Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ukraine’s national poet, the Kobzar – the Bard, Taras Shevchenko. This whole year is being marked as Shevchenko year, with celebrations planned not only in Ukriane but also around the world among the diaspora and academic community. With the current events in Ukraine, however, the planned festivities have been somewhat overshadowed and muted. Still, Shevchenko’s place in the Ukrainian revolutionary tradition and canon is guaranteed, with this reflected in various cultural re-appropriations of his image. This article shows some very creative approaches, although the image of Shevchenko as Che Guevara features a somewhat misjudged slogan: ‘She’. Yes, it is the first sound in both men’s names, although in English I see ‘she’ – something perhaps more appropriate for yesterday’s celebration of International Women’s Day.

In Ivano-Frankivsk there was a poetry reading today on the Vichevyj Maidan (Rally Square) by the post office, while a much more widely attended event was held on the square outside the Administrative Office. Begun with the now obligatory Mass, the celebrations included music – including the playing of the bandura, the instrument of the Kobzar – various poetry readings as well as political speeches on the current situation.

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Today, however, my wife and I avoided the large-scale events organised in the city – although we will attend some Shevchenko-related events in the coming week. Instead, we took a walk along Shevchenko Street – formerly ulica Lipowa and Lindenstrasse, owing to the lime/linden trees which line this wonderful street that leads to the main park in the city, which is also named after Shevchenko. This street is home to the university where we both work and is also where my wife’s first home is. As the photo below shows, her first home – where she lived into her early twenties is falling into disrepair. It had been used as a teaching space for the pedagogical department and also as accommodation for lecturers and their families. Unlikely to be saved any time soon, the collapse of the building would free up some prime city centre real estate.

This photo also shows some of the attempts to revitalise Shevchenko Street, making it – at least for two thirds of the way – a pedestrian thoroughfare and the city’s calling card. However, renovations which were begun – bizarrely – at the start of November 2012 have hardly progressed, leaving the street in quite a mess. Here, though, some of the new paving stones and lamps are evident. The mayor had promised that the renovations would be finished in time for this 200th anniversary and if they weren’t, he said, the responsible authorities would be made to walk on their knees along the street to the park and the Shevchenko monuments located there. Our walk did not, sadly, reveal any bloodied rags and scraps of mid-range navy or black suits, so we can only assume that this threat was not fulfilled.

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Shevchenko Street, at the city centre end, starts with a relief plaque to the Bard, placed there on the 175th anniversary of his birth, as the photo above shows. It is modest, and now adorns a beauty salon, but is tasteful. Less successful, however, was the most recent monument – below – to Shevchenko, where the sculptor seems to have lost any sense of proportion giving this son of the peasantry a rather oversized head and huge hands. By all accounts, Shevchenko was a stocky chap but here he seems  to have been given the proportions of a hobbit. This statue, which was erected three years ago, is an exact replica of the Shevchenko monument in Ottawa. The sculptor is from the Ukrainian diaspora and there are plans to show a film made in the 1990s in Canada on local television in Ivano-Frankivsk.

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More successful, however, was this original sculpture in the park, also featured at the start of this post. It shows Shevchenko is his later years, rather than the above sculpture which bears the image of a young Shevchenko that also features on the 100 UAH banknote.

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Here, by this statue we witnessed a young girl with her father who was explaining to her the importance of the poet and then with great reverence she laid a flower by the memorial, signally the respect with which he is treated in the country and features much more prominently in the life of the nation than, say, Shakespeare in Britain.

The walk in the park did not pass without incident as we encountered – as is usual around here – a thoughtless and selfish driver who declared it his right to park inside Shevchenko Park.

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My wife asked him whether he really needs to park right inside the park, since many other people with prams managed to cope without driving right into the park. After some pretty foul language from him, he decided to confront me about ‘how I got so wise’. I didn’t have the time or the will to explain. It seems that while some aspects of behaviour are being transformed by the revolution, such as teachers refusing gifts, the revolution can only truly be declared victorious when drivers stop being arseholes, parking in parks or on pedestrian crossings or jumping red lights.

An interesting outcome of the confrontation with this man was that a young woman carrying a 1980 copy of Shevchenko’s work Kobzar apart from suggesting that ‘he’s not worth it’, also thought I was Polish. (Knowing Polish, I tend to speak Ukrainian with a Polish accent). She thanked me first as a Pole for all the help my apparent nation had offered Ukraine, then I pointed out that I am British. She then thanked me for all the help Britain had offered Ukraine. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that in all likelihood Britain won’t do too much to help and seems more interested in the billions of Russian oligarchs.

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This post will now take the form of walk along Shevchenko Street to Shevchenko Park. Here is a view of the start of the renovated section at the corner with Horodynskoho Street. It is clearly very much a work in progress, although there is a clear impression of the intention to create a wonderful thoroughfare. It took a campaign by ordinary residents of the city last year to save the linden trees which gave this street its original name, with council and developers claiming the trees were variously a danger to lives or property, or that they could be replaced. The campaign was successful involving a series of protests and petitions, and it’s clear that the trees have now been given special protection.

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This set of pictures shows a building a little further up Shevchenko Street adorned with gargoyles or chimeras, as they are known here. This building housed the first Ukrainian language secondary school in the city. It also bears plaques to three Ukrainian men. The first is to Stepan Lenkavsky, an activist in the Ukrainian interwar nationalist and independence movement, who became leader of the Organisation of Ukrainian Revolutionary Nationalists in exile in Munich in the 1950s and 1960s, hence the OUN symbolism on the plaque and also graffitied onto the wall beneath it. He was most famous for authoring the Ten Commandments of the Ukrainian Nationalist, with his plaque here bearing the first: ‘You will secure a Ukrainian state or die fighting for it.’

The second plaque here is to Oleksa Hirnyk, another pupil of the school. In 1978 he burned himself to death close to Taras Shevchenko’s tomb on the 60th anniversary of the declaration of an independent Ukraine. He is an official, state-recognised Hero of Ukraine, although for a long time his fate was silenced, while Shevchenko’s poetry provided the inspiration for his resistance to Ukraine’s Russification under Soviet rule.

The third plaque features Mykhailo Dyachenko, another graduate of the school, and a nationalist activist who was the chief poet of UPA who died in 1952 fighting NKVD forces in Ivano-Frankivsk – then Stanislav – region.

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Further along the street, as well as some wonderful examples of nineteenth and twentieth century urban architecture, you find the point where the renovations of Shevchenko Street have come to an end – namely just outside what is nominally the main entrance to the university. The paving stones are ready and waiting to be laid, while the workers have a portakabin available, but there doesn’t seem to be an urgency – despite the ideal weather for the job – to lay them. Not even to reach a few metres further so that it would be possible to enter the university without traipsing through mud. Thankfully the massive trenches that had tainted the street for months have been filled in. The state of the street has meant a significant increase in graffiti in this area, and none of it really that creative or humorous.

IMG_1981 However, there is evidence of a decent command of English, as well as a declaration of love of Ukraine in one of the photos above.

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Further up the street, you get a sense of the eclectic variety of architecture on this street which reflects all eras of the city’s history. The street existed as a thoroughfare to hunting grounds in the seventeenth century when it was founded, then it became a more exclusive area of the city, hence some of the lovely townhouses. However, it also houses the university which – beyond any nice buildings it acquired – can’t be said to have contributed greatly to the city’s architectural heritage in any positive way. The building behind the green fence is the death trap where I am expected to conduct my classes, the Humanities Block, which featured in this post about health and safety at work and fire safety. Opposite the university are some communist-era blocks of flats, while a nineteenth century Austrian-era building features most probably a remnant of the Soviet-era service sector, shoe repair. The red sign suggests membership of an updated form of cooperative, while the plastic windows and doors are clearly a twenty-first-century imposition on the building.

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Further up the street there is evidence of great care being taken to renovate Austrian- and Polish-era buildings, even with their fine and intricate details, as the pink building shows. The row of buildings, meanwhile, shows a series of architecture from interwar modernism blending into Austrian-era bourgeois architecture. The building furthest to the right houses some of the finest rooms owned by the university, with this building knows as the Building of Academics. Here doctoral dissertations are defended and dignitaries hosted. Further down is the house where one of Ukraine’s leading contemporary writers, Yuriy Andrukhovych, lives.

Behind the red car is a more recent architectural addition which has taken a form common in the city, namely “renovating” an existing building while in fact substantially altering it and effectively putting something new in its place. This is also evident in the form of the house behind the high fence where a local oligarch, or probably a “minigarch” lives. Next door to this minigarch’s house is a nineteenth-century building which has fallen into disrepair with no chance of it being rescued.

IMG_1996Still, some of the grand buildings by the park remain untouched and in great condition. Some in the past housed high-ranking local Party officials, although the one featured here is now home to a monastery. Nearby is a kindergarten.

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Also in Shevchenko Park is the Rukh (Movement) Central Municipal Stadium which is still home to the largest local football team, Precarpathia Ivano-Frankivsk. The results board outside, however, still refers to the relative glory days of 2010/11 when the team was in the second-flight of Ukrainian football. Since then, following bankruptcy, the club has declined and despite talk of takeovers, it looks like it will be a long time before the city sees a decent standard of football again. The stadium could probably do with significant investment, since the stand in the third picture is apparently much too steeply built to enable fans to see the whole of pitch without obstruction. The most popularly attended events at the stadium now are rock concerts, with Okean Elzy having performed in spring and Skryabin in autumn.

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The mix-and-match form of the stadium gives it a certain accidentally modernist charm, while the traces of the efforts to extend its use are evident. Probably in the 1990s and early 2000s there was an internet and gaming club here called Kiberia. It is not quite clear, though, what this entrance gate was supposed to achieve, despite a vague resemblance to a 2D parthenon.

So, this was a walk along Shevchenko Street – one of the most historically and architecturally significant in the city – and into the park, which is a trace of the initial reason for locating a city here in the 17th century. In 1662, the Polish nobles, the Potockis, thought this would have made a great hunting ground.

This is by no means an exhaustive history of the street, merely a set of observations from a Sunday walk on the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great Ukrainian bard Taras Shevchenko. Still, this brief overview shows this street to be something of a palimpsest, reflecting better than any other in its architecture and history the 200 years that have passed since Shevchenko’s birth and indeed the entire history of the city.

4 thoughts on “Sunday in the Park with Taras: On Shevchenko’s 200th birthday.

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