(Bohdan Nahaylo’s article appeared in the Kyiv Post, 3/19;  This article was originally published in the May 2019 issue of the monthly in-flight magazine of Ukraine’s International Airlines – Panorama and reprinted in Kyiv Post a year ago. Photo:  Kyiv Post.)

How Ukraine’s national poet and former serf bonded with a visiting Afro-American actor and former slave.

From the Editors:  March 9 marks the 210th anniversary of Ukraine’s greatest poet and architect of its modern national identity –Taras Shevchenko. We are therefore reprinting an article by our Chief Editor that covers a little-known but very illuminating episode in his life.

A legendary Afro-American actor in the middle of the nineteenth century flees slavery and meets on the other side of the world Ukraine’s leading poet and recent political prisoner who had earlier been freed from serfdom. Imagine the inherent mutual understanding and solidarity between the two irrepressible artists, and the resulting cathartic and creative interaction.

This is what actually occurred in the winter of 1858-59 when Ukraine’s greatest poet and national icon, Taras Shevchenko, met a remarkable black actor called Ira Aldridge in the Russian imperial capital Saint Petersburg. Their encounter resulted in an imminent, brief, but intense, friendship that was recorded in eyewitness accounts, sketches, and even a portrait of the American by the Ukrainian.

Aldridge was born in 1807 in New York into the family of a preacher. He had little hope of fulfilling his ambition of becoming an actor in a land where slavery and racial segregation were still the norm. Fortunately, as a young man he managed to emigrate to England where the climate was more liberal.  During the next years when slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire (1834) the determined young American was able to fulfill his dream.

Aldridge began his career in small London theatres. But even in progressive England, the black actor was often subjected to racist abuse. He persevered and during the next three decades eventually became a star. He became the first black actor to play Shakespearean roles and was renowned as tragedian. 

During his first European tour in 1852, Aldridge’s performances in “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “Othello” and “The Merchant of Venice” consolidated his fame. He was showered with decorations and honors. In 1858, just as he was considering revisiting the country of his birth, he was invited by the Russian Imperial Theatre to play in St. Petersburg.

Here he soon met Shevchenko, who had just been freed after 10 years of captivity in the form of banishment and military service as an ordinary soldier in the Russian army in a remote area in present-day Kazakhstan.   For a creative genius, this had been a cruel and degrading punishment from an autocratic Russian imperial system. After a decade of isolation from the cultural world, he could not get enough of theatre, opera and the world of the arts generally.

Shevchenko, a wonderfully talented artist respected in the top Russian artistic circles, had been arrested in 1847 in Kyiv for belonging to a secret patriotic society that had dared to elaborate the idea of a free and equal, democratic, partnership of Slavic nations – a United States of the Slavic world. 

Shevchenko had been born a serf in 1814 in the Cherkasy region of Russian-ruled Ukraine. His talent as an artist unexpectedly brought him his freedom. In 1831 his master, a petty lord of the manor, brought him Shevchenko as his property to St. Petersburg where he allowed his servant to take art lessons. 

Spotted sketching by a fellow-Ukrainian artist, Shevchenko’s talent was soon recognized at the highest level. In 1838 he was bought out of social bondage from his owner by a group of celebrated Russian artists and cultural figures.

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