To write of Shevchenko's childhood, one must contend with the fact that very little original material exists. Apart from his own autobiographical notes which relate only part of the story, there is a fair number of interpretive works, primarily of the Soviet period. One should also note in this regard that because of the stature Shevchenko attained in the national culture of Ukraine and his contribution to international culture in general, twice celebrated by UNESCO, there has been a tendency to idealise, even iconise him. As such, these interpretations of the young Taras, and even of the older artist and poet, often contradict each other and, as such, are not fully reliable. What can be gleaned from these materials, however, is a portrait of the times and the conditions under which Taras and countless other peasant children grew up.
Taras Shevchenko, the son of serfs, was born on the estate of Baron Vasili Engelhardt on March 9, 1814. One of six children, at his birth he was little more than another possession of his lord and master.
The place of his birth was the village of Morintsi, some 200 kilometres to the south of Kiev, an area which in earlier generations had been the home of the Zaporizhian Cossacks. Amongst the peasantry, burdened by the brutal and unjust system of serfdom, tales of these folk heroes and their struggles for freedom, were commonplace, a relief from the toils of the day, as well as a hope for a better future. It was in such an environment that the young Taras and his siblings were raised.
Shevchenko's parents, Hryhori and Kateryna, worked the fields of Baron Engelhardt, as did his older brother Mykyta. As was usual in those times, the serfs laboured five days for their master, and one for themselves. His father also worked on occasion as a chumak, a teamster, hauling salt for Baron Engelhardt from southern Ukraine. It appears that his father, on occasion, took Taras with him on these trips, as young children were not obliged to work for their master. During these trips, the young boy was able to see some of the world, even major centres such as Elizavetgrad and Uman.
His mother Kateryna, while working the fields during the growing season, spent the winters at home, as did most peasant women, spinning and weaving for the master.
Inside the household, again as was typical, the older children took care of the younger ones. In the Shevchenko household, older sister Katrusia was the mainstay and had quite an effect on her younger brother. He was upset, it appears, when she married and moved away with her new husband, and it was to her home that Taras returned a few years later after fleeing a brutal deacon for whom he worked.
At home, the life of the family was a happy one in terms of the human relations, but a hard one in terms of material possessions and human want. Often, there was a shortage of food, particularly after the hard winter months. Shevchenko himself noted that his mother would often refuse to eat after working the fields all day, claiming she wasn't hungry. Taras later concluded that she didn't eat because she wanted the children to be better nourished. This interpretation was no doubt underscored by the fact that his youngest sister, Mariyka, forced to fast during the lenten period before Easter and after a winter of food shortages, went blind as a result of malnutrition.
Another influence on the young boy was his paternal grandfather, Ivan, who often related stories to the young boy of the struggles of the peasantry and the not infrequent rebellions and violent uprisings. These stories probably are the basis for much of the poet's later works, such as Haydamaky.
The greatest influence on the boy, however, was simply the hard fact of peasant life. Until the abolition of serfdom in 1861, ironically, the year of Shevchenko's death, a serf was simply a chattel, free to be worked as an animal, beaten for any perceived misdemeanour, killed in extreme cases, sold or traded. Shevchenko as a boy was witness to all this, including the beating of his grandfather for not showing proper respect for the master. On another occasion, a serf who had been insolent, was sent into the army as a conscript, in those days a twenty-five year sentence, leaving behind his young wife. It is not surprising that in later life so much of his poetry is devoted to the recurring themes of peoples' struggles against injustice and a vengeful hatred of those who oppress.
As a youngster, Taras stood out amongst his peers. He was inquisitive and adventurous, often wandering away to search out answers to his many questions. When he was six, he set off to a distant burial mound to see the iron pillars which he imagined held up the sky. Luckily, a villager spotted him on the road and brought him home.