Taras Shevchenko Memorial
Sculptor, Leo Mol Architect, Radoslav Zuk
Foreign policy is an abstract, evanescent thing to most Americans. But not in Washington, which is full of monuments that are a sort of physical substrate of American geopolitical interests. While alliances and enmities shift over the years, the objects themselves remain, permanently occupying some of the most prominent public spaces. The Cold War, in particular, makes its presence felt, with the ungainly kind of Socialist Realist art that is now out of favor in the former Soviet Union and its dependencies. It looks pretty weird here too.
In just a few blocks of the western part of Dupont Circle, the edge of “Embassy Row”, one can find prominent sites dedicated to (among others) the Hungarian Lajos Kossuth, the Czech Tomas Masaryk and the Ukranian Taras Shevchenko, who has become a virtual icon of his land. Shevchenko’s memorial is the largest and most prominent. Though its inauguration in 1964 was attended by nearly 100,00 people, in the more than 15 years I lived next door to it, it was almost always empty, except as a meeting place for local jogging and exercise groups. A large, almost totally unrelieved stone expanse, it brings to the dense urban streetscape something of the sterile, brutalist aesthetic that especially dominated Eastern Europe at the time of its making.
The memorial itself stands at the top of the flat stone plaza. It consists of two seemingly unrelated objects. One is a bronze statue of Shevchenko, “Bard of the Ukraine” dressed in characteristic 19thcentury garb, and high up upon a pedestal. His demeanor and flowing Romantic coiffure are those of a young man walking defiantly forward. To the left of this bronze statue is a light stone relief about half as high. Though not explained anywhere on the monument, it represents the Greek hero Prometheus, who was chained to a rock for stealing fire from the gods. It is odd to see ancient Greek literature illustrated here, while Shevchehnko’s own poetic work is represented only by a couplet from his poem “The Caucasus” on the back of the same relief. However confused the details, the general thrust is (sorta) clear. Shevchenko too is a hero, though a vulnerable, enchained one (looking for a savior). The monument presents Prometheus as a sort of double to Shevchenko. In the Greek myth, Prometheus was ultimately rescued by the hero Hercules. The role of Hercules here, the hero to Ukraine, is, of course, the United States.
The statue’s inscription states that the monument is dedicated to “the liberation, freedom and independence of all captive nations.” It mentions in passing that Shevchenko was a “19thcentury Ukrainian poet” but takes much more time to describe him as a “fighter for independence of Ukraine and the freedom of all mankind who under foreign Russian/imperialist tyranny appealed for ‘the new and righteous law of Washington.’” That last quotation within the inscription derives from an 1857 poem of Shevchenko. On the monument, it neatly elides Washington, the man, to whom Shevchenko was appealing in the 19th century, with Washington the city and apparatus of American government in the 20th, which thunderingly approved the monument’s construction and message.
The committee that sponsored and oversaw the monument included former president Herbert Hoover as honorary chair, and found numerous congressional backers after a letter-writing campaign by Ukrainian Americans. In its time, the early 1960s, backing the monument represented a simple way to both proclaim the anti-Communism that dominated the times and consolidate domestic political backing. The vast crowd that attended in 1964 began by singing the Star Spangled Banner and ended with the Ukrainian anthem “Ukraine Has Not Yet Died.” This programmatic choice may explain something of the memorial’s own design. It speaks certainly to the “dependency theory” by which a small, endangered country associates itself with a great power for not just protection but identity, regardless of economic outcome.
Ukrainian Americans would appear to have a certain advantage in getting monuments built, due to their particular oppressor. In 2015, a second monument to Ukrainian suffering was unveiled near Union Station. This commemorates the victims of the “Holodomor,” the 1932-3 wheat famine suffered there. By contrast, there is no monument, for instance, to the Irish Potato Famine in Washington, at least as crippling a famine. Similarly, the only museum dedicated to the Armenian Genocide is located solely online, Republican leaders having even rejected legislative acknowledgement of the event.
Perhaps it is not surprising that only certain politically advantageous sufferings and disasters are monumentalized in Washington. It is nonetheless striking how such events are heroized and purified even in their own time. As the Washington Post editorial board pointed out at the time of the proposal of the memorial, Shevchenko was not only obscure to most Americans, he was anti-Polish and anti-Semitic, two features offensive to considerable groups of Americans. Moreover, even though the monument sets him as anti-communist hero, he had long been absorbed in the Soviet canon as a hero. Thus while the Soviet authorities initially objected to the monument, they eventually asked to take part in the dedication. Much like bills and sausages, monuments are also not such pretty things to see being made. There were numerous calls to review or even downright cancel the monument from governmental authorities ranging from the Department of the Interior to the National Capital Planning Commission. As in more recent times, sheer political power overcame the municipal and governmental, as national controlled local. The grueling controversy over the Shevchenko Monument led to the director of the National Park Service (which administers and controls the monument today) to call for “the curtailing of statuary” in Washington. Not for the last time.
Nonetheless, the Shevchenko Memorial has become part of the landscape of Washington, DC, one of the city’s many connections to the broader world. In 2010 it made a most Washington kind of sight, as an orange banner hung from Shevchenko’s arm, his own contribution to the “Orange Revolution” in his native land. It’s a sure sign you can never predict just what, or how, a monument will represent, or just what the world will bring up next. As I write this, Ukraine has emerged as target of the Trump administration, and the monument is a perfect place for something to emerge in response.