Honoring a Friendship Bonded in Defense of Human Rights – From St. Petersburg, Russia to Washington, D.C.
While February is Black History Month, a month when attention is given specifically to the contribution of African-Americans to our country, our society, and culture, March is the month that Ukrainians worldwide honor Taras Shevchenko. For Ukrainian-Americans, both months are a time of reflection on a very special and unique friendship between one of Ukraine’s greatest historical figures, Taras Shevchenko, and a famously talented black American, Ira Aldridge.
Although both men died in the 1860s, one in Russia and the other in Poland, and though both are little known to the general public in America, both of their images are present in the capital city of the United States. A mere two and a half miles apart here in Washington DC stand monuments to Taras Shevchenko and to Ira Aldridge. The first was born a Ukrainian serf who was purchased out of bondage in order for his immense talents to blossom; the second was born a Negro in New York who, because of the color of his skin, had to leave his country to find the full glory of his God-given talent.
At the corner of 22nd and P streets in Northwest Washington stands the figure of Taras Shevchenko, a monument to the man, his writing, his profound commentaries on human dignity, pleas of help for the plight of the downtrodden and his aspirations for his country, struggling under tsarist repression. Engraved in the granite is his hope for Ukraine: “When shall we get our Washington, to promulgate his new and righteous law?” On the other side of the city stands The Ira Aldridge Theatre on the Howard University campus, constructed in memory of a great thespian talent and as a symbol of challenges overcome, paths revealed for other talents to follow.
Portraits of both men hang in that theater, portraits painted by Taras Shevchenko and donated to Howard University in 1967 from the archives of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences in the United States.
Born a serf in Ukraine, Shevchenko was destined for a lifetime of servitude. Yet when his owner left Ukraine for St. Petersburg, Russia, he took the young Shevchenko along. In St. Petersburg, Shevchenko’s artistic talents were revealed. In 1838, the city’s artistic circles succeeded in raising 2,500 rubles to purchase Shevchenko’s freedom. Once free, he became a student at the Imperial Academy of Arts and his artwork and poetic writing flourished. His poems glorified Ukraine and demanded freedom and justice for all oppressed nations and classes of people.
Shevchenko returned to Ukraine in 1845 to find great injustices. His poems criticized the tsarist regime and chided the aristocracy’s oppression of the peasants. For these expressions, he was arrested and deported from Ukraine to exile in a remote part Asian Russia, incarcerated in a military penal facility and, by the decree of the Tsar, denied writing and drawing materials. Despite the Tsar’s orders and the incarceration’s terrible cost to his health, Shevchenko secretly composed some of his most powerful works while imprisoned and in political exile. Moreover, at the same time, Shevchenko’s Ukrainian and Russian friends, including Count and Countess Fyodor Tolstoy, worked to secure his freedom again. Finally, ten years after his arrest, Shevchenko was released. Forbidden to return to Ukraine, he returned to St. Petersburg, where he soon met the American Ira Aldridge.
Although Aldridge had been born in New York, as his immense talents became apparent, he found his opportunities limited due to the significant discrimination against blacks. He chose to emigrate to England in 1824 and began acting in small London theatres. Receiving notice and praise, he was soon performing in England’s finest theatres and began to tour outside London. By 1852, Aldridge, the first black to act in white roles in Shakespeare’s plays, left for his first European tour. Receiving acclaim everywhere he traveled, he returned to London a theatric hero.
In 1858, Aldridge accepted an invitation from the Russian Imperial Theatre to perform in St. Petersburg. Shevchenko attended the opening performance and the two men were introduced.
There are numerous letters and notes commenting upon their meeting and friendship. One of Tolstoy’s daughters, Katherine, served as an early translator between Aldridge and Shevchenko and wrote about the experience and their friendship. Shevchenko attended Aldridge’s performances. Aldridge visited Shevchenko’s studio and posed for the artist. They visited one another often and spent time in the same social circles, one that included many artists, performers, intellectuals.
Their friendship was unique since they had in common not only the creativity of their personalities and their love of the arts, but their shared experiences of social oppression and their dreams of a better future for their people. Though free, famous, with powerful friends, living in the world of Russian aristocracy, neither seemed able to forget his past, the plight of his people.
Those who wrote about their friendship noted that they often sang together. Aldridge greatly appreciated the sorrowful and melodic Ukrainian songs that captured the unfortunate plight of the people of Ukraine. Shevchenko, in turn, loved the songs of the Negro South, no doubt to great extent for the same reasons.
When Aldridge returned to England, he took with him a portrait of Shevchenko by a Russian artist. Aldridge returned to Russia several years later but by then Shevchenko had passed away. Between 1861 and 1866, Aldridge made several tours of the tsarist empire including three trips to Ukraine, to Shevchenko’s homeland, trips that had been denied to the great poet, artist, and patriot. Ira Aldridge never returned to the United States, however, he did live to know of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War.
Both of these men, historic giants in their artistic fields and in their messages about the struggles of mankind for dignity and the perseverance of individuals, died on foreign soil far from their homelands. Aldridge’s body remains in Poland. Eventually, Shevchenko’s body was returned to Ukraine from Russia. Their unique friendship remains a story for the ages; it is fitting that among the monuments to their lives and contributions there are the two in Washington, DC, just two and a half miles apart. A friendship that brought them together thousands of miles from here, eventually finds them in the capital of Aldridge’s native land, respected and honored, with Shevchenko’s question still unanswered: when will Ukraine get its “new and righteous law?”
Robert A. McConnell is a co-founder of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation.