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Walking from St Petersburg to Kyiv


In May 1991, the Ukrainian artist Volodymyr Kalnenko carried the death mask of Taras Shevchenko from St Petersburg to Kyiv walking most of the way. Lyubava MALYONA explains.


Volodymyr Kalnenko is an Ukrainian artist who has lived a larger part of his life in St Petersburg, Russia, remaining spiritually linked to Ukraine. He went to St Petersburg in his young years where he found great cultural riches in museums, where the famous Art Academy trained artists and the cultural milieu provided him with artistic inspiration and encouragement.

Volodymyr Kalnenko was born in the small village of Klekche in the Land of Kyivshchyna in 1944. His grandmother Katrya read Kobzar, the collection of poems by the great Ukrainian bard Taras Shevchenko, to the little boy. She sang old Ukrainian songs about Cossacks and about the struggle of the Ukrainian people to escape the stifling clutches of Muscovy.

In St Petersburg, Kalnenko was educated at the Art Academy, and later in addition to creating his own art, he taught art to the students of the Mukhina Art School. Gradually, he became a noticeable figure in the artistic circles of St Petersburg.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Kalnenko regularly invited his Ukrainian friends in St Petersburg to come to his studio on March 10 to mark Shevchenkos birthday. Among the guests were also Ukrainians from Moscow, Tallinn and several cities of Ukraine. All night long, the guests and the host recited Shevchenkos poems and sang songs which were, in the soviet times, banned from public performance (even singing them in private could land you in trouble). Eventually, they formed an underground Ukrainian national society, for which, if discovered, they could be persecuted and imprisoned.

Kalnenkos art also reflected his Ukrainian national leanings. Such paintings as Ya  Kozak Mamay, mene ne zaymay (Im a Cossack Named Mamay, Dont Mess Around with Me), and Self-Portrait and Mamay, and others, were created in protest against the soviet national policies which aimed at creating the coalesced soviet people in the melting pot of the Soviet Union out of all the nationalities, peoples and ethnic groups who were part of it.

When in April 1986, a nuclear reactor at the Chornobyl nuclear power station exploded, the artist felt he could stay away from his native land no longer and returned to Ukraine to share the hardships with his people. He settled down in the village of Hnidyn not far from Kyiv and found work as a teacher in a local school. Since then Kalnenko has been living and working in Hnidyn. His great ambition is to set up what he calls A Small Academy of Folk Arts in the village. Also, he writes fairy tales and short stories for his pupils. He has been instrumental in organizing over 70 exhibitions of works by Ukrainian artists.

In 1991, in commemoration of 130th anniversary of Shevchenkos death, he declared his intention of returning Shevchenkos death mask which had been kept in St Petersburg ever since the poets death there in March 1861, to Kaniv, in Ukraine where Shevchenko is buried. He set out on his long journey on May 8, holding the mask in his hands. The mask was delivered to Kaniv on May 22.


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