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A visitor inspects a damaged statue of Hryhoriy Skovoroda
A damaged statue of Hryhoriy Skovoroda in KharkivImage: Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images

Who was Ukrainian philosopher Skovoroda?

Torsten Landsberg
May 12, 2022

The Soviet Union once honored Hryhoriy Skovoroda with a museum in Ukraine — that's now been destroyed by Russian bombs. It's an attack on a freedom-loving idol, says philologist Gusan Guseynov.

https://p.dw.com/p/4B8jt

The Hryhoriy Skovoroda National Literary Memorial Museum, which was destroyed by a Russian missile, had been built in 1972 to honor the legacy of the poet and philosopher, also known as Grigory Skovoroda.

The museum was located in the theologian's final residence, in a suburb of the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where he had spent the last year of his life before dying on November 9, 1794.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it was an attack on the legacy of Skorovoda, "who taught humans what a true Christian attitude towards life was and how humans can know themselves."

One man was hurt in the attack. The items in the museum's collection, including several manuscripts, had already been taken out of the area to a more secure location. A statue of Skorovoda survived the attack almost unscathed.

Hryhoriy Skorovoda's name remains present throughout Ukraine. The Skovoroda Kharkiv National Pedagogical University is one of the oldest universities in the country; the Hryhorii Skovoroda University, founded in 1986 in Pereiaslav, is located south of Kyiv. Skoworoda's likeness also adorns the 500 hryvnia banknote.

Rejection of material possessions

Skorovoda was born in December 1722 in Chornukhy, now in Ukraine, but part of the Russian Empire during the philosopher's time. From 1738 onwards, he studied at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and later taught himself Latin, Greek and German. He also became interested in classical philosophical literature.

Hryhoriy Skovoroda
Ukrainian philosopher Hryhoriy SkovorodaImage: public domain

Skovoroda worked as a teacher of poetry but lost his position after an argument with the school administrators and subsequently became a private tutor.

In 1760, he became professor of poetry at the collegium in Kharkiv. Later, he taught Greek and ethics until he withdrew from all activities in 1769 to dedicate himself to his philosophical writing, all of which was published posthumously. He traveled through Ukraine until he settled down in Kharkiv, at the house that was recently destroyed.

A dream in 1758 is said to have triggered his spiritual rejection of all things material. At this point, Skovoroda had already traveled a lot and faced the problem of spreading philosophy in the Russian Empire, his home, which was much bigger than Greece, the cradle of philosophy.

Today, Skorovoda is referred to as the Ukrainian or Russian Socrates — which can be traced back to a statement of his, where he said he intended and wished to be the Socrates of Russia.

'An interesting and free human being'

"In reality, he was not a particularly significant philosopher," says Gasan Guseynov, classical scholar at the East European Institute of Berlin's Free University. "His texts were not so important; he was more convincing through the power of speech," he told DW. The value of his philosophical works might be "a bit exaggerated," Guseynov adds.

In Kharkiv, workers carry a damaged statue of Skovoroda
Workers carry a damaged statue of Skovoroda after the destruction of the museum on May 6Image: Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images

But he definitely left his mark throughout his lifetime.

"He was an interesting and a free human being, a rare personality, like a bird of paradise in 18th-century Russia," Guseynov says, pointing out that it wasn't common to travel so much at the time, not only within the Russian Empire, but also to Vienna and Budapest and possibly to Italy.

Through his travels, Skorovoda could assume a position as professor and mediator between Russia and Europe for his students. "He was interested in human beings and remained a learner," says Guseynov.

Striving for happiness

The quest for freedom and happiness through self-discovery were key themes for Skovoroda.

Both were to be achieved in harmony with God. The philosopher, however, had his problems with the Church, Guseynov says: "In those times, he was considered a dissident by the Church because he rejected religious poetry. That is why there were conflicts in his rhetoric courses." Skovoroda was a "peace-loving person with a tendency for freedom and humor," a combination that did not bode well with the strictness of the Church.

A Ukrainian currency note with Skorovoda's image
A Ukrainian currency note with Skorovoda's imageImage: public domain

Not considered 'a dangerous poet' by the Soviets

Gasan Guseynov describes the time after the collapse of the Russian Empire and the creation of the Soviet Union, whose republics had their own national languages, artists and writers: "Out of these republics, the memory of those historical persons was preserved who were not controversial." 

Skorovoda had never been critical of the Russian Empire and mostly wrote in Russian. He was, therefore, "acceptable for the Soviets. They did not see him as a dangerous poet."

Russian President Vladimir Putin also included the historical figure in his attempts to demonstrate that Ukraine's culture is actually Russia's. Last year, in an article entitled "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians," he wrote about Skovoroda and artists like Taras Shevchenko, whose statue has also been badly damaged during the war.

"Their works are our common literary and cultural heritage," explains Guseynov.

"In Ukraine, which was suppressed for a long time as 'little Russia,' Skovoroda is an important symbol for the love of freedom," Guseynov says, which is why, he explains, the bombardment of the museum felt for many like an attack on the human soul of the country.

Since the beginning of the invasion, more than 200 cultural sites have been damaged in Ukraine.

This article was originally written in German.

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