Striving for Freedom: The Ukrainian Philosopher Gregorius Skoworoda

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The Soviet Union honored Gregorius Skoworoda with a museum in Ukraine. Now it was destroyed by Russian missiles. Skovoroda is a symbol of freedom, says philologist Gasan Gusejnov.

A symbol of the love of freedom: the slightly damaged statue of Gregorius Skoworodas

Gregorius Skoworoda is present in many places in Ukraine, and the philosopher and poet is praised all over the country. One of the oldest universities in the country, the National Pedagogical Skoworoda University in Kharkiv, bears his name, as does the Gregorius Skoworoda University in Pereiaslav, founded in 1986, just under 100 kilometers south of Kyiv. Skoworoda's likeness adorns 500 hryvnia banknotes.

Skovorodynikwa, named after its famous former resident, also houses the house where Skoworoda spent the last year of his life. a literary museum, the Hryhoriy Skovoroda Literary Memorial Museum.

A few days ago, this building near the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv was severely damaged in a Russian rocket attack. The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj spoke of an attack on the memory of Skovoroda, “which taught people what a true Christian attitude to life is and how a man can know himself”.

One man was injured, but the museum's objects, including numerous manuscripts, had previously been evacuated from the area. A statue of Skoworoda survived the attack almost undamaged. 

A bird of paradise for his time: the poet and philosopher Gregorius Skovoroda

The destruction of the museum has symbolic power: here the commemoration of an idol of individual freedom, there the attackers fighting freedom. The statue of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko near Kyiv, once honored by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has also been shot at several times and badly damaged. Since the beginning of the invasion, Ukraine has recorded damage to more than 200 cultural sites.

To this day, Gregorius Skoworoda is an important historical figure not only in Ukraine but also in Russia. Last year, in an article titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Vladimir Putin wrote about Skovoroda and artists like Shevchenko: “Their works are our common literary and cultural heritage.”

The Soviet Union honored Skovoroda on his 250th birthday. 1972 birthday with a stamp. The museum was founded in the same year.

“Acceptable to the Soviets”

In an interview with DW, Gasan Gusejnov, classical philologist at the Eastern Europe Institute of the Free University of Berlin, describes the time after the collapse of the Russian Empire and the emergence of the Soviet Union, whose republics had their own national languages, artists and writers: “From these Republics preserved the memory of historical figures who were not controversial.”

Skovoroda never spoke critically of tsardom or the Russian Empire and mostly wrote in Russian. “He was acceptable to the Soviets, they didn't see him as a dangerous poet,” says Gusejnov.

Helpers carry Skoworoda's statue from the badly damaged museum

Gregorius Skoworoda was born on December 3, 1722 in the Russian Empire, in the town of Tschornuchy, today the territory of Ukraine. From the 1730s he studied at the Spiritual Academy in Kyiv, later he acquired knowledge of Latin, Greek and German and was interested in ancient philosophical literature.

Skoworoda worked as a teacher of poetry, but lost the position in a dispute with the school administration and became a private tutor. 1760 he went as professor of poetry to a college in Kharkov, also taught Greek and ethics until he left in 1769 withdrew from all activities to devote himself to his philosophical writings, all of which were published posthumously. Until he settled in the now destroyed house near Kharkiv, he wandered through the country. On 9. November 1794 Skovoroda died.

A dream in 1758 is said to have triggered his spiritual rejection of the material. By this time, Skovoroda had already traveled extensively and faced the challenge of spreading philosophy in the Russian Empire, which was so much larger than Greece, the cradle of philosophy.

Today Skoworoda is often referred to as a Ukrainian or Russian Socrates – which probably goes back to a quote from him in which he serves himself as a slave to God who “has resolved and wished to be Socrates in Russia”.

Skovoroda's portrait on a Ukrainian banknote

“An interesting and free person”

“Actually, he wasn't a particularly important philosopher,” says Gasan Gusejnov. “His lyrics weren't that important, he was more convincing with his rhetorical power.” The classification of his philosophical work is “a bit exaggerated”.

However, this expressly does not apply to Skoworoda as a person. “He was an interesting and free person and a rare personality, almost a bird of paradise in 18th-century Russia,” says Gusejnov. It was unusual to travel so much, not only within the Russian Empire but also to Vienna and Budapest, possibly Italy.

Through his travel experiences, Skoworoda was later able to act as a mediator between Russia and Europe in front of his students as a professor. “He turned to people and remained a learner.”

Striving for happiness

Gregorius Skoworoda's core theme was the striving for happiness and freedom through self-discovery. Both should be achieved in harmony with God. But Skoworoda had his problems with the church, says Gasan Gusejnov: “At that time he was more of a dissident in the church because he rejected religious poetry and this caused conflicts in his rhetoric courses. ” Skoworoda was “a peace-loving person with a penchant for freedom and humor” – a combination that didn't quite go with the strictness of the church.

After the bombing of the museum, many people felt the human soul was struck, says Gasan Gusejnov. “Skovoroda is an important symbol of the love of freedom in Ukraine, which was oppressed for so long as 'Little Rus'.”

Watch the video 04:27

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