Ukrainian Philosophy of the Heart

Every day, rolling out of bed, I start with the recognition of a simple tenet of my life: “love what you do and do what you love.” A philosophy I’ve intertwined into every fabric of my being, but this morning I stare at these words I’ve just typed, and I’m lost. 

A photo taken in Kyiv at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), stares back at me from my computer screen. The freedom of that cold December night, the walk along the Square among friends old and new carries no resemblance of today. 

My eyes drift to another photo, a voice answers the question churning in my mind. “The man on the horse, his name is Bohdan Khmelnytsky,” I nod, her voice soothes. “He led the first successful uprising for Ukrainian independence.”

I stare at the photo, unable to remember my thoughts when I first saw this statue but given the photo is blurry, I know Ukrainian vodka is partly to blame… I also understand that anyone who leads a country to independence is a person to be held in high esteem.   

“Not much is actually known about Khmelnitsky,” she wanders over to my computer screen to view the photo closer. “But one thing is for sure, he is shrouded in an aura afforded only to legends ~ a hero in all kinds of tales, poetry, and song.”  

Her voice holds a sense of pride, of defiance. In her sigh I can make out “… and this spirit is alive and well in Ukraine today.”

Ukraine. How much I do not know about this land. And how much I admire the people, friends and strangers, who are holding strong. I think of my last visit, seeing Yevgeniy and Alex with David and Anna.

“Your fleeting understanding of Ukraine is understandable, your desire to learn commendable. Question: have you ever heard of the philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda?

My lost expression brings a sigh and slight shake of the head.

“His wisdom is at the heart of Ukrainian philosophy… and he was a bit of vagabond too, so I think the spirit of you two align well with each other.” She teases.

“According to Skovoroda, the harmony of will is a soul, and the heart is its center… it contains the potential of the whole universe. His work is at the core of the Ukrainian “Philosophy of the Heart.” Looking into my eyes, my soul, she hands me his essay, “see what you think…”

I like the ring of this, his ideas flow in a manner similar with other great minds. His thought distinctive, but I can see why he is referred to as the “Ukrainian Socrates.”  There is wisdom in his actions as well as his words.

“The 18th century was not kind to Ukraine, enslaved by Russia there was a need for a spiritual rebellion in the nation and Skovoroda’s writing filled the void perfectly.” The admiration in her voice draws me in closer, “He reminded his humbled countrymen about the great virtues of Ukrainians: the love of freedom, power of the will, sincer­ity, and the desire to learn.”  

“His desire to learn drove him from a life of comfort and out into the world to seek wisdom.” She points to a sentence, his mantra: “To be happy is to know oneself, to find oneself…” her laugh resonates with her mocking tone: “as you often say… love what you do and do what you love.”

She puts her warm hand on my shoulder, her eyes look beyond anything I can imagine. The steeliness in her gaze holds a strength seldom seen: the strength of a nation. As she turns to leave, my heart fills with admiration and hope for her and Ukraine.

A fog of uncertainty remains as she drifts away.  I look at my phone, messages from my friends in Sumy spells worry, but also hope. I think back to the discussion last night with a colleague from Kharkiv; stretched and stranded between work here in Czech and his homeland under siege. 

I unfold a piece of paper with a Ukrainian poem given to me called “Testament” (Zapovit) by Taras Shevchenko, written on December 25th, 1845.  And while poetry does not come easy to me, this one hits the mark:

When I am dead, bury me

In my beloved Ukraine,

My tomb upon a grave mound high

Amid the spreading plain,

So that the fields, the boundless steppes,

The Dnieper’s plunging shore

My eyes could see, my ears could hear

The mighty river roar

When from Ukraine the Dnieper bears

Into the deep blue sea

The blood of foes… then will I leave

These hills and fertile fields – I’ll leave them all and fly away

To the abode of God,

And then I’ll pray…. But until that day

I know nothing of God.


Oh bury me, then rise ye up

And break your heavy chains

And water with the tyrants’ blood

The freedom you have gained.

And in the great new family,

The family of the free,

With softly spoken, kindly word

Remember also me.

Translated by John Weir, Toronto, 1961

Shevchenko moves the soul.  And in the true spirit of today, during the year of 1847 he was arrested for writing a poem (Dream) in the Ukrainian language (illegal, for only use of the Russian language was permitted). He doubled-down on his fate with Dream by promoting the independence of Ukraine while also ridiculing the members of the Russian Imperial House.

Seriously, this is a man after our hearts. 

Within these turbulent times of today, I reflect on what I’ve learned recently; a subtle, sincere foray into Ukrainian thought. From the philosopher Skovoroda of the mid-1700s to the poet Taras Shevchenko of the mid-1800s.

The discovery of Skovoroda’s philosophy and his Socratic way to seek out life, inspires ~ and props to the epitaph he requested on his gravestone:

Світ ловив мене, та не впіймав

The World tried to catch me but failed

The other great surprise is from the poet, Shevchenko. To learn how he was revered around the world, especially in the USA as both President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson honored him:

“He was more than a Ukrainian — he was a statesman and citizen of the world.

He was more than a poet — he was a valiant crusader for the rights and freedom of men.

He used verse to carry on a determined fight for freedom.”

Lyndon B. Johnson, Oct. 26th, 1964

Restless here in 2022, I wonder about the next great Ukrainian mind to shine? Undoubtedly a courageous free spirit with fire in their soul, daring anyone to take away what has been rightly earned. 

From what we’ve all seen recently, Ukraine is a nation full of such heroes. One hopeful who is already reshaping his country and the world is current President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. May his star continue to shine even brighter. 

I’m not alone in this hope and the outpouring of support given to the Ukrainian people will help them find truth and peace. 

The road will be a difficult one ~ suffering borne by others ~ but they can take heart in knowing the world is behind the beautiful potential of Ukraine.

167 Comments on “Ukrainian Philosophy of the Heart

  1. Hi my friend, you have created an outstanding piece of work here! Such ueber-crazy and imbalanced collective times we live in… and what a soothing balm for the soul to read your words and reflections on the beauty and depth of the Ukrainians – and to take in those speactacular photographs, as well. You know, I have often thought of Jean Paul Sartre’s words “Hell are the others” in the last weeks, when trying to comprehend what brings a human being to create such destruction as is happening now in the Ukraine… and not just that, but what brings any human to live mostly from unconsciousness, where I feel the seeds of “evil” lie… (destruction of nature/ climate crisis shall not be forgotten but overcome!) Anyhow: LOVED your work here once again – it’s so wonderful to learn about Ukrainian poets and philosophers and to shine a light on the strength and beauty of the Ukrainian culture. I have a Ukrainian friend and it’s just heartbreaking to see what’s happening there… humans can be horrible. AND amazing – thank you for reminding us all of that through your work! How are things in Czech at the moment? Big hugs my friend, take care of yourself! 🤗

    • Hola Maria Elena, thank you very much for your thoughtful words, and yes with all that is going on the world the past few years the invasion of Ukraine is the most heartbreaking, frustrating, and absolutely most unnecessary acts of destruction. The support of the world, and especially of all Europe is wonderful to see ~ people uniting and giving a voice to this beautiful country and her people. Their history is full of ups and downs, but the one common thread is their belief in the strength of their will and freedom and in the end they will win the day and heart of the world 🙂 I hope your friend is doing well, and yes you say it well, humans and be horrible and yet amazing too – and hope all sides come to their senses soon and get back to the amazing parts of life. I hope that all’s well in Spain, here in Czech things are going well and looking forward to spring. Abrazos amiga and take care of yourself 🙂

      • Thank you for your beautiful words here my friend. Sending much love and big hugs over to you in Czech! My friend is well, thankfully. Man, crazy times we live in. Sorry for the late reply, I had to deal with some cyberstalking and was a bit more “hidden away” from the online world, or taking a break from it, which can be quite a healthy choice nowadays I feel. Even though I am happy to come back online to connect with wonderful souls such as yourself!! Big hugs!

  2. What can be said that others haven’t already shared? Overt aggression and rampant destruction truly have no place in our world. Strife, past and present often passes, even if long after damage is done. Let us hope that the Ukrainian people will be resilient, rewarded with promise, and eventually thrive again. They deserve abundant freedom. Yours is a beautifully crafted tribute to them. Randy, please continue to “love what you do and do what you love.” You enlighten and inspire many, so well.

    • I think this is the one thing that constantly surprises people when war rears its head “overt aggression and rampant destruction truly have no place in our world…” With this insane invasion of Ukraine, it is as if we have devolved as a species – there is absolutely nothing to be gained, and innocent people on all sides have their lives turned upside down if not destroyed. The one sign from this, a most inspirational sight, is the incredible courage of the Ukrainian spirit of will and freedom and the wave of global support that is only getting stronger. Thank you very much, Eric, for your inspiring words and wishing you a wonderful start to spring and the peace to come. Take care ~

  3. A moving tribute. I feel for the hapless common man on both sides; life can never be the same for them. Cheers to hope, freedom, and the indomitable human spirit.

    • Yes, it is the tragedy of the common, beautiful people on all sides of this conflict that are suffering the most. Heartbreaking tragedy and I like how you say from this the indomitable human spirit will rise again. Peace and freedom for the people of the world is always a noble pursuit. Thank you, Sidran, wishing you well.

    • Thank you very much, Rabirius. It is a special place and as seen throughout this ordeal, full of courageous and inspiring people.

    • Yes, I agree Andrea, the leadership of Ukraine throughout this tragedy has been inspirational to all. Thank you and wish you well.

  4. Randall, what a soaring, heartfelt tribute to Ukraine and its indomitable people. Thank you for shining a light on Ukraine’s rich culture and its contribution to the world of philosophy. Reading your post led me to look up the full text of Taras Shevchenko’s epic poem “Dream” – it is such a stirring literary masterpiece. As you said, so many of its words speak to the current struggle for Ukraine’s future. My sister raved about Ukraine when she went a few years ago on a personal trip. I recall her photos of Maidan Nezalezhnosti and the golden-domed churches of downtown Kyiv, and she told me Lviv had a fairytale appeal. She lost contact with her Ukrainian friends in the first week of the invasion but thankfully they are all safe and accounted for… some of them have fled to Germany. May Ukraine prevail in this war and come out stronger and more united than ever before.

    • Thank you very much, James. It is always something special to learn more about a culture and country and, like you, I was very taken by the works of Taras Shevchenko, both “Dream” and “Testament” spoke and showed the strength of the Ukrainian people and as you say their indomitable spirit. Masterpieces of poetry and the words seem to have gained strength over time. It is also very heartening to hear about your sister’s travel and positive experiences in Ukraine, and good to hear they are safe. My friend’s families have all made it out to Hungary and Czech, but of course the men have stayed and provide updates that cause me to reflect on how chaos can take over the world. Wonderful comment, and thank you. I too hold hope that Ukraine will prevail, and as a result the world will become more united and freedoms fought for, treasured. Take care.

    • The strength of the Ukrainian spirit has been something to admire and inspire, but like you I just wonder not just when it will be over but how considering the illogical and warped thinking of Russian leadership. Thank you, and I hope all is well with you – and I know you and all of Finland are watching this with high emotions. Take care ~

  5. I think we are all learning so much about Ukraine and its people in these horrific times. Why does it take a country under attack for us to notice it? Perhaps we should pick one country each month and thoroughly explore and write about it as a blogging community, as a way to get to know our world better? Having spent time in Ukraine in the 90s, just as it was beginning to open up to the West, I am embarrassed to say that I am learning more about her culture now than I did back then when I was physically present in the country.

    • I agree with you, the world is learning about Ukrainian history, culture, and most importantly the heart of its people. Without the attack of war from Russia, I would not have known about the special and unique history they have… and this is a bit sad to realize. Your idea of choosing an area, culture, or relatively unknown city to know and write/create about is a wonderful idea. Thank you very much, Annette, for your nice words and wish you a great spring ahead.

  6. Such a beautiful piece! Love the photos and quotes, I learned from your post the Ukraine I did not know before through literary and poetry reference. Hope the Ukrainan people will win the war and be able to return to their beautiful country.

    • Thank you very much, Allison. I too was surprised by the rich literary and poetic history of Ukraine ~ and it shows also the beautiful link to the Russian literary community which has produced so much treasured work… makes this war an even greater tragedy. So much positive creativity to be had when people have the freedom to work together. Wish you well and safe travels.

  7. Beautiful cold and glowing cityscapes. Very moving. I had never heard of Shevchenko or Skovoroda. Thank you so much for this.

    • Thank you very much, Dion. It is a bit sad it took such a situation for me to learn about these Ukrainian artists. Their work does move the soul and heartens me a bit that the creativity of this nation will shine even brighter in the future. Wish you a great week ahead.

  8. Hi Dalo. Once again your work has inspired me. Could I possibly use a cropped photo of your blonde Ukrainian friend for the featured image? Her name is Anna right?

  9. Looking forward to discovering more about the works of Taras Shevchenko. Your post is so very hopeful for the future and I find that heart-warming. Wishing this finds you safe and well in your neck of the woods.

    • I really like the poem Testament, and then the one I mention in the post which promoted independence and insulted the Russian Imperial House, Dream, is well known in Ukraine and is a wonderful piece of work as well. Shevchenko is an amazing talent that I never would have know if not for the sad war of aggression. Thank you very much, Atreyee, and wish you well.

  10. A deep and moving post dear Randall… And these words of wisdom spoken with true heart.
    ““According to Skovoroda, the harmony of will is a soul, and the heart is its center… it contains the potential of the whole universe.”

    So many innocents and the vulnerable always it seems suffer for the ‘Will’ of a few Men in power who over Time have asserted ‘Their’ control…

    The Universe has so much yet to reveal to the hearts of All of us.. And may we all be prepared when we finally learn to open them fully the truth of our History and all that it contains..
    I hope your friends are safe and well dear Randall..
    Sending My Best regards my friend… Beautiful photos of Happy memories..

    • Thank you very much for this nice reply, Sue. Yes, it can be a bit overwhelming when understanding that all of the sadness and suffering of this tragedy comes from such an irrational decision… disappointing for humankind. Wishing you peace and a wonderful spring ahead. Take care ~

  11. Dear Randall, I have no personal knowledge of the poets and philosophers of the Ukraine so this poignant post of yours truly moved me. Thank you for sharing your insights and your amazing photos. From the other side of the world I offer my heartfelt prayers for the people of the Ukraine and for the freedoms of all. These are surreal times we’re living in.

    • Thank you very much, Miriam, and I was the same ~ I had never heard of these two and was surprised at the depth of who they were and the art they created. Shevchenko’s poem Testament was moving, and then just reading about his life fascinated me. It is a very surreal world we live in now, so many unpredictable, black swan type of events. Wishing you well and take care.

  12. Such a heartfelt, moving post in these turbulent times. Humans are capable of the best of acts and the worst, and we have seen both in this war.

    I wish Ukraine did not have to see these dark days, and my hope for this wonderful, brave country is for it to arise anew, richer and stronger than ever in the all the ways that count.

    • Thank you very much, Damyanti, I too believe that Ukraine and world will come out of this war much stronger in all the ways that count. The courage and inspiration Ukrainians have shown is worthy of global admiration, and also importantly introspection on where we are as humans and to strive to do better. Wish you well ~

  13. I found you via Klausbernd – thank you for a glorious tribute to this strong people and their beautiful country! I learn from Ukranian friends what happens…and follow it every day. Incredibly determined and clever actions…I cry some and read some, feeling power coming through in their art, words and spirit. President Zelenskyy is my hero – along with his fighting people. Your photos and words too are conveying some of who these people are.

    • Thank you so much, Leya 🙂
      The strength of the Ukrainian spirit is continuing to surprise, and what is just as beautiful are those around the world who are supporting and being as strong as well. People around the world need freedom to create a better world, and Ukraine is the perfect example of this spirit. Wishing you well and my hat’s off to Klausbernd as well – take care.

      • Thank you again for writing! You write it so well. ♥

  14. This evoked very intense emotion several times. I have a book of poems by Taras Shevchenko to pick up tomorrow, now.

    Thank you for this incredible piece. Recently, I saw a sensory-based silent film, shot in Kyiv by a Polish cinematographer (In Spring, Навесні, 1929) that dredged up immensely visceral childhood memories. I found myself enveloped in my own past rovings through the sludge of spring-melt, my endless fixation with the play of light and shadows, with the thrum of the passing trains shaking the ground, and obsessions with the movement of machines and working men, kneeling down to inhale the sputtering of puddles, dazzled by the backlit balter of hissing particles. The whole earth seemed to be exhaling. Immersed in the imagery of the film, I could smell the mud and feel the harshness of the sudden geysers of sunlight that would play across the damp and heady skins of spring. I haven’t changed, I’m still transfixed by these things. Ah, and how it brought back the memory of the vital energy of youth, the daring and the impishness, the exuberance of shenanigans and boundless physical expression. How similar we all are, how much more there is that we share…a collection of mid-sized primates scrabbling across this rocky planet. How much more painful it makes this acceleration of entropy- to me, we are a defiant animal, driven to delay the destruction of entropy for as long as possible- how much closer we’ve come now than ever before, to making such warfare a thing of the past. How much more agonizing it is when new blooms of it still sprout.

    Thank you for all you’ve shared here and about Shevchenko- I’m avidly looking forward to infusing myself in his words.

    Very potent work, Dalo. Regards- aj

    • Thank you AJ, and yes the painful situation watching what is happening in Ukraine ~ and you describe it beautifully “How much more painful it makes this acceleration of entropy- to me…”

      Have you been able to read more of Taras Shevchenko’s poems? I’ve still only read Testament and Dream. What I am interested in, is checking out the silent film you mention: In Spring, Навесні. I hope I can find it, your description of film ~ memories of your play of light and shadows and how it lit up your senses once again is a bit exciting… and older pieces of work seem to draw more of this out of me (especially photography).

      There is something about this period in time, where I am noticing the energy of youth combined with the brushing off of risk which makes life shine so much brighter (as it should) when young and the world is to be savored. It is something that still exists within us all and for reasons I’m not sure of, these feelings are rekindling inside and I think it could simply be this feeling of hope :-). And with what is going on in Ukraine (and the tensions not receding at all), it is agonizing to see the world overall continuing to evolve, but this destructive part of our nature pushing entropy into overdrive.
      Take care ~ Dalo

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