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.

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