Precursor: A Novel about Ukrainian Philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda

Written by Vasyl Shevchuk Yuri Tkacz (trans.)
Review by Mandy Jenkinson

Vasyl Shevchuk (1932-1999) is a Ukrainian writer, and his widely acclaimed 1969 novel Precursor has now been reissued in a new English translation. It tells the story of real-life wandering philosopher, Hryhoriy Skovoroda (1722-1794), whose writings are still read today. He was a colourful and unorthodox character, and this novel brings him fully to life. His commitment to searching for the truth never left him, and even as an old man, briefly reunited with his family, he still felt drawn to go back on the road to preach his message.

He travelled throughout Ukraine and into Russia, speaking out about justice and freedom and castigating the hypocrisy of state and church. This did not make him popular with the authorities, and he was frequently attacked for his lectures and sermons. In spite of this he somehow managed to survive. Each chapter is described as a “net”, a net in which the powers that be tried to constrain him but from which he escaped by simply moving on.

The novel weaves back and forth across the countryside and offers a vivid portrait of life in 18th century Ukraine and the Russian Empire—the villages, cities, monasteries and farms, with their traditions, customs and festivals. The beauties of the landscape are evocatively described and provide a poignant backdrop to the poverty, indignities and sufferings of the population, especially the serfs.

Based on fact, this is historical fiction at its best and makes a compelling read. The accompanying footnotes are essential for a non-Ukrainian reader, but I would also have appreciated an introduction, as any reader coming to the text without at least some prior knowledge will find themselves at a disadvantage. That said, however, the book is a wonderful portrait of a little-known but fascinating figure, and it deserves a wide readership.