Numerous buildings in the old Ukrainian town of Pereyaslav-Khmelnitsky are regarded as historical and cultural monuments, of which a unique specimen of architecture is the literary-memorial museum devoted to the eminent Ukrainian philosopher, humanist and poet Hrihoriy Skovoroda (1722 — 1794). The museum was established in honour of his 250th birth anniversary, and is located in the very building that once housed the college where Skovoroda lectured on poetics in 1753.
The exhibition starts with a small room where the visitor's attention is drawn to the Resolution of the Soviet Government on the erection of monuments to outstanding people, dated July 30, 1918 and signed by Vladimir Lenin. The name of Skovoroda is ranked with the names of the prominent Russian scientists Mikhail Lomonosov and Dmitriy Mendeleev. Taras Shevchenko and Leo Tolstoy are quoted as saying that Skovoroda deserves high praise both as a philosopher and as a man.
A statue of the philosopher, depicted as a pilgrim with his staff, stands in the centre of the room against a background draped with old Ukrainian embroidered towels and a rug.
On the right from the hallway is the lecture room of philosophy and theology whose exhibits cover the period that Skovoroda spent in what is now the Pereyaslav Region. Marking the beginning of his teaching activity and bold creative endeavours, this was a time of test for his character and persuasions.
Of great interest are his portrait by an unknown artist of the 18th century and his reference books which include "Writings and Speeches” by Feofan Prokopovich and works by Lomonosov. A drawing by Yu. Khimich depicts the Monastery of the Ascension where in a secluded cell the philosopher wrote his "Discourse on Poesy and Advice on Mastering Its Art" for the college in Pereyaslav. This work is based on his lectures that were very popular with students. With simplicity and clarity, and in many ways representing his personal unique approach, Skovoroda lectured his students on the structure of the universe, nature, the earth, science, man and his mind. He also defended his own moral principles, denying those asserted by the Church. In love with his native land and its people, he instilled in his students a love for their homeland, honesty, and a contempt for riches and rank. He taught that work brings man joy and satisfaction only when it brings out his innate abilities. The progressive ideas of popular enlightenment preached by the philosopher led to an open clash with his bishop, the Father Superior of the college who ordered him to teach poetics in the traditional manner. To this, Skovoroda replied that connoisseurs of poetry approved of his work and quoted a Latin saying: "Alia res sceptrum alia plectrum" (the sceptre is one thing, the plectrum another), thereby insinuating that the bishop was ignorant in questions of poetry. By order of this titled ignoramus Skovoroda was expelled from the college for "profanity" and his manuscripts destroyed. These and other episodes of Skovoroda’s life are depicted in drawings by I. Pavlovich, 18th-century artist.
Throughout his life the writer carried the love for music and folklore that had been fostered in him by his mother and itinerant bards. On display are musical instruments of the 18th century — the lyre, kobza, dulcimer, bandore — all of which he played to perfection. The son of a poor peasant, Skovoroda had always been close to the common people. Although his many acquaintaces among the clergy tried to win him over, he always chose the road that lay with the poor. "My lot is with the poor," he wrote in one of his poems. The outstanding thinker believed that sooner or later the people would be sure to awaken from their sleep and raise the sword of wrath over the landlords insisting on serfdom. His words proved prophetic — the formidable people's uprising known as the Koliivshchina broke out in 1768.
After his dismissal from the college Skovoroda worked for five years as a private tutor at the manor of a local landlord, S. Tomara. The customs of that time are conveyed by exhibits such as furniture from a landlord's manor-house, lithographs of drawings by A. Rigelman, a painting by Z. Gagen "The Fair." In the six years he lived on Pereyaslav soil, Skovoroda wrote many works, mostly verse, which later made up his collection "Garden of Divine Songs." Its contents are diverse, and include philosophic poems, caustic satire, and songs where the words and music melt into one. The satirical tenth chant "To Every Town its Morals and Rights" is directed against the wealthy. It quickly gained popularity among the people and was readily played by kobzars and lyrists.
The idea expressed by the poem was used by Ivan Kotlyarevsky, Taras Shevchenko and others in their works.
The auditorium of poetics, Skovoroda's cell, and the museum's library make the strongest impression among the countless exhibits. The auditorium's interior has been recreated to look like almost exactly as it did two centuries ago: massive walls more than a metre thick, high semioval windows cut in the vaulted embrasures, a niche in the wall to store teaching manuals, icons and students' clothes on other walls, benches and tables, the professor's rostrum and armchair, a blackboard. One gets the feeling that the students have just left the room after their teacher's lecture on Homer or Aeschylus, on Ovid, Aristotle, Copernicus or Lomonosov. In his lectures, Skovoroda condemned scholasticism and dogmatic canons in versification. These gloomy walls more than once echoed with the melodic songs of the people that gave birth to thoughts about the truth and false, about freedom. Though they came from a different social background, Skovoroda's students took a deep interest in his presentation of poetics, for no book contained anything similar to what the young teacher spoke of.
The college library often served him as a study where he prepared his lectures. The enlightener would turn in his thoughts to the great philosophers Spinoza and Descartes. From the depths of time Epicurus, Seneca, Plutarch, Cicero and Horace spoke to him. It was here he enjoyed the poetic wisdom of Dante Alighieri. One feels the spirit of those times through rare editions of 18th- and 19th-century books, and in the room furnishings — bookcases, a table and chairs.
Next on the museum tour comes the lower-form classrooms where students mastered grammar, syntax and elementary mathematics for three years and then the upper-form lecture rooms where the subjects taught were poetics, rhetoric, philosophy, theology and Latin. The exhibits that follow deal with the last years of Skovoroda's life which he spent travelling in the very midst of people. This period is illustrated by paintings, drawings and items of folk decorative art. A lithograph by A. Bazilevich reveals Skovoroda's views on Russia's social order of the 18th century. A lithograph by V. Lopata illustrates his poem "A Fable," and a drawing by M. Chorny entitled "With the First Light" depicts the philosopher's journeys through Ukraine. Of particular interest is a painting by Ye. Luchenko "A Mooting with the Monks" which shows Skovoroda answermq thoir ofler to take holy orders and dedicate his knowledge to the church. "You've enough blockheads as it is," said Hrihoriy.
Skovoroda made a great contribution to the development of Ukrainian prose. In particular, his collection of thirty "Legends of Kharkov" which lauded friendship, love, reason and other noble qualities of mankind. Most of the legends are set in his contemporary time describing the life and customs of his people. Skovoroda proclaimed work as a special calling, demanded high moral qualities and sharply condemned the parasitic role of the landlords and the church. Miniature pieces of sculpture, homespun decorative towels, an ornamental painted chest and plates illustrate the poet's works.
According to a resolution by UNESCO, the 250th birth anniversary of Skovoroda — enlightener, philosopher and poet — was observed in 134 countries. Among the museum exhibits we find documents on the forming of a jubilee committee, on the resolution taken by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine and by the UkrSSR Council of Ministers on celebrating the jubilee. We also find on show a jubilee edition of writer’s works, commemorative medals designed by H. Kalchenko, a statue of the poe) by I. Kavaleridze, as well as books devoted to his life and works, to mention but a few.
More than 250 years have passed since Hrihoriy Skovoroda's (ootsteps resounded in the college classrooms, yet his presence is felt there even today. The visitors-book contains similar commentaries by tourists, but perhaps the best summing-up is that made by members of the government commission during the inauguration of the museum: "Skovoroda, eminent son of the working people, came from their very midst, lived, as they lived and devoted all his tremendous talent as scholar, philosopher and poet in serving the people. His creative achievements belong to all the fraternal nations of our united family who are blazing the trail towards a bright Communist future for mankind as a whole."