Gregory Skovoroda, also Hryhorii Skovoroda, or Grigory Skovoroda (Latin: Gregorius Scovoroda, Ukrainian: Григорій Савич Сковорода, Hryhorii Savych Skovoroda; Russian: Григо́рий Са́ввич Сковорода́, Grigory Savvich Skovoroda; 3 December 1722 – 9 November 1794) was a Ukrainian and Russian philosopher, poet, teacher and composer.
Skovoroda was of a Cossack background in current day Ukraine, who lived in the Russian Empire and made important contributions to Russian philosophy and culture.
He lived and worked in Sloboda Ukraine, which is today partly in modern Ukraine and partly in Russia. Skovoroda was so important for Russian culture and development of Russian philosophical thought, that he has been referred to as the “Russian Socrates.”
Skovoroda received his education at the Kiev Mogila Academy in Kiev. Haunted by worldly and spiritual powers, the philosopher led a life of an itinerant thinker-beggar.
In his tracts and dialogs, biblical problems overlap with those examined earlier by Plato and the Stoics. Skovoroda’s first book was issued after his death in 1798 in Saint Petersburg. Skovoroda’s complete works were published for the first time in Saint Petersburg in 1861. Before this edition many of his works existed only in manuscript form.
Skovoroda was born into a small-holder ethnically Ukrainian Cossack family in the village of Chernukhi in Kiev Governorate, Russian Empire (modern-day Poltava Oblast, Ukraine), in 1722 (his mother may also have been of partial Crimean Tatar ancestry).
He was a student at the Kiev Mogila Academy (1734–1741, 1744–1745, 1751–1753) but did not graduate. In 1741, at the age of 19 due to his uncle Ignatiy Poltavtsev he was taken from Kiev to sing in the imperial choir in Moscow and St. Petersburg returning to Kiev in 1744. He spent the period from 1745 to 1750 in the kingdom of Hungary and is thought to have traveled elsewhere in Europe during this period as well.
In 1750 he returned to Kiev. From 1750–1751 he taught poetics in Pereyaslav. For most of the period from 1753 to 1759 Skovoroda was a tutor in the family of a landowner in Kovrai. From 1759 to 1769, with interruptions, he taught such subjects as poetry, syntax, Greek, and ethics at the Kharkоv Collegium. After an attack on his course on ethics in 1769 he decided to abandon teaching.
Skovoroda is known as a composer of liturgical music, as well as a number of songs to his own texts. Of the latter, several have passed into the realm of Ukrainian folk music. Many of his philosophical songs known as “Skovorodskie psalmy” were often encountered in the repertoire of blind travelling folk musicians known as kobzars. He was described as a proficient player on the flute, torban and kobza.
In the final quarter of his life he traveled by foot through Sloboda Ukraine staying with various friends, both rich and poor, preferring not to remain in one place for too long.
This last period was the time of his great philosophic works. In this period as well, but particularly earlier, he wrote poetry and letters in Church Slavonic language, Greek and Latin and did a number of translations from Latin into Russian.
There is much debate regarding the language Skovoroda used in his writings. Skovoroda used a form of written Ukrainian which differed somewhat from the vernacular Ukrainian. As a scholar studying in a religious institution that relied heavily on various forms of the Church-Slavonic language although the foundation of his written language was Ukrainian.
Apart from written Ukrainian, Skovoroda was known to have spoken and written in Greek, Latin, German and Hebrew. His poetry has been analysed for foreign non-Ukrainian elements.
After an in depth study of Skovoroda’s written works the Slavic linguist George Shevelov was able to deduce that apart from Ukrainian it contained 7.8% Russian, 7.7% non-Slavic, and 27.6% Church Slavonic vocabulary, and that the variant of Church Slavonic he used was the variety used in the Synodinal Bible of 1751.
Skovoroda’s prose however a higher content of non-Ukrainian vocabulary: 36.7% Church Slavonic, 4.7% other non-Slavonic European languages, and 9.7% Russian.
After an in depth analysis of Skovoroda’s language, G. Shevelov came to the conclusion that the high incidence of Church-Slavonic and the occurrence of Russian words reflect the circle of people with which Skovoroda primarily associated himself with, and on who he was materially dependent – and not the villagers and the village language that he knew and spoke.
George Shevelov concludes: ″In Summary, the language of Skovoroda, minus its many biblical and ecclesiastical, political and personal features is, in its foundation, the Slobozhanshchina variety of standart Russian as used by the educated″.
Three days before he died, he went to the house of one of his closest friends and told him he had come to stay permanently.
Every day he left the house early with a shovel, and it turned out that he spent three days digging his own grave.
On the third day, he ate dinner, stood up and said, “my time has come.” He went into the next room, lay down, and died. He requested the following epitaph to be placed on his tombstone:
“ The world tried to catch me, but hadn’t succeeded. ”