Vasyl Makhno reads his poems at the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family in Washington.

Makhno reads “Jerusalem Poems” at Washington’s Holy Family Shrine

WASHINGTON – Poetry is first of all meant to be heard. Hence, poetry lovers flock to live readings – especially when the reader is the poet himself. Such was the case on Sunday, November 5, 2017, when the Shevchenko Scientific Society’s chapter in Washington, together with the Library of the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family, presented a reading by New York Ukrainian poet Vasyl Makhno. Originally from Chortkiv, Ternopil Oblast, Dr. Makhno has lived in New York since 2000. He is the author of numerous works of prose and poetry, including essays and translations from English, Polish and Serbian.

The fate of books

One of the secondary lessons of the Putin regime’s persecution of the head librarian at the Ukrainian library in Moscow, which began in 2015 and culminated in her conviction last June, is the continued importance of the printed book. This is also evident in the success of the Lviv Publishers’ Forum, held every September, which displays the extraordinary variety and quality of Ukrainian book publishing. And though we see the electronic “book” everywhere now, the printed book is likely to remain, just as the handwritten note has survived alongside the typewritten letter and the e-mail. There is something comforting about a wall of books – all that information, knowledge and wisdom, all those thoughts and feelings, stories and histories, waiting to be explored. As an undergraduate, I would peer admiringly at the cramped book-lined professors’ offices in Berkeley’s Dwinelle Hall.

Vox populi

Five years ago, a colleague and I conducted an informal and not very systematic survey of the Ukrainian Catholic community in the United States. Not surprisingly, the sample, which was weighted toward older individuals, revealed a religiously committed and active population. As we noted then, however, we still need a professional sociological survey of our diaspora – Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, adherents of other faiths, agnostics and non-believers, both those in the “community” and beyond it – regarding attitudes towards Church and religion. It is in the interest of the Churches, and of the community as a whole, to commission such a survey. Relying on parish statistics tells us nothing about why people leave our Churches.

Putin vs. Petliura

A statue of military and political leader Symon Petliura (1879-1926) was unveiled in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, on October 14, Defender of Ukraine Day. It is hardly aggressive: Petliura is neither standing nor astride a warhorse, but sitting with a map of Ukraine in his hands. The monument is sited in an area known as Yerusalymka, some 200 meters from a functioning Jewish synagogue. The very next day, the Russian news agency RT published an article titled “Ukraine opens monument to nationalist icon Petliura responsible for anti-Jewish pogroms” (https://on.rt.com/8pv6). Claiming (falsely) that Petliura headed the Ukrainian People’s Republic (also known as the Ukrainian National Republic) in 1917-1921, it points out (correctly) that during this time, “between 35,000 and 50,000 Jews were killed in a string of pogroms.” The article notes that Petliura was assassinated in Paris in 1926 by Sholom Schwartzbard, whom a Paris court acquitted on the grounds that, since 15 of his relatives had been killed in the pogroms, his was a crime of passion.

Does modernization mean secularization?

A commentary on the website of the Stockholm-based Gapminder Foundation (as in “mind the gap – in your knowledge”), which encourages the proper understanding and use of statistics on global development, notes that one source of our misconceptions is notions we acquired in school that are no longer true, or at least have become questionable. As an example, I would cite the “secularization thesis.” This is the idea, originating in the 18th century Enlightenment, that as humanity develops, it abandons religion along with superstition and other irrational beliefs. In other words, modernization entails secularization. Modernization, to be sure, has many meanings: socio-economic development, scientific advances, technical-industrial progress, freedom and democratization, the rule of law and so on. So does secularization (for a discussion, see Jose Casanova, “Public Religions in the Modern World,” 1994, chap.

Lee and Lenin

The recent tragedy in Charlottesville, Va., together with the removal of statues of Robert E. Lee in the United States and of Vladimir I. Lenin in Ukraine, raise questions about how we should deal with historical monuments and other symbols. We shall not take the easy route by declaring that all monuments to objectionable individuals should be destroyed. Rather, we will review several cases, then attempt to formulate a rational approach to a question that is not as simple as it may at first appear. Our ambivalence towards the images we ourselves have created can be traced to the biblical First Commandment, which forbids making and worshipping graven images (Exodus 20:4-5, see also Isaiah 44: 9-20). Condemned by Jews and Muslims as well as Christians, idolatry is the divinization and worship of a created thing in place of God.

The other side of the fence

Every few years Prof. Dr. Dr. Ivan Khval’ko-Yerundovych – despite his two doctorates, an entry-level clerk at the Bureau of Standard Classifications – scraped together the funds to visit Lviv. And whenever he did so, he would make sure to see his former student Pani Kvitka Nechipailo, whom he had attempted to teach English during a summer course at the Borysthenes Autonomous National Academy Named After Shevchenko (BANANAS). Pani Kvitka was now widowed, with two teen-aged children, and worked in the BANANAS office of external academic relations. On this occasion, as always, they sat down in the cramped office she shared with two other administrators and started the electric samovar. The professor produced a packet of hibiscus-scented tea he had brought over from New York, and Pani Kvitka set down two teacups and a plate of fresh almond biscuits.

Diaspora dilemmas

Four principles characterize the life of the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States: Ukrainian patriotism, American loyalty, liberal democracy and religion. While all four can be reconciled, there are tensions among them that, if pushed to their limits, produce contradictions. They comprise six opposing pairs: if you arrange them as the points of a square, you will be able to draw six lines among them. The first opposing pair of principles is obvious. Is Ukrainian patriotism consistent with our duty of loyalty as American citizens?

Collaborators

A current exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is titled “Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust.” I would urge everyone who has the opportunity to see it. What is collaboration? In the context of the Holocaust, and from a moral standpoint, it can be seen as a form of “cooperation with evil.” More on that later. But it can also be defined as cooperation with an occupying enemy of one’s country, to the latter’s detriment. In that sense, it is a form of treason.

When the world is your cloister

“You wanna be monk?” That, at least, is how one of my high-school friends related the words of a brother he had met while visiting an Italian monastery with his parents one summer vacation. To us 1960s middle-class Baby Boomers, the idea was preposterously funny. Monks were comical little men in robes and sandals, with weird haircuts. What could be more unpalatable to an American teenager than a life of poverty, chastity and obedience? Inculcated with the Freudian theory of a “sex drive” that it was unhealthy to repress and nearly impossible to sublimate, we could not imagine giving up – at least – marriage.