January 25, 2019

2018: Ukrainian arts: Influenced by ongoing war


“Breaking Point”

Protesters on the barricades in a scene from the documentary “Breaking Point: The War for Democracy in Ukraine,” which opened in March in New York and Los Angeles.

Reactions to ongoing Russian invasions in eastern Ukraine continued to strongly echo across the content of Ukrainians working in film, music, art and theater during 2018. At the same time, today’s war ignited interest in similar defining moments in the past, sparking a desire to learn and preserve the truths about their history. Ukrainians in their homeland and the diaspora coordinated efforts to transmit this information to the world.

This was clearly evident during the 12th Ukrainian Cultural Festival at Soyuzivka on July 13-15. Thousands of guests attended events and concerts, united by deep concern over issues affecting all Ukrainians: their war-torn homeland, help for students and orphans, and finding ways to popularize the truth about their history and rich culture. 

These themes were voiced by the many performers and speakers. From Ukraine: folk rock/pop singer Anastasia Prykhodko, actor Orest Lutiy, violinist Vasyl Popadiuk, vocalist Khrystyna V and TV personality Petro Maha. From the diaspora: the Ukrainian Dumka Chorus, the Roma Pryma Bohachevsky Dance Workshop, the Dobriansky Brothers vocal trio, and masters of ceremonies Marianka Hawryluk and Andrij Dobriansky. Two documentary films were also screened at the festival: “Recovery Room” (featured below) and “When We Starve,” about the Holodomor.

Dr. Wasyl Szeremeta, newly elected president of the Ukrainian National Foundation, summarized what the foundation’s concerns and activities will mean for the global Ukrainian community in the future. The foundation plans to continue developing more cultural activities and for Soyuzivka to evolve into a true heritage center. This would involve establishing Ukrainian artists-in-residence, as well as creating a concert hall, an extensive library and a centralized Holodomor museum. 


Originally a 75-minute Ukrainian-language feature documentary, director Yurij Luhovy’s film “Okradena Zemlya” (Pillaged Land) was later redubbed in both English and French, and then shortened into an educational version in English under the title “Genocide Revealed.” In January, two educational videos were finally completed in Ukrainian. These focus on the Holodomor, the decimation of the national elite and the destruction of Ukraine’s historical past. Based on survivor testimonies, declassified Soviet archives and rare historical footage, this award-winning documentary will now serve a valuable educational function for Ukrainian students. 

 “Recognizing the good in Hollywood,” every year the Movieguide Awards Gala (MAG) presents Faith and Values Awards, sponsored by the Christian Film and Television Commission. Categories include Most Inspiring Movies and Movies for Families. On February 2, Canadian director George Mendeluk’s “Bitter Harvest,” set in the turmoil of 1930s Ukraine, was honored as one of the finest 10 Movies for Mature Audiences of 2017. Although relatively low budget, “Bitter Harvest” was a poetic and beautifully photographed film which the MAG ranked alongside such blockbuster films and Oscar nominees as “Dunkirk,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Wonder Woman.” This was the first time a Ukrainian film – notably one about the Holodomor – has ever been honored in Hollywood.

On March 9, Montreal producer Mr. Luhovy’s moving documentary “Recovery Room” was premiered in Kyiv at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. Director Adriana Luhovy filmed the work of medical missions organized by the Canada-Ukraine Foundation at the Main Military Hospital in Kyiv. “Recovery Room” is composed of interviews with wounded Ukrainian soldiers and with medical teams performing complex reconstructive surgeries on victims of the Maidan and soldiers injured in eastern Ukraine. To the credit of the director, according to the overwhelming audience accolades in Kyiv, such harrowing subject matter was presented with the right mix of the hell of war, and the dignity and optimism of providing good medical care,

The crucial information warfare and deception propaganda surrounding Russian invasions of Ukraine were explored in director Oles Sanin’s powerful documentary “Breaking Point,” which opened on March 2 in New York and March 9 in Los Angeles. “Breaking Point” integrated centuries of relevant Ukrainian history up to the present. With American co-director Mark Jonathan Harris and producer Peter Borisow, Mr. Sanin fashioned a gripping narrative highlighting ordinary men and women who stepped up to the challenge. One character in the film stated: “They lost their sense of humor… and then the fear of death.” This, then, was their “Breaking Point.”

Moscow’s ubiquitous lies about its invasion and shootdown of the passenger airliner MH17 were juxtaposed with revealing cell camera videos of Russian soldiers. Ukrainian forces’ helmet cams chronicled the horrific final moments of the furious battle for Donetsk airport. Skillfully edited, “Breaking Point” received overwhelmingly positive reviews from the critical community; it has helped establish the truth of Ukraine’s identity.

Historical legends have proved attractive subjects for filmmakers. Enthusiast director Sergei Skobun from Chernivtsi raised $180,000 from residents of Bukovyna, engaged an army of volunteers and filmed “Legends of Carpathians,” an entertaining adventure movie of the popular hero-brigand Oleksa Dovbush (1700-1745). At a screening on April 18 at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York, Mr. Skobun explained that he never intended this to be a rigorous historical documentary, but rather a dramatization of several folk songs and tales known throughout Ukraine. 

The authentic period costumes were centuries old, and the film was shot on location in the rugged, beautiful Carpathian Mountains. The scenes of Oleksa as a mysterious boy were compelling and sensitively handled. Such adventure movies based on legendary historical heroes are needed, especially for younger viewers.

Canadian viewers in Winnipeg, Manitoba, attended a screening of the uplifting documentary “Second Chance” by Montreal director Adriana Luhovy on May 6. This event was organized by the Plast sorority Pereletni Ptytsi at the Winnipeg Plast Home. Ms. Luhovy documented the efforts of Canadian volunteers who care for Ukrainian orphaned children in summer camps in Ukraine. The Toronto-based organization Help Us Help The Children organizes qualified university volunteers to run specialized camp programs and workshops focusing on gaining trust, life skills and self-reliance, as well as Ukrainian customs and traditions.

On October 6, the historical film “Secret Diary of Symon Petliura” was screened at the Ukrainian National Home in New York City. Director Oles Yanchuk answered viewers’ questions about his latest production. For various reasons, including Soviet disinformation and scurrilous accusations of anti-Semitism, Petliura has become a controversial figure in public consciousness. Stressing the importance of young people in Ukraine learning the historical facts surrounding the Parisian trial of Petliura’s murderer, the director said his film will be required viewing in all schools throughout Ukraine.

Mr. Yanchuk researched authentic dialogue from the 1927 trial, and included historical footage of battles from 1918-1921. Based on recent revelations from KGB defectors, the director also dramatized how assassin Sholem Schwartzbard was handled by the Soviet ambassador to France and primed to murder Petliura, the de facto prime minister of the Ukrainian National Republic in exile. Notably, the filmmakers constructed an exact replica of two Parisian streets on the largest film stage pavilion in Europe, the Dovzhenko Film Studios in Kyiv, notwithstanding their minimal $1.7 million production budget. 

Ukrainian American filmmaker Matej Silecky premiered his documentary “Baba Babee Skazala” (Grandmother Told Grandmother) on October 7 at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. It was one of 22 finalist entries at the fall 2018 New Jersey Film Festival. This documentary shows interviews from 35 Ukrainians, who were child refugees, torn from their homes during World War II, many of whom later immigrated to the United States. It presents the stirring story of how they created new lives in new homelands, built Ukrainian communities and preserved their culture. The Ukrainian Museum-Archives of Cleveland has established an archival repository for interviews featured in “Baba Babee Skazala.”

Live reporting on the Holodomor produced lying apologists like Walter Duranty, but also brave correspondents who told the truth like Gareth Jones. Less well known is Rhea Clyman whose articles from 1932-1933 published in the Toronto Telegram and the London Daily Express testified to her remarkable resourcefulness and courage in reporting the facts. As a result, she was banished from the USSR for writing about the Holodomor and the Gulag. On November 9 at Fresno State University, director Andrew Tkach premiered his film “Hunger for Truth,” which interweaves the story of this reporter with footage of two little Ukrainian girls growing up without their father, held captive during today’s Russian invasion.


On February 20, Wesleyan University in Connecticut hosted a forum and memorial concert on the anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity, honoring the memory of those who perished on the Maidan in 2014. Prof. Katja Kolcio conceived and coordinated the multi-dimensional program, titled “This Side of the Curtain: Ukrainian Resistance in Uncertain Times.” The opening panel discussion, introduced by Alexander Kuzma, included investigative journalist/member of Ukrainian Parliament Mustafa Nayyem and Dr. Daniel Hryhorczuk of the University of Illinois-Chicago, with moderator Dr. Olena Lennon of the University of New Haven. The concert afterwards included a diverse array of 40 performers: bandurist Julian Kytasty, the Yevshan Vocal Ensemble, the Slavei Chorus and speakers from the Wesleyan community.

The beloved dean of Ukrainian composers, Myroslav Skoryk scores music in all formats, which is admired by professionals and enjoyed by concert-goers. His opera “Moses” was penned for the 2001 Ukraine visit of Pope John Paul. On March 4, Mr. Skoryk was honored on the occasion of his 80th birthday before an overflow audience at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York City. The concert featured Mr. Skoryk’s works performed by various ensembles and soloists, even a piano duet with the composer himself participating. Artistic director of Music at the Institute Solomiya Ivakhiv related to the audience why his works are so popular. The excellent performers who turned in idiomatic performances of Mr. Skoryk’s works were Ms. Ivakhiv (violin), Mykola Suk (piano), the Momenta String Quartet and Igor Leschishin (oboe).

Denis Andreev

Ukrainian Institute of America Executive Director Olena Sidlovych holds the birthday cake for composer Myroslav Skoryk, whose 80th birthday was celebrated at that New York City landmark on March 4. On the left is oboist Igor Leschishin.

On April 28, the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York celebrated its 70th Anniversary with a concert featuring violinist Oleh Krysa, pianist Mr. Suk, and violinist Ms. Ivakhiv and pianist Tanya Bannister. 

The Washington Group Cultural Fund (TWGCF) began its Music Series concerts with the March 25 performance by the chamber duo of Natalia Khoma (cello) and Volodymyr Vynnytsky (piano) at the Lyceum in Alexandria, Va. The evening included works by Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Mr. Vynnytsky’s “Lost Tango” for cello and piano.

Prize-winning pianist from Donetsk Serhiy Salov was the next performer on the TWGCF series on April 22, prior to his performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the fall. Mr. Salov entertained the audience with renditions of Bach and Chopin, and also talked about the use of improvisation in performance. The second half comprised works by Ukrainian composers Mykola Lysenko and Ihor Shamo.

The final concert of the season was a solo recital by pianist Pavlo Gintov on September 30. His concert consisted of works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, John Corigliano and Ukrainian-born 20th century composer Theodore Akimenko.

Commemorating the 85th anniversary of the Holodomor, the Consulate General of Ukraine in Chicago and the Ukrainian Genocide Famine Foundation-U.S.A. Inc. co-sponsored the North American premiere of “Ukrainian Requiem” composed by Yevhen Stankovych before an audience of over 1,000 at the Harris Theater in Chicago. Opening with selections played by the Women’s Bandura Ensemble of North America under the direction of Oksana Rodak-Lucenko and Oksana Zelinska, the concert also featured actor George Wyhinny enacting a scene from the play “Buried Truth,” depicting reporters denying the Holodomor in the 1930s. The second half of the program was dedicated to the Stankovych “Ukrainian Requiem,” with soprano Nina Matviyenko, bass Stefan Szkafarowsky and the Kalamazoo Philharmonia and Festival Bach Chorus, conducted by Andrew Koehler.

At St. George Academy, New York City, on June 3, the folk ensemble Ukrainian Village Voices (UVV) launched its debut album. The UVV is dedicated to preserving and performing the polyphonic singing style traditional in Ukraine’s villages, where singers passed songs down for generations, learning them by ear. The ensemble is composed of 18 members, with only half possessing any Ukrainian ethnic connection. Their first trip to Ukraine in July will be to learn songs at the source in village homes, where this style of singing is quickly disappearing. 

Kyrylo Setsenko’s lyrical “Panakhyda” (Memorial Service) received a rare performance on August 26 when Coro Stetsenko, a 30-member ensemble of the Fresno Community Chorus performed the work in Fresno, Calif., in remembrance of the Holodomor. Several months of preparation ensured that this non-Ukrainian group understood the meaning, while learning the text phonetically.

With the appointment of its new director, Julian Kytasty, the Canadian Bandurist Capella (CBC) announced its new direction as it scheduled October concerts, titled “Crossroads of Song,” in three Ontario cities. According to Mr. Kytasty, the CBC will integrate more music from the original Kozak era, rather than stylized 19th century arrangements. At the same time, he plans to introduce Canadian content, like immigrant songs and old-time Ukrainian-Canadian fiddle music. The ensemble’s outreach is meant to popularize the bandura beyond ethnic enclaves to all Canadians.

Heorhiy Maiboroda/National Bandurist Capella of Ukraine

The Taras Shevchenko Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus of North America and the National Bandurist Capella of Ukraine give a joint concert in Kyiv’s Ivan Franko Theater on October 22 to mark the centennial of their founding in 1918.

It was in 1918 that the original Kyiv Kozak Choir was formed under the guidance of Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky. It splintered after World War II in 1946, with many émigrés from the bandura group making Detroit their new home, establishing the beginnings of what became the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus (UBC) of North America. During an 11-day tour of Ukraine, the UBC performed with the other branch from the original choir, the National Bandura Capella of Ukraine, at a joint concert at Kyiv’s Ivan Franko Theater on October 22 to mark the centennial of their founding. The Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus also performed during its Ukraine tour in Chernihiv, Rivne, Lutsk and Lviv. The UBC had kicked off its centennial concert series in the U.S. on September 9 with a performance at Deyor Performing Arts Center in Youngstown, Ohio. It continues its 100th anniversary celebrations in 2019 with concerts in North America.

The Ukrainian Art Center in Los Angeles produced an original Ukrainian/English bilingual artistic presentation on September 16, honoring the late Ukrainian American singer Kvitka Cisyk (1953-1998). Talented young local performers read poems, played instruments, danced and sang to a storyline of the popular singer’s life. This included her singing commercials heard by billions of people, songs for movies and her two Ukrainian albums. Known in Ukraine as “Kvitka,” the singer’s dream to visit her homeland remained unfulfilled due to diagnosis of a fatal cancer.

Roman Hurko, American-Canadian composer of Ukrainian origin, published his first two settings of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Set to a four-voiced mixed choir, his music is mostly in harmonious texture, but changing to polyphony at particularly significant moments of worship. In the gentle, lyrical style of previous church music composers Kyrylo Stetsenko and Mykola Leontovych, Mr. Hurko avoids extremes, evoking instead the warmth of a reverent village church with its peace and tranquility.

Ukrainian baritone Oleg Chmyr presented the latest concert of “Ukrainian Stars in America” on October 7 at Merkin Hall in New York City. The aim of these concerts is to ultimately expand these performances on tours across the country, showcasing the rich cultural heritage of Ukraine. This concert featured opera singers Mr. Chmyr, Oksana Krovytska, Marta Zalizniak, the Ukrainian Dumka Chorus, the Art String Quartet and the Iskra Ukrainian Dance Academy.


A striking exhibit of five large-scale artworks, “Five Elements of War,” constructed from actual artifacts of the Russian war in eastern Ukraine, opened on January 25 at the Ukrainian Institute of America. Kyiv artists Daria Marchenko and Daniel Green conceived their artworks as a visceral response to the horrors and raw emotions stirred by the violence of war. The artists attached over 5,000 spent shell casings collected at the battlefront in Donbas to create a powerful portrait of a nefarious Russian President Vladimir Putin, “The Face of War.” Other incorporated battle debris included military epaulets, shrapnel, documents and photo optic lenses. The viewer’s response transcends specific battles, and brings one face to face with the essence of war and all its ramifications. 

Nik Mills

Yaroslava Surmach Mills’ “My Father’s Village” (not dated, reverse painting on glass; on loan from Stella Baker) was part of the retrospective exhibit that opened at The Ukrainian Museum on March 4.

The 60-year artistic career of Yaroslava Surmach Mills (1925-2008) encompassed not only her popular reverse glass paintings and greeting cards, but also included etchings, icons, book illustrations, pysanky and drawings that she always signed “Yaroslava.” The Ukrainian Museum in New York organized the first such exhibit of her varied output, “Yaroslava Surmach Mills: Retrospective” on March 4. Born in New York to Ukrainian immigrant parents, Yaroslava was trained as a fine artist, graduating from The Cooper Union. During a 1956 visit to Ukraine, she became enamored of reverse glass paintings she studied in folk museums. Yaroslava was also a college art teacher, and fulfilled commissions for stained glass church windows designs and etched-glass doors of the New York Senate Chamber lobby in Albany.

Ola Rondiak’s “Identity” (2018, mixed media on canvas, 75 by 63 inches) was among the artist’s works on exhibit at the Ukrainian Institute of America on May 4-June 10.

Combining collage, painting and assemblage, the works of Ukrainian American artist Ola Rondiak reflect on her personal history, womanhood, ethnic identity, politics and street art. The Ukrainian Institute of America hosted an exhibit of the artist’s works, opening on May 4. Raised in Ohio, Ms. Rondiak moved to Kyiv in 1995. Two recurring themes in her work are the “motanka,” a faceless rag doll signifying the woman-goddess, and the “vinok,” the traditional Ukrainian flower crown representing the purity of womanhood.

Renowned Canadian architect Radoslav Zuk presented an exhibition of his church designs at the National Academy of Visual Arts and Architecture in Kyiv on May 24-31. “The Artistic Path of Radoslav Zuk” displayed seven churches in Canada, two in the U.S. (one of which is in Kerhonkson, N.Y., near Soyuzivka Heritage Center) and one in Lviv, which was awarded the State Prize of Ukraine for Architecture 12 years ago.

Kyivan artist Oleksiy Lytvynenko’s affectionate paintings of plants, birds, fish and other creatures perhaps owe their genesis to his fortunate genealogy: his family tree includes two artists, three biologists, one geologist and one ichthyologist. On March 23 the Ukrainian Institute of America launched an exhibit of his evocative and subtle nature paintings with titles like “Water Lillies,” “Fish-Tench” and “Buds.” Mr. Lytvynenko’s works have been exhibited extensively in Ukraine, throughout Europe and the United States.

Another artist who translated his love for animals into art was Andy Warhol (1928-1987). His vibrant colored print portraits of rams, zebras, rhinos, elephants, bald eagles, orangutans, sea turtles were the centerpiece of the “Andy Warhol: Endangered Species” exhibit which opened at The Ukrainian Museum in New York on October 6. Profs. Alexander Motyl and Jaroslaw Leshko talked about some little-known aspects of the pop icon who easily mixed with the world’s most beautiful and powerful. But in fact, Warhol was a shy boy of Carpatho-Rusyn peasant stock, raised in a deeply religious community in Pittsburgh. 

One of the speakers at the opening was Warhol’s nephew, James Warhola, a successful illustrator in his own right, who recounted how Andy’s mother instilled in her son a love of art, nurturing his talent during his formative years. Mr. Warhola also contributed some of his uncle’s photos, personal artifacts and early drawings to be included in this exhibit. 

American artist of Lemko ancestry Nicholas Bervinchak (1903-1978) faithfully dramatized the human plight, family life and working conditions of miners in northeast Pennsylvania. An exhibition of his etchings executed mostly during the Great Depression was presented at the Ukrainian Institute of America on September 28. Bervinchak’s prints are also housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery of Art and The Smithsonian Institution.

Textile art only recently attained recognition for its full creative potentials, yet in the hands of a sensitive artist, it can readily transcend a craft traditionally focused on its utilitarian material aspect. Kyivan artist Anastasia Podervianska exhibited her inventive textile wall hangings and wearable art on October 4, opening the 64th season of Art at the Institute in New York. Drawing from legends and myths, Ms. Podervianska assembles folk embroidery, fabric prints, patches and texts and interweaves them with cross-cultural elements like Mickey Mouse or Bart Simpson. She is represented in private and institutional collections in Ukraine, Germany, Poland and the U.S.

The Ukrainian Museum of Canada in Toronto also put together a unique folk arts exhibit called “Treasures Rediscovered & Shared.” This told the story of how one Canadian woman’s passion for Ukrainian dance was inspired and shaped by her grandmother’s collecting and research activities. It explored Danovia Stechishin-Stefura’s ethnographic and folkloric research in Ukraine during her trips to Ukraine and Europe in the 1920s, when she collected embroidery, folk and dance costumes. Ms. Stechishin performed professionally as a ballet and modern dancer. 

On October 12, with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Consulate in Chicago, the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago presented an exhibit titled “Contemporary Ukrainian Graphics at the Turn of the XX/XXI Century.” The exhibition included classical etchings, aquatints, linoleum, lithographs, monotype and drypoint from the creativity of three major art centers: Lviv, Kyiv and Kharkiv. 

The fanciful, meticulous color etchings of Lviv-based Ukrainian artist Roman Romanyshyn were exhibited at the Ukrainian Institute of America on November 16. In addition to these intricate prints, Mr. Romanyshyn’s works include paintings and sculptures. The light-hearted interplay in his works includes antiquated and modern themes: mythical animals, Alice in Wonderland, the Beatles, and the Wives of Henry VIII. The artist’s imagination and technical skill create a charming, child-like carnival atmosphere and a sense of whimsy and magic. 


Starting January 18, Kharkiv audiences had an opportunity to experience what several productions of the innovative Ukrainian director Les Kurbas would have looked like, back in the 1920s. The multifaceted presentations allowed Ukrainians to reconnect with their past and were especially geared for younger audiences. The exhibition was organized by Virlana Tkacz, artistic director of Yara Arts Group, together with Tetiana Rudenko, head archivist at the Museum of Theater, Music and Cinema of Ukraine, and Kyiv-based designer Waldemart Klyuzko. Three productions were featured: “Gas,” “Jimmie Higgins” and “Macbeth.”

Yara Arts Group

The cast and crew of Yara Art Group’s “1917-2017: Tychyna, Zhadan & the Dogs,” which was nominated for Best Production of a Musical by the New York Innovative Theater Awards.

Back in America, Ms. Tkacz and her Yara Arts Group received five nominations for New York Innovative Theater Awards. These included Yara’s “1917-2017: Tychyna, Zhadan & the Dogs” for Best Production of a Musical, and Virlana Tkacz for Outstanding Director.