September 18, 2020

The UNWLA’s soft cultural diplomacy


We Ukrainian Americans no longer have to lament that the world doesn’t know much about Ukraine. Ukraine just celebrated the 29th anniversary of the re-establishment of its independence. Now Ukraine has an international reputation, and Ukrainians are responsible for its content. But we can still show our concern for our heritage by supporting those who study it.

In this brief comment I’d like to call your attention to one such program administered by the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America, which continues to vouchsafe the good name of the country of our heritage.

The UNWLA parlays the work of its individual branches and showcases its president in major community undertakings. We’re aware the organization has been supporting needy primary and secondary school students in Ukraine, Poland and Brazil. We know it publishes the oldest continually running bilingual women’s monthly journal Nashe Zhyttia/Our Life and that it funds the Women’s Studіеs Center at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. Those are just some of its activities.

The organization also engages in quiet cultural diplomacy that does not readily capture our Ukrainian American public’s attention. One of its smaller, but nevertheless very important, programs is the Petro and Lesia Kovaliv Bequest. It was established in the 1950s by the ambassador to Switzerland from the 1919 Ukrainian National Republic and his wife to mark their 50th wedding anniversary. The aim of the fund is to support works in any language that make a significant contribution in literature and/or the humanities about Ukraine.

Thus, on alternate years, an academic jury, headed in the last two decades by Sophia Hewryk as the vice-president and now as chair of cultural affairs, recommends for an award either a literary work about Ukraine or a scholarly work in the humanities and social sciences (published in the pertinent year) that contributed significantly to making Ukraine better known in the world.

The literary awardees are now almost exclusively Ukrainian writers, and they have as large a readership in Ukraine. The scholarly segment of the Kovaliv Program usually recommends only one awardee every two years. Those works, although important, rarely become best sellers.

The Kovalivs, who settled in Switzerland, made the UNWLA custodians of the bequest because they considered that of all the Ukrainian diaspora organizations, the UNWLA best demonstrated transparency and probity. Through the decades, the program continues to prove the accuracy of the Kovalivs’ assessment of the UNWLA as a conscientious and wise custodian of their bequest.

The long roster of awardees shines with such well-known names as Omeljan Pritsak, Lina Kostenko, Yuri Luckyj, Roman Szporluk and many others. But the program does not limit its choices only to established scholars. It also includes names that would become better known, among them George Liber, Oksana Kis, Serhii Plokhii and Adrian Karatnycky.

Many of the Kovaliv-awardee publications helped non-Ukrainian scholars and journalists structure their studies on various aspects of Ukrainian life. Recently, the 2017 Kovaliv prize went to Marcy Shore for her personal and philosophical reflections on the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity. Her book “The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of the Revolution” sold very well and continues to be widely read.

The Kovaliv Award for 2019, on the other hand, went to a book of a different genre, but one that also promotes a fuller understanding of Ukraine’s national strivings. Anna Procyk’s “Giuseppe Mazzini’s ‘Young Europe’ and the Birth of Modern Nationalism in the Slavic World,” published by the University of Toronto Press, will be widely used in schools and universities, and read by a growing audience of readers interested in the beginnings of modern nationalism in Europe. It deserves to be read by the Ukrainian American audience because it offers a badly needed corrective to the study of the origins of modern Ukrainian nationalism.

Prof. Procyk approaches her topic from outside Ukraine, thus placing Ukraine’s 19th century writers where they belong: in the intellectual sphere of modern Europe and not on the peripheries of Russian imperial life. Especially now, when the study of the so-called Western civilization is no longer mandatory, Prof. Procyk offers the knowledgeable reader an exquisite view of Ukraine’s past. Her analysis of the modern nationalist movements in Europe positions the Kyivan Brotherhood of Ss. Cyril and Methodius within the context of European thought and sensibility in 19th century humanism.

These are but a few examples of the recent activity of the UNWLA. As you see, this venerable organization continues its steady but quiet tread on our native soils, be it marking the centenary of women’s right to vote in the U.S.A. or celebrating Ukraine’s long road to self-determination.


Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak is a member of Ukrainian National Women’s League of America Branch 78 and a Kovaliv awardee.