December 7, 2018

Town and country


One Easter in the early 1990s, I was taken to the village of Sholomiya, near Lviv. In a cramped house I encountered an elderly lady sitting by the television set. “It’s disgusting what they show on TV these days,” she complained. “Why, they even show people kissing!” If only you knew, I thought… 

What we condescendingly call “traditional morality” is not the only difference between the village and the city. Whether in Ukraine or elsewhere, villagers live in a world of their own. Growing up on the fringes of our diaspora, I didn’t consciously meet any “peasants” until I was an adult. Their speech and manners were different. Most older Ukrainians I met were either from Lviv or, more commonly, from small towns, perhaps having studied in a city. Demographers can verify my hunch that this background was typical of the post-war emigration. 

It is thus no wonder that we have only an imperfect understanding of village culture. For example, I grew up with the naïve notion that “folk music” was something like the lyrical compositions of Lysenko, Barvinsky, or Liudkevych. In the 1950s, the USSR’s Moiseyev ensemble popularized orchestrated and choreographed representations of the cultures of the various Soviet nationalities. The film “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors,” a Soviet recording of “authentic” Ukrainian folk music and the album “Ukrainian American Fiddle and Dance Music” gave me a more unvarnished sense of Ukrainian village culture. I found it more interesting than the cultivated version, tailored to middle-class tastes, that I had heard in my childhood. Today, countless Ukrainian folk groups, and a few American ones like the California-based Kitka vocal women’s ensemble, strive to capture the strange and sometimes jarring flavor of Ukrainian village music. 

It is a commonplace that the countryside preserves religion better than the town or city. It is probably no coincidence that with the demise of the Greek-Catholic priestly caste in the early 20th century (partly through the imposition of celibacy in the 1920s), more of our clergy and episcopate have originated in the village. Among the first peasant bishops was the martyred Hryhorii Khomyshyn of Stanyslaviv, who endured the intelligentsia’s mockery of “Hryts’ from Hadynkivtsi.” 

The countryside is, in fact, a repository of a rich spiritual culture, now in danger of extinction. Near the church in Sholomiya, I witnessed an Easter ritual that, I was told, was unique to that village. Bearing banners and crosses, the men marched in square formation, stopping abruptly every few steps as they chanted the verses of Easter matins. Afterwards these collective farmers, wrinkled and grizzled, wearing faded, greasy caps, sat on a fence and smoked acrid Soviet cigarettes.

Last summer, a villager in a Mercedes minivan with a rosary, tryzub and icon dangling from the mirror, and a red-and-black flag of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) glued to the visor, drove us to his church in the Sokal district for a memorial service. Built around 1762, the church had been officially Russian Orthodox from 1945 to 1990. It is thickly decorated, with stained glass windows in the transept, oil paintings in the nave and little colored electric lightbulbs everywhere, with white ones illuminating an icon and forming one of the halos. Embroidered cloths line the arches and frame the icons. Outside, Latin crosses commemorate two former pastors: Father Vasylii Chernetsky (1836-1900) and Father Teofil Chaikivsky (1880-1945). During the war of liberation, Father Chaikivsky served as a chaplain in the Ukrainian Galician Army, and was briefly imprisoned by the Poles. He was the village pastor from 1931 to 1945, when he was arrested and exiled to Kazakhstan, where he died that same year (Other sources give the dates of his birth and death as 1883 and 1947). Across the road stands a memorial statue of Ivan Klymiv-Lehenda (1909-1942), an OUN leader born in this village who was killed by the Gestapo. Nearby are two monuments to victims of the Soviet and Nazi occupations.

After the service and graveside prayers in the broad, windswept, treeless cemetery, we rode to a drab roadside café-restaurant for the memorial repast. Before entering, I was invited to wash my hands in a plastic tub of disinfectant. Family and friends of the deceased, including some stone-faced drinking buddies, gathered around a long table. After a thoughtfully composed prayer by a leading parishioner, we confronted the kaleidoscope of vegetable salads, bread, horilka, wine, meat, rolls, and potatoes, followed by sour cherry torte and tea. The guests eyed this Westerner with curiosity: did I understand their language?

Afterwards, I visited a house built in the 1950s (its predecessor had burned down after being hit by a German artillery shell). There was gas for heat and electricity for lighting, but water was drawn from a well, and you had to use the outhouse (or a bucket for the night). Paintings of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary adorned the living room and bedroom. I heard local stories: the men dead, or drunk, or gone abroad to work; couples divorced; children away in town or the big city. In this coal-producing region developed by the Soviets in the 1950s, miners retired early, with privileges to compensate for silicosis. The surrounding land had been de-collectivized and re-distributed after 1991, but I was told that people didn’t want to farm anymore. 

Recalling this landscape of barren fields, abandoned mineshafts and ruined lives, one can see the futility – indeed, the absurdity – of trying to transplant Western notions here, whether of entrepreneurial initiative, grass-roots activism, revitalizing communities, or restoring an authentic religious culture. The Ukrainian village is clinging to life. Extreme unction might be premature, but emergency life support would be timely.