September 3, 2021

Ukrainian independence: 30 years on


It’s been an interesting summer for those interested in Ukraine.  Youth camps in America, Canada and elsewhere resumed after a year’s hiatus, albeit with shortened schedules and appropriate precautions against the COVID-19. Other venues opened as well. The Soyuzivka Heritage Center welcomed guests. In Cleveland, the Ukrainian Museum-Archives had a dozen interns, funded by a generous bequest from Nicholas Supranenko nearly 20 years ago, and this year for the first time had three undergraduates funded by the Nanovic European Studies Institute at the University of Notre Dame.

On the geopolitical stage in late-June, the United States and Ukraine jointly sponsored Sea Breeze 2021, a two-week naval exercise in the Black Sea with 32 countries from six continents providing 5,000 troops, 32 ships, 40 aircrafts and 18 special operations teams. Participants included representatives from all of the NATO countries, as well as Australia, South Korea, Japan, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, even Senegal. In 2020, Sea Breeze had only eight countries.

Sea Breeze ended just in time for my wife and me to watch the Tokyo Olympics, where Ukraine sent 155 athletes and won 19 medals, including a gold for Zhan Beleniuk, son of a Black Rwandan father who studied in Kyiv in the 1990s and a white Ukrainian mother. Zhan, who took his mother’s name, is a proud Ukrainian, a member of the Verkhovna Rada who famously celebrated his Olympic victory draped with the blue and yellow flag and by performing hopak steps.

The big news was 30 years of Ukraine’s independence.  My hometown celebrated with a parade in Parma’s Ukrainian Village. There were similar celebrations across the world capped by a massive parade in Kyiv on August 24, which millions followed on the internet. In his speech, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy listed a couple dozen nationalities which now constitute the Ukrainian nation, including his own Jewish identity. He had just recently feted Mr. Beleniuk and other Olympic athletes with official medals from Ukraine.  Mr. Zelenskyy also touted Ukraine’s glorious, often tragic, 1,000-year history, saluted multiple regions and noted illustrious figures from the country’s past and present.

Like the Sea Breeze exercise in June and July, the Independence Day parade sent an unmistakable message: Ukraine has allies and, unlike the Yanukovych era, also has a military force which adversaries – i.e. Russia – have to reckon with. There was a long stream of Ukrainian-made armored personnel carriers, tanks, drones, helicopters and columns of troops from all branches of the country’s military, which now numbers 300,000 men and women. The U.S. sent an honor guard; Poland and Great Britain had military fly-overs.

The summer ended just before Labor Day with President Zelenskyy meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, the first such White House welcome since Barack Obama was president. There are disappointments and disagreements (notably over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline), but America’s commitment to Ukraine is firm, bolstered by near unanimous congressional support and institutional backing at the State and Defense departments and an active Ukrainian-American community.

With all this, I can’t help but remember that September will be 40 years since my father died. He was 66. Mama died four years later. She was 69. Both had difficult lives, yet were people of quiet greatness and unspoken heroism. So were hundreds of thousands of other immigrant men and women of their generation who survived the world war and were then forced to leave their homeland, scattered across four continents – nearly all are now gone. And lest I, a diaspora Ukrainian, should forget, let me note how that same greatness also characterized millions of families in Soviet Ukraine who quietly sustained the dream of Ukrainian statehood when it seemed hopeless, when openly speaking out for minimal human and national rights in the KGB police state risked imprisonment, even death. And so, for many, Ukraine under unfathomable government pressure and repression seemed doomed. And yet families kept the national flame lit, however cautiously. Underground churches and a tiny handful of “dissidents,” at great personal sacrifice, spoke truth to power: we are Ukrainians; we are believers; we have the right to exist. What a heroic deed it was to simply state that. For me, getting involved in the dissident movement in the 1970s – from a safe haven in America – was a way to give back to the parents who gave my brothers and me a home, an education and a cause. Thousands shared that sense of obligation as we linked spiritually, and in an increasing electronic world, virtually with counterparts in Ukraine.

My family moved to Cleveland in 1954 on my seventh birthday from Frackville, Pa., a small mining town near Scranton with large Ukrainian and Irish communities which traced their arrival in America to the middle and end of the 19th Century. In Cleveland, I was immediately enrolled in the Ridna Shkola Heritage School and Plast Ukrainian Scouting Organization. We attended church services at Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church and gatherings “akademiyi” at the Ukrainian National Home, which an earlier generation of immigrants had purchased in 1919, a mile from downtown and walking distance to the industrial valley. That community of “Old Immigrants” kept Ukrainian culture alive in the “New World” and cultivated political ties which enabled the “New” post-WW II immigrants to come to America.

One of my first memories in Cleveland was a commemoration honoring Roman Shukhevych (Taras Chuprynka), killed just four years before. Shukhevych was the leader of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) which fought the Nazi and Soviet militaries in Western Ukraine for a full decade during and after WW II.  What I remember from the “academia” at the National Home was a couple guys in uniform with “Tommy guns” – ubiquitous in the military struggle in Ukraine – and someone reciting a poem or a choir singing.  At seven years old, I was impressed, but the real battle was thousands of miles away in Ukraine and Siberia; the guys on stage, no doubt WW II and UPA military veterans themselves, going to work in factories the next day, with a good portion of their wages going to support the Ukrainian cause on the battlefield.

Like the previous immigrations, the post-WW II Ukrainian political immigration was endowed with a stupendous work ethic, dedication to family, education and community. Struggling immigrants, they found money to lease Tremont Elementary School for Saturday school lessons where I attended first and second grades with brilliant teachers who instructed and inspired. No more than eight years old, I vividly remember Pani Stawnycha passionately recounting how Ukrainians in the Gulag just two years before had staged an uprising with Soviet tanks, while storm troopers went in to suppress the rebellion with fire and bloodshed. Twenty-five years later, I remembered that when I read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago,” where he credited UPA warriors with breaking up the massive Soviet slave labor network. “These young men, fresh off the guerrilla trails, saw the slavery around them and reached for their knives,” Solzhenitsyn wrote.

After Stalin, the Gulag was down-sized but still remained for decades in diminished form. Newly-released prisoners went back to their homes where they kept a low profile while quietly maintaining forbidden attitudes and traditions. In America, the Ukrainian community did so as well, more openly, free to establish organizations, schools and churches while linking with “Old Immigrants” to lobby politicians to support Ukraine. With the Soviet Union firmly entrenched, they were happy to do so, never anticipating that Ukraine would ever become more than just a campaign slogan.

“Captive Nations” was a big part of that. Along with many others, I went on parades and demonstrations throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, joining other ethnic groups denouncing communism and supporting liberation of homelands. These exercises massively bothered the Kremlin even as Western media largely dismissed them as irrelevant or ignored them altogether. And yet, all that bore fruit when what had been forbidden burst into the open 30 years ago with massive demonstrations and communist Ukraine declared independence. A miracle?  No – it took leadership, sacrifice and dedication from every level of society throughout the world, grounded in faith that steady unrelenting pressure would be rewarded. And it was.

No longer under Russian domination, Ukraine today is vibrant, democratic, free, pluralistic and yes, embattled, but infinitely interesting. The parade in Kyiv ended with an adorable little girl singing a patriotic song as thousands of bystanders stood by and millions watched on the worldwide web. Where will she be in another 30 years? Where will Ukraine be? Who knows? But hey, 2021? Great summer; promising future.


Andrew Fedynsky’s e-mail address is