Russia’s War in Ukraine and Beyond
The humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, triggered by Russia’s invasion in February of 2022, sent millions of Ukrainians fleeing abroad. But in the years, decades, and centuries before that, millions of Ukrainians had already left their homeland. Some left as economic migrants, while others fled from oppression, pogroms, the Holodomor, two world wars, and a violent revolution. These Ukrainians traveled far and wide, establishing diaspora communities around the world. Today, millions of Ukrainian immigrants and their descendants continue to participate in Ukrainian institutions, engage with Ukrainian culture, speak the Ukrainian language, attend Ukrainian churches, and eat Ukrainian food thousands of miles away from their homeland. They went west, settling in Poland, Czechia, and Germany; they went further west, reaching France and the shores of the United Kingdom. Millions crossed the Atlantic, settling as farmers in the Canadian prairies and as laborers in America’s cities; they formed communities in rural Brazil and urban Argentina, urban Brazil and rural Argentina. They traveled east and north as well, to other Soviet republics, providing necessary labor in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus.
Notably, even as the war rages on, millions of Ukrainians continue to live in Russia. It is the largest group of Ukrainians outside of Ukraine, forming the third largest ethnic group in the Russian Federation. Today, the Ukrainians of Russia can be divided into two groups. The first is those who live in longstanding Ukrainian communities: ethnic Ukrainians who were living on the Russian side of the border when the USSR drew an arbitrary line between Ukraine and Russia, and those whose ancestors migrated to Siberia in the early 20th century seeking work. This group faced rapid assimilation into the broader Russian population over decades of Soviet and later Russian rule. Numbering in the many millions in the first half of the 20th century, these Ukrainian communities have all but disappeared today.
A 1945 map of Ukrainian production. Bright red denotes ethnic Ukrainians; note the spillover across the Russian border into modern-day Russian regions
The second, much larger group today is the economic Ukrainian diaspora, formed by decades of migrants seeking economic and educational opportunities abroad. Today, this group constitutes the most diaspora-like set of communities, with institutions that attempt to preserve the Ukrainian language and culture. Comparatively little research has been done on today’s Ukrainian diaspora in Russia; the little growth that Ukrainian cultural institutions did manage to achieve in the early 2000s seems to have been erased by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. After all, if, as the Russian Federation claims, the Ukrainian regime is made of Nazis, then Ukrainian institutions in Russia are little more than a fifth column of those very Nazis.
In the face of cultural suppression and violence in Ukraine throughout the 20th century, Ukrainians abroad worked to protect their culture and fight for an independent Ukrainian state. In the face of economic stagnation in newly independent Ukraine throughout the 1990s and 2000s, they sent home billions of dollars in aid and remittances. And during the ongoing war, which has been raging in the east since 2014, they set up charities, took in refugees, put pressure on their respective governments to support Ukraine, and even went to fight to protect their homeland. Some Ukrainians of the diaspora left their homeland long ago; others have never been to Ukraine. Even so, they remain inextricably linked to Ukrainian soil. Having maintained and protected cultural and linguistic practices for years, decades, and centuries, the Ukrainian diaspora will continue to fight for their homeland for years, decades, and centuries to come.
The Ukrainian diaspora in Brussels, Belgium protests Russia’s invasion, February 2022.
Culture in diaspora communities has historically created a difficult balancing act for most immigrants. They need to walk a fine line between maintaining aspects of the culture from their home country, while simultaneously assimilating into the culture of their new home.
The largest of the Ukrainian diaspora communities have taken hold in North America, perhaps most notably in the Prairie Provinces of Canada (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta) and the Lower East Side of New York City. In these diaspora communities, a whole new Ukrainian society has been created. Old and New World traditions are combined, forming a new culture that reminds people not only of where they came from, but of the community they are becoming.
Although they shared a common language and Ukrainian culture, those who first arrived in Canada from Ukraine during the late 19th century made no effort to create a formal Ukrainian-Canadian cultural identity in their new homeland. A push to grow their culture came to the Ukrainian-Canadians in 1917 with the start of the Ukrainian War of Independence. This series of conflicts sought to break all of Ukrainian territory away from the Russian Empire and form an independent Ukrainian state. Although it lasted only a few short years before the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), an independent, sovereign Ukraine known as the Ukrainian People’s Republic was established in 1918. This momentous event ignited a new desire in the Ukrainian-Canadians to engage more actively with their homeland, as they now had a state to call their own. Another reason for this cultural renewal came with the second wave of Ukrainian immigrants to Canada, many of whom had just taken part in the fight for independence back home. Their arrival, along with the post-World War II third wave of immigrants (many of whom were professionals in the arts), brought cultural forms and institutions including theater, dance, and choral performances to Canada. This flourishing artistic culture was performed in shared community spaces, often attended by local, non-Ukrainian residents.
Attending theatrical performances was a very popular pastime in Ukraine, and something that Ukrainian immigrants continued in their settlements in Canada, eventually becoming so popular that it drew the attention of local Canadians and government officials. After the first wave of Ukrainian migration in the early 20th century, Winnipeg became the theater hub of the Ukrainian-Canadian community. While performances were infrequent and groups were informal, the wide attendance at plays eventually led to the development of some of the first formal Ukrainian-Canadian theatrical groups, such as the Ukrainian Socialist Drama Circle and the Enlightening Dramatic Society. During the 1910s, Ukrainian theater continued to flourish, creating permanent dramatic societies, which in turn, encouraged more immigrants to enter more arts-related professions.
The largest of these groups was the Ukrainian Dramatic Society, nicknamed Boyan. According to the constitution of Boyan, the society’s goal was “promulgating the feeling of national consciousness and love for Ukrainian literature, culture, and art.” Boyan was the first Ukrainian theatrical group to perform in mainstream centers in Canada like the Grand Opera Theater. There, they performed famous Ukrainian plays such as The Prisoner by Marko Kropyvnytsyi, and Mikhalio Starysky’s Black Sea Cossacks. Slight competition began to develop between groups, as each wanted to bring the newest plays over from Ukraine, have the largest budget, and put on the most entertaining shows. Boyan succeeded in this contest by becoming the first Ukrainian-Canadian theatrical group in the country to perform Kozak Beyond the Danube, a comedy about the journey of Zaporozhian Cossacks across the Danube River to the Ottoman Empire. Their performance resonated with many, as a main theme was the Cossacks adjusting to their new home, which mimicked the experience of many in the audience.
Along with performing Old World plays, many groups began to perform original shows that incorporated experiences of the immigrants in Canada. The first of these happened in Vegreville, Alberta in 1910. The setting of the play was split between Western Ukraine and a Canadian boarding house, and was based on the idea of the immigrants’ experience of adapting to a new life in their new country; anyone watching the play experienced a sense of connection to others as it validated what they were going through. As Ukrainian-Canadian theater expanded further, it developed two main goals: raising funds and preventing assimilation. Funding was less needed for the groups themselves, and more to aid numerous Ukrainian causes, including native Ukrainian schools, Ukrainian political prisoners, and the Ukrainian Red Cross.
The art of dance is also a form that many share and grow their culture, which was true of the Ukrainian-Canadian immigrants as well. Upon arrival, many revived Ukrainian folk dance, which soon became one of the largest cultural expressions in the country. One of the largest proponents of bringing folk dance to Canada was Vasyl Avramenko, a Ukrainian dancer and choreographer. He was the first to create Ukrainian folk dance schools in Ukraine, an idea he brought over upon moving to Canada in 1926. Before Avramenko formally introduced folk dance, dancing was generally only done at family events or in the home. There was little to no effort to preserve the art of folk dance, as it was not seen as a primary cultural driver and not worthy of teaching to the young Ukrainian-Canadian generations before Avramenko. He immediately set up a school in Toronto where students performed traditional dances with all of the traditional aspects of their culture.
After Toronto, Avramenko brought his schools to Ontario, Edmonton, and Winnipeg in order to reach a larger audience. Eventually, Ukrainian dance was popularized to the point where Avramenko was able to begin touring his company all over Canada, sharing dance with the younger generations who had not yet learned it, older generations who remembered it from the Old World, and local Canadians who were interested in learning more. The most popular dances performed in Canada were group dances including the Hopak Kolom (Гопак-Koлoм) and the Kolomyika (Кoлoмийкa). After Avramenko’s short time in Canada, a new love for Ukrainian dance was ignited. It differed from dance back home, as its purpose was less to transmit tradition and more to show patriotism towards Ukraine during an era when support for Ukraine was much needed as it began its transition to an independent state.
With any mass exodus of people from one country to another, the issue of assimilation and resistance to assimilation arises, and the Ukrainian diaspora is no exception. In the diaspora communities of Canada, language was a central issue of assimilation across the country. During the second wave of settlers, there was a push for bilingualism in the public school system, where children could be taught in both English and Ukrainian. Due to the rapidly increasing number of Ukrainian immigrants into Canada, over four hundred public school districts implemented this policy, albeit with different levels of inclusion. For example, schools in Manitoba were able to fully teach in Ukrainian as a result of the Laurier-Greenway Compromise, but in the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, Ukrainian was only allowed one hour per day, from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m.
Ukrainian being taught in schools became a major point of contention between immigrants and local Canadians after the start of World War I, as Canadians raised suspicion over people from Eastern European empires, often calling them “enemy aliens.” These accusations led to a ban on Ukrainian being spoken in the public school system. As a result, Ukrainians established their own private school systems so that the language would not be lost. These institutions, called Ridni Shkoly (Рідні Школи), taught basic Ukrainian language skills alongside standard school subjects, and were often run by religious leaders in in churches, halls, and other community centers. Although local public support for Ukrainians had begun to wane, the Ukrainian-Canadian resistance to assimilation showed just how strong their desire was to keep their culture alive.
Ukrainian Diaspora Community in New York City
New York City is known as the melting pot of the world. It is a place where hundreds of nationalities, cultures, languages, and ethnicities collide, and Ukrainian is no exception. As in Canada, Ukrainian immigrants began to arrive in New York City in the late 19th century, and came in waves after that. The main settlement for Ukrainian immigrants was established on the Lower East Side, known as Little Ukraine — an area that continues to be a hub of Ukrainian culture today.
One of the main cultural aspects that has been a staple of Little Ukraine is Ukrainian food. There are many restaurants in the area that serve up traditional Ukrainian meals such as borscht, pierogies, and stuffed cabbage. The most notable Ukrainian restaurant is Veselka, a restaurant in the East Village (which our class was fortunate to visit during our trip to New York City in October 2022). Veselka was established in 1954 by Wolodymyr Darmochwal and his wife Olha Darmochwal, two Ukrainian refugees who fled Ukraine after World War II. The restaurant had its origins as a candy store, hence the name Veselka, meaning “rainbow” in Ukrainian. After its popularity began to grow, Darmochwal invited local Ukrainian women to come in and cook traditional meals, leading to the addition of an area known as the “Blue Room,” which was strictly for food. This began the process of transforming Veselka from a small candy shop and newsstand into the restaurant we know it as today.
Although originally a strictly traditional Ukrainian restaurant, today’s menu at Veselka combines traditional Ukrainian-style cooking and American classics, like their Buffalo Chicken Pierogi and Thanksgiving Pierogi Bowl. This combination of Old World and New World foods demonstrates a common theme present in most diaspora communities: the integration and hybridization of culture through food. By serving traditional Ukrainian food with an American twist, Veselka appeals to Ukrainians looking for a taste of home and to locals looking to get more in touch with Ukrainian culture. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, cultural institutions like Veselka have also been using tradition in order to raise awareness and support the people of Ukraine. In March, Veselka announced that all proceeds from their sales of borscht would be donated to aid the ongoing war efforts in Ukraine. As of October 2022, the restaurant had raised over $250,000 for Ukraine through its borscht sales alone. Restaurant owner Jason Birchard has been wearing a vyshyvanka (a traditional embroidered Ukrainian shirt) to raise awareness of Ukraine, once again demonstrating the role of local institutions in bringing national cultures to their second home.
Language is complicated; diasporas are complicated. Language in diasporas, then, is doubly complicated. Convoluted ideas of identity, tradition, assimilation, and preservation make language one of the most contentious, difficult, and complex markers of any diaspora group. For Ukrainian diasporas, this is certainly the case. Arriving from a multilingual state with its own complicated web of languages and linguistic identities, Ukrainian diaspora communities then went on to incorporate the linguistic context of their new country into their speech, further complicating the web. The linguistic demographics of Ukrainian diasporas around the world are indicative of their levels of cultural preservation. Which ethnicities Ukrainians found themselves grouped with and where in Ukraine they originated from formed deeply woven common threads that would shape the community’s linguistic future.
Perhaps the most obvious complication is that not all Ukrainians are, in fact, speakers of Ukrainian. Many millions of Ukrainian immigrants, both those of recent waves and of decades and centuries ago, speak Russian as their native tongue. Among this group, many have virtually no knowledge of Ukrainian, especially those from Ukraine’s east and Crimea. Millions of other migrants from Ukraine were Jews, whose native tongue was not Ukrainian but Yiddish. Minor subgroups of Ukrainians and semi-Ukrainians – Rusyns, Lemkos, Boykos, Hutsuls – have formed their own identities and diaspora communities within the larger diaspora. Hungarians, Romanians, Crimean Tatars, and other minority groups from within Ukraine may, too, participate distantly in the Ukrainian diaspora. And when the number of Ukrainians in a foreign land is not sizable enough to form a diaspora group of their own, Ukrainians join other diasporas – often Russian or Polish – further complicating their language.
Globally, many Ukrainian diaspora groups are formed on the basis of language. In the United States, for example, a Ukrainian immigrant’s linguistic identity often determines which diaspora they join. A Russian-speaking Ukrainian may find it easier to utilize the institutions of a Russian-speaking diaspora, in turn interacting with other Russophones of Ukrainian, Russian, and other post-Soviet backgrounds. In many American cities, Ukrainian migrants have essentially segregated themselves by language. In New York, for instance, two large Ukrainian communities live parallel lives: one centered around Little Ukraine in Manhattan, anchored by generations of Ukrainian-speaking immigrants from Western Ukraine, and another around Brighton Beach (or “Little Odessa,” as it is known, Odessa being a famously multicultural city on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast), fueled by a massive wave of Russian speaking, post-Soviet migrants from Ukraine’s east. In Little Ukraine, the Western Ukrainian population is complemented by Polish immigrants, who share similar cultural traits. Meanwhile, the mostly Eastern Ukrainian immigrants of Brighton Beach share the region with Russians, Jews, Uzbeks, and a smorgasbord of other Russian-speaking groups. In the shops and institutions of Little Ukraine, one can hear only Ukrainian spoken; in the stores and restaurants of Little Odessa, one hears only Russian.
Businesses in New York’s “Little Odessa,” nicknamed after a largely Russian-speaking city on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, display Russian-language signage
This internal linguistic diversity is not the only source of complexity when it comes to language in Ukrainian diaspora communities. They are affected, too, by the linguistic situation in their new homes. Across the world, Ukrainian diaspora groups have taken on characteristics of their host communities’ speech, forming unique varieties of Ukrainian that incorporate local vocabulary. This process has been repeated on a small scale in a number of communities, but nowhere is it more pronounced than in the Ukrainian diaspora of Canada. As Ukrainians settled in the Canadian prairies beginning in the 1890s, a time of rapid technological change, they found gaps in their speech and struggled to describe in their native tongue much of what surrounded them in this new, strange land. As a result, they took on English words to fill these gaps. Their semi-isolation in rural Canada allowed for this phenomenon to give rise to a full-fledged dialect, known as Canadian Ukrainian and informally called “Ukish” (Ukrainian + English). This new linguistic form eventually took on not only English vocabulary, but also English grammatical structures. From the turn of the 19th century to well past the middle of the 20th, this linguistic variety was the standard tongue of Ukrainian Canadians of all persuasions. Today, however, as stubbornly independent Ukrainian communities across Canada finally begin to face the pressures of assimilation, the Canadian Ukrainian tongue is seldom heard.
We close this chapter by extending our sincere gratitude to members of the Ukrainian diaspora in New York City and its illustrious institutions, particularly the Ukrainian Museum, the Shevchenko Scientific Society, and Veselka Restaurant, which we visited in person in October 2022 to learn more about Ukraine. This digital resource before you is the result of that visit, demonstrating the crucial and ongoing role of diaspora communities in advancing education about their home cultures. We end this resource with our deepest thanks to all of those who introduced us to global Ukraine in their own local variant, who dropped what they were doing to tell us about their work, and who have offered their expertise and support for this project beyond our initial visit. These connections have indeed changed us, and have inspired us to study Ukraine more deeply as we continue our education in the years to come.