Steller: Ukrainians, here and there, defy Russia by existing

2014-04-20T00:00:00Z Steller: Ukrainians, here and there, defy Russia by existingTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

You scrape beeswax from a block into a tiny brass funnel wired to the end of a short dowel.

Then you hold the wax over a flame to turn it liquid.

Then you start coating your egg with wax, using the small end of the funnel to put it everywhere except where you want the dye to adhere. Then you dip the egg into one color of dye, and repeat the process, removing wax where necessary to apply a new color.

These are the basic steps of making Ukrainian Easter eggs, something that kids like me, growing up in the 1970s in Minneapolis, did annually, never achieving the artistic elegance of the Ukrainian ladies who taught us. That painstaking process came to mind on Good Friday as I sat in services at St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church, 715 W. Vanover Road, and inhaled the sweet scent of burning beeswax candles.

Ukraine, the bread basket of that part of the world, is in the news now for a reason familiar to many generations of Ukrainians: Russian attempts to take their land. After Russia took Crimea from Ukraine with barely a shot last month, pro-Russian militants now are holding government buildings in eastern regions of the country in what looks like an effort to take over that area, too.

“This is nothing new for the Ukrainian people,” Father Andriy Chirovsky, pastor of St. Michael, told me before the service. “It’s been going on like this for 360 years.”

The remarkable thing is, despite cycles of conquest — as the longtime University of Arizona anthropologist Edward Spicer called them in reference to the U.S. Southwest — the Ukrainian culture, language and identity persists.

Not that Russia wants to recognize it. Early this year, in a telling remark, a Kremlin adviser named Sergei Markov told a reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail: “Everybody knows that Ukrainians are Russians.”

What Ukrainians throughout the diaspora want the world to know is, “No, we are not.”

In the neighborhood where I grew up, the Ukrainian presence was noticeable. Kramarczuk’s deli remains a landmark, and when I was young, an old man named Gregory lived, with a couple of other Ukrainian men, in a house at the end of our alley. My dad got Gregory’s story in occasional snatches of German and heavily accented English. The stories were cut off sometimes when crows would fly overhead and Gregory would go inside to hide from what he called “birds of death.”

Forgive Gregory his fears. As my dad recalls, Gregory was conscripted into the Soviet army in World War II, taken prisoner by the Germans, then placed in a Ukrainian division fighting for the Nazis. When the war ended, Gregory — miraculously alive — escaped across Europe to a displaced-persons camp, before ending up in Minneapolis.

Any Ukrainian from Gregory’s generation is a survivor. In the early 1930s, Joseph Stalin, perturbed by persistent Ukrainian nationalism and trouble incorporating Ukrainian peasants into the new Soviet Union, carried out one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century. His forces killed and imprisoned those peasants he termed “kulaks,” or higher-class peasants, and forced the rest into a new “collective” system of farming, seizing more and more of the Ukrainians’ harvests every year, while making lesser demands of Russians across the border.

The result is what’s been termed a “terror-famine” and genocide. Ten million or more Ukrainians died. And guess who repopulated the dead peasants’ villages in some of eastern and southern Ukraine? Russians.

I’ve been reading “The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine” by Robert Conquest, a landmark 1986 history that consolidated the evidence of Moscow’s policies of starvation and genocide in Ukraine. Conquest reports that the Soviet government sent Russian peasants to live in emptied Ukrainian villages but notes “some could not stand living in houses still smelling of death.”

“All of the places now in revolt are where much of the intentional famine took place,” Chirovsky said.

That famine-era migration isn’t the only reason so many Russians live in eastern Ukraine, but it’s a significant one.

“It’s the singular curse of the Ukrainian people to have an extremely aggressive neighbor,” Chirovsky said. “It’s not enough to take our lands. They want to take our history, too.”

St. Michael parishioners such as Bohdan Gojnycz are intent on preserving it. Gojnycz left Ukraine in 1950 at age 12 and was in two Eastern European labor camps before ending up in New York.

In 2009, Gojnycz installed an old icon wall behind the altar at St. Michael, featuring portraits of Jesus, Mary and several saints. It turns out the Tucson church received the wall, known as an “iconostasis,” from the old St. George Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Minneapolis, about five blocks from where I grew up. St. George had merged with another church there but preserved the iconostasis.

Gojnycz is rightfully proud of his work in the Tucson church but pessimistic about Ukraine’s future.

“Eastern and southern Ukraine are definitely goners,” he said, adding that Vladimir Putin’s regime “only knows one thing — that is threat.”

But Chirovsky insists on hope.

“Can Ukraine count on the U.S.? No. Can Ukraine count on NATO? No. Who can Ukraine count on? God,” he said. “Why do we still exist as a people? Must be God.”

Then he donned his bright red vestments and prepared to enter the candle-filled chapel.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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