Ukraine and the Ukrainian – on the Centennial of Ukrainian Independence

*And now you know what bedtime stories were like in our household…

Good evening dearest guests, your excellency Bishop Ken Nowakowsky and reverend fathers, on behalf of the League of Ukrainian Canadians, and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, I’d like to thank you all for joining us this evening, on the Centennial of Ukrainian Independence.  I’d also like to thank the staff of the University Golf Club for the delicious dinner we’ve all enjoyed here tonight.  How about a round of applause for them.

As a child growing up in a Ukrainian Canadian household, I didn’t give much thought about what it meant to be Ukrainian.  I just was.  Much like a fish doesn’t give much thought to the water that sustains him… It’s just always been there… That is of course until he finds himself pulled out of it.

There were the obvious points of pride.  For one, our food was objectively and exponentially better than anyone else’s.  I remember being quite popular during lunch hour in elementary school, where friends would barter with me, attempting to trade peanut butter sandwiches or fried rice for my home made perogies.  Then there was the institution of the Baba.  I never understood the North American concept of a “little old granny”, because I had Baba’s who possessed supernatural and superhuman powers.  They saw all. They knew all. They could lift massive vats of borscht. They could barter with and shame the slickest salesman.  And of course, if you crossed them, they could swing a wooden spoon with the destructive power of a baseball bat.  When my non-Ukrainian friends would ask about our culture, I usually sat them down in my basement, and plugged in the VHS tape of the 1962 Yul Brynner film “TARAS BULBA”.  When it finished, I would say “…It’s pretty much like that”.

Having Myroslaw Petriw as a father, my brothers and I were of course well versed in History, from the Cossacks, to the Holodomor, to the UPA, and we respected that history, but I for one never truly contemplated what it all meant, what it said about the Ukrainian Nation, and my place in it.

That changed in 2014.  During the Maidan demonstrations, I watched history unfold live on my computer screen.  I stayed up night after night watching live as men and women, young and old, battled interior ministry troops, suffered beatings, and were later gunned down, fighting for the Ukrainian nation.  I felt helpless…. For the first time, I was the fish, yanked from the water, forced to look upon and contemplate what I had flippantly taken for granted.

Reflecting on this: What I found was a paradox.  A nation of peaceful farmers, who somehow resisted the most powerful and fearsome empires in human history.  A peace loving people, who are fearless in times of conflict.  We have experienced unspeakable tragedy, yet our culture celebrates life with unrivaled vigor.  We are an opinionated people, who champion individualism, and yet have a selfless devotion to community and brotherhood.  (This point of course, is why the communist experiment failed in Ukraine, and why Stalin, and now Putin, both hate and fear the Ukrainian people.) We are deeply rooted in faith and tradition, while simultaneously fearlessly forging a path to a brighter future.  Our Church, as Bishop Ken pointed out, was integral in the revolution of dignity.  We are both nationalistic, and welcoming, eager to share our heritage with strangers.  Just ask any tourist who’s visited Ukraine, or a house guest of a Ukrainian.  And Let us also not forget that the first casualty on the Maidan was a Georgian.  And here, amongst the diaspora, we are both proudly Ukrainian and proudly Canadian, each experience enriching the other, rather than diminishing it.  The very land of Ukraine is paradoxical.  From the mighty Carpathian Mountains, to endlessly nourishing tranquil fields of wheat, vibrant and romantic centres of culture, and the untameable might of the Zaporozhan rapids.

And the ultimate paradox was this: That the nation of Ukraine exists simultaneously externally and internally.  That it is a land across the sea, with rivers and mountains and steppes, and yet all that I’ve described is also a spirit, fully alive inside each of us.  It thrives in community, but that community depends on the energy and passion and talents of each individual.  It’s a thousand year old will to survive and fight on etched on the faces of volunteers in Donbas, it’s the musical tradition that flows through the fingers of a pianist, a bandurist, the voice of the singer, or the steps of a dancer. It’s the wisdom in the words of our writers, our poets, and our educators.  And it is all within each of us.  Available to us if we dare to answer its call.

On this idea, I want to return to the film “Taras Bulba”, that I jokingly mentioned earlier, and an image that stuck with me my entire life.  In the final act of the film, The Polish Empire attempts to essentially buy the loyalty and servitude of the Zaporezhian Cossacks, causing infighting among them over the choice that they face.  Taras Bulba, choosing freedom and possibly death over subjugation, leads his small and outnumbered band of Cossacks on a ride to lay siege to Dubno.  At first a small group of riders chases the camera centre frame… as the brilliant musical score begins to intensify, more riders join from the edges of the frame.  Then more.  Then hordes of Kozaki come spilling down the hillsides to join Taras, triumphantly shouting “Zaparozhtsi!”, until by the end of the sequence, thousands of riders have united and heeded the call of freedom with unstoppable momentum.  A community, a force of nature, made up of individuals who aren’t there because they’re following orders or obligation, but because each of them was driven by a love for the Ukrainian nation.

Fast forward to 1918, and this scene plays out yet again, as my father detailed, with 300 students rising to the occasion in Kruty.  The same spirit drove the Ukrainians who settled Canada’s prairies, the UPA, the resistors of Communism, and ultimately the Maidan.  Now when I look back at the swelling scene of protestors in 2014, I remind myself that it started with a series of individual decisions, individual moments of Ukrainians one by one stepping out their front door alone, with the faith that by the time they reached their destination, their brothers and sisters would be there along side them. This idea is even embodied in the modern Ukrainian Motto, “Glory to Ukraine, Glory to her Heroes”. Community.  Individuals.  Indivisible.

History shows us that the spirit of the Ukrainian nation lies both outside ourselves, and within.  In the land, and in our souls.  So I encourage you, going forward, not to look at our community with entitlement, but with personal responsibility.  It is easy when we think of community, to see something out there, outside ourself, that exists with or without or participation, that exists to support us, to entertain us.  But the truth is the community, the nation, lives in each individual, in how they serve, in what they sacrifice, not what they consume.  Ask yourself, what spark of the Ukrainian flame can I bring to the table today?  And so tonight, I encourage you to stay after dessert if you can, sing some songs, grab a drink, and get to know your neighbour. Let the stories, and legends, and anecdotes of our parents and grandparents live on. Because history shows when a small group of people assemble, with a love of Ukraine in their hearts, they are unstoppable.  Thank you, and enjoy the rest of your evening.  Slava Ukraini

Adrian Petriw