Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ukrainianism - an awakening

There certainly has been a lot to soak up about Ukraine lately. I can hardly follow it all, and I have a very solid background in Ukraine's history and culture, including some knowledge of contemporary Ukraine preceding the current crisis. As a Ukrainian-American, Ukrainian was my first language. As a youth, I participated in Ukrainian scouts, Ukrainian folk dancing, Ukrainian culture history and language lessons, and Ukrainian society of the diaspora in Chicago. This formed the bulk of my activities in my childhood. So much so, that by my late teens, I went through as self-imposed period of de-Ukrainification. In the 70s and early 80s, I wasn't sure of what value this education would have for me. Ukraine was not even a country, but a region of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union (USSR). Growing up, it was difficult to talk about my ethnicity, though I was richly endowed with Ukrainian culture. To the average American, Ukraine did not exist. A typical conversation among children my age might go something like this:

Friend: I'm Italian-American
Me: Oh, neat. I'm Ukrainian
Friend: What's that?
Me: it's a country, sort of, that is part of the Soviet Union
Friend: you mean, like, Russia?
Me: No. Ukraine is one of the countries in the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
Friend: So you're a communist?
Me: Aaargh

My parents were part of the movement of people from Ukraine who fled communism in the 1950s after the Great Patriotic War, in which territories of Poland became part of the Soviet Union. Ukrainian language and culture were suppressed by the Soviet authorities, I was always told. It became my grandparents' mission in life to keep Ukrainian culture alive in the diaspora. They settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and my parents later moved to the Chicagoland area. Ukrainian culture in the diaspora was vibrant, and Chicago was a center. Milwaukee had a Ukrainian Catholic parish and community, but Chicago had several, plus a credit union and a school, museum, and other cultural organizations. Living in the northern suburbs, my early life consisted of commuting to and from Chicago's Ukrainian Village neighborhood, for school, scouts, folk-dancing, and church. Yes, that's four times a week - quite an indoctrination.

If I asked why I was being subjected to Ukrainianization, my parents' response was "because, Ukraine will one day be free" and this was supposed to matter for a 12 year-old, whose schoolyard friends were far more interested in Saturday morning cartoons, baseball, and the Beach Boys. But American culture, of course, was otherwise dominant. Pop culture in the form of rock 'n' roll, Hollywood films, and Sesame Street found their way into my life. And I hung on, for dear life, to some things that I could have in common with my non-Ukrainian friends. As the Cold War heightened, I became rather disinterested in carrying on my parents' struggle. Being American seemed much more practical and possible. As I set off to college - away from my parents, away from Chicago's Ukrainian community in 1985, the USA and USSR had boycotted each other's Olympic games in Moscow and Los Angeles.

My young adult life saw Poland's Solidarity movement, the fall of the Berlin wall, and eventually, the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Some of my friends and relations went to Ukraine in the early 1990s to find mostly Russian speakers, weak institutions, Stalin-era architecture, a third world economy. This is the paradise my parents told me about? It was my disillusionment of their nostalgia. My plan of de-Ukrainification seemed to have been rooted in my practical understanding of the world. What good was Ukraine and Ukrainianism to me?  I was far more interested in the Pixies, Sonic Youth, and finding my way as a young adult. A career involving computers and the arts, a decent apartment, and putting food on my table, and eventually, marriage, were supremely important. And being back in Chicago's Ukrainian Village - well, I guess, the apple rarely falls far from the tree.

Eventually something started to trickle back. I spent my honeymoon on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, and I saw the Mayan pyramids. It got me thinking about my place in the world, and deepened my sense of history. I re-examined how I came to live in the Midwest of USA. I began to look deeply into my family and Ukraine's history and its people. But this was a personal journey. I studied Ukraine's regions and cities from a historical perspective as part of my study of media archaeology. It was a fascinating if bloody history - empires, revolutions, sovereignty and war, the fascinating themes from the first half of the 20th century - a dream for the intellectually curious. I could approach the subject on my own adult terms. Meanwhile, back in contemporary Ukraine - to which I still had no connection - Ukraine's nationalism - that is, its sense of self, came to fruition against the backdrop of an evolving regional post-Soviet economy. These economic and social realities seemed to still have little to do with me and my now middle-adult life.

As I entered graduate school later in life, almost twenty years had elapsed since Ukraine's independence. I had achieved many of my dreams - owned a house, had a career in computers and the arts, married - no kids, but the itch I had scratched came back. What of Ukraine? I began to seek out artists or anyone who might want to converse with a an American. Of course I ran into the usual language issues - my Ukrainian was poor, and many Ukrainians spoke Russian. Between the 1990s and the late 2000s the web had exploded which made communications far quicker - but what to talk about? I was trained in media: art and technology. My project was to approach Ukrainian culture with an open mind. The evolving sense that culture, media, technology, and language were intertwined and had a special place in Ukraine's relationship with the contemporary world - and my own world - became a focal point. Through my work communicating with contemporary artists in Ukraine, I began to see the enormity of the challenge. As my Masters in Fine Art thesis, Avatars-Аватари, for the University of Illinois at Chicago, School of Art and Art History, in Electronic Visualization came to be accepted and filed in the archives in 2010, I had achieved another milestone in my life. I had participated in Ukraine's contemporary society - from afar.