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Vasyl Ilashchuk in search of Ukrainians around the world
In the summer of 2004, a TV serial, Dorohamy Ukrayiny (Roads of Ukraine), directed and produced by Vasyl Ilashchuk, was shown in Ukraine. Now, in January 2005, Mr Ilashchuk is making another TV serial, Dorohamy Ukrayintsiv (Roads of Ukrainians) which is devoted to ethnic Ukrainians living in various parts of the world.
Vasyl Ilashchuk is a well-known television host and showman who also teaches at the Academy of Top Managers in the Spheres of Culture and Art. His film, Roads of Ukraine, after being shown on the UT-1 Central Television Station, made him even more popular. Now this film is shown in Ukrainian trains and plains. Mr Ilashchuk discussed his new project, Roads of Ukrainians, with Yevhen Budko, Senior Editor of the Mizhnarodny Turyzm Magazine.
Is the new film to be a sequel, a continuation of your previous TV serial, Roads of Ukraine?
Yes, to a certain extent. It was but natural to continue to trace the destinies of Ukrainians not only in Ukraine but in other countries. There are millions of ethnic Ukrainians living on all the continents.
It was surely an exciting idea but a project of such a vast scope must be very costly to carry out. Who financed the project?
It was the state-run company, Ukrzaliznytsya (Ukrainian Railroads) that backed us financially, the same that commissioned and financed the previous film. At the time when the decision to go ahead with the new film was taken, the political situation was rather unstable but the company’s head, the late Heorhiy Kirpa supported it. Of course, the serial Roads of Ukraine was more in line with what Ukrzaliznytsya wanted since it was to be shown on its trains travelling across Ukraine, but Mr Kirpa made a gesture of good will, as it were, and embraced the new idea even though it would cost much more to make such a film because it involved extensive travelling abroad. I did expect we would get this support because Ukrzaliznytsya had already established itself as a patron of culture. It is Ukrzaliznytsya, for example, that has undertaken to renovate the building of the Ukrkontsert (Ukrainian Concert) Society.
Have you finished the filming? And which countries have you visited so far?
No, we are not done yet. We’ve filmed the material for twelve parts. We’ve been to Poland, Slovakia, Rumania, Argentina, Paraguay, and Russia. I think in Russia we’ve visited all the places where there are large communities of Ukrainians except for Tyumen. The Ukrainian community in Tymen is so vocal we thought they did not need our help to make them better known. We are planning to travel to France, Switzerland, Canada and the USA. If we get enough financing we’ll also go to Australia, New Zealand, Kazakhstan, Portugal and Italy. In fact, there are Ukrainians living in Africa. Our last destination is to be the Ukrainian scientific station Vernadsky in Antarctica. All in all, we are planning to gather material for 20 parts.
What was the first country you went to?
Poland. The trip to Poland gave us a lot of historic material. We visited the regions where the population used to be predominantly Ukrainian. In the 1940s, the Polish government, afraid that the Ukrainians living in those regions in the east of the country could pose a threat to Poland’s territorial integrity if they united for a concerted action, moved most of the ethnic Ukrainians from where they lived in the east to other regions, some as far as Poland’s western and southern borders. Even at present, ethnic Ukrainians have problems in finding jobs in eastern Poland.
But average Poles do not have any chips on their shoulders. In the town of Tarnow we paid a visit to the Bristol Hotel which was the headquarters of the government in exile of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1921–1922. The proprietor of the hotel gave us a very friendly reception and showed us unique documents about the government in exile of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the room which used to be the office of Symon Petlyura and the place where he held round-table discussions. The proprietor said that though he is a Pole, he considers the history of the Ukrainian government in exile relates to him personally. It was very moving.
Are there any considerable differences in the position of ethnic Ukrainians living in various countries of Eastern Europe?
Yes, the situation in each country is peculiar to this particular country. For example, in Rumania there is not a single Ukrainian school whereas in Ukraine there were more than a dozen Rumanian schools opened in the years of independence in addition to those that functioned before. In view of the fact that the number of ethnic Ukrainians in Rumania and ethnic Rumanians in Ukraine is about the same, this disparity in the number of schools is particularly striking. But the Ukrainian communities there do their best to keep their national culture and language alive.
How do you decide where you will go on your next trip in search of Ukrainians?
We more or less know where we are likely to find many Ukrainians. We do rather extensive research using all the sources available, Internet included, and then establish contacts with some Ukrainians in the places we are planning to visit. It is only after all this preparatory work has been done that we set out on a trip. But no matter how well prepared we are, what we discover upon arrival is always something unexpected.
What was the most unexpected discovery?
Paraguay. I cannot tell you exactly how many ethnic Ukrainians live there but I know that there is a lot of them. The mayor of the administrative centre of one of the provinces is an ethnic Ukrainian; the chief of the region is a Ukrainian; the leading banker and the richest man of that province are Ukrainians. In general, ethnic Ukrainians in Paraguay are quite well-to-do. In Peru, the authorities let the immigrants have untilled but fertile land. Each one could get as much land as he could cultivate, and Ukrainians, mostly from the Land of Volyn, took the biggest plots. Now their descendants are rich landowners who lease their land to others. Ethnic Ukrainians in Latin America generally manage to retain their language and culture passing them on from generation to generation but they know very little about Ukraine of today. Once, I walked into a store whose proprietor turned out to be an aged Ukrainian. I spotted a refrigerator which, judging by its shape, must have been made back in the sixties. When I came up closer to have a better look, the proprietor, opening the fridge’s door, began to explain that “this chamber here is called a freezer. It’s for keeping frozen food, you know, in there. Put your hand in — feel how cold it is! They don’t make things like that in Ukraine, do they?” When I told the man that Ukraine built planes, the biggest in the world, and rockets and used all kinds of modern technology, he refused to believe me.
Does your film deal exclusively with Ukrainians abroad or do you include some material about each of the places you visit?
Yes, sure we do. About 40 percent of the footage in each part of our serial is given to the place we devote this particular part to. There were quite a few discoveries that we made during the filming, not necessarily connected with Ukrainians. It turned out, for example, that the Argentinean tango was originally a dance performed by two men, rather than a man and a woman. In Buenos Aires, we saw young men in the streets who offer to give you lessons of tango dancing for free. They say they want to make this dance popular world over.
Do Ukrainians who live there offer to teach others how to dance Hopak or other Ukrainian national dances?
I don’t know about that but I do know that Ukrainian communities in Argentina run Ukrainian clubs. They have such youth organizations as Plast and Prosvita, they have their churches. Once, we were filming something in the jungles and there was a man nearby who was cutting down reeds with a machete. When I caught his eye, I automatically said in Ukrainian, Dobryden! (Good day to you!). And imagine my surprise when the man answered, Dobroho zdorovya! (literally: Good health to you; it is used as a greeting — tr.). A Ukrainian peasant working in the South American selva!
Do you remember where you were given the warmest reception?
I do. It was in Kolyma, the Land of Khabarovsk (Kolyma in the east-north of Russia was traditionally a place where in the soviet times dissidents were exiled to and criminals served their prison terms — tr.). In Magadan we were given a warm reception by the head of the regional department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs who proved to be a Ukrainian from the Land of Bukovyna. In Birobidzhan, which is the regional centre of the Yevreyskaya (Jewish) Autonomous Oblast of Russian Federation, we were also accorded a very warm reception. This time we were welcomed by the head of the regional department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs who proved to be a Ukrainian from the town of Kosiv in Western Ukraine. Incidentally, only two percent of the population of the Yevreyskaya Autonomous Oblast are Jewish and twenty percent are ethnic Ukrainians. In such cases when we were received warmly, we always felt that the Ukrainians we were talking to had retained spiritual links with their motherland and were probably contemplating a return to Ukraine some day.
What about ethnic Ukrainians who live in North America? Do they also have such a spiritual link with the land of their ancestors?
We’ve encountered all kinds of attitudes. Some of the ethnic Ukrainians in America asked us, “Why is it that you in Ukraine do not oust President Kuchma? He’s no good,” and they tried to explain to us what “true democracy” was. When you look at the events in a country from afar, many things seem to be much simpler to do. As it happens, we, in Ukraine, have proved that we can stand up for our dignity and for our rights.
Some Ukrainians chose to return to Ukraine and do something useful for establishing democratic principles in this country. I think their choice deserves the highest respect. Among such Ukrainians were Slava Stetsko, Roman Zvarych and Stephen Bandera Jr. In fact, we are planning a separate film about some of those Ukrainians who were born outside Ukraine but then came to Ukraine motivated by the feelings of patriotism and national pride. On their part, it was a very courageous thing to do. Also, we are thankful to those Ukrainians who came to Ukraine to be observers at the presidential elections, or to help with whatever they could.
Did you observe any significant differences in mentality of ethnic Ukrainians who live in different countries or continents?
I would not take upon myself to be talking about differences in mentality as it is a very complicated issue and needs a special study. But of course we observed differences in approach to Ukrainian culture and traditions and to Ukraine of today. In North America, there are Ukrainians of several generations living there — Ukrainians of the first waves of emigrants from the early twentieth century up to the time of the Second World War; those who found their way to America right after the war, among them many displaced persons; those who were fleeing from soviet persecution; political dissidents of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s; those who were thrown out of the country, and those who came to America in the late 1980s and 1990s in search of a better life, “economic emigrants.” I have an impression that the earliest Ukrainian immigrants to America were the ones who did their best to maintain their Ukrainian culture and language in the new land. The post-war immigrants were less enthusiastic in maintaining Ukrainian traditions and culture, and the most recent immigrants to America do not seem to care at all. They were not fleeing from religious or political oppression — they were just looking for better jobs and better pay. I cannot endorse such attitudes to the culture of our native land. Yes, if you work even at a gas station in America you will earn much more than you can earn on average in Ukraine, but why neglect your culture? Many of these “economic immigrants” do not care for the traditions of the previous generations of Ukrainian immigrants, they rarely go to church, they do not support Ukrainian communities in any way. And they break the law much more often that ethnic Ukrainians of all the other generations.
Do you have any idea what the attitudes of the governments are to Ukrainian immigrants in different countries of the world?
It would be difficult to generalize but I think that most governments of the countries with a noticeable presence of Ukrainian immigrants regard them as hard-working and culturally advanced people. Several years ago, in Italy, for example, when the problem of the legal status of Ukrainian immigrants was discussed, it was revealed that Ukrainians were the most law-abiding people among all other “economic immigrants” — there were only several cases of Ukrainians breaking the law. At the same time, it is known that Ukrainian racketeers in Central and Eastern Europe terrorized other Ukrainians. By contrast, in Canada and in the USA the contribution of Ukrainians to the economic development of some of the regions was very considerable. There are many ethnic Ukrainians in North America who occupy high-ranking posts, who are prominent scholars and artists.
I know that some of the ethnic Ukrainians have achieved a lot in America or have become well known but they are little known in Ukraine. Take the actor Volodymyr Palahnyuk, for instance, who is known in America as Jack Palance but who is not known under any name in Ukraine.
This is very unfortunate, of course. We’ll try to do something about it. In March this year we’ll go to New York to film a big gathering of popular people in America of Ukrainian descent. About 70 well-known actors, film directors, screen writers, producers and musicians in Hollywood are ethnic Ukrainians. In Canada you also find a lot of well-known people of Ukrainian descent. The same in Europe. We want the Ukrainians of Ukraine to know that, for example, one of the airports in Paris, Orly, is named after a Ukrainian, an eighteenth-century hetman Pylyp Orlyk, or that Hetman Skoropadsky’s granddaughter lives in Switzerland.
What do you think the Ukrainian diaspora can still do for Ukraine?
Well, I think the best they can do is to support their native land by maintaining Ukrainian traditions and culture in the countries where they live. The time will come when Ukraine will start helping them to maintain Ukrainian traditions and culture. It will give Ukraine more international prestige than anything else.
Did your travels and socializing with Ukrainians abroad reveal something for you that you had not been aware of before?
I have come to understand Ukrainians as a nation much better. Now I see that no matter where Ukrainians find themselves they will survive under any conditions and at the same time will preserve their traditions and culture. Our Orange Revolution has come as a great surprise to me — it was a real manifestation of the unity of purpose and determination to reach the desired goal. The voice of Ukraine was heard all over the world.
My main discovery in my travels is that the Ukrainians are a phenomenal people.