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The House Where Her Soul Abides
An average Ukrainian, in contrast to most other Europeans, regards emigration as a tragic event, something that cannot be undone once it is done; the land to which this average Ukrainian immigrant goes is chuzhyna (“a foreign, inhospitable land”) where, to paraphrase a line from a Ukrainian folk song, life is so hard that it feels like having to continuously move an enormously heavy rock; “chuzhyna” is a land from which there is no return since “while I cross the wide sea, my wings will all be rumpled” (the words from another Ukrainian folk song).
The unbearably hard life at home made millions of Ukrainians emigrate, leaving their beloved native land behind. So many Ukrainians settled down in many countries of the world, predominantly in North America. Miraculously enough, most of them have managed to preserve their language and culture and ethnic identity. Many of those who are of Ukrainian descent but who have been born in western Europe, in America and in Australia, have become thoroughly westernized as well, and when some of them began visiting Ukraine after it had regained independence, they looked upon Ukraine through the eyes of westerners. Both the guests and the hosts were often shocked. In some cases the culture shock was very strong.
These and other issues were raised in a conversation that the WU senior editor Myroslava Barchuk had with Ms Marta Farion, an American of Ukrainian extraction whose world outlook and cultural identity has been influenced by three cultures — Ukrainian, Latin American and North American. Ms. Farion, a Chicago attorney, came to Kyiv in the capacity of the chairperson of the Kyiv Committee of Chicago Sister Cities International Program.
Which of the cultures you were growing in, Ms. Farion, is closer to you? Which of them can you call your very own?
This question I’ve been asking myself. I was born in Italy, on the way to Argentina, after my family was fleeing from the Soviets whose troops had invaded Lviv and western Ukraine. It was a large family — not only my parents and me, but also the grandfathers and grandmothers. We were headed for Argentina via Western Europe. My family had with them all of our treasures — Ukrainian books, icons and photographs. We brought with us to Buenos Aires our Ukrainian world and in that small world we lived. I learned to talk Ukrainian as my native tongue. I learned to rejoice at the celebrations of Christmas and other holidays, Ukrainian style. I listened to Ukrainian songs, I listened to my father play the violin. He liked to play both classical music and Ukrainian songs. So you can say that the Ukrainian roots are the deepest and strongest, but it would not be quite right to say that I completely belong to Ukrainian culture. I grew up in Latin America and my personality was formed there, and I must tell you frankly that I feel myself at home in any Latin American country. When I moved to the United States I was fifteen and found myself in quite a different emotional and cultural world. My heart found its peace in Hispanic literary and philosophical studies, which I majored in at a US university. I even got my master’s degree in this field. That is why I find it difficult to give you a simple answer — there are too many things that your question evokes in me, so many lights begin to scintillate in me. I think it would be more correct to say that different cultures ring different bells in different parts of my soul.
When did you visit Ukraine for the first time? Did you feel that you belonged here as well? How does it feel to be in Ukraine?
My first visit took place when I was very young in 1973. Ukraine was still “a Soviet republic” within the Soviet Union, and of course all the things bore a strong Soviet stamp — but the Soviet Ukraine is a separate subject to discuss. The first real acquaintance with the true Ukraine took place in 1991. It was a great emotional experience for me. I did feel I was at home, in my native land… We went to the city of Lviv with my mother. One of my first experiences will surely stay in my memory forever. It was like this — you see, I had not warned my relatives who lived in Lviv that I was coming, but I went straight to the house where I knew my aunt lived. I had met her almost twenty years before, on my first visit to Ukraine. I knocked at the door and there she was, my aunt welcoming me and saying, “I knew you’d be back some day”. It was one of the most moving moments of my life. Later on that visit, we went for long walks in Lviv, and once we bumped into a group of foreign tourists who seemed lost in the labyrinth of narrow Lviv streets, and my Mom began explaining to them how to get where they wanted to get, though she herself had last visited Lviv forty years before…Yes, Ukraine is my land, it’s the house where my soul abides.
Is there anything that is difficult for you to accept in Ukraine?
The most painful thing for me is the spread of dishonesty and sleaze which permeate Ukrainian society, particularly the highest echelons of power. I’m a realist and I realize perfectly well that such phenomena, to a greater or smaller extent, can be found in most countries of the world. I know that certain things are much easier done if you enlist the help of someone high up in the power structures. These sorts of things exist in Argentina, and even in the United States you can find a measure of it. But it is a tragedy for Ukraine that “pulling the strings,” getting things done through protection and influence and bribery leave virtually no chance for a talented and honest person to get to a position of authority, to find a good job, or in the final count to be useful for society. The preponderance of talentless people at all levels of state power is badly detrimental to the state, and hampers its development.
Don’t you think that part of the problem lies in the passivity of Ukrainian society which allows such a state of things to perpetuate itself? Or even — what if this society takes an active part in promoting this ugly game? Would a situation like the one we are having in Ukraine now be possible, say, if we had civil awareness and consciousness at an American level?
Of course it would not be possible! I’ve observed this sort of passivity — or to put it differently — “civil reticence” among the people. One can explain this phenomenon of passivity by the woeful legacy of the past centuries when the Ukrainian people had to get adjusted to life under suppression, in the shade of the Empires — Russian and Austrian and then Soviet. People got accustomed to the feeling of being nobodies and having no rights. Particularly hard on people was the totalitarian Soviet regime. The young generations growing up in Ukraine are the first young people who may have completely different attitudes to things, who have ambitions to become achievers, who want to take what they think belongs to them by their inalienable rights. They learn to be masters of their land, to run businesses, to enter new types of relationships with their business partners, to talk freely about money and investments, and not be afraid of competitiveness. Americans say “I am American and this is my right!” and this is an inextricable part of their mentality. That’s how Ukrainians should learn to feel and think. I think the young people of Ukraine feel that way.
Is there anything that the Ukrainians have and the Americans don’t? Something that you feel you lack in America?
Oh there are a lot of things that I miss in America and that the Ukrainians have in abundance — humaneness, more warmth in human relations, sensitivity, compassion, a lot of creativity. The American Anglo-Saxon world feels rather cold in comparison. I feel it both with the Ukrainian and Argentinean parts of my heart. It’s not accidental that so many Americans who come to Ukraine at first complain of all kinds of inconveniences and at the end of their sojourn they feel they’ve experienced something that will stay in their memory for very long — they know that their impressions of their visit to Ukraine are unforgettable. Among the things that impress them so much are the gentle, romantic and mild disposition of the Ukrainian character. It’s beyond them, they can’t understand how it is that, in spite of such a cruel and harsh history, the Ukrainian people possess such a gentle nature. I’m inclined to think that having been denied for centuries to express themselves in the political and economic spheres, the Ukrainian people have channeled all their energy and the resourcefulness of their souls into songs, embroidery, music and poetry — manifestations of their souls into material form — into all forms of creativity.
In the early 1990s, the Ukrainian poet and literary critic Mykola Ryabchuk said, “The honeymoon of Ukraine and the Ukrainian diaspora has come to an end.” This sober phrase has been remembered — it does reflect the cooling off of relations of the Ukrainian natives and of the people of Ukrainian descent across the ocean and mutual disappointment. Why did it happen that way?
There were illusions which were cherished both in the west and in Ukraine — and then these illusions were dispelled. Illusions were harbored mostly because of what can be called the information blockade of Ukraine. We in the diaspora, were brought up on Ukrainian books with beautiful — but misleading — pictures in which we saw the scenic nature of Ukraine, usually rural, bucolic areas, those “blooming cherry orchards”, and we thought that everything in Ukraine was the best, the most honest, the truest, the most innocent. No wonder our experiences in the post-Soviet Ukraine were very painful. Ukraine, on the other hand, harbored its own illusions about the west — the people of Ukraine who lived under the Soviet regime for over seventy years knew very little of what life was like in the west, and when these two world outlooks came into contact, sparks began flying. I’m not one of those who were too badly disappointed, and I believe that the moment has come when we have to start making efforts to understand each other better, to overcome estrangement, and to actively engage in cooperation that will benefit both sides and will lead to more meaningful participation of Ukrainians in the world community.
We seem to have come straight to discussing your work at the Kyiv Committee of Chicago Sister Cities International Program.
The 1990s saw quite a powerful wave of Ukrainian immigration to the USA and Canada. Earlier, there were three mass emigration waves from Ukraine: the first one was the immigration caused by economic reasons — overpopulation and scarcity of food in the countryside in western Ukraine. It lasted from the last quarter of the nineteenth century up to the beginning of the First World War. The second wave mostly involved people who fled from Ukraine for political reasons between the two world wars. And the third major wave came after the Second World War, when there were so many displaced persons of Ukrainian descent — former inmates of German concentration camps, men and women who had been brought to Germany for forced labor, those who fled from the advancing Soviet troops — moved en masse to America. These people could not return to the Soviet Union, and the United States offered asylum to so many of them.
The Ukrainian community of Chicago — the city I reside in — is about 70,000 thousand people and it is one of the large Ukrainian communities in the States. Chicago has 25 sister cities — Paris, Mexico City, Milan, Toronto, Osaka, Birmingham, Warsaw and Moscow among them — all around the world. In 1991, Kyiv and Chicago established their sister-city status. It was the Ukrainian community of Chicago that initiated the move to have Kyiv join the Chicago Sister Cities International Program. The Sister Cities International Program began in 1956, when president Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the “People-to-People Initiative.” He believed that diplomacy on a person-to-person level was an important resource for successful negotiations between governments. Recognizing the importance of involving all citizens in world diplomacy, he called upon the nation’s cities as the centers of opportunity, expression and economic growth, to unite with communities around the world in building a solid structure of world peace. At the core of all sister cities relationships is an agreement, signed by the Mayor of each city, reflecting their mutual commitment to building bridges between governments, businesses and individuals. In 1960, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley signed the first sister cities’ agreement with Warsaw, Poland. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Chicago signed such agreements with seven more sister cities. And in 1990, Mayor Richard M. Daley enacted an executive order to establish a Board of Directors, kicking off more than a decade of increased community participation and a rapid growth in sister cities’ relationships. I’ve been a member of the Kyiv Committee of the Chicago Sister Cities International Program since the committee was set up, and for the past seven years I’ve served as its chairman. It was Chicago’ Mayor who appointed me. In the past eleven years, we organized a lot of person-to-person exchanges, trainings and other events. We worked along the lines of cultural , educational, humanitarian, medical and managerial programs. We feel it is our duty to provide American society with truthful information about Ukraine. Among the many committee events, I’d like to mention the Chicago tours of the Kyiv children’s ballet troupe and of the Kyiv Chamber Orchestra with Roman Kofman as its conductor. Dozens of thousands of Americans watched them perform at the Great Park Music Festival, a very popular music venue in the United States. We have collected money to donate computers and other state of the art teaching aids for several schools in Kyiv, as part of the sister-schools initiative. We also hosted a group of Ukrainian officials from the Protocol Department of the Kyiv City Administration that spent three weeks with in protocol training.
What were your impressions of all these Ukrainian visits to Chicago?
Quite positive. The officials seemed really eager to learn as much as possible while in Chicago and they were very qualified individuals. Their professional level and motivation were quite high. Also, a number of Ukrainian policemen went through a special police training in the 911 Emergency Center program.
Are closer ties and cooperation of any help in overcoming the estrangement between the Ukrainians of Ukraine and the Ukrainians of the Ukrainian diaspora, and in removing the chips on our shoulders?
Yes, they are. I believe that it is sharing the ideas and spiritual values that can help us overcome the estrangement. An essential prerequisite for introducing and realizing socially important ideas is mutual understanding, which is achieved through all kinds of person to person contacts. We need each other, we can learn a lot from each other. And the most important thing — we do share essential and spiritual values and ideas. I believe that with goodwill and personal communications we can enhance and improve economic, social and political ties between our countries.[Prev][Contents][Next]