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Oleksiy Voskobiynyk — the destiny of an Ukrainian
In order to come to know a country well, one has to know its history. The best way to learn a country’s history is through learning the destines of people who live or lived in this country. Oleksiy Voskobiynyk originally hailed from the town of Myrhorod in the Land of Poltavshchyna; later he immigrated to America. Now he is a philanthropist. In 2005 he had a book of his memoirs, Povist moyikh lit, published in Kyiv. The book’s editor was Oleh Chornohuz.
Maria VLAD takes a look at the life of Oleksiy Voskobiynyk (Aleks Voskob), an American of Ukrainian descent, who keeps Ukraine in his heart.
Itwas Oleh Chornohuz who introduced me to Mr Voskobiynyk. The introduction took place at the Budynok Vchytelya (House of Teachers) Cultural Center in Kyiv in the summer of 2007.
The Voskobiynyk couple had come to Ukraine to hand the Voskobiynyk Foundation prizes to the winners of the best memoirs published in 2007. This year the recipients were Yarema Tkachuk, a former member of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army who had spent many years in soviet GULAG concentration camps, and Olena Skoropadska-Ott, the daughter of the last hetman of Ukraine, Pavlo Skoropadsky (she now lives in Switzerland).
The place was crowded; there were many literati, young and budding, old and experienced, who wanted to talk to Mr Voskobiynyk and present him their works. It was hot and close. Mr Voskobiynyk seemed not to have shown much interest in me; he looked tired, rather withdrawn and reserved, and did not appear to be eager to strike up new acquaintances. I admit I did not work up much interest in the man either. One must be grateful for the philanthropic works he does, but one does not necessarily have to like philanthropists, or be liked by them.
The Voskobiynyk couple were seated on the stage among several Ukrainian writers, and there they looked as reserved as in a private conversation. They refused to take the floor and address the meeting. While the Ukrainian poet Leonid Toma was reading a poem I watched Halyna, Mr Voskobiynyk’s wife, the only woman among the men at the table on the stage. There was something majestic in her beauty. I could not help thinking that she must have inherited her black hair and facial features with a profile as though chiseled from fine stone, well-groomed, from her Cossack ancestors.
I did not have another chance to talk to Mr Voskobiynyk again that day. But when I was leaving, I picked up a book from among those freebies that were laid out on the tables for the participants of the meeting.
The book was Povist moyikh lit, The Story of My Life by Oleksiy Voskobiynyk. I read it in a gulp. I think that this book must be read by everyone who cares for Ukraine and things Ukrainian. The book is an excellent exercise for the soul; it encourages one to think about the fate of Ukraine through the fate of one particular person. Reading that book was an uplifting experience, and it would be extremely useful for anyone in Ukraine who is disillusioned or has started to have some doubts, be it a high-ranking official or a peasant, to read the book.
Voskobiynyk’s book made me think of my own destiny and destiny of my family. There were so many things which were painfully familiar. Not once, while reading the book, I could not help crying. And I could not help wondering what helped hundreds of thousands of people like Voskobiynyk survive the terrors of Stalinism and of Nazi occupation. They withstood all the trials, they did not break, they bravely faced the tribulations and they overcame the bullets, bombs, barbed wire, and indifference of others to their suffering. Was it the Cossack blood in them that made them so strong, the spirit of freedom perseverance and hope? Their power of survival, their lust for life upheld them in all the most severe trials life put them through.
Oleksiy Voskobiynyk, his mother Maryna, his elder brother Mykhailo and his younger brother Ivan persevered and survived. They were guided by God and by Maryna’s intuition, and “then we found ourselves in what seemed to us an earthly paradise in comparison with the communist-Hitlerite world that were proclaimed to be paradise for those who lived under those regimes. Now my large family and I live in America.”
Oleksiy Voskobiynyk writes that it took him some time to make up his mind to write down the story of his life and then publish his memoirs.
“Now I have all I need, everything I could dream of in my sweetest dreams. My family and I almost lost our lives, given to us by God, in the soviet ‘paradise.’ My father who worked hard from dawn to night was executed by a Bolshevik firing squad when he was forty two, his only crime being his hard work. Now, when I am writing this, I’ve got a feeling that everything that has happened to me in my life happened to someone else rather than me or my family. It was like a most scary nightmare from a horror movie. But it did happen, as it happened to so many other Ukrainians. My book is a warning to the generation of today and to those that will come. They are to build a free and democratic Ukraine; they are to live in a civilized world. They are to have enough faith and patience and perseverance and strength in order not to be duped by the demagogy… of new ‘builders of a happy future’ (reference to the soviet-style propaganda — tr.) who offer ‘enough sausage’ ideology instead of a national idea — not a single country could build its statehood on the ‘enough sausage’ ideology. This book of mine is a warning to those who do not know what the Bolshevik communism was. It was a social formation which did not have a future, or even any right for any future. But the young and gullible can easily succumb to the influence of the pink-red logorrhea and demagogy. But if, God forbid, it happens, then not much time will pass before… grief comes to those people under the red influence and I would not wish even my implacable enemy to live through what my nation and other peoples lived through when they found themselves in the ‘soviet paradise’ whose real name is Hell… I made up my mind to write this book also because in Ukraine which is so dear to my heart… the ‘fifth column’ has begun to rise its head again — the fifth column is the Bolshevik rabble on whose list of crimes they committed are millions upon millions of murdered innocent people, the sea of blood, concentration camps in the empty vastness of Siberia where defenseless children and adults died only because they were Ukrainians who were conscious of being Ukrainian. They dreamed about freedom, about their native land and its independence. They struggled to achieve this independence. My book must be read in the civilized world. I am in a construction business. I am a builder of America. May my book be a brick in the world edifice under the blue firmament of the sky and golden rays of the sun where… God’s Grace lives forever.”
Oleksiy Voskobiynyk’s book is an honest and earnest story of one Ukrainian family, or rather of two families — the Voskobiynyks and the Drobots (Voskobiynyk’s wife Halyna comes from the family of the Drobots), and the destiny of these two families is similar to the destines of millions of other families in Ukraine.
“My early childhood passed in the land which was occupied by the Moscow Bolsheviks. Those were hungry times. My family were hardworking, clever and well-to-do peasants, and having such a family in the soviet times spelled bad trouble. But I survived.”
Oleksiy’s father had about 15 acres of land. He was a practical and wise husbandman. He believed that the lazy and loafers were no good. All such people could was to wave revolvers and proclaim slogans written in Moscow, engage in loose and idle talk, and execute senseless and criminal orders of their superiors.
“I was told that both my mother and my father were descendants of the Ukrainian Cossacks. Our ancestors served in the Myrhorod Cossack regiment and none of our ancestors were serfs.”
Oleksiy’s great-grandfather on his father’s side was a patron of art and philanthropist who made a significant monetary contribution towards the construction of a cathedral in Myrhorod. Oleksiy’s grandfather Vasyl was a shareholder of a big horse-breeding farm. Oleksiy’s father inherited a good and spacious house. Incidentally, this house in Berezhanska Street in Myrhorod still stands.
The soviets threw the Voskobiynyk family out of their house when Oleksiy was quite small and the family had to rent rooms to live in. Oleksiy’s father was most of the time on the run, hiding from the soviet authorities. But he was apprehended, arrested and executed in 1937 for being “an enemy of the soviet people.” His mother Maryna, a clever and literate woman, had to take care of her three sons all by herself.
“I’ve been to many places on this planet but now, in my advanced age, looking back and thinking about all those Lisbons, Liverpools, Sydneys, Londons, Buenos Aireses, Nairobis, Berlins and Parises I prefer my Myrhorod to all of them. That small city had a population of about twenty thousand people in the year when I was born (1922). My second native town, State-College in Pennsylvania, USA, happens to have a population of exactly the same size… These days in the town of Myrhorod there is a resort which is situated at the bank of the slowly-flowing River Horol and which is visited by tourists from all over Europe who go there to improve their health. State-College in Pennsylvania has an agrarian university which is the biggest educational establishment of its kind in the world.”
In the 1920s, when Lenin introduced his “New Economic Policy” and private enterprise, though on a limited scale, was allowed to function for some time, the Voskobiynyks had a small meat-processing factory, good horses and a carriage.
“But then came the time when the soviets took away our factory and our good horses.” Their plot of land of 150 acres was also confiscated and they were left only with 15 acres. Then famine struck when all the food was taken away from the starving. Oleksiy’s father had to run away and he was hiding in the city of Kharkiv. Maryna and her children were thrown out of their house in winter at night. They were taken in a sledge into the fields and dumped there. Oleksiy’s war boots were pulled off his feet.
“I remember that night; I will remember it as long as I live. That memory was with me in Germany, in Canada and now in America.”
Maryna and her children stayed with neighbors and when they were asked to move, they managed to find other kind souls in Myrhorod who would put them up.
Oleksiy’s both grandfathers were persecuted and chased into their graves. “But the worst was yet to come — the year nineteen thirty-three when an unheard-of tragedy (large-scale famine) struck… I survived… but the thought of the millions of victims makes my heart ache… we survived thanks to my father… The family of Oksana and Ivan Drobots, my wife’s parents, survived as well. There were many similarities in what my and her family did in order to survive.”
The Voskobiynyks moved to Kharkiv where they lived for some time, and they returned to Myrhorod. They could not live in their house and had to seek refuge elsewhere. They sold whatever they had of any value or swapped it for food.
“Soviet commissars and secret police, Komsomol (Young Communist League) activists went from house to house, from garden to garden looking for hidden food; they searched everywhere and if they found a piece of half-baked bread or several potatoes they took them away… From the windows of the house we lived in we saw people who looked like shadows trudging on aimlessly and collapsing on the ground never to rise again… [When in 1937] my father was taken away, we watched him being led away but neither I nor my brother Ivan thought we would never see our father again.”
Oleksiy’s elder brother Mykhailo had managed to move to Russia where he became a student of a technical school, but Oleksiy, his mother and Ivan stayed in Ukraine where they lived through the times of Nazi occupation. The Nazi regime was not much different from the soviet regime. Ukrainians were referred to as Untermensch that is “not quite human.” Ivan narrowly escaped being taken to Germany for forced labor.
The Untermensch Oleksiy made a technical discovery which amazed the Ubermensch (Superman) German occupiers — he discovered a way of using wood and turf which was abundant in the vicinity of Myrhorod for producing electricity in a gas generator. “At first, no one believed it could work but I proved it could be done. Both Ukrainian and German newspapers wrote about it, and I felt pride in my invention. Later, closer to the end of the war when there was lack of gasoline in Germany, my method was successfully used... I felt really proud, almost happy that I could teach those whose racial theories allowed for only a few Ukrainians to exist as slaves for the Third Reich something they could not do themselves.”
When the chance presented itself, the reunited family of the Voskobiynyks — except their father, of course, decided to move to the west without waiting for the soviet “liberators.”
It took years and a lot of suffering and lot of moving from place to place for the Voskobiynyks to find a place where they could settle down and be at last happy. “I always believed I’d find it” And he did.
His wife Halyna recollects: “I could not stop thinking of Ukraine. I could not believe that we would never go back to our dear apple trees, to our willows and poplars, to the wide blue Dnipro, to the Ukrainian songs…” But many years later she did visit Ukraine. She even found her sister Marusya who, Halyna thought, had been lost in the vicinity of the town of Kamyanets-Podilsky in the war dying during a bombing raid or in shelling. Marusya had changed her last name, got married and never mentioned that she had relatives who had escaped from the soviet hell to America.
Oleksiy used every opportunity to study and everywhere he was a good student. He studied at the University of Munich, at a medical school and other schools but the thing he liked most was electricity. “Probably because it is the electrical power that moves everything in the world. It gives light to people…”
He found his way to America, first to Canada, then to the United States. There he met Halyna, his wife: “It feels so good to be with her, and I hope it feels good for her to be with me. We have traveled a long, difficult road, we have overcome all the adversities and we have survived. We have saved ourselves, and I am sure we’ll save Ukraine!”
In the United States, Oleksiy, a talented, determined achiever with a phenomenal memory and a great capacity for absorbing knowledge, went into construction business. His business grew, he took loans from banks to expand his business and banks trusted him. Later, he set up his own bank. He did everything possible to maintain his good reputation and in any business “good reputation is half of success.” He branched into television and established the first private television station in Pennsylvania. It cost him four million dollars to do it.
Oleksiy Voskobiynyk is a respectable US citizen who has been awarded the Best Universal Builder Certificate by the State of Pennsylvania, but he never forgets about Ukraine. The Voskobiynyks donate a lot of their money for the development of culture in Ukraine, for the building up of the Ukrainian statehood. They donated money towards the reconstruction of the Mykhaylivsky Zoloteverkhy (St Michael’s Golden-Domed) Cathedral in Kyiv, and their names are to be found among the names of other donors on a plaque in the cathedral. They support publication of religious literature in Ukrainian. They give computers, clothes, candies and many other things to orphanages (through the Union of Ukrainian Women). Courtesy of the Voskobiynyks, the Ukrainian Cappella of Bandura Players received a collection of songs and sheet music, Hray, Banduro! (Play, Bandura!). The Voskobiynyks support the Berezillya Magazine published in Kharkiv. A large project, initiated and financially supported by them, of publishing textbooks on the history of Ukraine and Ukrainian literature is being carried out (the manager of the project is Oleksandr Kravets in Dnipropetrovsk). Posters with portraits of Ukrainian writers which were published within the framework of this project were displayed at the meeting with Oleksiy Voskobiynyk at the Budynok Vchytelya Cultural Center at the presentation of awards of International prizes of the Voskobiynyk Foundation for the best memoir publications in 2007. The Voskobiynyks donated one and a half million dollars for the development of the Ukrainian Agrarian University which, thanks to their help, has achieved an international status.
Oleksiy Voskobiynyk and others like him in America are ready to provide Ukraine with whatever support they can, but it does strike a wrong note when they arrive in Kyiv at Boryspil Airport and the body guards or customs officers speak to them in Russian, the language of a neighboring state. Later, they discover that newspaper stalls offer magazines and newspapers mostly in Russian, that Ukrainian songs on the radio almost cannot be heard. Also, they surely must feel indignant when they learn that there is so much corruption in Ukraine and that so much is being stolen by those who are in power at all the levels — and they, the Voskobiynyks give their own money, earned by hard work to get the things going in Ukraine, the things that should be provided for by Ukraine itself.
It grieves them to know all that — but no matter what, they go on doing what they can’t help doing because they love Ukraine — supporting it in whatever way they can.
The Voskobiynyk family with children and grandchildren.
At the presentation of the International Literary Prize
Two sisters, Mariya Drobot and Halyna
Halyna and Oleksiy Voskobiynyk met Halyna
At a solemn ceremony of handing
Halyna Voskobiynyk hands the International
On the cover of Oleksiy Voskobiynyk’s
Models of buildings that were built