Ukrainian Americans are committed to preserving an identity Putin wants to destroy

The Ukrainian American diaspora, topping 1.1 million people, live primarily in big cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. Many fled political persecution or are descendants of those who did.

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Activists hold a sign showing Russian President Vladimir Putin and reading “Empire must die” at a rally outside the Russian embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine on Feb. 22.

Activists hold a banner of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a sign “Empire must die” at a rally outside Russia’s embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine on Feb. 22. Putin sent troops to two republics in eastern Ukraine.

Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

As a child, I would wait with anticipation in our home in Rochester, New York for my parents to return from trips to the Soviet Union. Often they brought gifts like a few loaves of hearty brown bread, or a wheel of briny, homemade cheese. Sometimes they also brought back notebooks or bits of paper with verses scribbled in Ukrainian.

These were the writings of dissidents and political prisoners whose work was banned in a systematic attempt to erase Ukrainian history and political expression.

Throughout the 20th century, czarist and then Soviet policies banned publication and education in the Ukrainian language.

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Under Joseph Stalin’s rule, the Soviet Union killed at least 750,000 artists, scientists and others between 1936 and 1938. Soviet persecution of Ukrainians and other Eastern European nationals continued throughout the 20th century.

Ukrainians who fled felt responsible for preserving their country’s intellectual and cultural heritage. My parents were among those in the Ukrainian diaspora who did so.

I am a Ukrainian American and a professor who studies the role of art in society. My work is an act of political defiance against centuries of cultural genocide.

Russia invaded Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula, in 2014. Since then, I’ve worked closely with a Ukrainian nonprofit organization to build community health and trauma programs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s escalating threat to invade Ukraine again does not come as a surprise to most Ukrainian Americans. Many Ukrainian Americans fear for the safety of family and friends in Ukraine, and for Ukraine’s future.

Preserving identity and culture

Ukraine is home to about 42 million people. There are between 12 million and 20 million additional people with Ukrainian heritage around the world. Many of them fled political persecution or are descendants of those who did.

The Ukrainian American diaspora, topping 1.1 million people, live primarily in big cities like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Participating in Ukrainian culture is a conscientious act of preserving national identity and culture for Ukrainian Americans.

My father arrived in Rochester, New York, in 1954 and joined a community that had Ukrainian language schools and social clubs. Members of this community gathered Ukrainian language publications that were forbidden under Soviet law. These materials tell the story of Ukrainians whose history was actively suppressed.

Being Ukrainian American often means attending Ukrainian-language school on Saturdays, or memorizing verses of Ukrainian poetry.

The idea of what it means to be Ukrainian American has changed since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The diaspora pivoted from preserving history to helping build a future for Ukraine. Ukrainians are now free to express themselves without fear of government reprisal.

Preserving history

Ukrainians first came to the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Another wave followed between the two world wars, after the rise of the Soviet Union in 1922. More Ukrainians migrated to the U.S. following World War II. The latest wave came after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

My father, Wolodymyr “Mirko” Pylyshenko, was among the Ukrainian American community leaders who worked to collect informally circulated Ukrainian literature.

As an editor and librarian at the Rochester branch of the Ukrainian Federal Credit Union, my father encouraged people to write their life stories. When a Ukrainian American died in Rochester, the family knew to bring their mementos to him.

My father died of COVID-19 in February 2020. But in his final years he organized his archives. His extensive collection preserving the first 100 years of Ukrainian American life in Rochester is housed at the University of Rochester, and his archive of previously banned materials is now in Dnipro, Ukraine.

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Russia, however, sees Ukraine as inherently linked. Putin published an article in July 2021, writing that Ukraine’s sovereignty is “possible only in partnership with Russia.”

“For we are one people,” Putin wrote.

‘Stop the Russians’

Ukraine and Russia share a complicated history, tracing back to Kievan Rus’, the first East Slavic state, which existed from the 9th century to the mid-13th century. The territory was centered in what is today Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city.

The threat of a Russian invasion is a direct attack on the national identity Ukrainian Americans and their ancestors have passionately defended.

Ukrainian Americans have closely followed the news, called their congressional representatives to support Ukraine, and prayed for peace — while also mentally preparing for a potential war.

Roman Bodola, a Ukrainian-born parishioner in Riverhead, New York, explained this public interest in a news article on Feb. 16, 2022: “Ukrainian people are strong. And they know they must stay strong and stop the Russians.”

Katja Kolcio is Associate Professor of Dance and Environmental Studies, Wesleyan University.

This article was originally published on

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