How Chicago taught Ukraine’s former first lady to have hope

SNEED: Kateryna Yushchenko grew up in Humboldt Park and Mount Prospect is now living in the midst of the world’s latest war.

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Former Ukraine first lady Kateryna Yushchenko, as a child in Chicago, at the flower garden in Humboldt Park.


The siege of Kyiv


“It was my American birthright,” said Kateryna Yushchenko, 60, a native Chicagoan now living in the midst of the world’s latest war.

Yushchenko,  the Chicago born wife of Ukraine’s third president, Viktor Yushchenko, had seemed upbeat and hopeful in the first of several telephone interviews this week discussing the bravery of her adopted country and her “very happy childhood” growing up in Chicago.

On Friday, following the devastation of the Ukrainian town of Mariupol and Russian bombing of a maternity hospital, her mood turns somber with news Russian tanks were near her home in the capital of Kyiv.

“Things have changed,” Yushchenko told Sneed on Friday afternoon. 

“Sadly, I’m afraid things are now going to take longer than hoped.”

Born Catherine Claire Chumachenko to Ukrainian immigrants devastated by war, Yushchenko grew up in Humboldt Park and later Mount Prospect.

“I was born in Chicago with hope for the future and I still feel hope for Ukraine,” said Yushchenko, whose current family home is located in Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, which she shares with her husband and three children.

Tragically, the family home is now located in a city directly in the crosshairs of Russian Army tanks now a few miles from Kyiv. Scarily, she confessed her famous family is on a list of those targeted by Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. 

Earlier this week, Yushchenko did not seem worried that her home would be ransacked — or that she would lose any valuables she brought over to Ukraine when she left the U.S. three decades ago.

“Simple Ukrainian treasures from my Chicago youth are hidden in our house and I do not expect to lose them to Russian marauders,” she said.

“My husband is also extremely optimistic about the war and “feels the Russian army has been a mess for years,” she explained.


Viktor and Kateryna Yushchenko


With all the chaos and turmoil in Ukraine, she now understands why her parents — Sofia and Mykhailo — took solace in Chicago.

“One grandfather fought in the War of Independence in 1918; another was sent to prison and executed in 1934. My parents suffered in the 1932-34 Russian-induced Holodomor famine in Ukraine. Both my parents suffered from slave labor on German farms.

But in Chicago, all of that was in the past.

“It was such a happy childhood,” she said.

“But I remember questioning why my parents, who were conscripted into slave labor from Ukraine to work German farms during World War II, were happy just to limit themselves to living in Chicago and not seeing the world.”

“I have since lived in war and only now am getting hold of an understanding of the sense of peace and place my parents found in Chicago, living in a community providing the stability they needed. ... I am forever grateful for the gift of Chicago.”

It took her almost 30 minutes to explain why: In America, they knew there would always be food the next day; their children would be able to go to school; and they didn’t have to check daily on friends’ safety. 

And there was “a lack of fear” their home could be destroyed at any minute or that they would need to quickly grab everything and leave, she said.


Katerhyna Yushchenko as a girl in the 1960s with her parents, Mykhailo and Sofia Chumachenko, in Humboldt Park.


For her, their house on North Christiana Avenue had many reminders of her parents’ time in Europe.

“Our home in Chicago was always filled with souvenirs of the past, knickknacks sent from Ukraine,” she said, including ceramic statues, embroidery, and carved wood and painted wood items made by her electrician father.

Recently, as the threat of war loomed, she came across pictures of her with her family in Humboldt Park, “where we walked most days and every weekend and where [her father would] sit me on top of a buffalo statue before strolling past the flower garden.” 

She also remembers walking to Lowell Elementary School a few blocks from their home across busy streets in the 1960s, all by herself.

Her love of Ukraine became acute. 

“Growing up as a child of parents displaced from their homeland during the diaspora always made me feel a sense of responsibility, a need to help preserve the language, culture and Ukrainian Orthodox church or it would not exist,” she added.

She moved to Ukraine in 1991 shortly before Ukraine got its independence (“I felt alive,” she recalls) and set up a think tank providing media translations and research for democratically oriented members of parliament to help them write new laws.

She met her husband two years later and they married in 1998. He was later poisoned while campaigning for the presidency in 2004, but he prevailed and became the third president of Ukraine in 2005, before losing reelection in 2010. (His health is still in decline despite many surgeries due to the poisoning.)

Yushchenko affectionately remembers one of her last trips back to Chicago in 2008 when she visited an old friend, Chicago’s then first lady Maggie Daley “who took me to Navy Pier, Taste of Chicago and Millennium Park.”

“I loved her deeply,” said of Maggie, who died in 2011.

As St. Patrick’s Day approaches, she also feels another tie to Chicago and its huge population of Irish immigrants: “There is a lot of similarity between our fight for independence and the Irish independence movement. The Irish, who like Ukrainians love to recite poetry, sing songs and make toasts at family dinners, have been very supportive of our cause!”

In addition to all her charitable, political and diplomatic work while earning academic degrees studying economics and diplomacy, Yushchenko also founded Ukraine’s first animal shelter. 

“A lot of beloved pets are part of the tortuous immigration trail out of Ukraine,” added Yushchenko. 

“All the animals have now been moved out of the Kviv Zoo, and just yesterday a driver told me his grandmother and grandfather stayed on their land because they didn’t want to leave their cows and pigs behind. We have a great reverence for our animals,” she said.

Her country has seemed to be at war fighting the same fight “for centuries,” she said.

“And now this,” her cadence rising to fervor.

“This is our final stand. It is now or never. Enough is enough. We are breaking with our evil neighbor.

“I know Russia will lose and Ukraine will win,” she said. “What matters now is what the world does.”


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