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Kyiv scholar fosters appreciation for Ukrainian diaspora

Olga Sukhobokova, a Kyiv-based historian, teaches university-level courses about the Ukrainian diaspora.

WASHINGTON – Did you know that Lesia Ukrainka’s youngest sister, Izydora, immigrated to the United States in 1949, where she was affiliated with the Ukrainian Free Academy of Sciences? Are you aware that the first monument in the world dedicated to the victims of the Holodomor was erected in the Canadian city of Edmonton in 1983? Have you seen the icons adorning the Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral in Los Angeles which were inspired by the sacral art at St. Volodymyr Cathedral in Kyiv? Can you find the building in the Swedish city of Kristianstad where Hetman Pylyp Orlyk lived from 1716 to 1719? That’s just a small sample of topics you can explore at, a Facebook page created and curated by Olga Sukhobokova, an associate professor of history at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. Established nearly four years ago, the page boasts an impressive 132,000 followers and counting.

Explaining the motivation behind launching this unique social media resource, Ms. Sukhobokova explained that she wanted to inform Ukrainians in Ukraine about Ukrainians abroad, to bring them closer together, because “we are all one nation and we need to be united in order to achieve our common goal – the building of a free and successful Ukraine.”

She also felt the need to address many misconceptions that Ukrainians in Ukraine had about the diaspora.

In media coverage and in her personal conversations, she often encountered the stereotype of Ukrainian emigres as people who had left their homeland to improve their economic situation and whose connection to Ukraine was superficial.

The Kyiv historian emphasizes that she wants her readers in Ukraine to gain an appreciation for the efforts of Ukrainians abroad for whom “emigration was a matter of survival” and who worked tirelessly to excel professionally and to preserve and share Ukrainian culture, particularly while it was being suppressed in Ukraine by Soviet and Russian authorities.  

Ms. Sukhobokova joined the history faculty at Kyiv’s Shevchenko National University in 2008 where she is a specialist on Ukrainian communities abroad and currently teaches courses about the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States, Canada and Latin America, American artists with Ukrainian roots and Ukrainians in countries of the East.

As a history student, she initially was interested in learning about the Ukrainian independence movement of the 1917-1921 period. Her academic pursuits eventually led her to focus on the diaspora. “I was very interested in the establishment of Ukraine’s independent statehood practically from nothing, because for a very long period Ukraine was denied statehood,” she said. “And so, I was very interested in how this occurred.  Who were the people who made it possible, who were the creators of Ukrainian independent statehood?”“In this way,” she recalled, “I became interested in one of the figures of this revolutionary period, the minister of education, Nykyfor Hryhoriyiv. It just so happened that he, like tens of thousands of Ukrainians who took part in the Ukrainian revolution, became an emigre. Through this topic, through his historical figure, I came to the broader issue of Ukrainian emigres, the Ukrainian diaspora.”

Hryhoriyiv served in the government of the Ukrainian National Republic. Forced to flee Ukraine from invading Russian forces, he became a prominent Ukrainian community leader in Czechoslovakia. Eventually he made his way to North America and in 1949 became the first director of the Ukrainian Service of the Voice of America.

Ms. Sukhobokova wrote her doctoral dissertation about Hryhoriyiv. It was subsequently published as a Ukrainian-language monograph. 

As she explained it, that research introduced her to an “entire generation of people who first were building Ukraine here and who then had to take this Ukraine with them – in their little suitcases, in their hearts and souls to other countries.”

And there they waited out the Soviet occupation which they initially thought would not last long. In time they made the transition “from emigres to a diaspora,” establishing educational, community and religious organizations abroad, she said. They prioritized acquiring a good education and professional skills as well as teaching their children about Ukraine.

Ms. Sukhobokova said that she stands in awe of the diaspora’s commitment to helping Ukraine over the years.

“People understood that they would not be returning,” she said, “but they still tried to teach their children the Ukrainian language, Ukrainian songs, to somehow instill a love for Ukraine and the thought that their children should also fight for the independence of Ukraine.”  

“We know many examples of those children” she added, “who for a long time did not understand why they were learning Ukrainian, because Ukraine did not even exist on the political map – but they loved the country and understood they must do something for it. Later they would come to Ukraine to help and they are still helping. We are grateful to the diaspora for many things. Very grateful.”

In her writings and lectures, Ms. Sukhobokova often highlights the professional accomplishments of Ukrainians living in free societies and their contributions to independent Ukraine’s development. “We should take an example from [the diaspora]. We should learn something from them, and only cooperation and making use of their experience will result in progress for Ukraine,” she said.

Diaspora studies are an integral part of the American and European Studies program within the history department at Kyiv’s Shevchenko National University.

It is the most popular history program at the university, Ms. Sukhobova said, and is responsible for training many of the future experts who will be drivers of Ukraine’s integration with the West. The department, in collaboration with the Ukrainian Association for American Studies, publishes “American History and Politics,” the first scholarly journal in Ukraine devoted to American studies. Ms. Sukhobokova serves as executive secretary for the periodical.

As for her future plans, she envisions teaching a course on the Ukrainian diaspora in Europe among communities that are being heavily impacted by the influx of a huge number of Ukrainian refugees created by Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. 

The Ukrainian Weekly

Adrian Karmazyn is a former chief of the Voice of America’s Ukrainian Service.