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Ukrainian Tones on Canadian Soil

By Elisavietta Ritchie / February 5, 1992

THIS is a story about heritage, exile, adaptation, but mostly about catching sight of one's life in a fuzzy mirror. Like hearing oceans through a conch.

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The words sound familiar, nearly recognizable. Yet I can't speak this language which, as I arrive in Winnipeg in south-central Canada, echoes around me. Like a softer version of the Russian my grandmother taught me: imperfectly learned, but mysterious, mystical, cherished.

I try to decipher four lines: Boritesia - poborete./ Sam Boh pomahaye;/ Za vas syla, za vas volya/ I pravda svyataya.

Ukrainians both at home and in the countries to which they have emigrated memorize this excerpt from "Caucasus" by Taras Schevchenko (1814-1861). When in the 1890s the first Ukrainian pioneers headed westward across Europe, the Atlantic, and North America, braving harsh climates and unforgiving environments to homestead in the wilderness, they brought little more than the clothes on their backs, cooking pots, and a few farm tools. With their Bibles they carried Shevchenko's poems in a volume entitled "Ko bzar.Kobzar" means a sort of troubadour who played an instrument like a bandura, which is rather like a lute.

Shevchenko's portrait hangs like an icon in this book-lined office in Winnipeg, and everywhere else here. His statues stand before the Manitoba Legislature, and in the Winnipeg park - and even in Washington D.C.

I memorize the quatrain, try to translate it. Easy: in Russian, syla means "strength." Volya means "will" and pravda "truth." Something about "holy truth?"

"No," says Professor Jaroslaw Razumnyj of the University of Manitoba's Slavic Studies department and president of the Winnipeg chapter of Canadian Friends of RUKH, the Ukranian independence movement. "In Ukrainian Volya means 'freedom.' Pravda here conveys a sense of 'justice.' 'Sacred' or 'holy' justice."

"Beware of false cognates, les faux amis!" The warning of a former old French professor resounds in my mind. With greater caution I rearrange the word order to end with a strong one-syllable word.

"Fight - you will win./ God is helping you./ On your side are freedom,/ Sacred justice, and strength."

Shevchenko's poems are usually less abstract. More polemic than poetic, this seems a battle cry rather than a poem. A battle cry, indeed, for millions of Ukrainians who persevered, often in silence, the ideal of an independent republic.

"We do best keeping our communities across North America informed on issues and events there," says Nicholas Hryn, the Ukrainian-born managing editor of Winnipeg's leading Ukrainian newspaper, Voice. "But Ukraine is their country ... No, not the Ukraine. And Lviv isn't Lvov either."

One vowel assumes great political significance, even here in snowy Winnipeg.

Probably it is also snowing in Ukraine, and in what for nearly seven decades was called Leningrad. In the late 1920s my Russian grandmother was summoned before the local Bolshevik commissar for calling it St. Petersburg. In Ukraine, until recently, one could get arrested for publishing a poem in Ukrainian, for speaking Ukrainian instead of Russian.

"Nobody in Kiev would speak Ukrainian to me when I visited in 1988," says Anna Wach, who was born in Ukraine but emigrated to Canada as a little girl and now edits several bilingual magazines. "Whereas even fourth-generation Canadian-Ukrainians maintain the language at home through classes and especially our churches - Ukrainian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Baptist - in the mother country Ukrainians seemed to have forgotten their mother tongue. Most churches were closed. People looked over their shoulde r before speaking with foreigners.