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.
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.
"Yet when I revisited Kiev last August," she continues, "yellow-and-blue flags were flying, churches and synagogues were being restored. Our Ukrainian choir from Winnipeg sang mass outside a cave in a Kiev park because the church couldn't hold all 60 singers and the congregation. Suddenly a contingent of Soviet militia surrounded us. I thought: They are going to break this up, arrest everyone ... .
"We kept singing. Gradually most militiamen filtered away, though some stayed for the whole mass. And now everyone in Kiev, even young people, speaks beautiful Ukrainian."
My own father, who escaped Russia through the Crimea in 1920, spoke Ukrainian, as well as Russian, English, and French, but didn't teach me. My grandmother, who left the Soviet Union in 1933, taught me Russian and French, but no other child in my childhood spoke any second language.
Was it this semi-isolation - coupled with a strong sense of heritage - that nurtured me as a poet? And poetry was hardly a profession in the America of my childhood ....
During my own first visits to the Soviet Union, in 1986 and 1988, customs officials looked warily at my books of poems. Intourist hustled me through Kiev. I feared my ungrammatical Russian with its Anglo-French accent would scare off potentially friendly Russians. But I didn't dress like a tourist, and my accent was mistaken for Baltic. By the last visit, December 1990, my Russian had improved, and foreigners and poets were no longer feared.
In Winnipeg's community of Ukrainian exiles, however, Russian is "the language of the oppressor." Perhaps only a shared love of poetry - instilled in me by parents and grandmothers who recited poems before I was old enough to understand the words - made me acceptable here.
In Ukraine poets are revered: Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, and dramatist Lesya Ukrainka among the most famous. Plato would rejoice over how many of the current liberal politicians and parliamentarians there would fit in his kingdom of poet-philosopher kings: Ivan Drach, head of Ukraine's independence movement RUKH, is a poet; Dmytro Pavlychko, chairman of the parliament's foreign affairs committee, is a poet; Volodymyr Yavorivsky, in charge of ecology for parliament, and Yuri Shcherbak, member of parl iament, are novelists. And now they can publish freely.
Winnipeg editor Nicholas Hryn also receives submissions of poetry from Ukraine. We translate one by Maria Bratachuk, a teacher in Ternopol, western Ukraine: "You are a tall poplar/ but you have grown thin and dry,/ wounded by foreigners./ Rise from your knees,/ My Ukraine, look around:/ you can see other nations/ now the wind has blown clouds away./ I pray you outlive your assassins."
No longer is it lonely to be a poet here either. I sometimes visit classrooms under artist-in-the-schools programs. Today in Winnipeg I meet Ukrainian artists-in-the-schools at the multilingual Ralph Brown elementary school. Principal Vicky Adams, a fourth-generation Ukrainian, has invited accordionist Myron Duda and his wife Zoriaslava Hlyadak, a choreographer and ballet-mistress, from the Verkhovyna Professional Folklore Ensemble of Drohobych-na-Lviv, to coach Canadian children mainly of Ukrainian extr action, but Filipino, Indonesian, Anglo-Saxon, and other backgrounds have joined in. Myron Duda has them singing an ancient Ukrainian song, which in translation means:
God, hear our prayers./ Misfortune ruins our land./ In unity our nation is strong./ God, give us unity.
Myron Duda and Zoriaslava Hlyadak are rehearsing for the traditional Malanaka pageant January 13, the saint's day of St. Malaniya, which according to the old-style Ukrainian and Russian calendar is also New Year's Eve.
"These celebrations of renewal and revitalization date from before the time, literally 1001 years ago, when ancient Kiev became the birthplace of Christianity in Russia," Myron Duda explains. "The early Christians superimposed saints' days on the existing pagan holidays. Gradually the rituals intertwined."
In Winnipeg, old and new rituals intertwine. Like the onion domes and grain elevators interspersed across the prairies. Myron Duda teaches old Ukrainian songs, while his wife composes new Ukrainian verses for the pageant.
It is "a wonderful new experience for me to write pieces that I know will be performed," she says. "At home, a Communist Party apparachik would shove some officially sanctioned script before an actor's nose right before curtain time."
Russian is our lingua franca, as these two visitors from Ukraine speak no English but perforce learned Russian.
"I'm not timid about my lack of English," Zoriaslava Hlyadak says. "Many people here speak Ukrainian. Canadians are wonderful. We are so grateful for their help, especially after Chernobyl. Yet I'm sad: here people live in the 20th century, while in Ukraine, we live in the 17th."
"But we wouldn't emigrate," Myron Duda adds. "We'd never abandon Ukraine."
Especially now that independence has been voted in. While freedom to travel may bring a fourth wave of emigration, most intellectuals are expected to stay in Ukraine to rebuild society.
The first wave of Ukrainian emigration, which began a century ago, brought the true pioneers. A second wave came after the Russian Revolution and Lenin's brutal end to Ukraine's short-lived independence (1917-1920). The third wave followed World War II, when the survivors among those thousands of Ukrainians captured by the Nazis ultimately found refuge in North America.
Will many Ukrainian-Canadians return to their ancestral land now? "We're removed by a half-century from present-day Ukraine," says the Very Reverend William Makarenko, chairman of the presidium of the Consistory of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada. Born of Ukrainian parents in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany after World War II, he visits Ukraine, and welcomes visiting Ukrainians to Winnipeg. Yet like other Ukrainian-Canadians he is passionately concerned about Ukraine's survival through diffic ult times ahead, but his parishes are here.
MEANWHILE, everyone here ships food parcels to relatives there. More vital than handouts, Ukrainians insist, is expertise: exchanges of technicians, farmers, managers - and scholars and artists, keepers of culture's flames in both hemispheres.
Myron Duda is overwhelmed by the treasure of books, folk songs, and choral music unavailable in Ukraine but preserved at Winnipegs' Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Center, especially the archives of composer and conductor Olexander Koshetz, whose choir continues to perform in Canada and abroad.
Another "national treasure" is the Rusalka Dance Ensemble, one of the best of the many Ukrainian emigre dance groups in North America. Director Irka Balan invites me to watch Rusalka rehearse for tours of Canada, the United States, and Ukraine.
Again, I live vicariously: I yearn to dance. A character in my novel-in-progress is a ballerina. When I was four my mother zipped me into a puffy tutu and enrolled me with a Russian ballet master; he soon hoped I possessed other abilities. Though in secret I danced, even composed on my mother's piano, teachers deemed me "unmusical." Yet I love music - Russian, Ukrainian, gypsy, classical, and folk.
Ukrainian-Canadians, age 16 to 35, leap across a gym. They pirouette, kick, gallop, spin, soar. While listening to Zoriaslava Hlyadak, they sag into that eloquent dancers' slouch. Suddenly, in our honor, the ensemble performs an entire kopak dance.
I am dancing inside every dancer.
Many Russians feel uneasy about losing Ukraine from their empire, which several of my own ancestors fought to incorporate while other ancestors resisted. Yet I, too, rejoice in Ukrainian independence.