Tuesday 24 August 2021

Eyewitness to Ukrainian Independence

Chrystyna Lapychak/The Ukrainian Weekly

Historians are not the witnesses or the sources of history. They makes historical judgments upon the witnesses’ accounts. On the 30th anniversary of Ukrainian independence, I have to remove my historian’s cap in order to offer a very personal memory of the events that took place in Kyiv in the summer of 1991.

Like most people, I was not privy to any of the political deliberations taking place behind-the-scenes. Nevertheless, I was on site and witnessed the reactions of natives and foreigners, sharing in their joys and anxieties in that moment and for the future.


Sometime in the early part of 1991, my religious superiors in Rome gave me the opportunity to take part in an international Ukrainian seminar, which had been organized the previous year by a group of Soviet Ukrainian cultural activists with the aid and participation of intellectuals and educators of the Ukrainian diaspora. Such a course could only take place in the context of Mikhail Gorbachëv’s glasnost/perestroika program, which aimed to modernize and democratize the Soviet Communist State. 


Inevitably, the constituent republics of the Soviet Union used the opportunity to call for ever-greater forms of national autonomy. In the summer of 1990, parliament had declared that the Ukrainian SSR was a sovereign state within the USSR, but this was insufficient for many dissidents and supporters of complete independence.


It was thrilling for a young man of 21, full of ideals and religious zeal, to obtain a visa from the Soviet Embassy and enter the hitherto forbidden Soviet Union wearing religious garb and speaking Ukrainian. More than discourtesies and prejudices, I remember the kindness and sincerity of the people. The train that took us from Vienna to Lviv, had to stop at the Soviet border to lift the carries onto the Soviet-gauge wheels. The conductor brought tea in Poirot-like glasses in metal holders and, in Russian, asked to teach him the prayer Our Father in Ukrainian. On another train between Lviv and Kyiv, I met a wise old Russian Orthodox monk from Pochaiv, who was amazed at my photographs with Pope John Paul II. He said that he would never be allowed to get so close to his own patriarch. In another carriage, Uzbeks invited me to play cards with them and share their food. They had never seen a minister of religion before.


Our seminar was held in Kyiv (Kiev then). It was called “Міжнародна Школа Українистики” (International School of Ukrainian Language and Culture) and was headed by the future ambassador to Canada and Lebanon, Professor Ihor Ostash and his wife Dr Maryna Hrynych. Classes and lodgings were located at the former Communist Party school on Melnykova Street. Among those who spoke or lectured were Lina Kostenko (honorary patron of the school), Orest Subtelny, Myroslav Labunka. Subtelny’s lecturing style was the best I have ever witnessed.


I also remember with fondness our teachers Tetiana, Solomia, Mykhailo, who was our protector of sorts, and Nina, a komandantka-like Russian-speaker with a heart of gold, who appeared to run the building. I once sat down with her for a shot of hooch to get the hot water turned back on. Then there was the poor woman at the front desk of the great hall, who had to endure the faces and comments (such as "empty head") when we passed by the Jupiter-sized head of the ex-demigod, Vladimir Ilich Lenin.


Students came from Ukraine, Poland, USA, Canada, Italy, Argentina, and Australia, and not everyone had a Ukrainian background. The organizers kindly provided a room suitable for us seminarians to pray the divine services, an a local UGCC priest came from time to time to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The organizers made sure we were provided with every opportunity to get to know Kyiv, not only its historical monuments but also its contemporary aspects. These included well know cafes, a jazz club (where a student was told off for wearing vyshyvanka until it was discovered he was Canadian), and singing songs from San Remo Festival with two indomitable Italian girls, who had fallen for Ukraine. And there was an Argentinian girl Margarita, whose American-Ukrainian husband would help draft the Ukrainian constitution, in 1992.

I remember the banners hung along the main Khreschatyk Street, in preparation for the visit of President George Bush and his wife Barbara. During that visit, Bush made his famous "Chicken Kiev speech," in an attempt to dissuade Ukraine from leaving the Soviet Union (erroneously comparing the nation to a state in the USA). The remarks were much discussed by staff and students on Melnykova Street.


A curious portent occurred during one of our Ukrainian language lessons. Our class teacher suggested we sing some Ukrainians songs. We suggested “Ще не вмерла Україна” (Ukraine had not perished and neither have its glory and freedom) the national anthem of free Ukraine, written by UGCC priest Mykhailo Verbytsky in the 1860s and adopted by the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic in 1918. Our teacher did not know the words and so she asked her diaspora students to write them on the chalkboard.  I knew it by heart from UNF Ridna Shkola, back home.


One morning, we woke to the news that a coup had taken place in Moscow and that Gorbachëv was under house arrest at his Crimean dacha. Daily news was closely followed, especially from the television placed in a central hall, where everyone could have access. Some of us, myself included, were too young and lacked experience of war or authoritarian regimes to understand the real dangers involved. 

Worried expressions were visible on the faces of the organizers, who were protagonists in the revival of Ukrainian civic and political life. Daily, Greek-Catholics prayed for Ukraine’s fate during Divine Liturgies held at Askold’s Tomb or in the Botanical Gardens, not far from the Vydubytsky Monastery. I remember hearing that the coup leaders had ordered tanks to be sent to Kyiv, presumably to quash the criticism coming from the Soviet Ukrainian Government.


24 August 1991 was a Saturday. In the early afternoon (I think), I set out for the Monastery of the Kyivan Caves (Pecherska Lavra) to purchase a wooden hand cross which I had seen the previous day. As Parliament was in emergency session, public transport was blocked or delayed and it was necessary to take a taxi cab. Mission accomplished, I returned to the school. Upon entering the hall, everyone was gathered in front of the television. In a few minutes, voting numbers were announced followed by cheers and embraces among my fellow students and teachers. I had no idea what the commotion was about. Upon questioning, one of them responded: “Ukraine is free. Parliament voted for independence.”


The school had provided tickets for an already scheduled concert at the “Kiev Palace of Culture,” for that evening. The performance was by Viryovka Choir and Dance Ensemble, directed by Maestro Anatoly Avdiyevsky. Before attending, I made a quick journey back to October Revolution Square (now Independence Square or Maidán) to purchase a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag (which was blessed at the Divine Liturgy the following day). 


In the 1980s, Avdiyevsky had formed a connection with Walter Klymkiw, director of the Oleksander Koshetz Choir of Winnipeg. As a choir member in 1987-1988, I had had the privilege of learning under Avdiyevsky's baton. Among the pieces that he taught us were Mariyan Kuzan’s setting of Shevchenko’s "Psalms of David," and Kyryl Stetsenko’s well known liturgical piece, "Bless the Lord, O my Soul." Klymkiw’s musical diplomacy with Soviet Ukraine was anathema to some political exiles of the diaspora musical establishment. Yet native Ukrainians revealed that the performances, at which sacred and religious music held pride of place, comforted and emboldened them in their strivings toward freedom and the revival of their repressed culture and language. 


With the news of parliament’s declaration, those of us going the performance were full of thoughts and emotions. On the way, our conversations were taken up with predictions about Ukraine’s fate and that of the Soviet Union. At the conclusion of the concert, Avdiyevsky asked us to rise and began to direct his ensemble in an historical performance of the Ukrainian national anthem, Ще не вмерла Україна. As the choir began, a wave of electrifying emotion passed through the onlookers. The Maestro immediately turned and beckoned us to join them in proclaiming-in-song that Ukraine’s glory and liberty were alive and well. Tears flowed and blue and yellow free-Ukrainian appeared in the audience. The ticket from the concert, printed on cheap chemical-smelling yellow-grey Soviet paper, I have kept for thirty years, carefully preserved in a book for posterity.


In the first days after independence, one by one, blue and yellow flags began to replace to Soviet flags that had stood atop the public buildings of the ancient capital for decades. Signs on government ministries also changed their colours and language. But the key events happening behind the scenes were not visible to the ordinary observer in the street. Years later, Serhii Plokhy was able to reveal them one of his many flawlessly-researched and delightful reads, “The Last Empire: the final Days of the Soviet Union.”


At the end of my reminiscence, I am tempted to offer a short, inexpert reflection. No doubt such will be found among those who have already begun to examine Ukraine’s contemporary history. Putting to rest its Soviet past has taken decades and the process is still on-going. Ukraine became independent without a coup in 1991, so perhaps it was necessary for it to have to grow into nationhood. The 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Maidan were growing pains from childlike dependency toward a consciousness of national adulthood. Whether Ukraine will be healthy or a weakling depends not on the forces of history but on the virtues of its sons and daughters today.