A portrait of Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko hung over steaming pans of freshly made varenyky in the basement of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church in Amsterdam on Wednesday morning, a vase of bright yellow sunflowers on a windowsill to the poet’s left.
In the kitchen nearby, 27-year-old Taras Kostyk was rolling out dough for the varenyky — a potato-filled dumpling like the Polish pierogi — in preparation for Saturday’s Ukrainian American Heritage Festival, the largest the community has hosted in years.
Kostyk recently returned from a monthlong trip to Ukraine, where he brought aid to soldiers fighting the Russian incursion in the eastern part of the country. It’s amazing, he said Wednesday morning, how poignant Shevchenko’s poems about Russian oppression in the mid-1800s feel today.
He left the kitchen to read the first lines of the poem in Ukrainian, then he translated: “When I die, bury me in my beloved Ukraine.”
Twenty-four years after declaring independence from the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s Independence Day, celebrated Aug. 24, has been transformed by recent events into somewhat more of an urgent pledge, almost a call to arms, than an historical celebration.
“We are coming up to next year, 25th anniversary, and the Russians are hanging over Ukraine like Damocles’ sword,” said Myron Swidersky, president of the Ukrainian-American Community Heritage and Cultural Center for the Mohawk Valley. “We never know when this hair is going to break.”
Violence continues in disputed eastern territories of Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea in early 2014 following the ouster of Russian-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in a democratic movement that has come to be known as Euromaidan, or Maidan. Russia has since supported what it calls separatist movements in the east, though many Ukrainians see the conflict as little short of a Russian invasion.
“[Russian President Vladimir Putin] thought it would be the same as Crimea,” Swidersky said. “He thought that all those so-called Russian-speakers from Kharkiv to Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk would stand up, and it didn’t happen.”
In Amsterdam, the Ukrainian-American community marked Ukrainian Independence Day on Monday with a ceremony at City Hall in which the Ukrainian flag was hung alongside the American flag.
Reading a proclamation by Mayor Ann Thane, Director of Community and Economic Development Robert von Hasseln said, “let us recommit ourselves to helping Ukraine reclaim its rightful place in the international democratic community.”
The weeklong celebration began Sunday with a special memorial service at St. Nicholas to honor those in Ukraine who have died in the conflict, both soldiers and civilians, as well as the victims of flight MH-17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 on board.
The celebration will culminate Saturday with the first Ukrainian Heritage Day, organized by the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church and UACHCC, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the church at 24 Pulaski St.
The festival will feature Ukrainian music, dance and crafts, as well as plenty of the traditional food volunteers have been busy preparing all week — varenyky, holubsti, borsch, kovbasa and shasklyky, among other dishes.
The event aims to raise awareness and funds to provide aid to victims of the conflict in Ukraine, support the 105-year-old St. Nicholas church and assist the activities of the UACHCC.
Speaking at the church Wednesday as preparations were under way, Swidersky said the primary purpose was to “bring awareness to our friends and neighbors” to write to their representatives and urge the U.S. to send defensive weapons to Ukraine — under a measure that has been passed by Congress but not signed by the president.
“For whatever reason, Europe and the United States are silent,” he said.
In the kitchen, Taras Kostyk scrolled through photos from his trip to Ukraine in July. Most were photos of him and a few others from his group posing with Ukrainian fighters at a military hospital in Kyiv.
“You may be in Kyiv or other parts of Ukraine and see people living their lives, but you don’t realize that a couple hundred miles away there’s an actual war going on in the country,” he said. “I think everybody knows somebody, loved ones, that have been drafted or who are fighting, or know members of the family who have died defending Ukraine.”
Shevchenko, the poet, was jailed for promoting Ukrainian independence in 1847 when the country was under the rule of the Russian Empire.
While Kostyk was using a metal can to cut small circles out of dough, he had to shake his head at how little has changed in the 160-plus years. Just the day before, a Ukrainian filmmaker critical of the Crimea annexation was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of conspiracy to commit terrorist attacks.
“These are tactics of the old former Soviet regime that Stalin used to use,” Kostyk said.
But he sees optimism among the younger generation of Ukrainians. He saw it in the soldiers he visited, the volunteers and journalists he met along the way, and the new police officers working to rid corruption from the old system.
When Sentsov was jailed, Kostyk heard, “in his cell, he sang the national anthem of Ukraine.”
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