Fourth Street has been a pseudoborderline between the congregations of St. Michael’s and St. George’s Orthodox Church and St. Constantine Ukrainian Catholic Church for generations, but they met in the middle (literally) of their two cathedrals on the afternoon of Sunday, Aug. 22 to celebrate 30 years of Ukrainian independence. The longest Ukrainian flag in Minnesota unfurled down the center of the road, flapping under a gentle breeze while the gathered congregations sang the Ukrainian national anthem, “Shche ne Vmerla Ukrainy (Ukraine has not yet perished).” Ukraine’s formal celebration of independence is on Aug. 24; the nation declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Ukrainian community in Northeast comes in many layers. According to Halyna Myroniuk, a now-retired researcher from the University of Minnesota Immigration History Research Center (IHRC), many Ukrainians arrived in Minneapolis in the 1870s. Another wave followed in the 1900s after World War I. Many settled in Northeast Minneapolis to work in the lumber, forestry, factory and rail industries. Differing religious ideologies led each subcommunity to found their own churches, resulting in the high concentration of them around University Avenue. St. Constantine’s was founded in 1913, and folks coming to America after WWI split off and founded St. Michael’s in 1925. The two (and other churches in the area) have always celebrated common holidays and Ukrainian traditions together.
“The first thing these communities did when they came here is they’d build a church. Church has always been the center of the community,” said Myroniuk. During its time under Soviet rule, church attendance was discouraged in Ukraine. Upon coming to America, having a church as the centerpiece of the community was a way to keep their traditions and heritage alive.
The largest influx of Ukrainian immigrants came to America after World War II, when thousands of Ukrainian families took the opportunity to flee from life under the heel of the Soviet Union. Alexander Granovsky, an immigrant professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota, was a strong advocate for the Ukrainian American community. He sponsored thousands of Ukrainian immigrant families seeking refuge in the U.S. during and after WWII. Myroniuk said Granovsky is a big part of why Northeast gained such a large Ukrainian community; 100 of the families he sponsored ended up settling in Minneapolis.
“He vouched for them … he got their information and would find them work in the States,” she said. When asked, Myroniuk said she sees some parallels between the refugees who fled from the Red Army and modern refugees fleeing Afghanistan and other embattled Middle Eastern nations, but the situation was different for Ukrainians, who faced a concerted effort of erasure from the Russian State. Still, there are some similarities. “There is a threat, and people have to make a decision to stay or to seek a better life.”
Feeling cut off from their homeland, Ukrainian refugees formed tight-knit communities in America. They could not go back, for fear of persecution. According to filmmaker Zina Poletz Gutmanis, the older generations spoke little of why.
“It wasn’t until the past couple of years that I learned my grandmother survived the Holodomor. She brought it up one day in passing and I had no idea,” said Poletz Gutmanis. She continued, “This revelation got me wondering whether any of my Ukrainian American friends or acquaintances also had a family history with the Holodomor. It was not common in our community for people to speak about their or their family’s painful experiences with this genocide.”
“The Holodomor” refers to the forced famine enacted against the Ukrainian population by Joseph Stalin’s regime from 1932 to 1933. An estimated 7-12 million Ukrainians were killed during the Holodomor, which has been recognized by 15 nations (the U.S. included) as genocide. Horrified by her grandmother’s story, Poletz Gutmanis was inspired to tell hers and others’ stories in a documentary. She is currently in the process of writing and finalizing the script. The congregations of St. Michael and St. George’s and St. Constantine’s held a raffle to help raise money to fund her project. St. Katherine Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Arden Hills is also offering support.
Through a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society, Poletz Gutmanis was able to conduct 11 oral history interviews with Holodomor child survivors and the children and grandchildren of survivors. Those interviews are now housed at the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center Archives (IHRCA) at Wilson Library where they are available to researchers from around the world for study,” she said. Her script uses these interviews as a basis, and Myroniuk has helped her with a great deal of the research. “A lot of our community’s history is locked away in old photo albums and boxes. We need to find and preserve our history before it’s lost and making a documentary is an excellent way to share our story with the younger generations, while introducing our community to the wider world,” said Poletz Gutmanis.
For Northeast’s Ukrainians, times have changed since Ukraine’s independence. A fourth wave of immigrants came to the states after the declaration, revitalizing the Ukrainian American community, but their subculture is a little different. They are younger and more mobile; many are students. Being cut off from their culture brought the older generations closer to their roots. They worked hard to educate Americans on where they came from and what they’d lost, and how the Soviet Union tried to silence them. They hoped and prayed for a free Ukraine for so long, and suddenly, returning was an option.
“In the old days, you couldn’t go back,” explained Myroniuk. “But once Ukraine became independent, they [newer generations] can travel back and forth … [It used to be], if they went back they would get arrested or sent to Siberia. The community stuck together so they could continue preserving their traditions and heritage.”
Myroniuk remembered returning once with a group of tourists before liberation. She managed to meet up with her uncle, though the rest of her family couldn’t make it. She returned again after independence to see the rest of her family in an emotional reunion.
“It was like being with my parents again,” she said. Her parents came to America with her as a child, but had long since passed away.
There are still worries about the future of Ukraine, even after all this time. Myroniuk remembers that, even after liberation, people only spoke to her in Ukrainian if no one was around; otherwise they would switch to Russian to avoid scrutiny.
“We’re still concerned 31 years later because we don’t know what ‘The Neighbor’ is going to do,” she said.
The constant prayer is no longer for a free Ukraine, but a lasting Ukraine, a sentiment murmured in agreement amongst the gathered congregations holding aloft the nation’s blue and yellow banners in the middle of Fourth Street. The young and old, longtime Americans and newly arrived immigrants, held the flag together and took a moment, church bells ringing in the background, to remember where they came from.
“I was told as a child growing up in the U.S. that there was no such thing as Ukraine, there was no such thing as Ukrainians, that we were all just ‘Little Russians,’ and we should get used to it,” said St. Michael’s and St. George’s choir director Andriy Karkoc. “Glory to the independent Ukrainian State!”
Below: Alexander Granovsky at his office at the University of Minnesota, 1940. Members of the Ukrainian National Ballet in front of St. Michael’s and St. George’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church, probably in 1936. Olga Pawluk was able, in 2002, to identify Natalie Deneluk, Walter Jaseniak, Antony Yurkiv, Katherine Anderson Spasyk, Evelyn Koshuba, Luba Pershyshyn Procai, Myron Rychley Olga Yurkiv and Earl Procai in the first row. In the second row, she identified Mike Harasyn, Marie Jaseniak, Stanley Blazkevich, Paul Anderson, Johanna Pastushenko Brouillard, Walter Dombrowky, Olga Procai Staats, Helen Rychlay, Andrew Andryshensky, Orysia Debeluk, Katherine Melnyk, Marion Pastushenko, Olga Haywa Pawluk, Mary Anderson Siemon, Ann Kolba, Myron Pastushenko, Julie Koshuba Noznik and Joe Koshuba. She said the man leaning on the first pole was John Koshuba. (Photos courtesy University of Minnesota Immigration History Research Center) Ukrainians celebrated independence with dance and the world’s largest Ukrainian flag Aug. 22. (Photos by Alex Schlee)