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Culture as history

Sep 21, 2022 | Featured, The View From Here - Walter Kish, Opinion

political

I spent a fabulous day last week at Toronto’s Ukrainian Festival on Bloor St. west. I was joined by hundreds of thousands of other people, Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian alike who revelled in being unabashedly Ukrainian for a day, savouring the food, partaking of an incredible array of Ukrainian entertainment and absorbing the incredible energy and spirit everywhere. During this difficult time when a brutal war is raging in Ukraine and in the context of the Covid pandemic that has prevented the festival from taking place for several years now, it was a bit of a cathartic release to be able to indulge in the more positive aspects of Ukrainian culture for at least a few days.

In a way, the experience was a microcosm for much of what has transpired in Ukrainian history for the better part of the last millennium. Ukraine has experienced the trauma of war and foreign invasion continuously for most of its history. This has instilled a certain mindset in the Ukrainian psyche which has greatly influenced how Ukrainian culture has developed over the centuries.

Ukrainian culture is very distinct and in many ways has been shaped by the experiences that Ukrainians have been forced to endure throughout their history. That history has taught Ukrainians that you cannot take life for granted. At any moment you might be faced with the prospect of having your home and lands being invaded by Mongols, Tatars, Turks, Russians, Poles, Germans or any of the other countless invaders that set their sights on pillaging Ukraine. Ukrainians were constantly being forced to fight and defend themselves, often at great cost in human lives. They experienced death, destruction slavery, torture and exile on a grand scale. Ukrainians lived life on the extremes – short periods of peace and tranquility amidst a constant stream of war and chaos.

This is particularly well reflected in Ukrainian song, music and dance. Ukrainian music tends to follow these extremes as well. Most of it is either sad and sentimental, or fast and energetic. The songs reflect the tragic circumstances of life, both personal and societal, as well as the unbounded joy and energy that Ukrainians demonstrated in those times between conflicts, when they could let loose and enjoy those brief moments of peace to the fullest. When Ukrainians partied, they did so unreservedly and emotionally. Eat, drink and be merry for one never knew what the future would bring, and tomorrow you may die.

This is seen not only in the musical sphere but also in most forms of Ukrainian art. It is mirrored in the bright and lively colours and patterns of the Pysankas, the Ukrainian Easter eggs, or the vibrant eye-catching Ukrainian embroidery, or the bold designs of Hutsul ceramics and pottery. There is no subtlety there; there is boldness, there is energy, there is a dominant spirit of love and appreciation for life and nature. There is an obvious drive shown in all of them for appreciating and living life to the fullest.

There have been many times over the course of the last seven months of the war that this has been driven home to me in a very emotional way. I recall seeing a video clip of a Ukrainian medic by the name of Myshko Adamchak, whom I once met personally, sitting in a trench in his military gear playing a sentimental air on a sopilka, a small Ukrainian flute, while obviously keeping an ear out for the sound of incoming artillery shells. I remember also seeing pictures of how some front-line soldiers, obviously with some artistic background, painted some beautiful icons on the boards of spent wooden ammunition cases. There was another video clip of a Ukrainian soldier in his battle gear, dancing a Hopak, a traditional lively Kozak dance in a field that undoubtedly had more than a few artillery shell craters.

It doesn’t take much to realize that when your very existence is precarious and unpredictable, that you would cherish what time God and fate grant you and live life as if there was no tomorrow, precisely because for a lot of Ukrainian history there was no tomorrow for many Ukrainians.

That is why Ukrainians live life the way they do – with boundless spirit and energy, with deep emotion and a love of life that only those who constantly face the prospect of death can understand. That is what being Ukrainian is all about. As my good friend Ron Cahute would say – “Stay Ukrainian My Friends!”

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