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Saving the authentic Ukrainian language and culture in the time of war

Sep 14, 2023 | Featured, Arts & Culture

Ruslana Lotsman (4th from the left in the 1st row) with the folklore group Korali in the Poltava region
Ruslana Lotsman for NP-UN.

The Ukrainian-Canadian project Save Your Granny’s Language and Culture continues to work, even during this war. And while some might say that there’s nothing to sing about, the very essence of the Ukrainian struggle lies with the preservation of our language and culture.

Ukrainian language and culture have been in decline for many years in Ukraine. For example, the curriculum for the “New Ukrainian School” lacks subjects on singing, musical folklore and dialectology that could teach children their authentic language and folk traditions in the time when the language standards are worsening in the Ukrainian media.

There have not been any truly effective government programs to develop folk culture in pre-war times, and there certainly aren’t any now. Ukrainian children, coming from the villages to study in the cities, in some Ukrainian regions are still under the influence of that “inferiority complex” of their village language, which has always been the basis of the Ukrainian literary language.

This situation is even more tragic as the rural elders – the carriers of our living traditions and song culture – are dying out, while the efforts to preserve and revive our authentic folk culture are now minimal due to the war and lack of funding.

For example, before the current Russian invasion, there was over a dozen active children’s folk groups in the Cherkasy oblast, and now only two are left. Some collectives can’t work because either their directors and/or key performers have fled abroad, others have had their funding terminated. The preservation of the spiritual and linguistic culture in the youngest generation of the entire oblast is now under threat. We discovered this when we started a new stage of the Save Your Granny’s Language and Culture project, sponsored by the Canada-Ukraine Foundation.

At this stage of the project (May-August 2023), we began working with some children’s groups, which appeared able to expand their approach to the folklore teaching and achieve a full replication of the language and song traditions of their native regions in full detail. The differences in the spoken language and performance of folk songs by the bearers of these old traditions and today’s youth are all too noticeable. Many cultural details have already been lost and the wealth of our folk culture may disappear in its entirety if we do not draw our children’s attention to this problem.

At this stage, we visited four creative collectives, made recordings of their work and clarified the criteria of our approach to recording children’s folk song performances and dialects. These included such folklore groups as “Kalyniata” in Helmiaziv, Cherkasy oblast, director V. Lobunets; “Korali” in Novoorzhytske, Poltava, director D. Andrusenko; “Krynychenka” in Velyke Verbche, Rivne, director N. Dobrovolska; and “Verbychenka” in Nova Vodolaha, Kharkiv, directors O. and T. Koval.

Each meeting was proof that our initiative has now become a breath of fresh air, and in some places, a resuscitation of children’s folklore. Everywhere we went, we saw hope in the eyes of children and teachers that we will preserve our authentic language and culture together.

The children’s folklore group “Kalyniata” is a partner to the “Kalyna” folklore group made up of elderly residents of the Helmiaziv village in the Cherkasy oblast. Under the directorship of Vira Lobunets, the young members of the group learn how to sing old songs and dance folk dances, passing them from the older bearers of the local tradition to the youth. The soloist of “Kalyniata”, Maria Samovol was the first to provide her video for our project, and she now agreed to share her recordings and experience with other children. At the end of August 2023, it will be 40 years since the founding of the “Kalyna” folklore collective, and so we have planned on journeying back to Helmiaziv in order to record the progress of reproducing this folklore by the younger generation. This is important because this generation of Ukrainians is growing up with parents who no longer use the same language as their grandparents. The words and pronunciations, which were the linguistic features of this region, are being forgotten and songs are being erased from memory. During these meetings, we discussed the attributes of the village dialect and style of performing their ancient songs.

Vira, the director of “Kalyniata”, noted that her language has been “polished” by the instructions of the local leadership, which required her to speak in a “literary” manner and not a folk manner. All of us have been and are still going through something similar.
When we asked the Kalyniata group whose grandmother sings to them, only 3 out of 12 raised their hands. The question of whether their mother sang to them wasn’t asked, as one could guess that the culture of singing stopped with their grandparents, just like their authentic language traditions.

And in order to establish this link – from grandmothers to grandchildren – we invited Kateryna Samojlenko (born in 1942) to the “Kalyniata” meeting. Her soft singing and interesting talk immediately captivated all of us who were in this room. This grandmother talked about her life, about traditions, about how they used to sing and talk. And she also shared the experience of her participation in the “Kalyna” folklore group, where she sang for 40 years.

Together with the young participants, we tried to answer the questions of how to preserve the language and culture of our grandmothers and why do we need to do this today? Before our next arrival, Vira will conduct lessons with the children, while the project’s initiator, Yuri Bilinsky had a motivational online meeting with the Kalyniatas.

You can find the video from our first meeting with the “Kalyniata” group here:

The “Korali” folklore collective in Novoorzhytske, which we found in the Poltava oblast thanks to Professor Natalia Sulaieva, doctor of pedagogy at the V.G. Korolenko Poltava National Pedagogical University, who cooperates with the central oblast folklore directorate. It turned out that there are currently only two children’s folklore groups working in the Poltava oblast, just like in the neighboring Cherkasy oblasts. One of them is located in Poltava, and the other is “Korali” from Novoorzhytske.

The encouragement to preserve the authentic language and songs by our program is worth more to these Ukrainian children than receiving a cash prize. At a time when folklore groups do not have adequate funding and cannot afford to travel to festivals, participating in this Canada-Ukraine Foundation project is an important moral support for them. Daria Andrusenko, the director of the village cultural center and the head of “Korali”, told us that in the last three years – mainly due to the quarantine and a lack of funding – they were not able to record the folklore of their elderly residents, or present the collective’s work on the international stage. Our interest in their group was a real joy for them and gave them additional incentives to work with the local children.

We recorded a video of the “Korali’s” reenactment of a wedding ceremony, as well as some of the reflections of the youth on the importance of preserving the language and culture of their grandmothers. The video is available at the following link:

The “Verbychenka” folklore collective in the village of Nova Vodolaha in the Kharkiv oblast actively participated in our project in 2022. Prizes were awarded to soloists Polina Votintseva and Valeria Nemashkalo, the duet of Yasha and Varvara Shevchenko and the “Verbychenka” collective itself. Our meeting, at the beginning of August 2023, was for “Verbychenka” the first one after a long break as the team could not meet due to the war action in the Kharkiv region since February 2022.

Only in July 2023, after our telephone conversation with their directors – Olha and Tetyana Koval – their classes resumed. The talented directors, who are absolutely in love with Ukrainian folklore, took up the initiative and conducted special classes which took into account our project’s criteria and in just a month they prepared 14 videos! These are authentic songs, fairy tales and stories about Easter traditions, the history of our native land, folk poems and myths, all the while preserving the local dialect, that of their grandmothers.

The source material for preparing these videos were earlier recordings made by the collective. After all, folklore and ethnographic expeditions are the basis of the creativity of “Verbychenka”. Olha and Tetyana Koval have educated more than 2,000 young bearers of the Ukrainian culture over 30 years.

We had the opportunity to watch some of these videos and discuss proper pronunciations with the children. It was interesting to listen to the stories of the “Verbychenka” seniors, who shared memories of previous expeditions to the various villages of Kharkiv and Sumy oblasts. During the filming of an open session, the children learned a dance-game and tried to reproduce the folk sayings of their grandmothers.

The scope of the team’s research, which includes the systematization and publishing of archives, is impressive. The books presented to us by “Verbychenka” include: “The Tales of Slobozhanshchyna” (47 ancient fairy tales, written down by during expeditions), two academic editions of “Nova Vodolaha Vowels” (with original folk customs and rites, interesting stories of the elderly residents of the region, presented with a preserved dialect), a book about the traditional clothing of the region (with photos of collective members in authentic clothing collected during the expedition), and tourist and local history guide books about the Slobozhanshchyna. In the “Sacred Heritage” museum room of the Nova Vodolaha Children’s and Youth House there are many exhibits including: embroidery, canvases, shirts, household items, musical instruments and more. A video clip about this meeting as well as videos prepared by the Nova Vodolaha residents for our initiative are available here:

The “Krynychenka” folklore collective in the village of Velyke Verbche in the Rivne oblast showed us how strong the singing gene is among Ukrainians. Despite the fact that the state educational policies do not help in developing traditional folklore, there are teachers in Ukraine who do their work based on their heart’s calling. During her 40-year teaching career, Nina Dobrovolska managed to raise entire generations of Ukrainians who are well-versed in the rituals of their region, know the local folk songs, perform at various Ukrainian and international festivals and bring their children and grandchildren into “Krynychenka”. Since 1996, the collective bears the honorary title of “exemplary”, as they present original theatrical programs based on the cyclical calendar and ritual holidays of the Sarny region. The family atmosphere in this collective is safeguarded by their playful and dialogical roll calls, their circle dances, and their detailed preservation of their authentic traditions. The performance skills and originality of the collective, which consists of more than 30 people, is impressive. Their guiding principle is observing the regional singing styles including dialect pronunciation of words, modern interpretations of folk works using traditional singing mannerisms and folk dance movements. The collective’s significant repertoire list and script work of N. Dobrovolska will be used to implement our project. Our meeting with this collective in May 2023 was recorded and it included the reproduction of traditional spring games, girl and boy contests, dances and songs, presented in this video clip:

Going forward, we will continue working with the selected children’s collectives and encouraging children to produce videos with accurate reproductions of their authentic language and songs. We are also starting to inform the Ukrainian public about our project and encourage the youth to send us their videos.

We are convinced that our project can play a significant role in the revival of Ukraine’s original culture among the younger generation. And this revival must take place on a newer basis, which will ensure the preservation of our language and culture in their entirety among the future generations.

We sincerely thank the Canada-Ukraine Foundation for supporting our language and culture at this crucial time in the struggle for our freedom and national identity.

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