This year, the Ukrainian American community is celebrating 125 years of organized community life – which started when the Ukrainian National Association (UNA) was established as a fraternal insurance organization in 1894 in Shamokin, Pa.
In addition to the UNA with its long history, the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, the Ukrainian National Women’s League of North America, Plast Ukrainian Scouting Organization, the Ukrainian American Youth Association (a.k.a. SUM) and other organizations have been mainstays of Ukrainian community life since the post-World War II immigration. They continue to play important roles in maintaining and fostering the community.
There has been a plethora of other organizations and groups – some more structured, others more informal – that also made important contributions to the community’s development and well-being at one point or other during the last 125 years. For a whole host of reasons, most no longer exist, but during their period of activity, many truly made a difference. It would take tomes to cover them all. Let me briefly mention and pay tribute to several that were specifically involved in advocacy in the nation’s capital in the critically important 1980s and 1990s, during Ukraine’s historic time of transition to independence.
Ukrainian American community groups that advocated the Ukrainian cause in Washington in the late 1970s and 1980s focused their activity on human rights, including the plight of political prisoners – notably, members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group. Prior to its 1991 independence, Ukraine was a relative terra-incognita on official Washington’s political map, let alone among the American media and public. It was a very different world from the one we have now, one where media coverage of Ukraine is commonplace and, more importantly, where Ukraine enjoys substantial bipartisan support from America’s political establishment.
Back then, the U.S. government paid relatively little attention to what was effectively a colony – albeit an important one – of an empire. The media and general public paid even less attention. Congress, however, did care about Ukraine and much of this was due to the efforts of various groups and individuals within the Ukrainian American community. During that time, one of the best ways to influence America’s political establishment about Ukraine was by focusing on the defense of human rights, and especially on individual cases of repression of Ukrainian patriots. This resonated and was a more realistic approach to help tell the story of Ukraine’s struggle for freedom at a time when it appeared to almost everyone – at least until the late 1980s – that the “evil empire” would be around for a long time.
Ukrainian groups advocated in various ways. Some provided invaluable information to Congress or to other organizations working on behalf of Ukraine. Smoloskyp, an organization in defense of human rights in Ukraine, was one of the largest publishers and disseminators of Ukrainian dissident literature (samvydav). Under the leadership of the tireless Osyp Zinkewych (see fellow columnist Andrew Fedynsky’s September 29, 2017, tribute in The Ukrainian Weekly), Smoloskyp took an active part in various human rights campaigns, organized protest campaigns against political repression in Ukraine, and disseminated factual information on Soviet repression, which it often obtained through clandestine channels and its network of couriers. Working with Messrs. Zinkewych and Fedynsky, and other Smoloskyp activists, for several years after I arrived in Washington 40 years ago as a young graduate student was in itself a terrific learning experience. Among other activities, Smoloskyp also published an English-language human rights quarterly, on which I, along with my brother Yuri and others, served on the editorial board.
Other organizations engaged in more direct advocacy, such as the New Jersey-based Americans for Human Rights in Ukraine (AHRU), led by Ihor Olshaniwsky, and later his wife, Bozhena, and Walter Bodnar. With meager resources, they assembled a group of activists from across the U.S. who would quickly mobilize to advocate on behalf of a specific issue. They paid considerable attention to the Ukrainian Helsinki Group and to other political prisoners, which resonated well in a Congress that was broadly sympathetic to Ukraine’s fight for freedom. As a staffer at the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission), which focused on Soviet human rights violations, I could always count on AHRU and their informal network of activists for timely and effective support for our commission initiatives on Ukraine – whether it be getting Members of Congress to co-sponsor our resolutions regarding Ukraine or to sign on to our letters on behalf of individual Ukrainian prisoners of conscience. One of AHRU’s and Mr. Olshaniwsky’s most notable contributions was the establishment of the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine at a time when the Holodomor was still an unknown. Without Ihor, who left us all too soon in 1986 at the age of 57, I do not believe this ground-breaking commission would have been created.
I will mention two other groups whose membership consisted of almost exclusively women. (Sorry guys, even growing up in the Cleveland area in the 1960s and ’70s, it often seemed that Ukrainian women were more active than men, with all due respect to all of the dynamic male Ukrainian Americans). During the 1980s, there was the Philadelphia based Human Rights Committee. Led by Ulana Mazurkevich, this team of dedicated Ukrainian women would often come into D.C. to advocate on the Hill, organizing events and, importantly, getting to know influential members of Congress, including some of my bosses at the Helsinki Commission. These personal connections, at times, proved to be helpful to me in my own Ukraine-related work at the commission. Another informal group was the D.C.-based Ukrainian American Community Network (UACN), led by Larissa Fontana, which, often working with AHRU, informed the community on how to support repressed Ukrainian political prisoners and other issues of importance to the community.
These organizations, as well as others active at the time, were composed of committed and passionate volunteers. It is incredibly difficult to sustain volunteer organizations for a long period of time. Some no longer exist, while others do, but not in the form they did during that time. Even though they were not part of the formal organized community structures, their contributions to the Ukrainian cause were invaluable. They should not be forgotten. In a future column, I plan to note some of the other organizations or groups that played an important role during these historic times.
Orest Deychakiwsky is Vice Chair of the Board of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and a former policy advisor at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. This article originally appeared in The Ukrainian Weekly.