Ukrainian Otherlands: Diaspora, Homeland, and Folk Imagination in the Twentieth Century

By Natalia Khanenko-Friesen. 2015. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 290 pages. ISBN: 978-0-299-30344-0 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Natalie Kononenko, University of Alberta

[Review length: 1060 words • Review posted on January 20, 2016]


[Cover ofUkrainian Otherlands: Diaspora, Homeland, and Folk Imagination in the Twentieth Century]

Over the years many Ukrainians left their homeland and migrated to Canada, to Brazil, and now to the countries of the European Union. Leaving home is no easy undertaking and bonds to home are seldom fully severed. In this book Khanenko-Friesen explores the ties that bind Diaspora Ukrainians to their homeland and the ways in which people in Ukraine seek to maintain contact with relatives and neighbors who went away.

As Khanenko-Friesen explains in the introduction, the almost uncanny knowledge of the minutia of rural Ukraine which she found among members of the Ukrainian Canadian Diaspora led to the multi-year study which resulted in this book. The book itself is a dialogue of sorts. While emphasizing the Diasporic perspective, the author also explores the point of view of Ukrainians in Ukraine. She quotes liberally from her fieldnotes and from folksongs and vernacular poetry, bringing the people and the places that she examines to life.

Chapter 1 focuses on the songs composed by those who left Ukraine in the first large wave of migration at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. These songs give powerful voice to the psychological pain caused by departure and to the physical hardships endured while traveling across great distances and building a life in an untamed land. Songs describe leave-taking, elaborating on the difficult farewells to family, living and deceased. Because migrants went overseas to Canada and Brazil, songs express concern that, should one die on the way, he would be tossed overboard and not receive proper burial. Immigrant songs with their moving expressions of loneliness and longing received attention in pre-Soviet Ukraine and were collected by such prominent folklorists as Filaret Kolessa and Volodymyr Hnatiuk.

Chapter 2 switches from the Diasporic perspective to the Ukrainian one. The author conducted fieldwork in Hrytsevolia, a village in Western Ukraine from which many people emigrated to Canada. This helped Khanenko-Friesen understand the “almost clan-like” ties that bind the inhabitants of the village, a place where everyone knows everyone else and is cognizant of all biological and social relationships. Up until 1939 travel in and out of Ukraine was possible and people, usually adult men, could work for a time in a country like Canada, return to the village, then leave again for paid work. Absences were often of long duration, placing labor migrants in the ambiguous position of being both “ours” and absent from normal family and village interaction.

While people in Ukraine longed for specific individuals, those who had moved to Canada felt nostalgia for an abstract, mythical Ukraine that was brought to life in the Shevchenko “concerts” and Ukrainian dance ensembles described in chapter 3. At the same time, Ukrainians in Canada started to build a new concept of themselves, one which began with the arrival of their family in Canada and did not reach back to the Ukrainian homeland. Khanenko-Friesen demonstrates this shift by examining the local history book published by the very active Diaspora in the Alberta town of Mundare.

Chapter 4 deals with correspondence between the Diaspora and relatives in Ukraine. Because Ukraine was under Soviet domination, the letters sent from there were necessarily formulaic, listing marriages, deaths, births, and little else. Sometimes there were requests for gifts that might be sold to supplement family income and oblique allusions to the hardships of life in Ukraine. Because of their elliptical nature, letters created distance just as they maintained a link between relatives separated by land and sea.

Conflicting currents are the subject of chapter 5. The growing interest in genealogy led to a search for relatives further down the family tree, in Ukraine as well as in Canada. At the same time, Canada was experiencing major demographic shifts. Farming became mechanized, leading to massive outmigration to urban centres. This encouraged nostalgia for the Canadian past rather than the Ukrainian one and further weakened ties.

But changes were occurring in Ukraine as well and, as the Iron Curtain rusted, visiting Ukraine became possible. While Ukraine was still under Soviet rule, contacting relatives required adroit manipulation of the system and those who took such trips often had horrible experiences of alienation, as chapter 6 details. When Ukraine became independent, relatives could see each other freely. Yet their reunions were often awkward. After such a long period of separation, interaction was often ritualized rather than spontaneous.

The independence of Ukraine not only opened the door for people to visit—it also allowed Ukrainian citizens to leave. Many did just that, taking jobs in the European Union and the Middle East. Typically they came first as illegal migrants, eventually attaining legal status. Khanenko-Friesen spent time in Ukrainian communities in Lisbon, Portugal, and Rome, Italy, studying new Diasporas. As she describes in chapter 7, many new migrants, like those of the past, leave their families behind and, as their predecessors turned to song, so current laborers compose poems to express their longing. The book concludes with an epilogue in which Khanenko-Friesen urges further study of Diasporas.

This is an important book which makes a needed contribution to scholarship. With the current mass movements of peoples, looking at the relationships between those who leave and those who stay is a must. As much as I like this study, I do find some of its aspects problematic. Quotes from songs are given in translation and also in transliterated Ukrainian. Transliteration makes no sense. Anyone who would benefit from having the original would surely be able to read Cyrillic and modern typesetting does not restrict publishers to Latin fonts. More troubling is the author’s terminology. Khanenko-Friesen speaks of the Ukrainian “binomial,” a term that is odd, if not jarring. Even more troublesome are the repeated references to “folk psychology.” In the introduction the author states that she is borrowing the term from Jerome Bruner, but the way it is used throughout the book smacks uncomfortably of what used to be called “primitive thinking.” Many traditional concepts did and do influence relations between the Ukrainian Diaspora and the Ukrainian homeland and Khanenko-Friesen is correct to point out how funerary rituals and beliefs affect the perception of those who depart, not through death, but through travel. Parallels to specific beliefs are valid and useful; broad use of the term “folk psychology” is not. The above complaints aside, Ukrainian Otherlands is an important contribution to Ukrainian and Diaspora studies.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.