An American in Ukraine: Reflections on the Anniversary of the Birth of Taras Shevchenko

Posted by: Pauletta Walsh, Assistant Information Officer, U.S. Embassy Kyiv

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Taras Shevchenko museum, Kyiv, 2017For the habitual voyager, arriving in a new country is the ultimate traveling experience.  The sights and smells, the vistas of fresh landscapes, the architecture, all officially announce an adventure has begun.  Diplomats may be some of the best explorers in history, from Ibn Battuta, to Machiavelli, and Benjamin Franklin.  They leave their homeland in the service of their leaders, and depart with a profound understanding of other citizens and cultures.

I arrived in Ukraine just in time for the New Year.  Bundled against the cold, I began my exploration of the city.  With encouragement from colleagues at U.S. Embassy Kyiv, I will blog about my discovery of Kyiv and Ukraine.

Taras Shevchenko museum, Kyiv, 2017
On March 9, Ukrainians celebrated the 203rd Anniversary of the birth of Taras Shevchenko, the beloved poet, writer and civil activist who is often called the father of Ukrainian literature.  To mark the occasion, U.S. Embassy diplomats recorded some of Shevchenko’s verses. With an Embassy group that included Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and her mother, Miss Nadia, I toured the Shevchenko Museum to discover more.
Taras Shevchenko museum, Kyiv, 2017
The Taras Shevchenko Museum is located in Shevchenko’s beloved Kyiv in a mansion formerly owned by a wealthy sugar magnate.  This juxtaposition of housing the most comprehensive collection of artifacts, paintings and memorabilia from Shevchenko’s life, surrounded by such opulence is ironic and poignant.  For Ukrainians, Shevchenko is the premiere national hero.  Son of a serf, at once a novelist and a painter, a poet and a prisoner, Shevchenko was a celebrity and political figure, who finally returned home to the area near the town of Kaniv, to be buried after his death.  To a new generation of Ukrainians, those born after the Soviet era, raised with a unique identity, and who came of age in the era of EuroMaidan, Shevchenko’s dream of Ukrainian freedom resonates with renewed vigor.  The museum provides an opportunity for foreigners and natives alike to make his acquaintance and to draw lessons from his writings on the past and future of Ukraine.
Taras Shevchenko museum, Kyiv, 2017The museum is housed in one of the many beautiful buildings that grace the cobblestoned streets in the old city.  It opens on to a modern glass atrium, with ample room for a collection of modern art.  Progressing up the marble staircase to the second floor, I walked through room after room adorned with paintings, drawings, and books.  I learned of the Cossack history of Ukraine, and then was led step by step through the various stages of Shevchenko’s life.  Shevchenko’s life story is well known in Ukraine.  Born in 1814, Shevchenko grew up in poverty, was orphaned at the age of 11, and yet managed to acquire an education working as an apprentice to a teacher and deacon.  His early life was dictated by the whims of his masters, yet his time in Vilnius was productive in providing him with an artist’s training.  His subsequent travel with his master to the Russian capital of St. Petersburg changed his life.  Shevchenko was accepted to the Imperial Academy of Arts, and was able to study painting.  More importantly for the history of Ukrainian literature, he began to write poetry.  He also became acquainted with other Ukrainians diaspora artists, one who bought him his freedom in 1838.  In 1840, his first book of poetry, “Kobzar” was published.  This was the beginning of a new chapter, one that would bring him into conflict with the Russian Imperial family and others in the ruling class whose patronage he needed to survive.  Subsequently he penned poems in Ukrainian, where he was critical of the system of serfdom and of the regime of Tsar Nicholas I.  Shevchenko’s last prison sentence was serving six years at a penal colony in Novopetrovsk. On his release, he returned to St. Petersburg where he continued writing until his death at the age of 47 on March 10, 1861, seven days before the emancipation of the serfs.

Taras Shevchenko museum, Kyiv, 2017But what exactly did the Russian Empire fear?  I looked for those verses that resonated then as now, to understand the Ukrainian identity and their heart that longs for freedom.
When I am dead, bury me
In my beloved Ukraine,
My tomb upon a grave mound high
Amid the spreading plain,
So that the fields, the boundless steppes,
The Dnieper’s plunging shore
My eyes could see, my ears could hear
The mighty river roar.

When from Ukraine the Dnieper bears
Into the deep blue sea
The blood of foes … then will I leave
These hills and fertile fields —
I’ll leave them all and fly away
To the abode of God,
And then I’ll pray …. But till that day
I nothing know of God.

Oh bury me, then rise ye up
And break your heavy chains
And water with the tyrants’ blood
The freedom you have gained.
And in the great new family,
The family of the free,
With softly spoken, kindly word
Remember also me.

Taras Shevchenko
1845, Pereiaslav
Translated by John Weir 

Information about visiting the museum: website, FB, VK

An American Folk Band in Ukraine: An interview with Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards

Posted by: Lesia Trachuk, Public Affairs Section, U.S. Embassy Kyiv

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Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards in Kyiv, Atlas, March 2016
Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards in Kyiv, Atlas, March 2016

Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards, an American folk music band based in Boston, Massachusetts, toured Ukraine March 1-6, with concerts in Kharkiv and Kyiv. During their stay in Ukraine, the group also offered workshops, master classes, and presentations on what draws them to traditional American music.

Band leader Laura Cortese shared her thoughts and impressions about the group’s Ukrainian tour with the U.S. Embassy.

How did you decide to tour Ukraine? 

We are on a multi-country tour arranged through the State Department’s American Music Abroad program.  American Music Abroad has been sending American musicians all over the world for many years.  It’s a really competitive program.  First, there’s an open audition process.  This year, over 400 bands applied.  A small number of those are selected for live auditions, and 10 bands are chosen to participate.  American Music Abroad works with Embassies all over the world to decide which groups tour where, depending on what they think would appeal to local audiences.  On this trip, we have already been to Estonia and Greece.  This week, we’re here in Ukraine, and then we are going to Montenegro.

Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards in Kyiv, Atlas, March 2016
Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards in Kyiv, Atlas, March 2016

What do you think of the Ukrainians you’ve met so far? 

We had an incredible night in Kharkiv last night.  [Note: The group played at Fabrika, and the place was packed.]  I think that was the best audience we’ve had so far this tour.  From the very first song, they were clapping along. I think the audience was maybe 70 % college age students, and I think that has a lot to do with why they were so receptive and responsive, but really everyone in the audience were with us, they sang along. There was even one guy who got up when we said — Hey, who’s gonna dance?  He was a beautiful dancer. That was amazing.

Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards in Kyiv, Atlas, March 2016
Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards in Kyiv, Atlas, March 2016

We did a masterclass and a press conference at the National Academy of Arts in Kharkiv.  What was exciting about that was that there were a lot of questions about music education in the States.  We had a chance to explain that every place is different, every state is different, every city is different, and every individual experience is different.  People also wanted to know what it’s like to be an independent musician, making a living as an entrepreneur. We also talked about the roots of the Appalachian Mountains music that we play. It’s a mix of 17th century Scottish fiddle music and African music, both traditions coming together in the United States.

And we also got to meet an instructor who’s a balalaika player.  We got to collaborate and play together, and it was really cool. He knew the bluegrass style and it was really fun.

Can you describe your music in three words?

Indie, Chamber, Folk.

Do you know any Ukrainian musicians, composers, or songs?  Do you have any favorites? 

Before we came to Ukraine, we didn’t know much at all.  As we were getting ready to come, we were listening to music online, and we heard Chervona Ruta. It’s a fun, upbeat song, and there are lots of different versions.  We haven’t learned it yet, but it’s been stuck in our heads ever since.


Khersones: Preserving the Past to Respect the Future

Posted by: Rachel Atwood Mendiola, Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer

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Ukraine’s long and diverse history is highlighted by the recent recognition of Khersones as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Joining numerous other UNESCO sites in Ukraine, Khersones stands in testimony not only to Ukraine’s ancient past, but also to the role of multiple civilizations, over many centuries, in this land.

Founded about 2500 years ago in the Sixth Century BC by Greek settlers from Heraclea Pontica, Khersones has a long history.  Its name comes from the Greek word, Chersonēsos, meaning “peninsula.”  It is located on what is known today as the Crimean Peninsula (in ancient times it was called Taurica), near present day Sevastopol on the shore of the Black Sea.

The Greek colony began as a (mostly) democratic society ruled by elected officials called archons and a council called the damiorgi.  As time passed, they became more oligarchic, with power concentrated in the hands of the archons.

After those first few hundred years, the colony changed hands numerous times.  In the late Second Century BC, it became a dependency of the Bosporan Kingdom.  Next, it was subject to Rome from the mid-First Century until the 370s AD when it was captured by the Huns.  In the early Middle Ages (sometime around the Fifth Century), Khersones became a Byzantine possession, withstood a siege by the Gӧktürks in 581, then fell to Kievan Rus in the 980s.  After the Fourth Crusade, which ended in 1204, the colony became dependent on the Empire of Trebizond before coming under Genoese control in the early 13th Century.  The armies of Nogain Khan sacked the city in 1299 and about a century later the colony was destroyed by Edigu and permanently abandoned.


Under Roman and Byzantine rule, Khersones was a popular place of exile for those who angered the current government.  In fact, it became the place of legends.  According to one famous story, after Vladimir the Great captured the colony, he agreed to evacuate the city only if the sister of Basil II (Byzantine Emperor from 976-1025) would be given to him in marriage.  However, in order to be able to marry the imperial princess, Vladimir had to be baptized into the Christian faith.

With such a long and interesting history, it is no surprise that Khersones has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The certificate was prepared in Paris, and presented at a ceremony in Sevastopol on September 20.  U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt congratulated everyone attending the ceremony with the following statement:

“On behalf of the U.S. Embassy, I would like to congratulate the Khersones National Preserve and its staff for their impressive accomplishment in getting the cultural and historical monument entrusted to their care recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  When the ‘Ancient City of Tauric Chersonese and its Chora’ was inscribed on UNESCO’s List on June 23, it was a great day not just for Ukraine but for everyone in the world influenced by Classical Greek civilization where the idea of democracy was first born.

I’m also very pleased that the Institute of Classical Archaeology at the University of Texas at Austin under the leadership of Centennial Professor of Classical Archeology Joseph Carter played such an important role in helping to put Khersones on the world map and bring it to UNESCO’s attention through their excavations, publications, and continued close cooperation with the Ukrainian staff at the National Preserve.  This is a wonderful example of what a successful U.S.-Ukrainian partnership can accomplish for the benefit of the entire world.

Last year, the U.S. Embassy was able to bring John Jameson – a Senior Archaeologist with the U.S. National Park Service who specializes in interpretive program development – to the Khersones National Preserve in order to explore new ways to make the site more accessible to the public while minimizing the impact this increased attention would bring.  I look forward to visiting Khersones myself soon and seeing what else we might be able to do to help you preserve your site for the world.

Earlier this month, I was thrilled to travel to Drohobych where I presented a U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation grant to the Church of St. George which was one of eight Ukrainian wooden churches inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List on the same day that you received the same great honor.  In the same way that we are helping save this amazing wooden masterpiece in the Carpathians for future generations, I look forward to working together with our Ukrainian and American partners to keep this Crimean architectural wonder alive and well for its next 2,500 years.  Congratulations!”

It is a great accomplishment that so many historical and cultural sites in Ukraine have received world-wide recognition.  Hopefully, the naming of Khersones as a UNESCO World Heritage site will support its preservation and increased research for the benefit of future generations.

Strengthening links to Podil’s Jewish Past and Future

Posted by: Yaryna Ferencevych, Press Attaché

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Ambassador Pyatt at the Hatikva Reform Synagogue opening
Ambassador Pyatt at the Hatikva Reform Synagogue opening

On September 27, I joined Ambassador Pyatt in Kyiv’s Podil neighborhood for a very special ceremony.  Joined by his Canadian and German counterparts, the Ambassador spoke at the dedication ceremony for the Hatikva Reform Synagogue and its new community center in Kyiv.  In his remarks, the Ambassador acknowledged the congregation’s rabbi, Rabbi Dukhovny, as “a friend and teacher to generations of American ambassadors here in Kyiv.”  Pausing to remember the 72nd anniversary of the massacres at Baby Yar and its victims, he spoke about the history of the Jewish community in Ukraine, its resilience, and how he was inspired by the congregation’s return to its roots in Kyiv’s historic Podil neighborhood.  Reminding participants that “the guiding principles of tolerance, cooperation, and respect for human dignity that are embodied in this center are essential to Americans as well,” the Ambassador told participants he had great expectations for the center and its future work.

Concert at the Hatikva Reform Synagogue opening
Concert at the Hatikva Reform Synagogue opening

The new structure, paid for with donations by three North American families, replaced rental facilities which had served the community for 22 years. The new 4,000 square-foot center has a sanctuary with seating for 150, activity rooms, a library, youth center and kitchenette. After the speeches, the fun began!  Hatikva’s youngest members, approximately 20 of its Kyiv Reform Kindergarten students kicked off the festivities with song and dance, reminding all of us that the Center has a bright future ahead!  A rousing performance by Irina Rosenfeld followed, along with many more expressions of congratulations.

pic2With the new center now open, the Embassy wasted no time in kicking off our cooperative relationship.  Just two weeks later, on October 10, Hatikva hosted the first Ukrainian screening of the film Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness.  The movie, a portrait of a great writer whose stories became the basis of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, tells the tale of the rebellious genius who created an entirely new literature. Working in at the end of the 19th century in Western Ukraine, he explored the depths of a Jewish world locked in crisis and on the cusp of profound change and he captured that world with brilliant humor.  In an earlier blog we wrote about the Ambassador’s visit to the building in Lviv that Sholem Aleichem once called home.

According to the film’s director Joe Dorman, Sholem Aleichem was one of the men who shaped a new modern Jewish identity.  After the screening, Dorman, an award-winning independent filmmaker, answered questions and discussed how he made visits to Ukraine during the production of the film and gained a deeper understanding of Jewish and Ukrainian culture, including the many links between the two.  He explained the critical role that Sholem Aleichem’s works played in preserving Jewish identity in the United States, and for Jewish diaspora more broadly.  The Embassy was happy to present the film as an interesting cultural link between the U.S. and Ukraine, but also as an example of Ukraine’s multicultural past, and Ukraine’s Jewish heritage.  In addition to the Hatkiva screening, the Embassy sponsored public presentations of the film in Kyiv and Lviv, which were well attended.

The Positive Power of Hip-Hop in Ukraine

Posted by: Arthur Evans, Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer

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IMG_1810Recently I joined Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, his family and an audience of over 10,000 on Independence Square to watch the World Breakdancing Championship.  Sponsored by Burn Battle School, hundreds of young Ukrainian b-boys and b-girls “battled” (competed) in four categories: best youth b-boy, men’s, women’s and team or “crew.”  I was blown away by the popularity of the event and amazed at the skill level of the Ukrainian breakers.  Even more impressive was that, although competition was fierce, the atmosphere was positive — even festive — a bit like watching a college football game in my native Ohio.

IMG_2483Because our Embassy was one of the event’s sponsors, the Ambassador awarded the first place prize in the youth category.  The winner was a 10-year old dancing tornado from Kyiv: Andrei Kirilin. Taking first was no small feat on Andrei’s side.  The youth division included kids as old as 16, and many of the contestants were almost twice Andrei’s size.  But in breaking, where preparation, innovation and speed trump strength, “Davids” often best “Goliaths.”  Andrei’s victory was a testament to years of training and the support of his studio, Kinder Crew of Kyiv.  Backstage, many of Andrei’s Kinder Crew friends were there to support him along with older b-boy mentors, coaches, and family.

Hip-hop and, by extension, breaking, has always faced an up-hill battle in the image department, partly due to a “gangster” motif that has eclipsed other aspects of the movement, and partly due to misconceptions of what b-boying is really about.  If my experience on the Maidan showed me anything, it is that breakdancing can set a positive example for young people in Ukraine.  No matter how hard two “crews” “ battled”, and no matter the color of their skin or where they were from, when the music stopped and the winner was announced the competitors always came together in the center of the stage, shook hands, embraced and showed signs of mutual respect.

IMG_0990These positive aspects are in keeping with breaking’s American roots. When it emerged from New York’s boroughs in the 1970s, break dancing’s “street” status meant there were no coaches, teams or leagues.  For an aspiring b-girl or b-boy, getting in was easy but getting good was hard.  You had to learn from somebody.  Talk to any accomplished “old” b-boy or b-girl about how they learned and they will smile and rattle off the names of the best b-boys in the previous generation: people who inspired them, took them under their wing, and invited them to join a “crew” that could help them reach the next level.  “Each one teach one” is a quiet mantra in breakdancing that still holds true.

Perhaps no other crew has internalized “each one teach one” like Seattle, Washington’s Massive Monkees Crew.  Our Embassy was proud to support them as our country’s entry in the Burn Battle School’s team competition.  As dancers, Massive Monkees have won at the highest international level.  But what sets them apart is how they have parlayed that success into opportunities for their community, and particularly for the next generation.  One example is their Extraordinary Futures NGO, which uses dance to teach self-discipline, boost confidence, and broaden the horizons of at-risk kids.  In recent years they have even used city support and crowd sourcing to turn their Seattle dance studio, aptly called “the Beacon,” into a community center complete with afterschool programs, toddler dance classes, music and art.  No wonder the Mayor of Seattle created a “Massive Monkees Day” in their honor.

IMG_3345Massive Monkees brought this spirit of civic activism with them to Kyiv. Over the course of three days they taught classes, visited summer camps, hosted hip hop films, judged dance contests and performed for thousands of young Ukrainians.  They talked about breakdancing’s celebration of diversity and demonstrated its ability to break down barriers and to build young people up.  But Massive Monkees weren’t alone in delivering this message. Their trip was supported by a national network of Ukrainian crews and dance studios.  At each event they were joined by veteran Ukrainian b-boys and b-girls who shared their own experience with the younger kids or were there as chaperones, trainers and mentors.

In the end, one can say that this year’s Burn Battle School was a success because hundreds of kids competed and thousands more came to watch.  But what is more important is that it proved that breaking is alive and well in Ukraine.  Clearly, local b-boys and b-girls have developed a thriving community that stretches from Kyiv to Sevastopol, Lviv to Lutsk ….And that’s a good thing.

Ambassador Pyatt’s Visit to the Honchar Museum: Showing Respect for Ukraine’s Vibrant Culture

Posted by: Larry Socha, Consular Officer

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Ambassador Pyatt Receives a Vyshyvanka as a Gift from the Honchar Museum
Ambassador Pyatt Receives a Vyshyvanka as a Gift from the Honchar Museum

“You cannot imagine a Ukrainian family without its rushnyk,” Petro Honchar told Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt.  “Rich or poor, every family had one.”

Director Petro Honchar guided U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt through the Ukrainian Center of Folk Culture, Ivan Honchar Museum, on Friday afternoon, concluding the Ambassador’s first week in country.  Their lively conversation flowed through each room.  Under the watchful eyes of dozens of icons, the Director and Ambassador discussed religious imagery and the spirit represented by Cossack Mamay.  They compared the landscape styles of Ukrainian artists in the late 19th century and the motifs of artistic schools from the Ambassador’s native California.  They paused in front of a portrait of Ivan Honchar, whose private collection, spurned by Soviet authorities, became this great national treasure of independent Ukraine.  “Most museums in the Soviet period were based on class struggle.  Ivan had the idea that a museum could unite not divide,” Director Honchar explained.  “The idea of family became central to his vision.”

Almost immediately upon entering the museum, the visitor is welcomed by scores of black and white Ukrainian photographs, many over a century old.  Some are family portraits. Others depict wedding celebrations.  But one at eye level reflects back at the viewer, a mirror.  The visitor, wherever his roots lie, is invited to be Ukrainian, to understand Ukraine, from the very first moments of his visit.

Ambassador Pyatt was honored to make the Ivan Honchar Museum one of the first stops in his journey through Ukraine.  He recalled the long, rectangular cloth of the embroidered rushnyk which symbolizes a journey and the delicately stitched flowers and birds that represent Ukraine’s fertile land.  Ambassador Pyatt thanked Director Honchar for a wonderful introduction to the richness of Ukrainian cultural traditions and the country’s deep European history.  At the conclusion of the tour, Director Honchar presented Ambassador Pyatt with a vyshyvanka sewn in the colors of Acting Hetman Pavlo Polubotok – a Cossack political and military leader of left-bank Ukraine between 1722 and 1724.