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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Ukrainians in the UK

Great Britain: a self-contained world with set traditions
1 December, 2009 - 00:00

What strikes a visitor first is not Great Britain’s diversity (after all, it is good that people who once suffered under the imperial colonial yoke can now enjoy European living and working conditions) but, rather, the fact that so many people are prepared to forget all about their ethnic background and become assimilated into a new environment. This includes switching to a foreign language (most people in London speak English, while young people born of interethnic marriages often have no command of their ethnic language. This is how an entire continent of various cultures is disintegrating before our eyes as their representatives are absorbed by London, formally becoming British nationals.

It is also true, however, that Great Britain is losing its original English flavor, just as discussing any such topic is regarded politically incorrect or even taboo (like Sir William Shakespeare’s authorship in Stratford). The very notion of Englishness has changed in terms of quality, compared to the mid-20th-century concept.

Has any of us given thought to the core of Ukrainianness? Several years ago our president urged the nation to think “the Ukrainian way.” But what does this mean exactly? Is there a manual or a set of instructions?

The concept of Englishness was worked out in British literature; there is even a stereotype of a classical Englishman, although these days Englishness is fading into the background, elbowed out of the way by immigrants from Cameroon, Tanzania, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and so on. All of these are British nationals, enjoying all rights and freedom secured by the British Crown. In this connection, who protects Ukrainians and their rights and freedoms?

The Brits are a reading nation. Library reading halls in London are packed, all negative trends notwithstanding. There are lots of domestic and foreign visitors. I was fortunate enough to visit the British Library and talk to Olga Kerziouk, head of the Ukrainian and Esperanto section. She told me about how the library stock is replenished (among the books on her desk I spotted Oxana Pachliowska’s Ave Europa!). Ukraine’s latest publications and periodicals find their way to the UK quickly enough. Of course, there are problems in terms of financing, which results in understaffing — there aren’t simply enough people to handle the book flows; hence certain delays for the readers. The British Library has cutting-edge equipment to help the users find the information they are looking for, including rare editions. This library is a large 21st-century media industry in its own right that takes good care of every customer.

Great Britain is also known to have carried out numerous literary projects. Our interpreter was Vera Rich, known for her excellent translations from Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, Lesia Ukrainka, Pavlo Tychyna, Mykhailo Drai-Khmara, Lina Kostenko, and Vasyl Stus. She uses Old English to masterfully convey the original Ukrainian message because quite often Ukrainian poetry proves difficult to translate into English. She invited us to take part in a discussion about the limits of creativity in science held on the Pen Centre’s initiative. Among the key presenters was Margaret Drabble, a noted British author and theoretician of English modernism.

I was also fortunate enough to visit St. Bride’s Church on Fleet Street, where the editorial offices of the main British newspapers were previously located. In the church I was impressed by the altar with the photos of journalists who fell prey to antidemocratic systems, one of Anna Politkovskaya in the center. Great Britain is today’s most outspoken democracy lobbyist. Apart from St. Bride’s Church, where Mass for journalists killed in the line of duty is regularly celebrated, a number of Brits are involved in various projects aimed at supporting democracies elsewhere in the world.

Great Britain has a large ethnic Ukrainian community, along with a considerable number of illegal migrant workers. While in London, I happened to visit the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (AUGB). It occupies a modern building with a large library stock. I was most impressed to see Stepan Bandera’s last lifetime personal effects displayed on the balcony. These are real things that belonged to this celebrated champion of Ukrainian independence, including his blood-stained shirt from an NKVD bullet.

The library boasts shelves with books by noted Ukrainian authors who lived in Great Britain and whose private literary collections were handed over to the Association after their death. Every year researchers from Ukraine and other countries visit this library to get access to rare books. I spotted publications dealing with the Holodomor (including James Mace’s studies), Ukrainian almanacs dating from the early 20th century, rare Baroque editions, and Lina Kostenko’s collections of verse that are hard to find in Ukraine.

Toward the end of 2007, the Taras Shevchenko Institute of Literature at the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine helped the Mystetstvo Publishers to produce an exquisitely designed, fundamental academic collection of Shevchenko’s verse and illustrations with the English translations by Vera Rich. It was entitled Taras Shevchenko. Vybrana poezia. Zhyvopys. Hrafika (Taras Shevchenko. Selected Poems. Paintings. Prints) and included Shevchenko’s manuscripts. It was compiled by Ukraine’s noted Shevchenko researcher Serhii Halchenko. He also wrote the footnotes. The foreword to the poems was written by Ivan Dziuba and the preface to his works of art, by Tetiana Andrushchenko. This publication is very important, because apart from being a work of art that belongs to a definite historical period, it draws people in Great Britain closer to the most prominent achievements of Ukrainian literature, considering that these people know very little about Ukraine and its culture.

I was honored to be invited to the Ukrainian Institute in London by Marta Jenkala. The institute is located in the heart of the city, with a statue of Kyivan Rus’ Prince Volodymyr the Great, which is the place where Orange Revolution supporters rallied back in November 2004. The Ukrainian embassy was also a short walk from the institute.

I met and spoke with some of the “illegal” emigres, who told me about the inhuman terms and conditions they had had to accept to put as much distance as they could between themselves and Ukraine, whose current policy is aimed at sheer survival, destruction of small and medium-size business, selling Ukrainian businesses off to foreign investors, which leaves people jobless, while the municipal/housing costs constantly rise. I thought the ethnic Ukrainian community in Great Britain is solid, with their Greek Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, as well as cultural centers.

I was pleased to realize that Ukrainian culture is gradually extending to the charming British Isles. Ukrainian studies have finally been launched at Cambridge University. This is made possible owing to the dedicated efforts of people like the translator and journalist Vera Rich, Olga Kerziouk of the British Library, Jenkala, and others. Hopefully, when Ukraine becomes part of the European community of nations, there will not be a large gap left between British and Ukrainian cultures, which had been there for decades, and there will be sufficient ground for understanding and mutual enrichment.