As we head into Orthodox Easter this Sunday, I intended to write an article about Ukrainian Easter traditions and how they are sustained by immigrant communities in the United States. However, with the state of the war back home, this is not exactly something my interviewees wanted to talk about—at least not in that context. I followed their lead instead.
According to the 2019 U.S. census, there are 1,009,874 Ukrainians, or Americans of Ukrainian descent, living in the United States. Generally, people distinguish four waves of Ukrainian immigration to North America: the first one at the end of 1800s and before 1914, the second between the wars, the third and largest after World War II, and the fourth after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
People of those first three waves were especially politically active. No wonder: in those times, Ukraine was a nation without a state. After arriving in the United States, immigrants and refugees were finally free to be Ukrainian. They started building churches, opening schools, museums, and archives, publishing books, singing songs, and playing folk music—everything they were not allowed to do in their homeland, occupied by Russia before World War I and the Soviet Union afterward. Preservation of Ukrainian culture was at the core of this effort.
Among those immigrant families was Natalie Kravchuk’s. Her parents arrived in the United States from Ukraine through the Displaced Persons Camps in Germany after WWII and settled in Hartford, Connecticut.
“Before I went to school and started learning English, we spoke Ukrainian at home,” she told me. “But before I even could read or write in either language, I already knew how to ‘write’ pysanky at the age of three and a half.”
She remembers learning the art of pysanky—traditional Ukrainian Easter eggs with intricate floral and geometric designs created by wax-resist dyeing—from her grandfather. During the day, he was a welder and a blacksmith in a noisy workshop, but in the evening, he would sit down quietly in his home and immerse himself into the delicate art of egg decorating.
Like Natalie, Laryssa Czebiniak started making pysanky at a very young age and learned from her grandmother. One side of her family arrived from Ukraine during the first wave of immigration; her great-grandfather was a coal miner in Pennsylvania. The other side arrived as refugees after WWII. Laryssa jokes that she is not sure whether she is second- or third-generation Ukrainian American. But in perfect Ukrainian, she told me that for a relatively small town, Binghamton, New York—bordering her current home of Johnson City—has a very strong Ukrainian community. She is especially proud to be a member of the choir at the Ukrainian Catholic Church.
Both women started organizing pysanky workshops for their friends for fun. Natalie remembers that she was around seventeen when she was invited to give her first workshop. Decades later, she still offers pysanky workshops and demonstrations—previously in North Carolina, and for the last twenty-four years in Indiana, or anywhere else life brings her. She is often invited by church groups in rural Indiana to teach pysanky making, and she works with the Lotus Education and Arts Foundation in Bloomington to lead workshops at their festivals and youth events.
After moving to New York City, Laryssa at first held pysanky parties for friends at her apartment. Later, the Ukrainian Institute of America started inviting her to host workshops for the larger community. Her pysanky collection grew to have its own brand: Larysanky.
This year, Laryssa and Natalie agree, the interest in all things Ukrainian skyrocketed. People express their solidarity with Ukraine by showing interest in Ukrainian culture and music. Natalie says she was overwhelmed by the amount of support she received from former colleagues, neighbors, and friends. Informal pysanky workshops at her home became a meeting ground and a healing space. Laryssa’s recent workshop at the Ukrainian Institute sold out in just a few days. This year, two thirds of the students were non-Ukrainian.
Practicing pysanky is not the only way Laryssa dedicates her life to promoting Ukrainian culture. She is also the managing director and a co-founder of Ukrainian Village Voices, a folk music ensemble based in New York City. Their repertoire is constantly evolving, frequently focusing on seasonal celebrations, ritual songs, as well as lyrical music in the traditional polyphonic style. They find inspiration in archival materials, workshops taught by prominent Ukrainian folk musicians and ethnomusicologists, and even their own fieldtrips to Ukraine.
This spring has been especially busy for the ensemble, Laryssa says. With the sudden increase in Ukrainian culture, they have been invited to new venues to perform in front of new audiences, including the Irish Hunger Memorial in Manhattan. But the ensemble has also been using their voices to raise money for the humanitarian needs during the ongoing war in Ukraine. During “A Concert for Ukraine” fundraiser at Jalopy Theater in Brooklyn, they invited musician friends—a Balkan ballad singer, a Georgian music ensemble, a Yiddish singer, an Appalachian ballad singer, and others—to join them in this effort.
This activist standpoint is common among Ukrainian Americans.
“My parents come from the families who were resistance fighters,” Natalie shared. “And that’s all I know what to do, is how to fight and how to resist. To be experiencing this now, as a first-generation Ukrainian American, is really horrifying.” She teared up but continued. “Although Ukrainians assimilate very well, we do everything we can to support and help our heritage proliferate, to spread the knowledge about Ukrainian culture to our communities—and further.”
Laryssa echoes Natalie: “I didn’t know it when I was a kid, but as an adult, looking back, now I understand that our role was to keep whatever it was about Ukraine alive, whether it’s culture, whether it’s language, the traditions. The diaspora took it upon itself to fulfill that role.”
The spring is extremely emotional for all Ukrainians this year, including those who are living abroad. The Ukrainian Village in Chicago is dressed in blue and yellow flags. Posters that say “Support Ukraine” and “Stand by Ukraine” with QR codes for making donations are placed in every other shop window. The Ukrainian National Museum in Chicago recently held an auction of works by the prominent Ukrainian artist Jacques (Jakiw) Hnizdovsky, as well as of Ukrainian folk art. Curator Mariyka Klymchak said that patrons readily spent thousands of dollars, knowing that the money will go to support Ukraine.
St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral is decorated with blue and yellow ribbons and sunflowers, and if to say that the good and God are on our side. This Easter, Christ has risen, and Ukraine will rise—these are my thoughts these days, as I pray for peace and victory in Ukraine.
Iryna Voloshyna is a PhD student at the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University Bloomington, a Fulbright fellow, and a former virtual intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She received her MA in folklore at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. Her research interests include folk arts, material culture, ethnomusicology, performance, heritage studies, migration and diaspora studies, and politics of culture.