Looking Back at 2017: A Message from the CIUS Director

In July 2017 I was appointed interim director of CIUS while the Faculty of Arts conducted an internal competition among qualified faculty members at the University of Alberta for the next director. When the position failed to get filled following an initial, limited search, proved unsuccessful, Dean Lesley Cormack requested that I stay on as director until July of 2019 while an international search could be conducted for an appropriate candidate to take on the full term leadership of CIUS.

My appointment to the directorship of CIUS is not something that I had sought or planned for, nor is it a job that I had prepared for. Although I have been around and involved in the Institute in various capacities almost since its inception forty-two years ago, I never imagined or hoped to one day occupy the office of the director—even on a temporary basis—held by so many distinguished scholars before me. 

Nevertheless, it has been a fascinating, if sometimes daunting task to learn about the many facets of the Institute’s operations. And I feel very fortunate to have had the support and the assistance of the CIUS staff, associates, and colleagues in Ukrainian Studies around the world, all of whom care deeply about the Institute. I also greatly appreciate the advice and help that I have received from friends of the Institute in the university administration, especially the Dean’s office, Arts Collaboration Enterprise, and the people at Human Resources and Finance. I won’t single out any individuals by name, as the list would be long and I am afraid of leaving someone out. Finally, I am equally grateful to the generous donors who make possible the important work of CIUS, and the encouragement that I have received from so many members of the Ukrainian community who passionately believe in the Institute’s mission.

In addition to managing the day-to-day affairs of CIUS, I have felt duty-bound to honour the commitments that I made prior to knowing that I was going to be taking on new responsibilities.  I have also been continuing to devote attention to several undertakings that I am still involved in as a researcher and as the Coordinator of the Kule Ukrainian Canadian Studies Centre (KUCSC). One project in particular, which began as an outgrowth of research that I was doing on the history of Ukrainians in Canada in the interwar years, has been unexpectedly demanding albeit very rewarding, and essentially has taken on a life of its own. It concerns the story of a remarkable Toronto woman, Rhea Clyman, who was based in Moscow as a freelance journalist during Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan. In 1932, Ms. Clyman undertook two major trips, one by train to the Soviet Far North, visiting lumber camps, mines and places where she saw thousands of exiles and political prisoners being ruthlessly exploited as forced labourers by the Kremlin. The other trip, by car, took her through what she described as the “famine lands” of eastern Ukraine and the Kuban region, where she witnessed the early stages of the Holodomor.  Her epic journey came to an abrupt end in Tbilisi (Georgia), when she was arrested and summarily deported by Soviet authorities for allegedly writing “false news.” Rhea’s detailed accounts of both of her trips were published in two twenty-one article series in the Toronto Telegram, with some of her stories also appearing in other newspapers, including London’s Daily Express. Yet even though her banishment for reporting truthfully about the brutality of the Stalinist regime was covered in scores of newspapers around the world, Rhea Clyman’s ground-breaking journalistic achievements were subsequently forgotten by everyone, including specialists in Soviet history.

As news about my preliminary research on Rhea’s life and accomplishments began to informally circulate among colleagues and friends, it generated a growing number of queries for additional information about her. This not only compelled me to expand my investigations, it in turn led to a string of speaking engagements, interviews, and other requests that I hadn’t anticipated coming so quickly. Thus, over the course of 2017, from May through November, I gave talks about Rhea Clyman on behalf of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter or CIUS’s Holodomor Research and Education Consortium, in the following places: Collingwood, Ontario; Westchester, New York; Kyiv, Dnipro, and Odesa, in Ukraine; Oakland, California; and Toronto. I was also interviewed about Rhea for two documentary films, one of which, “Hunger for Truth,” made extensive use of Rhea’s 1932 articles about her travels through Soviet Ukraine and the north Caucasus. Whenever I can, I continue to seek out and examine new sources that shed light on Rhea’s adventurous life, with the goal of eventually producing a biography. I suspect that there will be more invitations to speak about her, so great is the interest that has been aroused by the discovery of this compelling eyewitness to numerous key events in the 20th century.

Besides Rhea’s story I have also been engaged in other scholarly endeavours, such as conducting research on the participation of Ukrainian Canadians in Canada’s Armed Forces during the Second World War. Some of my findings are being used for a documentary film on the subject, after which they will supplement the study of Ukrainian Canadian life in the war years. In the meantime I have delivered academic papers and given public talks on different topics in Ukrainian Canadian history in Toronto, Winnipeg, and Chicago, while also attending meetings and community events in other cities. Although travel has always been a source of stimulation for me, I must admit that my recent schedule has been rather gruelling.

In sum, my term as director has so far been very fulfilling. Of course, there have also been difficulties and frustrating distractions to deal with at a time when the study of Ukraine has arguably become more important and relevant than ever. I look forward to the coming year, whatever challenges it may bring, knowing that it will also provide new and exciting opportunities to contribute to the further development of Ukrainian and Ukrainian-Canadian scholarship.

Jars Balan