Society and Culture

Community roots inspire new director of U of A’s Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies

From Kyiv to rural Alberta, Natalia Khanenko-Friesen has seen the institute’s pivotal role connecting a diaspora that has thrived in the margins.

  • February 23, 2021
  • By Geoff McMaster

As a young woman living in Kyiv, Natalia Khanenko-Friesen was captivated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and what it meant for the future of her country.

For many of her generation, this watershed moment sparked a cultural and intellectual renaissance of sorts in Ukraine.

“My generation was so eager to learn, so eager to figure out the world,” said Khanenko-Friesen, the new director of the U of A’s Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) and professor of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies.

“I always had the drive to go as far as I could to pursue my academic and intellectual dreams.”

Working as a researcher in the National Museum of Folk Architecture and Life in Kyiv, Khanenko-Friesen had a passion for Ukrainian folklore and cultural anthropology. She was intrigued by the Ukrainian diaspora, and how the country’s culture survived far away from the homeland—especially in rural communities as far flung as Western Canada.

“There used to be this idea in cultural anthropology, now of course criticized for its many shortcomings, that the further you go from the centre, the more likely you will find a pristine or uninterrupted version of the culture you're looking for,” she said. 

And so her quest for Ukrainian cultural frontiers began. The CIUS had a reputation for academic excellence second to none in Kyiv, so she secured a scholarship to pursue a doctorate at the U of A in 1992 and never looked back.

“At the time of my arrival, the U of A boasted the strongest centre of Ukrainian studies in the world,” she said. “We've had such a profound and prolific community of scholars.

“What struck me the most was the degree to which the Ukrainian community was self-mobilized and self-organized … that was a huge discovery.”

Natalia Khanenko-Friesen
Natalia Khanenko-Friesen, the new director of the U of A's Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, says she has always been inspired by the institute’s deep roots in the community and pivotal role connecting Ukrainian Canadians. (Photo: Supplied)

“Driving force” for Ukrainian studies

Established in 1976, the CIUS was in fact an outgrowth and “brainchild” of that community, she said, which in Alberta numbers around 300,000. Beyond Alberta, the institute is seen as a “powerful driving force” for Ukrainian studies across Canada.

After she arrived, Khanenko-Friesen immersed herself in the small Ukrainian settlement of Mundare, Alberta—locally famous for its huge sculpture of a kielbasa sausage in the centre of town.

“It was my home for a long time,” she said.

She was impressed by the resilience of rural Ukrainians and their determination to be recognized as bona fide citizens of Canada. In her view, the persecution of Ukrainian immigrants in the early 20th century accounts for their strong sense of cultural identity.

About 80,000 Ukrainian immigrants were forced to register with the government as enemy aliens during the First World War. More than 8,500—including women and children—were arrested and interned.

Despite that treatment, many next-generation Ukrainian Canadians enlisted in the Second World War two decades later, determined to prove their patriotism.

“Memories of suffering and persecution, and of marginal existence in economic terms, have been one of the driving factors for Ukrainians in Canada to become mobilized,” she said.

While a graduate student, Khanenko-Friesen taught at Harvard University's Ukrainian Summer Institute for eight summers, eventually becoming its director. After graduating from the U of A, she landed a faculty position at the University of Saskatchewan, where she remained for almost 20 years until returning to the U of A last summer.

One of her long-term research interests has been collecting personal correspondence between Ukrainians in Canada and the homeland. Located at the University of Saskatchewan, it is the first archive of its kind. 

Some of those letters were featured in the Kule Centre for Ukrainian and Canadian Folklore travelling exhibit two years called Love Letters From the Past: Courtship, Companionship and Family in the Ukrainian Canadian Community.

Khanenko-Friesen has also written two books on Ukrainian ethnicity and diaspora, The Other World or Ethnicity in Action: Canadian Ukrainianness at the End of the 20thCentury, and Ukrainian Otherlands: Diaspora, Homeland and Folk Imagination in the Twentieth Century.

“My interest has always been in what we may call the vernacular, or non-institutional culture,” she said.

Engaging a widespread community

What attracted her back to her alma mater has always been a source of inspiration—the institute’s deep roots in the community and pivotal role connecting Ukrainians-Canadians.

“We are a huge institution—at any given time, we have about 40 people employed here. In Ukraine, an institute of that calibre would be considered a large academic entity in its own right.”

She is quick to point out that the institute runs nine programs, has its own internationally renowned academic press and publishes three periodicals for public consumption, each engaging with its own followers. Over 20 years ago it founded the Encyclopedia of Ukraine online, an English-language resource with more than a million visits every year.

“It’s an important public-oriented project, a community engagement project, which strives to disseminate the knowledge about the Ukrainian history and culture,” said Khanenko-Friesen.

“This is what we do quite effectively—build awareness of Ukrainian studies around the world.”

CIUS has also forged academic partnerships with institutions in Ukraine and across the Ukrainian diaspora—from Eastern Europe to the United States to South America. It provides a forum for debate and discussion on issues of crucial importance to Ukrainian Canadians and others.

One example is the attempt to reimagine what multiculturalism means in contemporary Canadian society—the subject of an international symposium next fall. 

Another contentious topic is the collective trauma of Joseph Stalin’s enforced famine, the Holodomor, in Ukraine in the early 1930s, which killed millions. Coming to terms with this tragedy has only recently begun, said Khanenko-Friesen.

“Restoring truth and processing what happened is a long process,” she said. “This socially engineered mass famine has been actively discussed and debated for some 30 years, as under the Soviet rule this topic was a tabu. That’s still a short time for the rest of the world to realize and accept its depth, scope and degree of tragedy.

“These human stories need to be shared with the rest of the world.”

One such story is that of Canadian Rhea Clyman, the first western journalist to reveal the Holodomor to the rest of the world. Her legacy was almost lost to the world before former CIUS director Jars Balan found newspaper clippings with her byline in a Toronto Telegram archive.

To spread an awareness of this history—and of the vital contribution Ukrainian immigrants have made to the country’s social and cultural fabric—Khanenko-Friesen and her colleagues are now working with teachers in the province to develop social studies curriculum.

“I'm motivated to figure out even better ways how we can sustain our position of leadership in globally defined Ukrainian studies,” she said.

“By making these community relationships stronger, we can only enhance our position internationally.”

For more than a century, the University of Alberta has been part of the fabric of the communities we serve. And whether those communities are near or far, physical or virtual, they are also a part of who we are. Communities are where our scholars and researchers strive to solve problems and share knowledge. They are where our students gain profound learning experiences and new perspectives. They are the neighbourhoods, towns and cities where our graduates live, work and volunteer. They are where relationships begin that benefit not only the community and the university, but all of society.

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