Interview with Natalia Khanenko-Friesen

The Kule Folklore Centre welcomed new Huculak Chair holder, Dr. Natalia Khanenko-Friesen in July, 2020. Ashley Halko-Addley interviewed Dr. Khanenko-Friesen, so we can get to know her better.

22 October 2020

Responses were edited for clarity and length.

Ashley Halko-Addley
What are your connections to the Kule Folklore Center and Folklore in general?

Natalia Khanenko-Friesen
My relationship with Folklore is marked by the fact that I'm rooted in the discipline through work and extensive training. Born and raised in Kyiv, Ukraine, I earned my first University degree in Geography from Kyiv National University, worked as a field ethnographer in the open-air Museum of Folklife and Architecture of Ukraine, and later graduated from the Folklore program at the U of Alberta with my MA in 1994. After that in 2001, I earned my PhD in a joint program from both the Modern Languages and Cultural Studies Department and the Anthropology Department at the U of Alberta. Upon earning my PhD, I was hired as a Cultural Anthropologist and the Ukrainian Studies professor by St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan. There I eventually built my career in Anthropology and focused on researching oral history, narrative, ritual; all are the topics of relevance to Folklore Studies.

The other reason I have a strong connection to Folklore is that my research has always been based on cultural practices that evolved outside of major institutional frameworks. For my Master’s thesis, I researched and wrote about the rituals of traditional home construction in central rural Ukraine. For my doctoral thesis, I immersed myself  in the community life of Mundare, a town in East Central Alberta in the heart of the so-called Ukrainian Bloc, exploring local Ukrainian culture in its connections to rural Western Ukraine and specifically to the village of Hrytsevolia in Lviv oblast. There are many ways to approach the study of Ukrainian Canadian culture, some may focus on its organizational history, some may choose to highlight the developments in the community from a sociological viewpoint, from a linguistic viewpoint and so on and so forth. Myself, I was always interested in rural settings, small-scale communities and local cultures, focusing on what some may call vernacular or  everyday culture. Projects focusing on similar contexts are being pursued in the Kule Folklore Center as well.

Ashley Halko-Addley
What are your short term personal goals as Huculak Chair, looking mostly this academic year?

Natalia Khanenko-Friesen
The readers probably know that I have been invited to join the University of Alberta to serve as the Director of Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS). In addition to this primary appointment, I was offered to take the Huculak Chair as well. I'm very happy to be given this opportunity, as it allows me to come to the Folklore program as my institutional home and to reconnect with my academic roots, which have grown strong and deep over the course of my academic career. As Huculak Chair, my goals this year are to continue with a few projects that I have been working on for some time. I like working in partnership with other colleagues and I have worked in collaboration with many scholars and scholarly institutions, in Canada and Ukraine. The project that I am currently focusing on is one such collaborative project, “Decollectivization in Ukraine in the 1990s: An Oral History”.

Over the last decades, much has been said about collectivization in Ukraine, the famine or the Holodomor of 1932-33 that it brought about and the overall ruination of rural Ukrainian culture as its aftermath. It is a very important topic of research that tells us how the socialist regime in then-Soviet Ukraine had practically destroyed Ukrainian rural culture and the farming class of Ukrainians. In Ukraine all now know the dramatic outcomes of that period and therefore, the word ‘collectivization’ is very much in the air. But when the word decollectivization is brought up, not many people understand what it means and why it is important to consider. I'm arguing in my project that in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed along with its collective farming system,  the changes that had taken place in the countryside in Ukraine, due to poorly conducted reforms in the agricultural sector, have been devastating for the people and for the communities where I would be conducting my research as a Folklorist. In the 1990s, these communities began undergoing dramatic transformation that led to the collapse of not just the way of life but of people’s livelihood. The destruction of the way of life that the villagers built for themselves while in the Soviet Union, whatever we can think about as the Soviet agricultural system as outside researchers, had led to the collapse of earning possibilities, jobs. This process of rapid and destructive decollectivization in Ukraine had squeezed millions of people out of their small communities and villages, pushing them to leave their families in search of work and earnings elsewhere.  Many have become legal or illegal migrants abroad establishing new diasporas outside of Ukraine. This sociocultural rapture and the effect it had on communities of my research had a huge impact on me and my own research agenda. Thus, while on Sabbatical, in 2008, I initiated a collaborative project with eleven institutions in Ukraine to collect rural testimonies of how decollectivization in the 1990s was experienced on the ground. Across eleven regions in Ukraine our team recorded 170 in-depth life histories with former Soviet farmers who shared their experiences of how it was to live through the collapse of collective farming in Ukraine. This is a large project that has been in the making for a while. Now, in my capacity as Huculak Chair, I am happy to continue the work on this project in a more effective way. My plan is to develop a bilingual internet archive and oral history exhibit of this project. I'm also currently working on the monograph focusing on the same topic.

Natalia Khanenko-Friesen visiting with the project participants in her oral history project on the collapse of the collective farming system in Ukraine in the 1990s. Village of Hlynske, May 2019, Poltava Oblast, Ukraine.


My research interests bring me not only to Ukraine, but keep me busy in Canada as well. As a person with deep interest in Ukrainian Canadian culture and diasporic studies, amongst other topics, I had long developed a research interest in transatlantic letter writing, the personal letters written between families in Ukraine and in Canada. I have an article and chapter in one of my books focusing on this topic. In addition, while at the University of Saskatchewan, I developed  a specialized archival collection of Ukrainian Canadian transatlantic personal correspondence. This archival project “Letters from the Old Country” now contains close to 2000 letters. This work has been very rewarding and dear to me. It's extremely interesting and very timely. Exchanging personal letters is certainly a practice of the bygone era. My work on letters also brought me to the KGB archives in Kyiv, Ukraine, on a few occasions, where I was exploring the ways in which personal correspondence between Ukraine and Canada has been controlled and censored by the Soviet authorities. And similar work has taken place here at the Kule Folklore Centre as well. The research on personal correspondence in the Center, led by Dr. Jelena Pogosjan, is of high relevance to my work in this direction and offers many opportunities for collaboration. Dr. Pogosjan and myself are currently discussing with the Secret Service of Ukraine archives how we can partner up to work on this topic together. I'm excited to be teaming up with other researchers on letters and working on that front as well. There is also the potential to transfer the letter collection that I built at the University of Saskatchewan to the Bohdan Medwidsky Ukrainian Folklore Archives here.

Ashley Halko-Addley
What are your plans for teaching courses and supervising students?

Natalia Khanenko-Friesen 
Since my appointment involves the directorship of CIUS, I will be able to teach only a course or two per year in the Folklore program. I have taught various Anthropology and Ukrainian Studies courses at the University of Saskatchewan and would be happy to bring some of those courses to this campus as well.  This winter term, I will teach a course in oral history. This is one of the courses I quite enjoy teaching. The oral history course is project-based and product-oriented and engages students in all aspects of research design and execution. In this course, students are exploring the theory and methods of oral history, but at the same time, they learn the science and art of interviewing, while also commonly working on a group project, be it a film, an online exhibit, or community engaged public forum. In the past, together with my students we worked on a very interesting project, called “Oral History of 20th Street”. The 20th Street in Saskatoon is in the city core neighborhood which has seen major transformations over the course of its history. First, a prosperous and bustling commercial area, it attracted over the years various cultural minorities who settled in the neighbourhood and started their businesses there. This includes Ukrainians who lived and worked there in the mid 20th century. There were Mennonite, Asian, Polish and Jewish families and businesses, later Indigenous families and again later recent immigrants coming from African and Latin American cultures, who are now bringing their stores and restaurants there. The street had a very vibrant and colourful history and went through being busy and popular, to depressed and empty, and now it is back to being a very hip place to come in Saskatoon. We've been conducting oral history interviews with representatives of different minorities, cultural groups, and socioeconomic classes.  We've worked very hard with the students and we've built a rich archival collection of urban stories, and an online archival exhibit. A few videos were developed as well, including a short documentary aired on public television. In another year, we teamed up with the local NGO, Global Gathering Place that assists newcomers to settle in the city. Students were working with the newcomers, documenting their life stories, and, in relation to Folklore, recording recent immigrants’ stories on New Year’s celebrations in their home countries and now in Canada. This is just an example of what can be done with a course like that. Next year, Canada is marking the 50th anniversary of the policy of Multiculturalism and this can give us an opportunity to develop a group project around this topic.

In a year, I will be teaching a second year course on Slavic Folklore. My approach to teaching this course would be to focus on Folklore as practice, and as an expression of ritual. When people hear the word ritual, some traditional rites are coming first to mind, Christmas celebrations, Easter celebrations, weddings, and so on. But there's so many other contexts in which we as individuals and peoples rely on folklore and ritual as a mechanism of survival, a mechanism of adaptation, and a cultural tool of promoting our identities and political agendas. In this course we will be looking at both traditional and post-traditional sites of such cultural expression. We certainly will consider traditional frameworks of ritual expression such as calendar or personal rites, but we will also discuss their uses and meanings in today’s Slavic cultures.  In Slavic countries of Eastern Europe for example a number of the so-called coloured revolutions took place in the 2000s, all relying on ritual expression and mobilization of traditional culture for a political cause. This and other examples from modern times will help us to understand how and why ritual and folklore survive through time.

Going on a field trip with U of S students in Ternopil, Ukraine during the U of S study abroad semester in Ukraine. May 2018, Ternopil, Ukraine.

In terms of future teaching, as a person who has regularly taken students overseas, and someone who has built a successful study-abroad program in Ukraine for the University of Saskatchewan, I would very much like to run an ethnographic field course based in Ukraine. I spent 17 years directing and teaching in a study-abroad program in Ternopil for the U of S. In this program students chose from seven courses to take three and earned 9 credits. My own course offered ethnographic and oral history research opportunities to the students and focused on various aspects of contemporary Ukrainian culture. Students studied in Ternopil, but also had field sessions in either L’viv or Kyiv, traveled widely throughout western Ukraine, researched the work of the local NGOs, conducted oral histories in small towns, climbed the mountain of Hoverla in the Carpathians, joined a local Ukrainian dance group, and more, all in the course of a two month long program. At the U of Alberta, a similar study-abroad field course can be offered and it can be bundled up with the Ukrainian language program in L’viv, offering students an opportunity to earn 12 credits in one spring or summer session in Ukraine. An opportunity I hope exists for us at the U of A, is to organize and run a field school in Western Canada, in the Ukrainian Canadian communities. I am very lucky to have built my family and grown my own roots on the beautiful Canadian prairies and to understand the value of such an opportunity to the students of Folklore. Such a prairie-focused field school off the beaten track can involve not only Alberta communities but, say, Saskatchewan communities as well. In Saskatchewan, a province with rich but understudied Ukrainian culture, there are so many unique communities where one can bring our students and where we can learn about Ukrainian Canadian culture through direct fieldwork engagement.

As far as working with graduate students, we are very lucky at the U of A to have such a solid base when it comes to Ukrainian Folklore. We are an international attraction. Oftentimes, students are applying to our programs with hopes to become Folklore specialists in their respective areas, but through training with us. Trained as both a Folklore specialist and Cultural Anthropologist, I am open to various opportunities when it comes to graduate supervision. I will be happy to work with those graduate applicants whose interests align with mine, but also with those who would be pursuing their own topics pertaining to Ukrainian Canadian culture, Ukrainian diasporas and peoples and cultures of Ukraine. I would welcome an opportunity to work with graduate students who pursue interdisciplinary or comparative projects. I understand the value of multidisciplinarity as it makes the field of the Ukrainian Folklore studies stronger.