ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

What’s Next for Ukraine’s Villages?

Memories and traditions fade in Ukraine’s heartland

It’s the best place to have an apiary,” says Father Volodymyr Protsyk of his village of Yakymiv in western Ukraine. “It’s like the edge of the world surrounded by fields and woods,” the Greek Catholic priest continues, smiling behind a beekeeper’s mask. “And it’s heaven for bees!”

A skillful beekeeper — the priest’s 15 beehives, painted patriotically in bright blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, produce a half ton of honey a year — the 70–year–old is better known among the locals as the pastor of St. John the Baptist Church. Ordained secretly during the Soviet era, he was assigned to the village when the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church resurfaced in 1989 after more than 40 years of Soviet suppression.

Situated at the end of a country road, about 18 miles from the provincial capital of Lviv, Yakymiv is a frontier settlement. Youngsters trek more than a mile each way to the larger, neighboring village of Vyriv to attend school. Yakymiv, Vyriv and nearby Horphyn belong to a single village council, one of 22 such councils in the region.

“Our villages are phenomenal,” says 36–year–old Mariya Batyiovska, who has presided over the council for the past five years.

“Despite following three different churches, we are all quite friendly. In 1993, we made a joint pilgrimage with an icon of the Mother of God of Zarvanytsia.

“While poor, our villagers are very generous. Recently, we gathered two tons of potatoes for the region’s nursing home — the largest donation among other more prosperous settlements in the area,” she adds proudly.

Though difficult to locate on the map, these villages have played a pivotal role in Ukraine’s modern history, serving as strongholds for Ukrainian nationalists during World War II and the Soviet era.

Yakymiv, in particular, functioned as a major center and military base for the nationalists — and for this the village and its inhabitants have suffered tragically. In 1939, the Soviet army seized the village and burned it to the ground, just when residents began building a school. The Soviets then rounded up members of a Ukrainian cultural and nationalist movement that had been established in Lviv in the 19th century, murdered them and exiled their leader to Siberia.

Undeterred, surviving villagers remained loyal to the nationalists, offering protection and assistance. In 1944, locals again paid dearly. Soviet forces raided the village and set it aflame a second time. Before the ashes settled, the army had killed 23 nationalists, exiled 22 families to Siberia and arrested and deported 42 people to labor camps. The church was shuttered, homes ransacked and property confiscated. The Soviets then established a collective farm on the villagers’ lands, naming it after Kutuzov, a Russian general who defeated Napoleon by scorching the land as he retreated.

Roman Kuk, a 79–year–old resident of Yakymiv, vividly remembers the World War II period. His older brother, Petro, headed a regional division of Ukrainian nationalists.

One night in 1945, when Mr. Kuk was 14 years old, Soviet police barged into his family’s home and brutally interrogated his father, Mykhailo. Fearing for their lives, he, his wife and seven children fled their home soon after, hiding wherever they could.

In 1947, the Soviet police captured Mykhailo Kuk and exiled him to Siberia. Mrs. Kuk and her daughters were arrested and exiled to Siberia later that year. Roman Kuk managed to evade authorities until 1950. After his arrest, he spent two months in various prisons and nine months in a deportation center, before being sent to Siberia to join his family.

“ ‘Is that you, Roman?’ my father asked me when he saw me after wasting away in prison and weighing only 80 pounds. “I replied: ‘Yes, father, do you have anything to eat?’ ”

The Kuk family returned to Yakymiv in 1956, after the Soviet government under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev granted amnesty to its political prisoners. No longer in possession of its home, the family at first lived in a wheat storage shed until they earned enough money to build a new house. “Anyway, we were happy,” Mr. Kuk says with a weak smile. “It was the best place to live.”

Yakymiv’s residents are especially proud of their wooden church. Built in 1852, the small structure is the oldest church and the only Greek Catholic church in the region.

“God only knows how the church survived in 1939 and 1944, when the entire village burned to ashes,” says Father Protsyk.

The parish was formally dissolved in 1946, when the pastor at the time, Father Stepan Tsybran, refused to renounce Catholicism. That year, Soviet authorities rounded up 216 Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests and at gun point forced them to sever ties with Rome and enter into full communion with the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Considered an enemy of the Soviet people, the police exiled the young priest to Kazakhstan, where he remained for eight years. Though he never again lived in Yakymiv, he managed to visit a few times before his death in 1995.

The church remained inactive for more than 40 years. To protect its icons and sacramentals from Soviet forces and pillagers, parishioners hid them in their homes, barns and gardens. But many died before the church reopened in 1989, and they had failed to reveal the whereabouts of the church’s largest bell, some liturgical books and the chalice.

“Unfortunately, local survivors of that time are dying, and we are losing an invaluable source of information on the history of the area, our traditions and our roots,” sighs Father Protsyk as he carries the parish registry from the sacristy.

According to parish records, four villagers died in 2010, eight in 2009, nine in 2008 and 14 in 2007. In the same period, only two babies were baptized each year. And since 2006, the parish only registered two marriages, one in 2007 and another in 2008.

In Yakymiv, 25 houses languish, abandoned to the elements by their owners who have either moved away or died. Of the 100 or so occupied houses, about 10 are home to young families. The elderly, mostly widows or widowers, live in the rest.

While the region boasts a nursing home, only two women from the village council reside there.

“If those seniors had relatives, they would not have been sent there,” explains Ms. Batyiovska.

As council president, she oversees the process by which elderly residents enter the nursing home. The individual must consent and the council must provide a written intervention. In general, the elderly in rural Ukraine prefer to stay in their homes, even when they receive little or no family support.

Eighty–one–year–old Natalya Palykh–Tomkiv is one such widow. In 1996, her husband, Yosyp, died. And, in 2006, she lost her daughter. She now lives alone in the family home, ambling about her vegetable garden and shuffling to church as often as she can. Most days, the radio keeps her company, which she listens to full blast all day long. She also stays in touch with her granddaughter, named Natalya after her, who teaches English in Lviv. The two speak to each other regularly, and Mrs. Palykh–Tomkiv always keeps her mobile phone close at hand.

As do so many of the elderly villagers, Mrs. Palykh–Tomkiv has an extraordinary story to share. When she was 16, she and a few of her friends served as messengers for the nationalists.

“Even our parents didn’t know about it at first,” recalls the octogenarian, who wears her gray hair pulled back in a thick braid. “Our task was to deliver secret reports written on cigarette paper to a target person. Usually, I would hide those scrolls in the braids of my hair when I walked barefoot across the pastures as if I were going to or from school.”

In 1949, the Soviets arrested the youth and jailed her at the infamous Lontsky Street Prison in Lviv. The imposing structure, used by the Soviets to confine political opponents, now serves as a national memorial museum to the victims of Polish, Nazi and Soviet occupation. After a short stay, she was sent to a forced labor camp in Vorkuta, a northern Russian town above the Arctic Circle.

“I remember when we were being deported, it was so cold in the train car that my braid froze to the side wall.”

Miss Tomkiv was detained in a camp where workers lumbered the forests in and around Vorkuta. While there, she met her future husband Yosyp Palykh, a Ukrainian villager who was also exiled for political opposition.

In 1956, after the government granted amnesty to its political prisoners, the couple returned to Ukraine, first settling in the Donbas region in the east before moving home to Yakymiv.

Though a widow living on her own, Mrs. Palykh–Tomkiv has three sisters living nearby, 61–year–old Daryna Palykh, 70–year–old Iryna Tomkiv and 80–year–old Olha Tomkiv. The sisters survive their parents as well as two brothers and a sister.

On the feast day of the Holy Protection of the Mother of God, the family gathers at Iryna’s home. “Glory to Jesus Christ,” she says, using the traditional greeting in the village to welcome visitors, who include several relatives from the area and two nieces from Lviv.

Iryna has earned a reputation in the region for her exceptional embroidery skills. Her elaborate needlework adorns almost every item in the house, including napkins, tablecloths, pillowcases, curtains, wall décor and icons.

“It is nothing compared to scores of her embroidery done primarily for the church, especially those seven embroidered liturgical vestments,” exclaims her younger sister, Daryna.

For the past 20 years, Iryna and her older sister Olha have dedicated their lives to the parish, helping the pastor run the parish’s day–to–day affairs.

“We can’t help it, it is our Yakymiv way of life,” says Iryna.

The two women also organize most parish activities, including a monthlong retreat in the summer for novices and a weeklong retreat before Easter for seminarians from a monastery in Lviv. The religious are placed with local families and help care for the elderly and teach children catechism.

Among Iryna’s guests is Volodymyr Tomkiv, the sisters’ 97–year–old uncle, who lives across the street. The village’s oldest resident, he has 5 children, 6 grandchildren, 9 great–grandchildren and 2 great–great–grandchildren.

A certified blacksmith, Mr. Tomkiv was once considered the best artisan in the region. Recognizing his unmatched skills, both the Polish occupying forces and Soviet authorities offered him and his family considerable privileges, especially during the war. And he was spared conscription in the army.

“Though our family was quite numerous, we always had something to eat thanks to our father’s job,” recalls his daughter Nadiya. “Many other families with ‘a black tragedy’ were starving, and we shared some of our food with them.” A “black tragedy” is what locals call a family with many children and nothing to eat.

“We also hid and fed the nationalists,” adds Mr. Tomkiv proudly, in a muffled, raspy voice.

Despite his age, Mr. Tomkiv’s mind is sharp and his memory intact. His frailty, however, makes his speech difficult to understand and his daughter often repeats what he says.

Sitting on a stool, he reaches to take off his hat. His daughter swiftly intervenes, reminding him to leave it on because of the cold weather.

Last year, Mr. Tomkiv developed a hernia and required an operation. “I paid for it myself, though it should be free,” says his daughter. “The state doesn’t help seniors like my father.”

Ukraine’s seniors are entitled to very few public benefits. Public health care is often unavailable and generally inadequate. The government also does not provide seniors with any sort of discount on prescription drugs. And while the government recently increased pensions by an average of $137 a month, most remain meager and insufficient. Mr. Tomkiv’s pension, for instance, is just $100 a month.

The government, however, does grant those who lived through World War II a few benefits. Seniors born before 1933 receive a 50 percent discount on gas and electricity. “Children of war,” those who were 17 years old and younger prior to 1 September 1945, receive a 25 percent discount. And for both groups, public transportation is free.

The link to and the dialogue with the previous generation has been interrupted,” says 73–year–old Andriy Sodomora, a renowned professor and translator of ancient Greek and Roman literature, and a poet in his own right.

Though the aging erudite lives in Lviv, he grew up in Vyriv, where his father, Father Oleksandr Sodomora, served as the pastor of the Orthodox church from 1935 until 1977. Villagers remember the priest fondly; it was he who served the spiritual needs of Yakymiv’s Greek Catholic residents after Father Stepan Tsybran was exiled and the parish church closed.

A child during World War II, Mr. Sodomora remembers harrowing tales of tragedy and triumph. In an effort to preserve traditional village life for posterity, he records the real life events of the region in the form of short stories that have been featured in several Ukrainian journals.

“With the loss of the village, we are irreversibly losing its language, songs and folktales, its exceedingly versatile soul,” he sorrowfully concludes.

Contributors Mariya Tytarenko and Petro Didula are based in Lviv.

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