In May 1986, when news of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster was finally leaked from behind the Iron Curtain, hundreds of people reverently gathered in New York City's St George Ukrainian Church on East 7th Avenue and Taras Shevchenko Place, named after Ukraine’s most famous poet.
The East Village had been the heart of the city’s Ukrainian population since the 1950s post-war immigration boom, when many fled Soviet repression. St George’s, a golden Byzantium structure built in 1905 towering over Cooper Square, is really the heart of it.
As stories poured in about the catastrophic nuclear accident in Ukraine – then part of the Soviet Union – relatives frantically tried to get information from fellow church goers. How many people were affected? When would it end? How many died? They sought news from the anti-communist Ukrainian newspaper which was published across the Hudson River in Jersey City.
In those days, after church people wandered to Veselka, the 24-hour Ukrainian diner famous for borscht, or to Surma, a Ukrainian general store where they could buy Ukrainian anti-communist newspapers or pysanky, hand-painted Easter eggs thought to protect families from ill-deeds. Or they could browse postcards painted by the Ukrainian-American artist Yaroslava Surmach, whose family owned Surma.
While Little Ukraine did not have the majestic architecture of Lviv, or Kyiv’s grandeur, people there in the community felt at home. They could gossip in front of the Ukrainian meat market, bank their money at the Ukrainian Credit Union, or frequent the shops where only Ukrainian (or sometimes Polish) was spoken. They could eat stuffed cabbage at “Ukie Nash” – the Ukrainian National Home, which burnt down and was then rebuilt with a dive bar called the Karpaty after the Carpathian Mountains. They sent their children to Ukrainian scouts camp called Plast, or sent their daughters to Ukrainian dance classes. Preserving their identity, language and culture was paramount. Theirs was one of the proudest diasporas.
Today, the population of Little Ukraine is smaller than it was during Chernobyl days, but the fierce sense of identity still exists. Although the numbers are unclear, we do know that just after the Second World War, about 60,000 Ukrainians lived between Houston Street and East 14th Street. Now, it is estimated about one-third of the city’s 80,000 Ukrainians live here.
The war with Russia has reignited the community’s pride, nationalism and resistance. This year, Ukrainian Easter is on April 24, right in the middle of a fierce offensive on the eastern part of the country. Little Ukraine – my neighbourhood – is bonded even tighter in a mixture of fierce solidarity and profound sadness.
There are flags everywhere, but the local shop where I buy paper or pens says he sold out in late February after the war started.
“You can’t get a flag for love or money,” he says.
Still, every morning when I wake up, I see a blue and yellow banner hanging out the window of my neighbour in the opposite building. He bought one early on. Up and down Second Avenue, there are more flags, alongside anxious conversations. What will Vladimir Putin do? Will there be a nuclear war? How can I get my relatives to Warsaw, then to New York? How is the counter-offensive going?
America is a country of immigrants but also of continuation. Except for Mayflower descendants, everyone comes from somewhere else. My maternal great-grandparents were married in 1888 at St Anthony’s, the Roman Catholic church on East Houston Street, where I now go to mass, on the edge of Little Italy.
They then moved across the river to Newark, where there was a firm Italian American community in the Forest Hills section, many from the same villages in Southern Italy where they were born. They spoke Italian, bought bread from Italian bakeries, meat from Italian butchers, cheese from local farms. The same could be said for Germans, Poles, Swedes. Immigrants clustered together for safety and information. I have friends who grew up in Chinatown with three generations of family, whose grandparents escaped the Chinese Civil War. Further south from where I live, past Little Ukraine and east of Little Italy and Chinatown is the Lower East Side, Jews from Russia flocked to Delancey Street.
I am not sure why the Ukrainians chose the area south of East 14th street and west of what is now known as Alphabet City. Some opted for Canada, which has a large and vocal diaspora, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who played a key role in getting sanctions on Russia’s Central Bank in place, and has been a leading voice in solidarity.
Many Ukrainians also ended up in the coal mines of Pennsylvania near Wilkes-Barre, or Chicago. But many also settled here in the East Village, bringing their food, their faith, their customs. Never have those bonds been more important, as Ukraine struggles to resist a gruesome war.
My local breakfast place, Veselka, opened in 1954 by Wolodymyr Darmochwal, a Ukrainian refugee, fleeing Soviet oppression after the Second World War. It serves “Ukrainian comfort food” – that is, borchst and perogi. But now, on the menu is a sign advertising “Eat Borscht and Stand With Ukraine”. The restaurant is staffed by Ukrainians and Poles and is donating 100 per cent of its borscht sales to Ukrainian charities, some supporting children, some supporting soldiers.
Eavesdropping, I hear conversations over kovbasa, a sausage, and eggs about the war. I hear hushed tones as people huddle over their iPhones reading news reports and watching videos using key words such as “Mariupol”, “Odesa”, “Lviv hit by rockets” and “War crimes”. No one uses the word “Russian”.
“I won’t use that word,” a woman who lent me her newspaper said.
The people at Veselka are also collecting non-monetary items, medical supplies such as band aids and Betadine, which will be shipped overseas for soldiers. It has been a gathering place for potential foreign fighters who meet and share tactics for getting to their motherland (cheap flight to Warsaw, train to Kyiv or cross at the border) as well as an “Amazon Wish List” to donate tactical backpacks, flak jackets and face respirators to survive chemical attacks.
“Every little bit helps, thank you for your contribution, glory to Ukraine,” they say.
On the Veselka website, there is also a link to a speech of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, of what Ukraine needs to win the war and a list of heavy artillery, armour, aircraft and air defence systems. I got more military information about why Ukraine needs attack aircraft on their page than I did in all my previous research and reading.
Before the war started, my neighbourhood was always colourful and very much a part of seedy old New York. There is rent-controlled low-income housing, dusty shops that sell ornaments or homemade bread, tiny hole in the wall restaurants, the East Village Meat Market staffed by Ukrainian butchers. The experimental theatre at the end of my street, LaMaMa was once a Ukrainian theatre. KGB, a famous dive bar, was once the Ukrainian Labour Home. Even though I am not yet in Ukraine, I have felt connected to the heart of the diaspora.
Next week on Ukrainian Easter, I plan to forgo my Roman Catholic church to visit St George’s, which still celebrates by the Julian calendar and where, in past years, people wore Ukrainian folk costumes. This year, I will try to make a traditional Ukrainian Easter egg with beeswax and paint. They go back to before Ukraine merged with Christian traditions in the 10th century. They were presents to the gods and symbolise rebirth and spring after a long winter.
I speak to people in Kyiv every day for a war crimes project and I will soon leave to work in Ukraine. But in a strange way, I feel completely connected to the country when I wander down Second Avenue. I understand the strength of the resistance by seeing these solid and brave Ukrainian Americans who came to the US searching for a dream.