Pittsburgh and Ukraine are inextricably linked—in history, culture, and spirit

By Ed Simon


There is a classroom on the third floor of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning, a gothic skyscraper overlooking Fifth Avenue as it makes its way past the neo-classical architecture of Oakland, century-old buildings as low and wide as monumental Greek temples.  Constructed of ash blonde oak the color of wheat in late autumn on the Ukrainian steppe, the room was designed by Ukrainian-American architect Walter R. Boykowycz, and evokes a seventeenth-century nobleman’s living room. Along one wall is a large pounded copper frieze, illustrated with Ukrainian national heroes; perpendicular to that is a massive hearth, decorated with ceramic tiles painted with intricate red, blue, and green floral designs. Above the doorway to the room, there is a stone carving of the tryzub, the trident-like symbol of King Vladimir who converted his people to Orthodoxy in 988, and whose motif appears on the contemporary nation’s coat of arms. Four icons honoring St. Nicolas, the Hodegetria, Christ the Teacher, and St. George, are affixed to the wall.

The Nationality Rooms Program, founded by the visionary economics instructor Ruth Crawford Mitchell in 1926, was intended to both fund the construction of the Cathedral—the second tallest educational structure on earth—and to celebrate the national cultures of Pittsburgh’s diverse and largely working-class immigrant populations at the heart of the city’s great university. Thirty-one countries are represented. Seven of the rooms are for eastern European nations. The earliest of the eastern European Nationality Rooms was in 1938—the Russian Room. Ukraine’s is the most recent.

In 1936, only three years after the Soviet-designed famine known as the Holodomor killed almost four million of their countrymen, representatives of Pittsburgh’s Ukrainian community made an appeal for the construction of a room. They were denied, as it was the university’s policy only to represent nation’s recognized by the U.S. State Department. It wasn’t until 1990—decades after that prohibition was rescinded, and a year before the country would gain its independence—that the Ukrainian Nationality Room was dedicated. Along the wall of the Ukrainian Room is a traditional proverb: “When a guest enters the home, God enters the home.” What then does that make somebody who enters without invitation?


Act I: The Parish

“We are all in disbelief,” Father John Charest told me when I asked him about the Pittsburgh Ukrainian-American community’s reaction to the Russian invasion late last month. “We can’t believe our country is fighting for its freedom once again. We check on each other, knowing who is from which region and where the most fighting is occurring.” Father Charest serves the congregation of St. Peter and St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Carnegie. With three golden onion domed steeples, each topped with a Byzantine cross, St. Peter and St. Paul are a distinctive part of the Carnegie skyline, equaled only by St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church with its blue onion domes right next door on Mansfield Boulevard.

“Ukrainians have been living in the Pittsburgh area for over a century,” Father Charest told me. “Some are third and fourth generation Ukrainian-American who have the pride and love of Ukraine, but are unlikely to have any family whom they keep in contact.” This is a community continually revitalized with Ukrainian immigrants arriving in Pittsburgh because of the already established community, and those new arrivals often have close contact with their homeland. Though the circumstances are dire, the priest hopes that war refugees will find a home in the region. “We are eager to welcome them to our great city and help them recover from the nightmare they are living,” he said.

For many, the current invasion of Ukraine recalls the horrors of past brutalities, of Soviet and Nazi invasions, of famine, of oppression at the hands of the Russian Empire. “Dear God, calamity again!” wrote the father of modern Ukrainian poetry, Taras Shevchenko in an 1859 poem that reads disturbingly prescient sixteen decades later. “It was so peaceful, so serene;/We had just begun to break the chains/That bind our folk in slavery/When halt! Once again the people’s blood/Is streaming.”

Local Ukrainian organizations are already “collecting medical supplies, hand warmers, batteries, non-perishable food, diapers, wipes, and over the counter medications” to assist the million-plus refugees forced by the invasion to leave their homes for bordering nations, Father Charest said, and planning to help settle potential refugees. For the priest, when people ask “Where is God in all this?” he sees it in the “Romanians greeting refugees with smiles, water, sandwiches and hugs, the people in Poland waiting with signs written in Ukrainians saying how many people they can take into their homes, people in Ukraine giving away everything in their stores to anyone who needs it.”

The interior of St. Peter and St. Paul is resplendent with colorful murals illustrating scenes from the gospels, sacred icons of the apostles and saints, a place where the numinous resides. The blessed exists in more everyday circumstances as well. As the days of this war stretch into weeks, Fr. Charest sees power in collecting food and medicine, but hope in prayer. With the Holy Trinity Ukrainian Church, also in Carnegie, the two congregations will alternate prayer services on Tuesday nights at seven p.m., to which all are welcome, “until there is peace in Ukraine.”


Act II: The Pittsburghers

Pennsylvania’s Ukrainian population is the second largest of any state, with the earliest immigrants arriving in the late nineteenth century and increasing in successive waves over the following decades. They came to Western Pennsylvania to work in the coal mines of the countryside and the steel mills lining the city’s rivers. In Pittsburgh, they joined massive communities of fellow eastern Europeans, moving into steep neighborhoods illuminated by the orange glow of blast furnaces, working and living alongside Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenians, Croatians, Serbs, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Russians. Often lumped together and dismissed by the Protestant ruling class with the derogatory slur of “mill hunky,” eastern Europeans like the Ukrainians irrevocably influenced the culture of Pittsburgh, where kielbasa, halupki, and pierogies feature on restaurant menus and brightly decorated pysanka eggs become a mainstay around Easter time.

Ukrainians who were both Orthodox and Catholic (normally Byzantine Rite) flocked to homes in the mill towns of McKees Rocks and Carnegie, or alongside the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, where the distinctive golden onion-dome of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Church and St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Church would rise. Art historian Frank Toker called the former a “striking symbol of Pittsburgh’s Central and Eastern European communities…crucial to the visual makeup” of the south side of the city. Meanwhile, Ukrainian Jews, refugees of pogroms, settled first in the Hill District and later Squirrel Hill.

In fact, with an ethnic composition more similar to Cleveland or Chicago than the east coast, Pittsburgh is one of the most eastern European localities in the United States—so much so that, when the nation of Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918, its declaration of independence was titled The Pittsburgh Agreement and signed Downtown. Joining those earlier waves of eastern European immigrants who forever altered the ethnic composition of the city during the earliest part of the twentieth-century were immigrants from the former eastern bloc and Soviet Union, so that by the 1990s and Russian and Ukrainian could again be heard on the streets of Squirrel Hill and Greenfield.

Some of Pittsburgh’s greatest cultural contributions have Ukrainian origins—like writer Thomas Bell (born Adalbert Thomas Belejcak in Braddock), whose family were Lemka, an ethnic group whose origins straddle Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine, having penned one of America’s greatest proletarian novels, Out of this Furnace, about eastern European immigrant mill workers. Beloved native son Andy Warhol’s parents (née Warhola) were Byzantine Rite Carpatho-Rusyns from Slovakia, yet, as historian Alexander J. Motyl writes, “Ukrainians today claim Andy Warhol as their own,” per the complex geometry of ethnicity and nationality in eastern Europe. Beyond literal connections, Motyl sees Ukrainian “color schemes, Easter eggs, icons, and embroideries in some of Warhol’s paintings.” Such examples speak to the way that Ukrainian culture, even unacknowledged, has affected every Pittsburgher, even those with no ancestry from the region.

Pittsburgh culture was flooded with food festivals, ethnic dance troupes, and national music from eastern Europe—which is still featured on the radio. Markets named after Ukrainian cities can be found on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill. The distinctive steeples of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Rite Catholic Church dot city neighborhoods and towns. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Carnegie serves up pyrohy and holupsti every fall, and in that same town the Ridna Shkola (or School of Ukrainian Studies) offers language and culture classes, and the Poltava Ukrainian Dance Company still performs. Which is to say that in the complicated ethnic environs of Pittsburgh, when something happens in eastern Europe, its repercussions are often felt here.


Act III: The Protestor

On February 24, Karina Shevchenko, a staff member at Carnegie Mellon University, helped to organize a vigil and protest. More than a hundred women and men held candles and walked solemnly down Forbes Avenue, past bookstores and Chinese restaurants, bars and coffee shops. They carried the Ukrainian flag, with its yellow stripe the color of the nation’s symbol of the sunflower and its upper blue stripe the hue of a cloudless Black Sea day—a flag that’s now famous around the world as a symbol of resistance, its colors now lighting up the Brandenburg Gate, the Arc de Triomphe, the Statue of Liberty. “We expected maybe twenty people to come,” Shevchenko said, but when such a large crowd amassed, “we could not believe our eyes.” Reflecting both the community’s diversity and also its solidarity, she said that among the crowd there were “people from Azerbaijan, Crimean Tatars, Iranians, and Americans,” as well as “Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians.”

Born in the Ukrainian industrial city of Kryvyi Rih, which is far from the coast and at the confluence of two rivers, Shevchenko and her husband moved to Pittsburgh—another industrial city at the confluence of two rivers and far from the coast– six years ago. Their decision to immigrate came out of Vladimir Putin’s initial invasion of their country, the seizing of Crimea in 2014. “Every day in Ukraine since 2014 felt like survival,” she said. “Banks could easily go bankrupt in a matter of several days, there was no stability, it was hard to make any plans for the future.” Shevchenko still has two brothers and four nephews back in Ukraine, as well as extended family and friends. Her husband’s family also remains in the country.

Shevchenko planned the vigil alongside Anastasia Gorelova, who was born in Moscow, and Alesia Kaplan, who is originally from Belarus. In fact, Gorelova started things. “I was so impressed that a person from Russia was the first to organize such an event,” Shevchenko told me. With so many eastern European immigrants in Pittsburgh’s east end, Putin’s war is a tragedy recognized across nationalities. In the United States Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarussians are standing against that same war. “I have lots of friends from Russia and Belarus here in Pittsburgh who are very supportive these days,” Shevchenko said.

Gorelova, who is a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh, said that as a “Russian living in the U.S., it is my moral duty to protest Putin’s regime on behalf of people who are afraid to go to the streets back in Russia,” explaining that Putin’s “unjust, senseless, and cruel war” is a “watershed moment in modern history.” She said Putin’s regime has become more authoritarian in only the past few weeks, stifling protests and free speech, forcing thousands of liberal Russians to flee the country. In America, Gorelova says, it was important for her to be “organize the rally to not just be able to look my future children in the eye… but to be able to look myself and my Ukrainian friends in the eye here and now.”

These days, Shevchenko’s thoughts turn to the images of women giving birth in subway station and bombs shelters, of children addressing the President of Russia in videos and pleading for him to stop the war, of civilians kneeling in front of tanks, and of the dead soldiers on both sides of the conflict, all while she awaits the arrival of her own child in the third trimester of her pregnancy. “I am proud of my twenty-six-year-old nephew, Vladislav Skokutniuk, who is there on the border protecting my native country,” Shevchenko said. She shares a photograph with me of a handsome, determined-looking young man in combat fatigues leaning from the opening of an olive-green tank, a patch with the flag of his nation stitched on his arm. Shevchenko shares with me another photo of her adorable six-year-old son, who shares that same determined look, holding a sign that reads: “Stop War in Ukraine.”


Act IV: The Professor

Oksana Lernatovych was born and raised in Lviv, in the far western region of Ukraine, close to Poland, where today hundreds of thousands of refugees have boarded trains bound for the border in an attempt to escape the invasion. The city is an ancient haven of Hapsburg rococo magnificence. Its history has been tumultuous, variously part of the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, the Ruthenian Voivodeship of the Kingdom of Poland, the capital of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, the Soviet Union, and now the de facto capital of Ukraine as foreign embassies had taken up headquarters there before the Russian assault on Kyiv. Lviv is a thoroughly Ukrainian city—not in spite of its complicated history, but precisely because of it. “We are proud to be Ukrainian,” Lernatovych tells me.

Lernatovych left Lviv for Pittsburgh in 2004, establishing herself as an instructor of the Ukrainian language in the University of Pittsburgh’s world-renowned Department of Slavic Language & Literatures, where courses are also offered in Polish, Slovakian, Serbo-Croatian, and Russian, among others. In addition to her teaching, Lernatovych also hosts two Ukrainian language radio shows on the Christian network WPIT 96.5 FM: Ukraine in the Heart of Everyone and Christ Among Us. Before immigrating to the United States, she worked in both Ukrainian broadcast and print media, having received a master’s degree in Journalism from Ivan Franko National University in her hometown.

A sense of Ukrainian history runs deeps with Lernatovych, in both her work at the university and at the radio station—and she sees in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine a “great warning for the whole civilized world.” During Putin’s address two days before the invasion of Ukraine, he repeated the false claim that there is no unique Ukrainian culture, reducing a millennia-and-a-half history of a proud and significant nation as mere ancillary to his country’s own. The Russian dictator’s claim that the “Ukrainian nation does not exist” is evocative of the most noxious claims from dictators of the last century, which led to both war and genocide. “They have attacked civilians,” Lernatovych said, “babies are being born with sirens, shootings, bombings going on…. Innocent families were killed.”

Lernatovych’s parents, sister, and friends are all still in Ukraine, so she tries to stay as connected as she can through video calls and Ukrainian broadcasts. “No one could ever believe that in the twenty-first century a totalitarian Russia would act like pirates and gangsters, while threatening all the world with nuclear weapons,” she said. Still, if she sees despair in the occupiers, Lernatovych finds hope in the resistance, in “our people who mobilize, organize the defense of cities and villages, and even sometimes deliberately sacrifice their lives.” For Lernatovych, it’s not a question of whether Ukraine will win this war, but when.


Act V: The Poet

Ukraine’s greatest contemporary author – philosopher, critic, novelist, poet – is Oksana Zabuzkho. Zabuzkho is the author of more than a dozen books on subjects ranging from aesthetics and gender to national identity, and is famous in her native country for titles like Field Work in Ukrainian Sex and The Museum of Abandoned Secrets. (Almost twenty years ago, she was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh.) In Zabuzkho’s writing, she emphasizes the distinctiveness of Ukraine, the right to its distinctiveness, the same distinctiveness which every nation possesses, and a distinctiveness which Russia’s dictator first attacked with words and now with bullets and shells.

Zabuzkho’s father was persecuted by the Soviet regime, and in her writing she is abundantly aware of how questions of totalitarian politics are also, by their very nature, intimately personal. In one of the great opening lines of twenty-first century poetry, from a prophetic poem about Russia’s 2008 invasion of Ukraine’s neighbor, Georgia, Zabuzkho writes: “History, you bitch, /again you’ve got me by the throat.” She continues: “they pass, they always pass:/over the corpse of hope/trampling dreams…. Maneuvering, capturing territories/one by one, pushing in/Through cracks and fissures, /through the sealed and the open, /turning all to ruin, covered in husks/of lives chewed up and spat out.”

Resistance to erasure, Zabuzkho understands, is an issue of not just fighting but of language, of refusing to spell Kyiv the Russian way, of dropping that infernal article from the phrase “the Ukraine.” In an essay reprinted in Selected Poems, Zabuzkho writes that there have been “One hundred years of our solitude – of our cultural non-existence, in the view of the outside world… Ukrainians have finally discovered how much they have to tell the world. If only this time the world will listen?”

Zabuzkho is currently in Kyiv, that city suffering a daily barrage of artillery, laid siege by the Russian Army. In 1994, only three years after her country won its independence, Zabuzkho briefly made her home in Pittsburgh, where she taught poetry. Undoubtedly, she would have been familiar with the Ukrainian Nationality Room. On the day after the invasion, somebody on social media posted a photograph of a bouquet of fresh sunflowers on the classroom’s central table. Before the invasion, intelligence agencies predicted that Kyiv would fall within hours – weeks later and the Russians have not yet passed. If the world was not listening to Ukraine before, we are listening to her now. ■



Ed Simon is a contributing writer at Belt Magazine, a staff writer for The Millions and author of An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, forthcoming from Belt Publishing.

Cover image from the Ukrainian Room at Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. Photo by Karen Blaha (creative commons).

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