Dispatch #8: The Prairie Churches of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and North Dakota:
A Report for the J.M.Kaplan Fund

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(This is the full, the complete, unexpurgated "twenty-three-thousand-plus" Dispatch, more than seven times longer than the report the Kaplan Fund commissioned.  But there was so much of interest that I wanted to do it full justice, because few people are aware of the amazing churches in the northern plains of Canada, and they are going fast, and this may be the only detailed treatment they get. Which is the "raison d'etre" of the Dispatches.  This Dispatch is written in the leisurely manner of a Victorian travelogue in which everything of interest in the passing scene in noted. But in fact, being on a crash delivery schedule with the Rwanda book, I could only take a week on it. There was little time to savor the wonderful memories of this trip, or to “love” the writing, as the New Yorker’s legendary Mr. Shawn used to put it.). 

       There are several pockets of pristine transplanted Old World ethnicity in North America. The best-known is northern New Mexico, in whose little mountain villages the Spanish of Cervantes is still spoken. In remote hollers (hollows) in the mountains of Kentucky and the Ozarks there are hillbillies whose English is said to be more Elizabethan that anything being spoken in the British Isles today. Similarly there are several populations of escaped slaves, or Maroons—in Belize, Jamaica, and Colombia-- whose African culture is purer that than of the communities in West Africa they were captured from. 

        But the Ukrainian pocket in the northern plains of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and North Dakota was new to me. I heard it  from the J.M.Kaplan Fund, which is  supporting  the effort to preserve its rural churches. I knew, of course that  Ukrainians, a lot of them, had come to Canada, in several waves. A couple of families live on our block in Montreal. They came in the sixties, around the same time as the Greeks and the Portguguese, who displaced the Jews, who had displaced the Québécois habitants.  There was another Ukrainian wave in the twenties, when Stalin dispossessed the kulaks, the most successful farmers, and there was widespread famine, and the Ukes are still coming, God bless them. There is a current  drive to get a new infusion of Ukrainian farmers on to the fertile northern plains, the descendants of the original immigrants having lost the farming vocation and being more into malls and game boys. 

        My wife’s kid sister is married to a great guy of Ukrainian-Irish descent named Dan Stepchuk. They live in Ottawa.  -Chuk is a common Ukrainian surname ending, although the most common one is –enko. Both, if I am not mistaken means “son of. ”  I myself have a large dose of Ukrainian blood, but only in the last few years have I begun to get in touch with my Ukrainianness. Our family had a six-thousand-acre estate in the oblast of Poltava, in eastern Ukraine,  which is best known for the Battle of Poltava in l709, in which Peter the Great routed the army of Charles XII, thus putting to an end Sweden’s imperial brief imperial moment in Europe. Charles’s army, the first to perfect military drill and so disciplined that it had beaten almost everybody, had invaded Russia the previous fall, and Peter’s, employing classic Russian defensive tactics, kept retreating, burning and destroying everything in his wake. The logistics of provisioning the Swedish soldiers were overwhelming, and  they were already weak and demoralized when winter caught them with devastating effect. Diaries of soldiers who survived speak of dead comrades still riding on their horses.  The army turned its steps south, toward the steppes of Ukraine. That spring as it was laying siege to the Fort of Poltava Peter swept down with a huge army. Thousands of  Swedish prisoners were taken and marched north to build St. Petersburg. One of my ancestors, Johann D. Schumacher, was among the Baltic Germans Peter recruited as bureaucrats to run his new Western-style administration.

        I wrote about my family place in Ukraine  in my 1985 book, Russian Blood (which the New Yorker excerpted in a two-part series that is  posted in Past Dispatches section of my Web Site, DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com). In those days, before the Bolshevik revolution,  Ukraine was known as Little Russia, and was ruled by the tsars, except for parts of Western Ukraine that were in Poland or the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was a wonderful life, for the aristocrats at least.  We were dispossessed of it, and of the estate, whose name was Shideyevo,  in the fall of  l917, and it became the Maxim Gorky Collective Farm, which I visited in the early eighties. The big house with columns had been blasted to smithereens during the civil war that followed the Revolution, and the artworks, including a Memling Madonna, had been made off with, perhaps by the Nazis when they swept through in the forties, or earlier. But the Fleigl, the Winter House, where my grandparents stayed on the rare occasions when they came down from St. Petersburg during the winter months,  was still standing. It was now the school for the local kids. The local families were still living in cozy little  khatas with thatch roofs and whitewashed walls, as they had for generations, but there were many fewer  khatas than there had been in photographers taken by my great-uncle. Storks were nesting in the trees  above them. It was an idyllic place.  The sudden appearance of a member of the family after sixty-ofive years made the head of the collective farm apprehensive. He gave me a brick from the brick factor,  with A, for Avinoff, our family’s name, stamped on it, but we were not able to talk about anything substantive. 

        In l997 I returned to Ukraine with my sister, Tonia Foster. The  Soviet Union had collapsed, and Ukraine had finally won independence from Russia. But it was in terrible shape financially, and the fallout of Chernobyl had caused mutations that were now appearing in  the children of the people who had been exposed to it and causing thyroid and other cancers in them. Poltava, several hundred miles to the east, was not affected. It was in the “clean zone,” and my sister was trying to start a summer camp for the children of Chernobyl on our old estate, which the local people were all for, as nothing was happening there. The collective farm had been disbanded, and there were now only a handful of old in the khatas below the Tatar ramparts where the big house had stood. The welcome we received was much warmer : a banquet in the forest, hosted by the mayor of Poltava and other local dignitaries, the reburial of my grandfather and a service performed by an orthodox batyushka, or priest, in the restored chapel where our family’s icons, kept hidden by  villagers during the communist years, were now hanging again. I realized that an important part of me, perhaps even the most important part of my heritage,  was not Russian, but Ukrainian. Nikolai Gogol, one of my favorite writers, who invented the short story and was way ahead of his time in terms of the surreal twists of his fiction,  had lived in Dikanka, only 40 versts away, and was a distant cousin, I learned. I can still quote a sentence from Dead Souls, when I read it forty years ago, which describes an old couple who are sitting of a summer evening in the livingroom of their khata : “And all at once, as he was sitting there with his book, and she with her knitting, he would get up and implant upon her lips a kiss so prolonged and languishing that a small cigar might easily have been smoked while it lasted.” This was the Ukraine of my imagination. The reality for most Ukrainians throughout history has been much harsher. 

         Our family, the Lukianovitches--  one of whom,  Andrei Fyodorovitch, had built the house on land granted  him by Catherine the Great for stemming the Tatars, had been Ukrainian, not Russian. One of them, Alexander Nicolaevna, had married Nicholas Avinoff, my great-grandfather. He was  a Russian general, but his main contribution to the scene was his name and his burly, bearded presence at the head of the dinner table, where he had usually fallen asleep by desert. He was what is known in Russian as a primach, a man who marries into a family and comes to live with it. The Russian aristocrats who had estates in Little Russia were not unlike the British aristocrats who had estates in Ireland—colonials.  I learned that Taras Schevschenko, Ukraine’s greatest culture hero, had been a frequent guest of Andrei Fyodorovitch. He had made watercolors of the huge, squat, prehistoric Polovtsian statues in the garden, and Andrei Fyodorovitch had bought a painting by the portraitist Bryulov and Bryulov had used the money to buy Schevschenko’s freedom. (He was a serf.) This connection with Schevschekno was a big deal for Ukrainians, I was told, although I had hardly even heard of  him-- so big a deal that the new mayor of Poltava is now talking of putting up a museum of Ukrainian history  on the place where the house had been. 

         A year or so later I was invited to talk at a fund-raiser for the Children of Chernobyl Relief Fund in Rochester, New York, which has a huge Ukrainian population. Before the dinner where I said a few words about my sister’s project,  we played golf. I was in an all-Ukrainian foursome and learned some choice Ukrainian swear words from my partners.  I felt like I was with my people, and price of becoming American had been, as it is for so many Americans, that I had lost my culture. I was a deracinated, but not denatured, Uke. 

        So I had a more than passing interest in checking out this faithful recreation of my lost motherland on the northern prairies. Since 9/11 I have been avoiding my usual haunts, where an American passport has become a dangerous thing to have on your person, and largely satisfying my wanderlust in Canada, where my wife and our three little boys are landed immigrants. In August we toured New Brunswick, also to do a Dispatch for the Kaplan Fund, which is supporting the transborder effort to create marine protected areas in the Gulf of Maine. (I’ll be producing this report as soon as I get done with this one, and have already reported, in Dispatch Seven, on the fabulous but crumbling Cuba Moderne architecture in Havana, whose preservation the Kaplan Fund has decided  to get involved in; and this winter I’ll be doing a report on its fourth transborder project : the Serengeti-like short-grass prairie or janos straddling Arizona and Chihuahua, which boasts the world’s largest prairie-dog town, sixty thousand strong. They have their own subways and delis, Conn Nugent, the fund’s executive director, tells me.)  There is all kinds of fascinating history and ethnology. It just takes a little scratching. 

        The Ukrainian belt  runs diagonally from Alberta through Saskatchewan and Manitoba to the North Dakota and Minnesota borders, spilling slightly over them. It roughly follows  Route 16, the Transcanada Yellowhead Highway,  which was built on the original cart paths of the settlers and is Canada’s Route 66. In this corridor  the local people still speak English with a Ukrainian accent, and every few miles there is a beautiful onion-domed Ukrainian Catholic or Ukrainian Greek Orthodox church. (Architecturally and iconographically, there is no difference except their crosses.)  There are hundreds of them. The interiors have lovingly stenciled folkloric motifs, hand-painted icons and hand-crafted iconostases and tabernacles, whose folkloric artistry compares with the bultos and santos and other devotional art that is produced in little poblados of northern New Mexico like Chimayo. These prairie churches are  treasures of North American rural architecture on a par with, say, the covered bridges of New England. But many haven’t even been inventoried and are abandoned and/or deteriorating and in urgent need of  help. The rural farming communities they once served are dying or dead—in a pattern similar and indeed related to what is happening in the Gulf of Maine, where the small independent fishermen are being gobbled up by the big fisherman, and machinery is replacing people. Here the small farms are being gobbled up by big multinational farm consortium (Louis Dreyfuss, for instance, who has a big estate with lamas in my hometown, Bedford, New York), and the younger generation is heading for the cities. 

The congregations of these dying communities are down to five or six people in their eighties who don’t have the means to maintain them. Religion is dying, and the rural way of life is dying, so who is going to take care of these places ? The means of the local preservationist groups and agencies are limited, so  Kaplan’s three grants--  $50,000 for the ones in Saskatchewan,  $50,000 for the ones in Manitoba, and $100,000 for the equally endangered  prairie churches in North Dakota (most of which are Icelandic, Norwegian, and English,  although there are a few Ukrainian ones, too.) are incredibly useful and appreciated. They have already spelled the difference for a few  of these gems that were on the verge of collapsing or being burned. 

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