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“Allo, baba!” I shout, smiling and waving into an iPhone camera. The blurred image of my grandparents waves back. My grandmother launches into a tangent full of praise and concern. I stand there smiling, eyes blank as I pick out every third word and wait for my father to translate her Ukrainian.
I smile and nod. “Dyakuyu baba!”
I quickly try to come up with something new to say about my life, but she continues. My father’s brow furrows as he listens. I don’t need him to translate this. She’s asking that same gut-wrenching question: When are you coming to visit?
Even at 25 years old, I feel like a scolded child. These conversations are a monthly reminder of my complicated relationship to my Ukrainian heritage, how I teeter between grief, anger, and genuine effort to connect.
I scramble to come up with a new excuse for not visiting, but my father quickly shuts her down. He explains the new communications program I’ll be starting in the fall.
School, work, health, it’s all too much at once.
“Someday soon, maybe after school,” he says — but I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready.
My father grew up in the Ukrainian city of Lubny in a very low-income family. The education system, however, allowed him to attend university for free in the capital, Kyiv, earn a PhD in biotechnology, and join a high-in-demand industry.
My mother spent her youth between her parents’ summer home in the mountain village of Kuty and their condo in Kyiv. She never had to worry about having food on the table, but, without the right connections and wealth, she couldn’t pursue her interest in law and specialized in textiles and factory management instead.
By the time I was born in 1996, an already unstable political situation had worsened. Ukraine gained independence in 1991, but centuries of tyranny wouldn’t just disappear. Hyperinflation upturned everyday life, wages were held for months on end, and organized crime became a very real threat.
My father decided we would move to Canada — English was the only other language he could learn confidently. Winnipeg wasn’t a particularly intentional choice; the Canadian embassy just happened to host a Manitoba-focused open house.
The roughly $100 Canadian he made in Ukraine annually wasn’t enough to meet immigration requirements. So, to pay for the move, he left home to work in South Korea.
One year later, he had saved $12,000 Canadian. With that money, his education, and a promise to forgo government assistance for one year, he was accepted into Canada, arriving in November 1998.
My mother and I followed, landing in October 1999. It was a new millennium, a new country, and a new chance for success.
I was only three when we immigrated and spent my first year attending a daycare near my father’s work at Health Sciences Centre.
At that age, I assumed everyone had the same homelife as me: they ate rye bread with strawberry yogurt as a treat, went mushroom picking on weekends, listened to Aqua and Ruslana with their parents, and had grandparents visit from some far-off, barely remembered place.
As a pre-schooler, I could understand my parent’s Ukrainian just as well as their English. My white skin and blonde hair meant I didn’t stick out in Canada, and my shyness kept people from hearing my accent. I was blissfully unaware of linguistic or cultural differences.
That changed when I started school, and my parents stopped speaking Ukrainian to me.
My parents enrolled me in a private, Ukrainian-focused elementary school. Most students had some Ukrainian heritage and practiced at least a Christmas-and-Easter commitment to Christianity. We sang carols at Christmas and put on spring concerts entirely in Ukrainian. Our knowledge of culture and history only covered moments in the far past, stories about the first immigrants, national legends, fairytales and Cossack glory. We learned basic Ukrainian words and songs. It was easy to memorize sounds, put on a brightly embroidered vyshyvanka, and look proud. Anyone could do it.
I became obsessed with academic achievement. Good grades helped me excuse the fact that I was a Ukrainian immigrant who couldn’t Ukrainian dance or even speak the language.
But it wasn’t until eighth-grade language classes that I began to harbour real anger toward the community.
We were supposed to be split by experience. Beginners had oversized books dedicated to cursive and some basic words. Advanced students were quickly rushed through tense and sentence structure.
I meekly asked to join the beginners, but my teacher thought my name and background meant I would naturally pick up the language. Maybe she had real hope for me, but I walked back to my desk with new-found anxiety and growing anger.
I felt like an imposter and a disappointment. Some of my classmates were second, third, and even fourth-generation Ukrainian immigrants, yet they stood front and centre at community events and spoke Ukrainian at home. Some of their parents scoffed when they heard I couldn’t speak the language.
What was my excuse?
It all came to a head during my final Ukrainian class exam — the only time I ever cheated. The exam felt unreal, almost like a nightmare. I couldn’t recognize a single word; each Cyrillic character was vaguely familiar, but together they meant nothing. I had never failed before. I was one of the smart kids. I remember staring at my teacher, cursing her for keeping me in this class and cursing my parents for sending me here without sharing their knowledge.
Halfway through the exam, the teacher walked out. I turned to my classmates, fluent speakers with demanding parents, and gave them the same panicked look I had worn during every Ukrainian class. They whispered answers syllable by syllable, trying their best. Nothing got across. I could give up, fail, shatter my identity as the smart kid, and face consequences my 14-year-old mind could barely imagine.
Looking back, this exam shouldn’t have meant anything to me, but this was my first act of defiance. I threw open my desk, pulled out my teal workbook and tattered looseleaf notes and frantically copied whatever I could, praying everything would be okay.
I never got caught for cheating that day, and I never told my parents about the growing anger I had for my culture and the Ukrainian community I felt more and more isolated from. I didn’t want to look ungrateful.
When I recently asked my father if he ever felt ostracized by Ukrainian-Canadians in his 25 years of living in Canada, he said he couldn’t identify any particular moments when he did. He was non-confrontational by nature, and most of his Ukrainian community experience happened through me, my school, or our church. Even then, he mostly interacted with retired second and third-generation Ukrainian-Canadians at low-stress cultural events.
“They had plenty of time, plenty of money… they used it [Ukrainian culture] as entertainment,” he said.
Neither of my parents ever saw my frustration, and I never really understood their struggles as immigrants.
Looking back, I can see that my father was more focused on survival and adapting to our new environment. Between his government work, my mother’s three part-time jobs, and the stress of raising two kids and renovating a house, they didn’t have time to take us to cultural events, lessons, or clubs.
He quickly learned that English meant a job for him and a better future for me. Ensuring that I could communicate in English became our focus, even if it meant losing our language, like many other European immigrants.
My parents hoped that the Ukrainian elementary school would be enough to keep me fluent and connected to the culture while they focused on staying afloat.
Speaking to me now, my father recognizes just how much Ukrainian culture they intentionally kept away from me. He was worried they couldn’t separate it from the frustrations and struggles they had left back home.
He also recognizes that my grandparents, as much as they care about our well-being, are staunchly patriotic and unwilling to accept the faults we saw in Ukraine. Instead, they want us to live with pride, speak our language, and celebrate our homeland, regardless of the pain we experienced.
My mother’s outlook, however, very much mirrored my own. I told her about my father’s experiences and asked how she felt. The moment she told me she “wasn’t good at making friends” in the Ukrainian community, I knew we shared similar frustrations.
I asked if she’d ever dealt with gatekeepers in the Ukrainian community, people who have judged or excluded her based on how she practiced their shared culture.
She replied without hesitation, describing encounters with influential community members. The majority were second and third-generation Ukrainians with established careers, important positions, or social standing.
She met one of these gatekeepers at an open house for the Ukrainian elementary school I would later attend. My mother stood frustrated and unimpressed as a woman tried to explain her deep cultural ties to Ukraine, all while using her anglicized name and stumbling over her family’s original name. My mother said the conversation seemed like a lecture on how to act like a proper Ukrainian.
“It was hard to find anyone like us,” she said. “As soon as you got a better life or thought differently, they would cut themselves off.”
My mother felt more connected to the ever-growing population of immigrants, even those of different cultural backgrounds, than those who supposedly shared her culture. Giving up some of her closest family, cultural connections, and happiness was a necessary, almost natural part of immigration, but it wasn’t something she did happily or willingly.
The experience of adapting to a new environment felt like its own culture.
While the Ukrainian diaspora tried to teach her how to be Ukrainian, her university English teachers tried to assimilate her into “what she should be as a Canadian.”
She struggled to keep her identity intact.
I was lucky. I picked up English easily and lost my accent quickly. For a while, I could still slip between identities.
My parents didn’t get to choose. They were quickly recognized as different, distinctly Ukrainian, and never Ukrainian-Canadian.
As a teen, I oscillated between trying to involve myself in the Ukrainian community and keeping myself hidden. Hormones and mood swings kept my anger simmering, but, with no Ukrainian-focused high schools in Winnipeg, I could step further away from my cultural community. However, my name made my cultural identity obvious, and jokes about “Volotov cocktails” and Soviet Russia were thrown around at least once a week.
Thankfully, the variety of student experiences and backgrounds made it easier to blend in.
For a while, I returned to the ambiguous Canadian identity I had enjoyed as a young child. My cultural connection would appear when I wanted, and I joined community events, like Ukrainian camp and Folklorama, when I felt confident and ready.
That was until my first trip back to Ukraine.
I had finished tenth grade just weeks before and was now half-heartedly packing for a month-long stay with my grandparents.
I was angry about returning to a country I barely knew and being pulled from an environment I had finally started to understand.
My first week in Ukraine was plagued by overwhelming heat. I barely slept and was light-headed by the end of every outing. I was back in the “homeland,” the place I was born, yet I felt like an unprepared tourist or worse, a foreign body being sweat out.
My Ukrainian made me sound like a toddler, and I gave up trying to keep conversation. Teen angst, an identity crisis, and a massive generational gap pushed me even further from my grandparents.
That disconnect, combined with overstimulation and fight-or-flight anxiety, wiped out many memories before I’d even left.
I do remember old, brutalist, Soviet-style condos echoing as I stepped through them, packs of wild dogs roaming the parks of Kyiv, and hundreds of faces making brief, exhausted eye contact.
I also remember my grandfather and second cousin being pulled over on a mountain path by a police officer. I remember watching my grandmother’s eyes, trying to use her stern, strained stare to judge the situation.
We sat in the car for what felt like an hour while the three of them talked. Finally, the officer readjusted his posture, and I heard the click-clack of metal against metal.
He had nonchalantly bumped what looked like a Kalashnikov rifle against his belt.
He readjusted again, filled out a small ticket book, and finally sent them away.
It wasn’t till we got home that I learned we were being threatened for a bribe. It wasn’t the first time for them.
I had only seen this exaggerated in movies or passed on as a traveller’s myth. It seemed too impossible and scummy for the place I had been taught to love in elementary school.
After the shock wore off, I felt like this incident, and everything else I’d seen, justified my pessimism and anger.
But that smug satisfaction quickly turned to worry. Were things really this bad?
Looking back at memories like this, I often convince myself that I am just ungrateful, ignoring the good because I want to justify my anger.
I constantly compare my pessimistic perspective to my peers, who remain patriotic and enthusiastic and take every chance to sing, dance, and announce their Ukrainian heritage with vigour and pride.
Yet I couldn’t stop feeling like something wasn’t right.
I needed some kind of anchoring point. If I was wrong, I wanted to bury those feelings and save myself from public embarrassment or ostracization.
But if it wasn’t just me who felt like this, I wanted support, no matter how small.
Reading Unbound: Ukrainian Canadians Writing Home was exactly what I needed. Although these short stories and essays weren’t written by Ukraine immigrants, they still describe experiences and feelings I was intimately familiar with. They explore doubts about authentic identity, like the guilt I felt when I visited my country.
In her essay, “Ukrainian Identities On(the)Line: Writing Ethnicity in a Time of Crisis,” Lisa Grekul describes precisely how I felt as I failed to speak about the war. Daria Salamon’s “Putting the Baba Back in the Book” and Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s “Am I Ukrainian?” helped me sympathize with my parents’ cultural self-censorship.
After reading Unbound, I felt brave enough to reveal these feelings of shame to my mother.
One idea stood out to her, something Lindy Ledohowski describes as a “mythical homeland” in her piece for Place and Replace: Essays on Western Canada. This was the perfect name for what my mother saw in others, a belief that our heritage was flawless, almost magical, and always worth celebrating. It was an image built on the ideals of Canadians who longed for a far-off homeland they never saw, but used to claim a meaningful identity.
It seemed to me that many of the loudest voices and staunchest gatekeepers of the Ukrainian community in Manitoba would argue that Ukraine was the best country in the world, yet many weren’t willing to stay there for more than a few weeks. If they did, their visits were often bundled with Europe-wide backpacking adventures or high-profile jobs.
I asked my friends and classmates about their experiences. A common theme for recent and second-generation respondents was a desire to learn more, speak the language, and visit.
But almost none of them wanted to move back.
Like them, my parents had all the justification they needed to leave long before we moved. Poverty, corruption, and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness choked out that mythical ideal. While much of this suffering was caused by external factors — years of war, Soviet colonialism, and corruption — it still tainted my family’s cultural memories.
To them, cultural expression had to be restricted to art and history, not because we lacked lived experience but because we had too much.
It’s not impressive when a Ukrainian speaks their language fluently, cooks and eats perogies, or sings old folk songs. They may seem important or exotic to outsiders, but for Ukrainians they’ve never been something to write home about.
Other traditions get left behind for fear that they might bring back bad memories.
I still associate the greasy scent of fried meat cakes with quiet, tense dinners. Even the sour, funky tang of my favourite cottage cheese “cheesecake” reminds me of the late nights I spent crying for my mother, who still hadn’t come home from her late-night shift.
It took a few months for me to recover from that trip to Ukraine.
When I did get involved with the Ukrainian community again, it was at the request of a long-time friend and classmate, one I often called boss.
She was not a paragon of culture. Her parents were not recent immigrants, and she knew very little Ukrainian. She danced but never showed off.
Most importantly, she never judged me for the Ukrainian I should have been.
Thanks to her, I got more involved in Folklorama. I attended community dinners, youth events, and my first Christmas carolling tour. I even became a coordinator at a Ukrainian summer camp.
That camp was the first time I felt confident and comfortable with my Ukrainian identity.
Its thrown-together mix of recent immigrants, diaspora regulars and seemingly random new additions made me feel welcome. We judged each other based on personality, individual interests, and how hard we worked.
It didn’t matter if you didn’t know Ukrainian, didn’t have a name ending in “chuk” or “ski,” or didn’t know when your family arrived in Canada. Most couldn’t speak more than the common Ukrainian courtesies, like “dyakuyu,” “dobryi den,” and “do pobachennya” — “thanks,” “good day,” “goodbye.”
Our cultural connection was free form. We learned about dance because a few campers and counsellors took lessons and danced when we partied at our weekly zabava. We belted our parents’ kitschy Ruslana songs and old, out-of-tune Ukrainian Christmas carols as we gathered around late-night campfires.
These moments reminded me that I could make strong community bonds and belong. I could compensate for my weak cultural connection with a resume full of hard work, friendly handshakes, and meaningful relationships.
I didn’t have to be Ukrainian or Canadian first. Those aspects of my identity could come later.
That was until “Ukraine” and “war” was all anyone could think about.
“Shche ne vmerla Ukrayiny, ni slava, ni volya,” I mouthed, combining my weak Ukrainian with even weaker lip reading. Hundreds of people crowded the stands around me, packed elbow-to-elbow in the Burton Cummings Theatre for a concert-turned-war-fundraiser. They sang the anthem with national pride sparkling in their eyes, while mine darted to focus on something.
I felt alone.
I didn’t know the Ukrainian national anthem. As much as it brought back vague nostalgia, it also gouged a bottomless pit into my stomach. I was surrounded by Ukrainians. I knew some by name or face, but I hadn’t spoken to most in a decade. Third and fourth-generation families, newcomers, and refugees all joined voices.
I saw their pride every time they shouted “Slava Ukraini” and felt ashamed that I couldn’t return the energy. I felt even worse when I quietly admitted that it all felt uncomfortably nationalistic, a just cause with language that would get a second look had it been any other country.
This concert was supposed to be the first time I’d confidently left the house since the war started.
I had been listening to Go_A since their Eurovision performance in early 2021, almost a year before the invasion. Their mix of traditional folklore and instruments reminded me of the Ukrainian carols I’d always loved. Their electronic spin and eclectic outfits showed me that “my culture” was growing outside the quaint, embroidery-and-hutzul-pant-filled box I was often presented by teachers.
Music was one of the few ways I kept up with my homeland. Something I could enjoy alone, where others couldn’t judge — a medium that welcomed reinterpretation and imagination.
I couldn’t miss the chance to see them right here in Winnipeg.
What I hoped would be an exciting evening of music and escapism turned into another moment of shame — a reminder to go out less and another item on an ever-growing list of anxiety and self-doubt.
I was overwhelmed, unfocused, and afraid the day Ukraine was invaded. I had been working on a now-forgotten assignment when I learned this once irrational fear had become a bloody reality.
All I could think of were my grandparents, spry and active for their age but still elderly. I called, texted, and finally got a response from my mother.
They were safe near the mountains; their retirement had saved them from stress before and death now.
I stayed up late for two weeks, using the eight-hour difference to check early-morning reports. I watched people around me speak up on social media, attend rallies and coordinate aid.
I wanted to do or say something, anything. I agonized over what I could do to broadcast my support, but I couldn’t work up the courage to act.
Years of shame weren’t going away, no matter how terrible things were.
I did my best to make donations and guide my family to organizations they could help. I told others my opinions, rehashed what I had heard online, and shared anything else I knew about the war, but only when asked directly.
I often thought about how things might be if I were someone else. If I didn’t have a single Ukrainian cell in my body. Maybe I’d look more altruistic if I were Canadian, no hyphen, no Ukrainian.
But I had been born in Ukraine, raised amongst the community, and had a name that loudly proclaimed my ancestry.
I wanted the death to stop and the war to end, but I wasn’t going to die for it. I had found my place here and seen a fraction of what my parents struggled through to bring me here. I didn’t want to risk losing any of that.
Even seeing Ukrainian refugees on the bus brought me shame. I’d catch snippets of conversation or make long, awkward eye contact and wonder if they knew I was Ukrainian too.
But would that recognition even matter? If I felt disconnected as a young immigrant, how much worse did they feel?
Most Ukrainian-Canadians weren’t passionately studying modern culture; they didn’t understand the day-to-day issues or social norms of the average Ukrainian.
I felt like I was seeing another, much more extreme, version of my family’s story being repeated — another slice of our culture and history transplanted and forced to adapt.
As my mother struggled to help Ukrainian refugees find work, housing, or support, she realized that she didn’t share a common worldview with the refugees either. She might have come from the same city, but a difference in generation and situation was enough to scatter any similarities.
As conversations about Ukraine culture fill the front page, I’ve learned that cultural connections are something you’re born into but not born with. It’s not bad teeth and blue eyes. It’s not naturally coded into your DNA or perfectly passed down from your parents.
Cultural connection takes effort. Sometimes it’s a healthy relationship, and other times a gruelling job.
My father still beams when he tells me how proud I make him, even after watching my identity crisis. To him, learning to speak Ukrainian is something I can pick up anytime or choose to ignore entirely. “It’s like riding a bike,” he says.
When I ask my father about his decision to move to Canada, he pauses. I’m not sure if I’ve pushed the question too far.
“It was because of you,” he says, staring into his cup of tea.
“I had to walk across the hall to our neighbours and beg for baby food to feed you.”
He was young, smart, and had a PhD in biotechnology, but he couldn’t afford to feed his baby.
My parents moved because having a choice, good or bad, was better than being guaranteed hopelessness. They knowingly gave up their family, friends and cultural connections so that I could choose my own.
It’s a welcomed freedom — and a responsibility.
As much as I have felt ostracized or gatekept from Ukrainian culture, I love a lot about being Ukrainian and Canadian. Plenty of friendships and opportunities welcomed me because of both these identities.
Some of my parent’s day-to-day Ukrainian expressions keep me hopeful. The smell of my parents’ crepes is still one of my favourites, taking me back to a time when culture just meant whatever we did as a family. I’ve taught myself to make those thin, crispy pancakes and, as I fill them with rich Nutella or a funky mix of sour cream and sugar, I feel a sense of ownership over my own little traditions.
I recently bought my first house with my fiancée. As we pack for the move, I’ve started to sort through our stuff: books we’ve never read, tattered trading cards, childhood trinkets. Most get donated or dumped: they’re taking up space for new memories.
One shelf is full of kitschy memorabilia I’ve pilfered from my parents and grandparents: a pewter Cossack statue, a baba-shaped clay whistle, a picture book of Ukrainian fairy tales, a book of Ukrainian poetry, and even a tattered Ukrainian translation of Beatles songs.
I can’t read the books, and the statue will probably never get painted, but I feel guilty giving them away. I try to throw my memorabilia, along with the sentimentality, into the donation box, but my fiancée stops me.
She tells me that school, work, and health will be less overwhelming one day. We’ll have time to reconnect in our own way.
If we can’t find the time to enjoy them, maybe our future children will. My mother said she regrets not teaching me the language, but maybe her future grandchildren will give her a chance to be that mythical baba. Maybe we can all learn to read them together.
I don’t want to pressure any future children, but I also can’t stand to leave them in the dark to struggle and learn “naturally” like I was meant to.
At the very least, these items might start a conversation. One that covers idyllic ideals alongside troubling realities and difficult family decisions. One that lets them claim Ukrainian identity or build their own, without rigid and dismissive expectations of what that should look like.
All photos taken by Sergiy Volotovskyy