I Had to Explain From an Early Age What Ukraine Was. The Portrait of a Researcher of the Ukrainian Women’s Movement

Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak on the experience of being a refugee, the life of emigrants in the United States, and the mix of Ukrainianness and Americanness

9 Лютого 2023

“We all had the same childhood. Half childhood, half adult life. The first ten to twelve years of my life passed in some kind of limbo. It seemed like something was supposed to happen but just would not — and you had to wait it out, live through it, before the new phase came. Everything was temporary.”

This is what Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak says. She sees herself as a person placed in countless intersecting circles that move ceaselessly. She says she can speak many languages, but none of them without an accent. In a way, this is typical of people forced to leave their homes due to wars, persecutions, or genocides.

The story of a woman who was the first to describe the history of Ukrainian women’s movements at the turn of the century and to initiate further research begins with a journey. The departure from Rava-Ruska, life in a camp for displaced persons in Germany, a transatlantic trip to New York, the first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty — the same iconic landscape so often seen in movies. But it was not a movie, it was the real life of a Ukrainian family after World War II.


The Ukrainians Media is an award-winning independent media company focusing on high-quality, long-form, and visual journalism. Our mission is to foster positive social changes in Ukraine.

This story was created thanks to the support of our readers. Please join The Ukrainians Community on Patreon and help us publish more important and interesting stories.


One of my father’s assistants showed him a list of people the Reds wanted to execute. My parents’ names were also on it.

Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak was born in 1938 in Sokal, a town in the Lviv region. Her family left their home when she was four years old, and at the age of eleven, she found herself on another continent across the Atlantic.

“My father did not want to leave Ukraine. He was an attorney in Rava-Ruska, and my grandfather was a parish priest in Sokal. After the war broke out, one of my father’s assistants showed him a list of people the Reds wanted to execute. My parents’ names were also on it,” Martha says.

The Bohachevsky family left Rava-Ruska and went to the Carpathians: “Then, step by step, we moved on and on a little to the west, a little to the east, depending on how the war developed. Then in 1943, we left for good.”

What did a four-year-old girl think of her first travel experience? Marta says she does not remember much she learned most about her wartime travels from the manuscript of her older sister’s memoirs. She does, however, recall one important discovery: “From a very young age, I knew that not all things are as they seem. And that sometimes you must not tell the truth.” And why? Because they met all kinds of Ukrainian families along the way and rarely asked them who they were or where they came from. “The Ukrainians who left the Soviet-occupied territories and moved to the West had to lie about their origins. They claimed that they were born in the Ukrainian territories that had been ceded to Poland. Otherwise, they would have been forcibly moved back to USSR.”

The family spent 1946 in the camp for displaced persons. It sounds frightening, but the child’s memories show a very different reality: “The daily life of the children in the camp was wonderful. We always had other children to play with. There was always food, school lessons, and even Plast and it was all organized by refugees. We also received humanitarian aid and clothing.”

This perception was partly due to her parents’ optimistic attitude and their belief that everything would be all right. This helped them get through at least one fierce winter:

“One of the most tragic and at the same time funniest experiences was the time when my parents were evicted from the DP camp,” Martha says. “We found another place to stay a barrack where lumberjacks lived in the hills on the outskirts of Stuttgart. There was no water or electricity there. And it was winter. I had started school by now and had to walk an hour to get there, so my father woke me up early in the morning. To wash up, we used a big metal bowl that we filled with water the night before. The water froze overnight, and Dad had to break the ice so I could wash my face. The sound of cracking ice jolted me awake every morning. Without my father’s encouraging voice and his assurances that everything would soon be okay, I would hardly have found the strength to get out of bed. And my father was right: when it got warmer, they renewed our registration at the DP camp, and we returned.”

Martha shares this memory in our email conversation in response to my message asking her to postpone one of our online meetings due to a blackout and no internet connection. I read her email and smile as I come across an episode that I find particularly touching:

“That winter, when we lived in the woods, we had the best Christmas tree. My brother and cousin cut it in the woods I guess it was not exactly legal.”

After the war, the Bohachevsky family still believed they would eventually return to Ukraine: “My father believed that the cultured class, the educated people, the public figures must stay with their nation.”

After the victory, the family left the German camp for Vienna, a city that seemed safe: “Father thought that the British would not cede Vienna away to the Russians, that the city would remain under the international ‘umbrella,’ that we could survive there. Quite a few Ukrainian families stayed in Vienna at that time for exactly these reasons. But it turned out that Vienna was too dangerous. The Soviets were literally hunting people down. My uncle, for example, escaped death only because he managed to run onto the roof, leap across it, and hunker down in another building. This incident convinced my father that our family could not stay there we had to move on.”

A piece of paper with a stamp of the Ukrainian National Council and confirmation that Dr. Danylo Bohachevsky was supposed to come to Munich for work was the price for their rescue.

This was the beginning of a truly incredible story of family reunification: “Dad got train tickets for us, his brothers and their families, and two other families from Great Ukraine, that is, from the Soviet Union. He managed to convince the Soviet officials who were checking all the passengers on the train that people from the council were really expecting us in Munich. My cousin persuaded my brother to go to Munich as well, without waiting for a message from our parents. My older sister had also walked all the way there from the German forced labor camp. So a miracle happened our whole family arrived in Munich at once in 1946.”

At the same time, the family received an invitation from Martha’s uncle, her father’s brother, who lived in the United States. Bishop Constantine Bohachevsky was ready to welcome them all as displaced persons. The adults waited until the older children finished middle school in Europe and then set out. “As the oldest brother, my father decided to wait and see what would happen next. He persuaded his younger brothers to do the same so that the older children could finish middle school in Europe. My siblings and I knew nothing about this condition. We thought we would stay in Germany because we did not have the right documents to leave.”

But the documents were in order, and in the spring of 1948 the family arrived in New York.

The scene of their arrival is reminiscent of numerous films about immigrant life: “Everyone thought you had to come up to the upper deck and see the Statue of Liberty with your own eyes. My brother had even gotten a bottle of Coca-Cola from who knows where for the occasion he wanted to drink it the moment we arrived, admiring the statue and the city. He stashed it until morning, but someone found the bottle, stole it, and drank it. So my brother greeted the city with an empty bottle in his hands.”

It took me a long time to realize how poor we really were 

Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak describes the experience of displaced people that resonates in the context of the war in contemporary Ukraine: “There was a huge migration wave of ‘DPsts’ displaced people from Europe. Looking back, I am surprised at how many Americans of Ukrainian origin cared about and took responsibility for the families who came to the United States. Often they were complete strangers. The ‘old emigration’ showed incredible care and risked the well-being of their own families to bring the ‘wanderers,’ as they called us, to the United States. Our family was special; we were lucky we had a relative in America who had American citizenship. But reverend Constantine felt that his brothers were not entitled to some special treatment other than that all the refugees received from the community. So the brothers experienced the life of the American working class.”

Ten-year-old Martha spent her first year in America at an orphanage run by Sisters of the Order of Saint Basil in Philadelphia, while her parents were adjusting to the new reality at Saint Basil Seminary in Stamford, Connecticut: “I did not want to stay in the orphanage. I pretended to be sick when it was time to go back to school after the vacations. Sure, the sisters tried to create good conditions for the children, but… Many children in the orphanage were not orphans they stayed there because their parents had to work and had no one to take care of them.”

It was also at the orphanage that she first encountered English-speaking children. Later in life, this experience will be an occasion to reflect on empathy, tolerance, and grace: “At the orphanage, I met children from Ukrainian families who were born in America and spoke little Ukrainian. I did not speak English yet. So, I quickly picked up and started imitating the dialect of the ‘natives.’ The adults laughed at that, but now I understand that it was so rude of me. I should not have made fun of the Ukrainian language spoken by Americans of Ukrainian origin. Later, I had the exact same experience in Ukraine when people corrected my Ukrainian Galician American dialect.”

A year after arriving in the United States, the family moved to Philadelphia, where three brothers bought a house together. Martha returned to the orphanage. The language of instruction was English, and the school followed the American curriculum, but there were also classes in religion and the Ukrainian language. The number of students grew considerably after the influx of newcomers.

“Later, a few of my friends and I transferred to Saint Basil Academy an all-girls high school. The language of instruction was also English, and most of the students were American. Some of them were of Irish and Italian descent. Ukrainians could choose electives in Ukrainian language, literature and history.”

Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak describes her environment at the time as ‘a hybrid community’: “I grew up in a hybrid community in a Ukrainian ghetto that we slowly left to enter the broader American world.” She adds that she grew up among kids with similar experiences.

As she grew older, she was confronted with new experiences, especially discrimination against each other. The immigrant community distanced itself from others, while others distanced themselves from the immigrant community.

“At school, my friends and I stayed away from those who did not speak Ukrainian. Now I regret that. Why were we so limited and focused only on ourselves? Why did not we accept our peers who considered themselves Ukrainian even though they were born in America? We were intolerant. We learned the meaning of tolerance only after we experienced intolerance firsthand because of our unusual names, our accent, our poverty… It took me a long time to realize how poor we were.” 

Back then, Ukrainians in the United States lived in the anticipation of a miraculous collapse of the USSR 

The choice of higher education became a turning point. Martha did not want to study at a small Catholic college. Her parents moved away from traditional practices and supported higher education for both girls and boys. “My parents supported my desire to enroll in University of Pennsylvania, a large American college,” Martha says. “For some reason, I did not get a scholarship my freshman year, even though I had good grades. At the end of the academic year, the dean said he wanted to talk to me. During the conversation, I explained that Saint Basil Academy, where I had studied, was not a prestigious Catholic school for privileged families.

On the contrary girls from poor migrant families attended it. As a result, I was offered a full scholarship on the condition that I work a few hours a week in the library.” Later, Martha, now pursuing a postgraduate degree, realized she could also teach and gave up the idea of pursuing a career as a librarian. “But unlike many of my colleagues, I have always respected that job,” she says.

Education also played an important role for Martha’s daughters. Dora Chomiak says it was of great importance: “Education was like air to me. You just breathe it in without thinking about whether it’s there or not. Education was important in the broadest sense we valued all kinds of learning, not necessarily at prestigious universities. Our family valued not only scholarship, but also applied knowledge for example, the craftsmanship of people who could build a house. Critical thinking was also highly respected. It was not until I started living on my own and working with different people that I realized I had been living in an atmosphere of ideas.

Ideas were important, and we discussed them constantly. Everyone in our family wrote from an early age I heard the clatter of typewriters at home all day long. My mother typed her scholarly articles, my father essays, my grandfather memoirs, and my grandmother also wrote memoirs and prepared essays for the journal published by the Union of Ukrainian Women. Unlike other American families, we had zero interest in sports.”

Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak recalls that in her student days, most Americans viewed USSR as equal to Russia and never treated Ukraine as a separate entity: “Of course, there were differing opinions in Ukrainian communities about how to correct this misperception. I had to explain from an early age what Ukraine was. At college, this problem only got worse.”

At the time, the Ukrainian community did not always know how to take advantage of available social assistance programs. Martha recalls, “Refugees of my generation were embarrassed to use government assistance. Even students did not know how to apply for assistance at universities. Overall, Ukrainians who immigrated to the United States after the war did not ask for assistance from the American government even when the opportunity existed instead, they helped each other where they could. Today’s migrants are very different. For example, after the Russian invasion began, everyone, both adults and students, actively sought help for Ukraine. The situation at universities has also changed: today’s students have better access to education, new online tools, and more opportunities to travel. I am particularly surprised that students with poor preparation believe that it is the duty of professors to fill their knowledge gaps. That was unthinkable in my day.”

While studying at an American university, Martha, a student of Ukrainian origin, became acquainted with the broader American context and had her first experience of conflict and disagreement with the Ukrainian community. She continued her public activities and founded the Plast club and a Ukrainian library, collecting book donations from families, church libraries, and schools.

Today, one of her daughters, Dora Chomiak, also volunteers and runs Razom for Ukraine, an American charity. Dora says her family upbringing had a big impact on her, even though her parents did not force her and her sisters to join volunteer initiatives. “Maybe that was the reason I wanted to do it,” she says. “The fact that I saw how our parents were involved in the development of Ukraine shows me a bigger picture. I realize it’s a big and long story.”

Dora says she was not with Razom from day one: “I joined it only a few months later. One of the main reasons our organization is so effective is that it was founded by people who were born and raised in Ukraine but moved to the United States to study or work. They came together to help their friends on the Maidan, during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014— it was an ad hoc way to contribute. Today’s Ukraine has become the main driving force of the organization, so we do not provide unilateral aid, but work side by side with others. People find each other through our charity and start doing things together. That is the DNA of our organization. The fact that a person like me joined a charity and I was born in America and was ten to twenty years older than the founders just proves its diversity. I see Razom as an institution that is bigger than the individuals behind it. It reminds me of my work as a journalist in Ukraine in the 1990s. Back then, my colleagues and I also felt that anything was possible as long as you were willing to take action.”

What influence did her family have on that? “I often think about it,” Dora says. “I remember our conversations at home over dinner, when everyone would get together our parents, my sister, my mother’s parents… My grandfather was born in 1890 and survived both world wars.

We talked a lot about Ukraine and its history. I think that’s why I have taken time to volunteer for the last nine years.

I see the results and the incredible potential of Ukraine to help the rest of the world. And I do not think of it in terms of days or hours, but in terms of multiple generations and how they interact.”

As an undergraduate, Martha Bohachevsky continued to take courses in Ukrainian studies, “Due to pressure from the Ukrainian community, these programs were isolated Ukrainian courses were not integrated into the overall curriculum. When I was pursuing post-graduate studies, the Ukrainian community of Philadelphia decided to fund the evening course, Ukrainian Literature in the European Context, to be taught by Professor Hryhir Luzhnytskyi at the university. It was important for the community that the course be delivered at a prestigious college and that many students sign up for it. At that time it was my senior year there were few Ukrainian-speaking students at University of Pennsylvania. The community had to raise funds so that people from outside the college could register for the course.”

This situation is noteworthy because it is an example of generational conflict. Martha says that she did not want to sign up for this course: she found the subject self-explanatory and had already signed up for all the courses she was supposed to take as a post-graduate. Nevertheless, she did sign up for it: “The pressure from the community was astonishing. They even sent a man to me demanding that I sign up for the course. When I protested and said it was too difficult to change my course load, he said, “Did our boys have it easy at the Battle of Kruty?” Finally, I did sign up. Today people laugh when they hear this story and this man’s words. But at that time, Ukrainians in the United States really lived in anticipation of a miraculous collapse of the USSR. Their memories of the liberation movement of the early 20th century were very much alive.”

Generations and mentalities were changing, and arguments like these were an inevitable consequence of that process. Martha’s conversation with Metropolitan Constantine Bohachevsky illustrates this vividly.

“My uncle achieved his goal in life the autonomy of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the United States. He made sure that parishes had access to all-day schools run by dedicated nuns. The last time we talked, I was at the height of my youthful enthusiasm: I had just graduated with honors, I had received offers from Harvard and other prestigious universities, I was being offered fellowships to pursue a PhD… But I think my uncle was disappointed because neither of us attended Saint Basil Academy in Stamford, neither of us felt a religious calling. He looked at me, listened to what was going on in my life, and then said, “It’s so good to be young. I wish I was still young now.” The thing was that only his successor had the opportunity to build up the newly established Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the United States without obstacles and to take care of education. I did not understand that at the time I was too young and naive.”

They said that American materialism was destroying the Ukrainian soul 

Assimilation was a real challenge for the Ukrainian community. This process was described differently at that time it was said that American materialism was destroying the Ukrainian soul. Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak remembers that different generations of Ukrainians had different political views: “Ukrainians born in America were mostly democrats, while the older generation that moved to the United States after Yalta became Republicans by default and embraced the calls to fight communism and the models of American patriotism and working-class life.

Yes, in America our family was working class: my father, a professional lawyer, washed floors and mowed lawns, and my mother had to become a seamstress. I knew professors who washed windows…

My parents’ hard work ensured that the next generation would make their way in American society.”

Not only has the standard of living of younger Ukrainian Americans changed so has their attitude. “We, the next generation, knew how things were done in the United States,” Martha says. “We were able to combine our Ukrainianness and our Americanness without limiting our Ukrainian identity. We were able to think globally, not just as Europeans. Our parents dreamed of a European Ukraine. Our generation dreams of a global Ukraine, a country in the company of world powers.”

The first trips to Ukraine became a milestone in the formation of a younger diaspora generation. Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak remembers, “For my generation it was very important that USSR began to open. Sure, this process was controlled and very slow, but we got a chance to get to know living Ukraine a little better and to realize that it was not an isolated museum site.”

In such circumstances, one might be tempted to simply become ‘normal,’ an American without any additional context. Here is a revealing episode from the mid-1960s. “We organized a meeting in New York to discuss whether it would be useful to meet with ‘the Soviets,’ that is, delegates from Soviet Ukraine who were about to come to the United States,” Martha recounts. “I was excited about the upcoming meeting with ‘living Ukrainians,’ but others accused me of betraying Ukraine and dishonoring my family’s name. The event was public, and the entire group of opponents showed up they came on purpose to voice their disapproval. They called the police and claimed that we were communists. A brawl broke out. Hirniak, a filmmaker, took me by the arm and we pushed our way through the crowd. That night, my husband Rostyk and I wandered the cold streets thinking about how to ‘log out’ of our community ‘log out’ of Ukrainian emigration.”

Family and the breaking of traditions 

Rostyslav Chomiak, Martha’s husband, is a well-known American journalist of Ukrainian origin. He worked for Radio Svoboda, Voice of America, and other American media.

“He and I were true friends,” Martha says. “Rostyk was eager to break with the customs of the time. He gladly took on some of the roles that were usually reserved for mothers in everyday American life.” She also appreciates her parents’ generous help, “My mother was worried that I would never get married and would be stuck in archives and universities. So she promised to help me with children if I needed her help. And she kept her promise.

My father, an old attorney of the Austrian period, also learned how to change diapers, keep house, and take the little ones to the park. That was very helpful, because there is no childcare leave in the United States, and most of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of women.

Our professional careers have suffered at the expense of one or the other, as is the case with any married couple. I worked at a college in New York for over a decade, but we lived in Washington, D.C. We often traveled separately. Also, we both felt it was our duty to volunteer, even if the things we thought were meaningful did not always match the attitudes of this or that group within the Ukrainian community.” Martha remembers how her American circle of friends grew and took up more and more of her time. Prolog, Suchasnist, the New York Group that was her Ukrainian community of those days.

What family values did Rostyk and Martha pass on to their daughters? Dora Chomiak says that the way of life of her parents and grandparents was the best example for her: “Their openness to the world and diversity of opinions had the greatest influence on me. Our family also had a firm Ukrainian identity we never hid it, but at the same time never flaunted it too much. The mixture of these two characteristics allowed me to place myself in a larger context, as one with the whole world, both historically and spiritually. For example, my father reported on African countries. Sometimes he would go there and tell us later about the things he had seen. These stories fascinated us as much as the stories about Ukraine. I am very grateful to my parents for not raising me in an isolated Ukrainian community. They always reminded me how big the world was around us.

З родинного архіву: Іван Драч, Ростислав Хомяк та Дмитро Павличко, 1966 р.

Once I won the first prize in the Ukrainian recitation contest. Everyone congratulated me, including my parents, but they also made me understand that this was only a victory in one area and that there were many other areas where I could win. They said it in a very positive way, so I did not take it the wrong way, because they were proud of me… But at the same time they urged me not to limit myself to the Ukrainian context, because the world is big and has so much to offer.”

Did she ever want to pretend to be ‘ordinary’ just an American without any additional national context? Dora Chomiak says she felt her otherness as a child but only in the domestic aspects of her life: “For example, I could not attend pajama parties that often when the kids played all night, slept in on Saturday, and came home in the afternoon. Why not? Because I had to go to Ukrainian school on Saturday morning, and on Sunday we went to church. My life was very different from the lives of my peers just because of its logistics.”

Holidays and receptions were also different.

“My grandmother baked her own bread, which was unthinkable for Americans,” Dora says. “Meals were also very different from what American families usually cooked.”

At the age of ten, Dora stopped speaking Ukrainian at home in protest. Her parents did not force her to switch back, but they continued to speak to her in Ukrainian. A year later, Dora switched back to Ukrainian.

“I knew we were not like the others around us,” she says. “But that’s just how it was in all aspects of our lives. Sometimes I wanted to be normal, like everyone else.”

Dora recalls that for a time she led a kind of double life: “At school, I dressed and acted like everyone else. My Ukrainian life took place outside of school and my school friends. But as I got older, I learned to combine it. I took the first step in high school when I started inviting my American friends to Ukrainian parties and get-togethers. People from the Ukrainian community were surprised, but I felt like doing it that way. And then our parties were the best, with dancing and great music. Forty years have passed, but my American friends still remember them with gratitude.”

I ask Dora how her parents’ example has influenced her adult life. “I feel my parents’ influence in everything,” she says. “Both my mother and father raised my sister and me with the awareness that each of us is an individual with basic human rights. They stressed that we have to live our own lives. They never told me what to do not even when I asked them for advice about which major or profession to choose. They taught me to make choices and live my own life.”

Dora took away a few important lessons from her childhood. “My parents taught me to invest in education, art, and travel instead of prestigious things. So my husband and I always found ways to take our daughters to cultural events. From a young age, they were used to traveling and seeing paintings, sculptures, and parks. They were used to diversity to seeing and feeling all kinds of things.”

I wanted to feel the call of the motherland but I just couldn’t 

The year 1979 marks the first trip of Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak to Ukraine. It was difficult to organize it, because the American side was sure that the USSR would reject her application as a scholar and would not accept her in the exchange program.

“I came to Ukraine from Moscow, where they kept me for a few more weeks. This gave me the opportunity to read archival material about the events of 1919–1925. My journey started in the fall of 1979, and I celebrated the New Year’s Eve with the Drach family.” 

What were her first impressions? “I took the train from Moscow to Kyiv where I checked into the Lybid hotel,” Martha says. “I took a shower and went to the Academy of Sciences in Kirova Street, now Hrushevskoho Street. I had to wait for an hour until Mykola Zhulynskyi saw me and said that the archives of the Academy of Sciences weren’t part of my program and I was supposed to work in the archive in Solomyanska Street. Then Mykola took me on a walk through the excavated streets of old Kyiv. The Kyiv branch of the Lenin Museum now the Ukrainian House was under construction. At that time I could not even imagine that I would ever read the testimony of Kateryna Hrushevska. And that the Antonovich Foundation award ceremony would be held in the former Lenin Museum was simply unimaginable.”

The feeling of the motherland would not come. “No matter how much I wanted to feel the call of the motherland, I just could not. But I felt that kinship in communicating with a few people. The motherland is the motherland, but each person is a unique individual.”

Dora Chomiak, who first came to Ukraine in 1989, also felt this kinship. “I came to a university in Odesa as part of a student exchange program and also traveled on my own for a while. The feeling that USSR was changing was palpable, but we did not think it would collapse. My friends and I took the train from Odesa to Lviv, where I met my family for the first time the people I had only seen in photos. It was my grandmother’s sister. She had been deported to Siberia, and my grandmother had not seen her for decades. There was also her daughter my aunt, who was only ten years older than me. I will never forget how easy it was in her company. We felt a kinship from the first moment we met! Imagine a person living on the other side of the world and you immediately feel close to them. It was like we grew up in the same house.”

Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak returned to Kyiv after Ukraine’s independence as the second director of the Fulbright program. “I made sure we got an office in the Academy of Sciences on Hrushevskoho Street. At that time, I traveled almost all over the country. I met with rectors and persuaded scholars to apply for fellowships. I thought it was important that the program should not be limited to institutions in the capital. I believe that the Fulbright program played a crucial role in the development of research in Ukraine, especially in the humanities. It was beneficial not only for Ukraine, but also for the United States.”

Feminists Despite Themselves

Another achievement of Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak is her book Feminists Despite Themselves (later published in Ukrainian translation under the title White on White). The original English version was published in 1988 and focused on Ukrainian women’s movements from 1884–1939.

It was the first research on the subject, which became a revelation for many contemporary Ukrainian feminists it turned out that Ukrainian gender movements had deep roots and we could draw on the experiences of our sisters from the 19th century. Sure, the activists of that time did not use the words ‘gender’ or ‘feminism’, but their struggle for women’s rights laid the foundation for many achievements of today.

In the foreword to the first Ukrainian edition published by Lybid Publishing House in 1995, Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak writes: “Let me first answer the question that immediately comes to mind: why White on White? Satin stitch with white thread on white fabric with openwork design is one of the most exquisite forms of embroidery in Ukraine. You have to look very closely to see the art a white ornament around the openwork. This is the role of women in Ukrainian community life.”

She later adds, “Twenty years ago [before I started working on this book], I was not interested in women’s history. When the dean first offered me to teach the course on the history of women in Europe, I asked him who would teach the course on the history of European men.”

The rejection was followed by the beginning of research and the important realization that no one had yet written about the history of women and their contribution to the freedom of Ukraine. “I had to go behind the iconostasis of history,” Martha says. “Into the forest where the trees grew that would later become the wood for these icons.”

Oksana Kis, founder of the Ukrainian Association for Research in Women’s History and author of a number of books on gender studies, says White on White has become a landmark that will never lose its relevance. It’s already a classic:

“There have been studies of women’s past and women’s historical experiences in Ukraine, but they have been superficial and sometimes outdated. This was no surprise, because this field of research had not developed in Ukraine since the 1920s. And we simply missed the rest because we had no idea how gender studies had developed in the West since the 1970s and after. It simply passed us by. The theoretical vacuum and methodological chaos of the early 1990s made it seemingly possible to establish new areas of research and open up new topics, but at the same time they posed a challenge to women historians who had grown up with Marxist-Leninist ideology. Certainly, some information could be found in the special funds where the banned works of Ukrainian historians were kept, but it was not contemporary scholarship. We were hopelessly lagging behind even the most accomplished of us. We had to catch up and look for methods of self-education. Every publication, every translation was like a breath of fresh air. We binge-read all the books we could get to learn and understand the scope of women’s studies.”

Against this background, Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak’s book was a revelation for Oksana Kis and the entire generation of Ukrainian women scholars. “It laid the foundation for women’s studies in Ukraine,” says Oksana. “This book was the first to show that you can look at Ukrainian society through the lens of gender studies. That you could see other things in the past not necessarily the ones we were used to seeing or wanted to see. Martha Bohachevsky did not just publish a book. She worked hard to help this research topic take root and attract new scholars. She was there for us; she supported, encouraged and motivated us as a patron of Ukrainian women’s studies and Ukrainian women’s history. The history of Ukrainian women is not yet institutionalized, that’s true. There are no research centers at universities or at the Academy of Sciences. But it does exist in the form of a rather large bookshelf full of books. This approach can no longer be dismissed as exotic, marginal or irrelevant. Women’s history is moving toward the mainstream slowly but surely. Without Martha’s book and her activities, I do not think it would have happened.”

Oksana Kis considers Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak her mentor. “In my scholarly career, I had no real research advisor neither a male nor a female mentor to guide me so White on White became my guidebook that I consulted regularly. Since meeting Martha, I have felt an everlasting bond with her. She is a significant presence in my life, guiding me in a gentle and unobtrusive way.”

Her contact with Martha also meant a whole new academic experience, as it was Martha who encouraged Oksana to apply for a Fulbright scholarship.

Oksana believes that this experience introduced her to a broader world of gender studies and feminist anthropology a world that she would not have been able to explore as quickly or as intensively under other circumstances.

Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak casually invited Oksana to apply for a fellowship, and that invitation changed the trajectory of her professional career. She also found a great mentor it was Martha who became the first scholar to read Oksana’s manuscript on Ukrainian women in the Gulag, later published under the title Survival as Victory.

The research fellowship in the United States was another milestone in Oksana’s career. “The experience is truly transformative,” she says. “First, you get much-needed access to libraries and contemporary publications in the United States. Second, you get an important experience in communicating with fellow researchers and exploring a different academic culture. It shows you that what we have in Ukraine is not quite right. It helps you realize that things can be different and that they can be done in a better, more meaningful way. For example, in American culture, criticism is friendly and aimed at improving the level of research, not at humiliating or belittling your fellow researchers. It’s about the values and the mentality, about being able to build what we call democracy.”

Topics to discuss in the postwar times  

In response to some of my questions, Martha says that these are issues to be discussed in the postwar times. Since she is one of those who dreamed of the collapse of USSR and the independence of Ukraine, we wrap up our online meeting by asking about Ukraine’s status in the world:

“In these difficult times, we all have to accept the fact that Ukraine has already entered the global context and started to fight for its independence,” she says.

“We have discovered that Ukraine is alive and changing. That it does not have to be the way we want it to be. It is what it is, and nothing can destroy it, because it is reborn over and over and lives on.

No one can ever know where it will manifest herself and in what way. On the other hand, Ukraine must also accept the fact that there is a Ukrainian diaspora in different parts of the world, and quite often these people no longer speak Ukrainian and have never been to Ukraine, but Ukrainian identity is central to them.”

I ask Martha’s daughter, Dora Chomiak, a similar question what does she think of her Ukrainian identity? “I think that Ukrainians live all over the world and this is our Ukrainian superpower. The fact that Ukrainians are different strengthens Ukraine as a state. Ukrainianness has different forms, and my Ukrainianness is different from yours. Each of us must be who we are, work on a common cause, and take collective responsibility for Ukraine’s success.”

Perhaps this is why Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak attaches such importance to contacts with living Ukraine. “Some people have tried to preserve the old Ukraine, to hold on to the land of our parents, which they brought here in their tiny bundles tied up with ropes. But no one has ever survived with only museum memories.”

Місія The Ukrainians — уможливлення позитивних соціальних змін в Україні
Долучайтеся до Спільноти, підтримуйте якісну українськомовну журналістику та приєднуйтеся до змін!
Наші головні тексти тижня у красивій розсилці. Щовихідних у ваших емейл-скриньках.

Запросіть друга до Спільноти

Вкажіть, будь ласка, контактні дані людини, яку хочете запросити

Придбайте для друга подарунок від TUM

Вкажіть, будь ласка, контактні дані цієї людини, щоби ми надіслали їй посилку

Майже готово

Вкажіть ще, будь ласка, своє ім’я та емейл.

Дякуємо і до зв’язку незабаром!

Дякуємо за покупку!

Дякуємо і до зв’язку незабаром! Ваш тарифний план буде активовано на протязі 10 хвилин.

Повернутись до статті

Вхід в кабінет

Відновлення пароля

Оберіть рівень підтримки