Breaking free from the past
BY PAM DEFIGLIO Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted Tuesday, February 22, 2005 - Daily Herald Newspaper
Two-year-old Nicholas Mischenko, all chubby cheeks and silky light brown hair, reaches out with his arms.
"Didi," he says to his grandfather, also named Nicholas Mischenko. The word means grandpa in Ukrainian.
Grandpa Nick smiles and takes the eager tot from his mother.
Nick sits in the cozy, wood-paneled bar/social room at the Ukrainian Center in Palatine. His wife Valentina visits with friends at a nearby table. A party-like atmosphere
prevails as parents wait for their kids taking Ukrainian dance lessons upstairs.
Nick, of Mount Prospect, could barely have imagined such contentment in his early life in Ukraine.
In those years, tragedies struck one after another. In that way and others, his life mirrors the ups and downs of Ukraine's history for the past 70 years.
As little Nicholas climbs on his lap, the older man remembers two other baby boys, his brothers. One died of starvation; the other died of malnutrition during the years
when the Soviets, trying to subjugate Ukraine, cut off the food supply.
It was the darkest chapter, Ukrainians say, in the 350-year struggle between their homeland and the Russian leaders seeking to dominate Ukraine.
In 1920, the Soviets seized most of Ukraine, and the country became a Soviet republic two years later. Not long after, the communists tried to destroy what was left of
Ukraine's cultural identity.
Yet, Nick and his family are proof that - in exile - Ukrainian culture survived.
That culture lives on in 2-year-old Nicholas and his 4-year-old sister Isabella, who speak Ukrainian; it's why their mother, Natalia, teaches Ukrainian dance, and why
parents drive from places like St. Charles to Palatine twice a week so their kids can learn about Ukrainian poets.
Ukrainians in the United States "are the carriers - we continue the culture," says Nick Mischenko. "We thought, in the event of Ukraine becoming independent, we could
return it back to them."
Now, he's hoping the culture-in-exile can flourish once more on Ukrainian soil. That's partly why Nick flew to Ukraine two months ago. He served as an international
poll-watcher for the critical election that resulted in the victory of Viktor Yuschenko over a Russia-backed candidate.
The election propelled Ukraine in the direction of true independence. And far away, Ukrainian Americans played their own parts.
Half a nation killed
Recent history, however, cannot help but remind some Ukrainians of their difficult past.
Nick starts his story in 1931, three years before he was born.
Soviet soldiers showed up at the 27-acre farm Nick's parents and grandparents shared in eastern Ukraine.
It was the dawn of communism, and the Soviets wanted Ukrainians to turn over their land and join collective farms.
"All the food produced there is the property of the government, and they treat you like a slave," Nick says.
Like most, the Mischenkos resisted.
When Ukrainian peasants refused to cooperate, Soviet soldiers went from farm to farm, taking away by force any food the families had. That included
crops, stored food and seeds for the next year's crops.
"They came to our house with steel rods, because peasants used to bury food in the ground," Nick explains. If the soldiers' probes found hidden food,
they killed family members or deported them to Siberia.
Soldiers turned many families out of their homes to die from exposure.
But mostly, Ukrainians starved.
"The famine began in late 1931 and lasted until late 1933," Nick says. "In 20 months, 10 million people died of starvation."
Ukrainians now call the famine a genocide, though it was part of a pattern of Soviet oppression that lasted decades. From 1933 to 1938, the Soviets
executed the leaders of Ukrainian society - teachers, writers, scientists, artists - and sent many Ukrainians to concentration camps.
Between 19 and 21 million people died in Ukraine from 1914 to 1959, the Encyclopedia of Ukraine says - about half the population.
A family suffers
During the famine, starvation first claimed Nick's grandfather, then his grandmother. His older brother George - whom Nick never knew - did not live to
see his first birthday.
"My mom was weak," he says. "She couldn't breast-feed."
His mother, father and 2-year-old sister survived because they lived a half-mile from a vacation retreat for Communist leaders. A Ukrainian woman who
worked there brought them what food she could.
The worst of the famine eased by 1934, but food supplies remained spotty.
Nicholas and his twin, named George after the baby who died, were born on Dec. 23 of that year. That George also died of malnutrition.
Nick's parents had two more children while still in Ukraine, a son in 1937 and a daughter two years later.
World War II would bring more hardships. Nick's parents left Ukraine in 1943, when Nick was 9, to avoid the worst. They drifted among refugee camps in Austria and
added yet another child to the family.
After four years as refugees, they moved to Brazil to work on coffee plantations. Nick's youngest brother was born there in 1949.
'It never goes away'
Brazil provided Nick, at age 13, his first-ever chance to live in a place without violence and oppression.
His past, however, stayed with him.
"Of course it reflects on your later life," he says. "You still have those nightmares, seeing all those dead people and animals.
"It never goes away, but you keep that in the distance and try to do your best with what you've got."
One more tragedy occurred in Brazil. His father died in a traffic accident when Nick was 18.
By age 24, Nick was engaged to Valentina, whose Ukrainian family had also come to Brazil. The young couple moved to Chicago to get married.
He served two years in the U.S. military. In planning for his future, he faced a problem: The war years had robbed him of an education.
So he went back to school.
"I worked 16 hours a day and went to school at night," he says.
During those years, the couple had three children: Elizabeth, Tony and Katya.
Nick became an engineer, developing movie cameras for Bell & Howell and cellular phones for Motorola. He earned 50 U.S. patents.
In 1991, when Ukraine became independent, Nick - along with his wife and one of his daughters - returned for the first time since he was a child.
"There were some sad moments and happy moments," Nick says.
Relatives came from all over Ukraine, as well as from Moscow and Latvia, to meet them.
Nick was disappointed, though, to see the conditions. His relatives had no indoor plumbing; they were still using outhouses. The village had only one phone, which didn't
In the 1990s, Motorola began trying to open new markets in, among other places, Ukraine. Because of his language and cultural fluency, they sent him on business trips
to his homeland.
Eyeing the ballots
Years later, Nick would return to Ukraine - in a very different role.
Over the years, he remained active in the Ukrainian community. He serves as president of the Ukrainian Genocide Famine Foundation-USA Inc. He also
serves on the board of directors of the Chicago chapter of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.
Last year, a local Ukrainian radio program informed listeners of the opportunity to serve as international poll watchers for Ukraine's election, and he signed up.
With other members of the UCCA, he flew to Kiev on Dec. 21 - two days before his 70th birthday.
After receiving training, he was assigned to a polling place in his native Poltava region for the Dec. 26 election. In past elections, parties had bribed voters and many cast
ballots multiple times or in multiple precincts.
"When I walked into polling places, they'd get a little uneasy," Nick says. "There was a lot less fraud this time."
Though he got caught up in the enthusiasm of the pro-democracy Yuschenko backers, he maintained neutrality inside the polling place.
On Election Day, Yuschenko won, thrilling supporters across the world.
Even though Ukraine officially became independent of the Soviet Union in 1991, Yuschenko's victory signaled a significant move toward real independence.
"Ukraine became independent almost 14 years ago, but all the communist leaders in charge before independence have remained in charge, still doing what they did
before," Nick says.
For Nick, the victory was sweet.
Unlike his children and grandchildren, he felt firsthand the oppression and hunger of the past.
"Sometimes I'm angry, but I'm not angry to the point of revenge," he says. "I think we should fix this by civilized means.
"I feel people should have a choice, not by guns or starvation, but a free choice," he says.
Now that they have that choice, time will tell whether future Ukrainian Americans will feel the same urgency to teach their children the language and culture.
"They may or may not," he says. "We strongly believe in roots."
Maybe one day, then, his granddaughter will teach Ukrainian dance like her mother does - and her children too will learn the language of their ancestors.
Hope is a Viktor
On Jan. 23, when Viktor Yuschenko was inaugurated as president in Kiev, about 40 Ukrainian Americans gathered at Palatine's Ukrainian CYM center to watch the
ceremony on television and celebrate.
They were especially proud when they saw Yuschenko's wife, Kateryna Chumachenko, at his side. She grew up in Mount Prospect and many say she used to come to
the Palatine center as a youth.
Now she's the first lady of the newly recharged homeland.
"We really believe in the future of the country," said Jaroslav Gorobiski, 36, who was born in Ukraine and attended the celebration.
Roman Holowka also joined the group.
"It was a joyous occasion, a happy time," he says. "This is what we've been waiting for for a long time."
For Nick Mischenko, the wait stretched on for 70 years. It felt right that he should be at the polls, serving the goal of Ukrainian independence, when the time came.
"I'm proud of myself that I did this," he says. "It was a chance to play a role in history."