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From Харків to Chilliwack: the connections, history, and people tying Canada to Ukraine

Katia Zavgorodnia's family is facing shelling in Kharkiv. The Prochnaus escaped growing unrest in 20th century Ukraine. Both show the Fraser Valley's connection to the history of Ukraine, and Canada's connection to that country.

Katia Zavgorodnia was on the phone with her mother when the sound of shooting interrupted their call.

“It’s getting really bad,” Katia’s mother told her. “I need to go lie on the floor and turn everything off.”

Katia hung up. She told her parents to text her every hour—and they have for more than a week. Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, nothing has been the same. Her parents have stayed in their home in Kharkiv, a major city in eastern Ukraine where heavy shelling has turned parts of the city to rubble. They can determine which gunshots are from Ukrainians and which are from Russians just by sound.

From her home in Chilliwack, Katia watched live streams of bombs destroying her childhood neighbourhoods.

“Every time you see the explosion on the video, you know exactly the street where it is,” she said. “You have so many memories about each corner.”

It’s heartbreaking. But not unprecedented.

Katia was born in 1989, in a country on the precipice of change. At that time, Ukraine was still a part of the Soviet Union, but its long-banned blue and yellow flag had begun flying in western parts of the country. Two years later, the region declared its independence from the USSR—marking its first full break with Russia since the 1700s.

Nine of 10 voters endorsed Ukraine’s independence in a referendum, with higher percentages in Ukraine’s western areas, where most were native Ukrainian speakers. In the eastern region of Donetsk, where most people spoke Russian, more than 75% of voters supported independence. Even Crimea, which had been transferred to Ukraine by Moscow in 1954, had 54% support for independence.

The USSR crumbled as republics emerged: Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, and eight others. It was a time of stress in Ukraine, but a time of potential as well.

Katia’s parents, like many other Russian-speaking families in Ukraine, were supportive of the country’s new identity. They raised Katia in a two-bedroom apartment in Kharkiv, approximately 50km from the Russian border. They read Ukrainian books to their young daughter to ensure she grew up immersed in the culture.

Katia’s own mother had grown up in Abkhazia, a part of northwest Georgia bordering the Black Sea. When she had moved to Ukraine, Katia’s grandmother stayed. Then, when Katia was only a toddler, a revolt tore through the region. Armed secessionists, backed by Russia, fought against the Georgian government for independence. Katia’s grandmother had to flee her home and was never able to return.

(Although it has broken away and is supported by Russia, most countries consider Abkhazia to still be part of Georgia; only a handful of countries have recognized its independence.)

“My grandma had to flee her home and come to Kharkiv to save herself. My dad’s family is from the area which is now claimed by Russia,” she said. (Her father is from the Donetsk region, part of which is in the occupied “independent states” where Russia-backed separatists have battled the Ukraine government since 2014.)

“Russia claiming territory has been part of my life since I was a kid,” she said. “That’s happened to all the sides of my family. And now it happened in my hometown too.”

One century earlier

A war, and then a pandemic. Eduard Prochnau lived through both.

Eduard was raised in Nepoznanitschi, a town in Western Ukraine, with limited education but a strong family. He learned how to make scythes from imported English steel with his father. Nepoznanitschi had been settled by German protestants and Eduard attended Lutheran church on Sundays.

A month before Eduard’s 22nd birthday, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and war broke out across Europe. Germany declared war on Russia—and along with it, Eduard’s hometown.

It’s unclear exactly when or how Eduard joined Tsar Nicholas’ imperial army. It’s likely he was in one of the first waves of conscription; by the fall of 1915, all non-breadwinners in the country had been recruited.

He likely faced the same struggles as nearly all Russian soldiers. Although largely victorious in Austro-Hungary, the Russian army was decimated in the north. One million men were killed in the first year, and three million were injured. Ammunition was in short supply, and some soldiers were sent to the front without guns. As the war dragged on, Germans dogged Russian troop movements and morale dropped.

“Take us and have us shot,” one company of soldiers said in a telegraph to the tsar after anti-war mutinies, “but we just are not going to fight any more.”

In December 1917, peace was declared on the eastern front. But the Ukraine Eduard returned to was very different from the one he had left.

Tsar Nicholas was imprisoned with his family. The Bolsheviks had seized power from the more moderate socialist revolutionaries. The Spanish flu was killing millions around the world.

By 1919, the Tsar and his family were dead, and Ukraine was a key battleground in the Russian Civil War, a multi-sided conflict between communists, monarchists, nationalists, anarchists, and foreigners. Kyiv, the capital, changed hands five times in less than a year.

Amid the chaos, Eduard married Olga Barleben, a young woman who loved music as much as he did. They had a daughter, Alica, and Eduard became an assistant pastor in the local Lutheran church.

But life only became more disrupted. Ukrainian independence was quashed. Famine swept the countryside, and workers’ strikes and peasant uprisings were common. And significantly for the devout Eduard and Olga, religious intolerance by the Soviet government was increasing.

In the mid-1920s, Eduard contacted a cousin who had emigrated to the United States and asked to borrow some money. In 1926, he and his family left Ukraine. They sailed to Liverpool and, on Dec. 17, 1926, began the long journey to Canada.

Coming to Canada

Eduard, Olga, and their family weren’t the first Ukrainians to cross the Atlantic.

Ivan Pylypow and Wasyl Eleniak, two peasants from Austro-Hungarian-controlled Ukraine, are credited with sparking the first major wave of immigration. They arrived in Canada in 1891 to visit former neighbours. They wrote back: “We’re coming back and we’re selling everything that we have. This is Heaven compared to what we have, we’ve got to go.”

Between 1891 and the start of the First World War, roughly 170,000 Ukrainians emigrated to Canada. Each family received 160 acre plots of land from the Canadian government. (The Dominion of Canada had taken the land from Indigenous peoples. Nations were partially compensated through the Numbered Treaties, and these continue to have long-lasting impacts in the prairie provinces.)

In the interwar period, when Eduard and Olga arrived in Canada, roughly 68,000 Ukrainians arrived in Canada. Although many moved into cities, the Prochnaus settled in Bruderheim, Alberta—the same community Ivan and Wasyl had visited decades earlier.

The couple arrived right before the Depression, and persevered through it. Eduard worked on farms and repaired furniture and made baskets and toys in his shop. Olga gave birth to a son, Arthur. Overseas, the Soviet government was systematically seizing grain from Ukraine peasants; millions of Ukrainian residents died of starvation while grain yields were only a little below average.

In 1933, Eduard left his home in Bruderheim and rented a small dairy farm in Abbotsford. Olga and their two kids joined him, as did two other German-Ukrainian families from Bruderheim. Together, three families bought 40 acres on Jackman Road in Aldergrove, and for a short time, slept in the barn on the property.

Eduard built a log cabin, and crafted the scythe they used to cut the grass—just like his father had taught him.

Life was not easy; for a time Eduard would bike to work at a lumber mill in New Westminster, leaving on Sunday nights and returning Saturday mornings. But Eduard and Olga made it work. Their two children grew up with a strong education, and their home was full of music. The couple retired to Abbotsford in 1964, where they built a new home with modern conveniences and bought their first car.

Eduard died in 1981. Olga died in 1991—the same year Ukraine announced its independence.

The war today

Today, the Fraser Valley is home to 26,000 people of Ukrainian descent—or roughly 7% of the population. Langley has around 8,000 people of Ukrainian descent. Abbotsford and Chilliwack have around 7,000 and 5,500 people, respectively, who can trace their history back to Ukraine. In Canada as a whole, there are 1.36 million people of Ukrainian descent—roughly 4% of the population. (Those numbers are from the 2016 census; Statistics Canada has not yet released ethnic data from 2021.)

Many are descended from people like Eduard and Olga Prochnau, who came to Canada from Ukraine during one of the early immigration waves. But others are people like Katia Zavgorodnia, who moved from Ukraine more recently.

Katia spent her youth in Kharkiv, speaking Russian in school and at home, but knowing Ukrainian and the culture of her homeland. She studied computer science at Kharkiv National University and later moved to Lviv, in the western part of the country.

In 2014, her son was born. Three months later, Russian troops entered Crimea—a peninsula in southern Ukraine with a complicated political history—and annexed it. Katia began to feel unsafe. But she stayed.

Then, pro-Russian gunmen stormed her father’s hometown of Slovyansk in the Donetsk region. Another war had begun.

“The war never stopped throughout these eight years. It was always there,” she said. “People were dying. But somehow, Ukrainian economics kept running, and people just accepted that fact, because it was kind of far away from most of Ukraine.”

(Western countries condemned the annexation of Crimea and the influx of Russian fighters into Donetsk and a neighbouring region. Some sanctions were imposed.)

Katia, her husband, and her son left Ukraine in 2017 for New York, and later moved to Chilliwack. It was here that she heard Russian President Vladimir Putin’s message that Russia would conduct a “special military operation” to “demilitarize” Ukraine. And it was here that she saw the first bombs dropped in Ukraine.

“I remember watching a lot of live-streams, watching my city being bombed,” she said. “We started calling our families, talking to them. They’re all scared.

“Since Wednesday night, nothing is the same any more.”

Putin’s televised announcement aired just before 5am on Feb. 24. In it, he said that “far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis” controlled the Ukrainian government. (That government is currently headed by Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jewish man who’s great-grandfather was killed during the Nazi invasion of Ukraine.) Putin claimed that Russians living in Ukraine were facing atrocities, even genocide by the Ukrainian government. (He and his government have made it a crime to call the invasion a “war.”)

To Katia, it was an unbelievable lie.

“I, myself, speak Russian. That’s my first language,” she said. “Russia is… building this image that the Russian-speaking population is being punished, and they need to save them so they can be liberated from the Ukrainian Nazi regime. That’s absolute bullshit.

“There’s no one to be saved in Ukraine.”

Since the start of the invasion, Russia has launched more than 600 missiles against Ukrainian cities. More than 470 civilians have been killed, and more than two million have fled. More than 60 hospitals have been destroyed, and shootings at nuclear power stations left experts watching radiation levels. Several peace talks have occurred, with no resolution. It has been bloody, and rife with propaganda and misinformation.

It also isn’t going as well as Putin had hoped.

“Russia seems to have thought that this was going to be a relatively quick operation. And it failed,” James Horncastle, SFU professor and expert in international relations said. The Ukrainian people, many of whom stayed in the country to join the volunteer army against the Russians, have been strong. International sanctions have been unprecedented.

Canada was one of the first countries to call for increased sanctions against Russia and its billionaires. Immigrant communities in the country have always had strong ties to international movements. Canada’s Ukrainian connection meant it was among the first countries in the world to recognize Ukrainian independence in 1991. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, whose grandparents were born in Ukraine and who has been monitored by the Soviet Union’s secret police, has been among those leading the way on sanctions for Russia. Today, Canada has the largest population of Ukrainians outside of either Ukraine or Russia.

“You can see that strong sense and connection with Ukraine actually influencing Canadian policymakers today,” Horncastle said.

The war continues. Katia is helping friends in Ukraine coordinate evacuations from areas of heavy fighting. Her parents still text her every hour, even when there is nothing to say. They are staying in Kharkiv, even as 600,000 of the city’s 1.4 million people have fled.

How will it end? Katia doesn’t know. She doesn’t read war analyses anymore. She just has her personal hopes.

“My hope is that my family is safe, everyone is safe. They can keep living their life, being an independent country, building their wealth, building their history, and just living their life.

“That’s what we did before Russia decided to liberate us.”

Our thanks goes out to the Aldergrove Historical Society for their help in researching the Prochnau family. Information on the history of Ukraine came largely from Orest Subtelny’s Ukraine: A History and Ronald Grigor Suny’s The Soviet Experiment, as well as articles in the Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine. Details on the current invasion of Ukraine largely came from our interview with SFU professor James Horncastle and The Kyiv Independent, an English-language publication in Kyiv, Ukraine. You can support The Independent’s journalism work via Patreon or GoFundMe.


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