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Ukraine in France

An interview with Christine Kohut, member of Portail de l’Ukraine. Interviewer: Clémence Lavialle.

May 12, 2021 - Christine Kohut Clémence Lavialle - Interviews

Church of Saint-Vincent in Senlis was founded by Queen Anne of Kyiv in 1065. Photo: P.poschadel wikimedia.org

CLÉMENCE LAVIALLE: Could you please tell me a bit about your association? What do you do? What is the purpose of this group and who is your target audience?

CHRISTINE KOHUT: From the very beginning of the Maidan protests in 2013, Ukrainians living in Northern France decided to form an association. The idea was to create a space where Ukrainians and Ukrainophiles could meet. When engaging with the population through our demonstrations, we realised that people in Lille did not know about Ukraine at all. People could only mention erroneous stereotypes or the Chernobyl disaster.

This is how our association, Portail de l’Ukraine, was created. Its main goal is to make Ukraine known as it really is, including both contemporary and historical Ukraine. The other objective consists of reinforcing co-operation and partnerships between Ukraine and France. It is about civil societies, but also about reviving the partnership between Lille and Kharkiv, which was established in the 1970s but has declined in recent years. The second main goal of this association is to be a meeting place for Ukrainians and friends of Ukraine. That is why we used to organise many cultural events. Until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were showing up to eight documentaries per year in Lille about different themes. Literary events also played an important role. The Salon du Livre (Book Fair) in Paris is an event that takes place in March every year and has a Ukrainian stand. The Ukrainian authors who went to the Salon also came to Lille, as it is only an hour away from Paris by train. We organised many concerts as well.

The association tries to be part of collective dynamics to reach the most diverse audience possible. Until 2019, Portail de l’Ukraine was a partner of the Festival of Solidarities in Lille, a national event with a different theme every year. In 2019, the theme was ecology, and our association chose to deal with the issue of Chernobyl. Ukrainian-German director Elisabeth Fast made a film about the new inhabitants of Chernobyl called Roadside Radiation, in which she narrates how the inhabitants have reinvested in the space in order to recreate a social fabric despite the contaminated territory. We screened the film and invited the director. The event was a great success, bringing together people who are more interested in ecology and not particularly in Ukraine-related matters. The aim was to take universal issues and point them at Ukraine. Every year we also make a point of commemorating the 1933 Stalin-imposed famine (Holodomor) with an event to raise awareness of the tragedy.

Your association was created in response to the events of 2013-2014, namely the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. What would you say was the reaction of the French public to these events?

In 2014, when Victor Yanukovych’s forces started shooting at the population, spontaneous rallies were organised in Northern France to raise awareness about the situation in Ukraine. The call was to rally with Ukrainian flags, traditional embroidered shirts, and to just show up in the public square was a catalyst. It brought together the children of Ukrainian immigrants and new Ukrainian immigrants in Lille. There were several such demonstrations in 2013 and 2014.

Why is your association based in Lille? Is there a substantial Ukrainian diaspora there? 

From the 1950s to the 1970s, there was a strong Ukrainian community in Lille. The first wave of immigrants arrived here in the inter-war period with Polish passports. In 1919, France had just gotten out of the First World War and to rebuild the country it needed labour in its factories, mines and the countryside. The French government made a contract with Poland (which had just been recognised as a state) to bring people into France. At that time, Poland’s borders were further east, and all the territories around the now-Ukrainian city of Lviv were Polish. In 1918, 35 per cent of the Polish population belonged to national minorities, with Ukrainians being the largest group. That is why Ukrainian immigrants arrived in France with Polish passports. The second wave of immigrants arrived after the Second World War. They were mostly people from the labour camps who did not want to return to the USSR. They were given work contracts in the West, with the status of political refugees. 

The north of France is an industrial area. Therefore, it attracted these people, as labour demand was high during those immigration waves. There was a very active Ukrainian community around Lille. This was manifested by the Ukrainian parish, which is of Greek Catholic denomination, and numerous cultural initiatives such as theatre, singing and dancing. The community was very organised, notably around a Greek Catholic church in the basement of the Lille cathedral (we were the only foreign community to have a place of worship in the cathedral) and a Saint Volodymyr cultural centre where we organised all sorts of events. The Ukrainians even bought an estate that they first named after Metropolitan Andriy Sheptyckyj (1865-1944), who was of great religious and public importance in Ukraine and for the Ukrainian diaspora and a supporter of Ukraine’s independence, then renamed “la Maison des Ukrainiens” (the Ukrainians’ house) in Le Cateau. This estate was, at the time, both a monastery and a summer camp for children who often lived in precarious conditions. The children of workers and farm labourers were thus able to live in a culturally Ukrainian environment.  Then, in the 1960s, the great wave of Ukrainian immigration to Canada and the United States began. With the gradual integration of remaining immigrants, the Ukrainian community became smaller. In 2014, just before the Revolution of Dignity, almost nothing remained in the region, with the exception of a Greek-Catholic parish.

And what about the Ukrainian diaspora in other parts of France?

There is a strong network of associations, with many new additions following the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. Also, a significant part of this diaspora is the religious community, namely the Orthodox Church, and also the Greek Catholics of the Byzantine rite. The main difference between the latter community and the Latin Catholic Church is that priests do not take a vow of celibacy and can therefore marry. In Paris, the Ukrainian cathedral of Saint Volodymyr the Great is crowded every Sunday.  There is also a church in Senlis, which relieves some of the pressure on the Parisian parish. In Lille, the religious community is smaller, but churchgoers are always present at Christmas and Easter. A Ukrainian church was inaugurated in 1981 in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. The priest had collected money from all the Ukrainian communities of France and elsewhere in the world to build this church. Before this building, there was a Ukrainian altar in the big basilica with Ukrainian masses. Priests often had a prominent place in the life of Ukrainian communities. Nonetheless, the Ukrainian diaspora is not as big as other immigrant communities in France, such as the Italian or Algerian ones. In Lille, if there are ten people missing, we notice it immediately! Especially since the older members cannot always easily move about.

Did the events of 2014 cause divisions within the Ukrainian community in France?

At the time, everyone came together. There were no divisions. Quite the contrary: Maidan, from my own experience, is an event that welded us together, brought us closer and helped us stand together. Among Ukrainian immigrants, the language question is a clear source of tension to this day. The children of former Ukrainian immigrants have always fought for the independence of Ukraine. In their view, this independence is, of course, first and foremost political; but in France it has always been marked by the importance of linguistic independence. Speaking and practicing Ukrainian was crucial. In the middle of the 20th century, for instance, the only linguistic tensions (in the north of France that is) were with the Polish language. There were Poles who spoke Polish and Poles who spoke Ukrainian. Today, and since the country’s independence, this has changed. Tensions are emerging between the old immigrants who speak Ukrainian and the new ones, many of whom speak Russian. These are mostly Ukrainians from the east of Ukraine. With the war in Donbas, we have observed a change. All these Ukrainian immigrants who spoke Russian gradually began to speak Ukrainian. I think there are two factors: being around the old immigrants who have always spoken Ukrainian and being around the young Ukrainians refugees who were fighting in Donbas. I myself have really seen this inclination of Ukrainian immigrants to speak Ukrainian. I have even seen this happening in our association.

Coming back to the political level, there are no tensions between Ukrainians. There are, however, obvious tensions with the Russians and supporters of current Russian policies.

Is there a new wave of Ukrainian immigration to France today? 

I can’t provide you with a precise answer. What I can say is that different generations of Ukrainian immigrants have met each other since Maidan. There is now a connection between the old and the new. Immigrations in provincial cities, such as Lille are very distinct from those who live in Paris. In the first category, we often find university graduates who have a work contract and are highly qualified. In Paris, there are of course university graduates, but not only. There are also people who come to work as caregivers and construction workers. They are here to make money before going back to Ukraine. We cannot speak of a single Ukrainian immigrant community today, but rather of several communities.  

What are the aims of the association today? For example, the war is still going on in Donbas, but the interest of the French media in this area seems to have died out. 

Unfortunately, people are no longer interested in the war. Thus, to get them talk about Ukraine, we have to organise cultural events for them. In this way, we bring the situation in Ukraine to the forefront and make people aware of it.

What cultural initiatives do you organise? 

Let me tell you a few words about a project called Ukraine-Mémoire (Ukraine Memory). Its aim is to present the history of Ukrainian immigration in France. In 2016 when the General Commission for Territorial Equality launched a call for projects to highlight the contributions of immigrants in the north of France, our association submitted a proposal. At that time nobody knew us. Not even the Polish community. Our project allowed us to create the first documentary based on interviews with immigrant children. We started to collect all kinds of archives and documents that could be saved. This was a work on families of Ukrainian descendants.

From these collections, we created an exhibition that allowed us to make ourselves known. The second major project within the framework of Ukraine Memory was to retrace the history of the Ukrainians’ house. The estate in Le Cateau no longer exists, as it has been demolished. So, we collected as many documents as we could and found witnesses from that time. These people gave us their testimonies and shared their photos. They are presented in a book that retraces this history. This book was also the subject of an exhibition which we organised in a partnership with the town of Le Cateau. This event was a huge success for a town of this size. Today Ukraine-Memory is becoming a full-fledged association, exclusively dedicated to the subject of the Ukrainian presence in France.

Do you have any idea of other cultural initiatives that are organised in France about Ukraine?

Since the last Maidan, there has been a real increase in the number of initiatives on Ukraine in France. Many associations have been created everywhere. Since 2020, things have become complicated, but these initiatives haven’t stopped. Other Ukrainian associations in France are generally quite similar to ours, but there are also charity associations. We can take the example of Aide Médicale Caritative France-Ukraine (Charitable Medical Aid France-Ukraine), which sends medical equipment to Ukraine, to the frontline or to the western parts of the country. It remains active even during the COVID-19 period. Another association I would like to mention is Fédération Echange France Ukraine (Federation Exchange France Ukraine). This organisation was created in 1992 and was initially intended to welcome the children of Chernobyl. Today it has changed its focus and is more oriented on university exchange or allowing Ukrainian students to complete internships in French companies.

How have you been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?  

Our association has been at a standstill since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but we are planning to organise an exhibition at the Manufacture, which is a former textile factory. It is located in Roubaix, which is France’s textile capital.  The theme of the exhibition is Ukrainian textiles. It will consist of several parts. The first part will include the works of contemporary artists. For example, a photo exhibition on the Hutsul people, which will also present the Hutsul textiles. There will also be a screening of Spadok, a film made by Ukrainian students, which shows women outfits from different regions of Ukraine. The second part is dedicated to Ukrainian immigrants in Northern France especially. There will be a presentation of a dance group called L’écho de l’Ukraine de Roubaix (The Echo of Ukraine of Roubaix, very active in the 1950s). It was composed of 35 singers and dancers; all of them were textile workers. They made traditional costumes for the troupe, which will also be exhibited. The troupe was affiliated with the French Confederation of Christian Workers at the time. Their history is therefore linked to the notion of work and textiles in all their forms. There will also be a display of photos of Ukrainian immigrants in traditional clothes and the history of rushnyk (traditional Ukrainian cloth).

Christine Kohut was born in 1971 to Ukrainian parents who arrived in France after the Second World War. She studied Russian language and communication. After having worked in companies and directed a federation of popular education, she now devotes herself to shedding light on the Ukrainian presence in France, a specificity that is little known or even unknown in the country. She is a co-founder of the project Ukraine Mémoire, Histoire de l’immigration ukrainienne en France and of the publication in 2019 of the first book of the collection Ukraine mémoire, “La maison des ukrainiens de Le Cateau 1955-1997”.

Clémence Lavialle is a student at Sciences Po Paris, at the Dijon campus specializing in Central and Eastern Europe. She is currently an Erasmus at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and an intern at New Eastern Europe. She has been studying Russian language since she was 12 years old and has recently become particularly interested in Ukraine. 

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