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The diaspora, the meaning of family, and Ukraine’s difficult 20th century: a review of Megan Buskey’s Ukraine is Not Dead Yet

Ukraine’s troubled modern history has naturally had a profound effect on the millions of Ukrainians present in the diaspora. Among these people is Megan Buskey, who returned to the country of her ancestors and found a part of herself of which she knew very little.

April 19, 2024 - Nicole Yurcaba - Books and Reviews

Cover of Ukraine is Not Dead Yet.

Born and raised in the United States, Ukrainian-American Megan Buskey returned to Ukraine after her grandmother’s death, undertaking a complicated quest of uncovering her family’s history in a Galician village. From her grandmother’s Siberian exile to the emigrations of other relatives whose journeys shaped the author’s own relationship with Ukraine, Buskey genuinely and honestly reveals her family’s complicated relationship with not only their homeland, but also America. Thus, Ukraine is Not Dead Yet unpacks the myriad of ways the Ukrainian diaspora maintains a culture, a language, traditions and a relationship with their homeland despite the historical obstacles separating them from their native soil. As Buskey forges connections between generations and continents, she also questions the complexities of identity and foreign and personal histories.

What Buskey’s book brilliantly captures is the difficulties of existing in a diaspora, especially in America, where assimilation has been imposed on immigrants and their families’ future generations. The Ukrainian diaspora has a long history in the United States. While the first wave of Ukrainian immigration began in 1880 and continued up to the First World War, a second wave occurred during the interwar period. The third wave, consisting of mostly political refugees, occurred after the Second World War. However, uniquely enough, Buskey’s own relatives received a rare opportunity to emigrate in the 1960s.

As it is for many in the diaspora, Ukraine, nonetheless, was not simply a country to be forgotten once the Buskeys left it. Buskey writes long, personal passages about how her grandmother frequently packaged old clothes and shipped them to their relatives in Ukraine. She writes descriptive passages about being a young child forced to attend Ukrainian church services as well as Ukrainian Saturday school, which she eventually left because of a lack of interest. Buskey states, “I came to think of Ukraine as representing a borderland of my own, a psychic one,” and it is not until her adulthood that Buskey, much to her grandmother’s delight, begins fervently studying the Ukrainian language. This endeavour ultimately leads Buskey to return to Ukraine, which allows her to enter “a new understanding of how the world worked”. This is because Buskey’s trips to Ukraine “revealed…a glimmer of the unjust suffering it could hold”. Thus, what readers see Buskey develop is an awareness of the American, first-world privileges which frequently separate those in the diaspora from their relatives and friends in the homeland.

Buskey’s book, too, enters uncomfortable territory in its exploration of Ukraine’s complex Second World War history. What makes Ukraine is Not Dead Yet memorable in this regard is Buskey’s own vulnerability in these moments of familial exposure. That vulnerability comes forth as Buskey uncovers the history behind Stefan Mazur, her grandmother’s brother, who was “cited again and again as the reason the Mazurs were sent to Siberia”. What Buskey’s research reveals is that Stefan was involved with the infamous UPA (also known as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army) and that Stefan “had served in the Ukrainian auxiliary police under the Nazis”. What readers witness is Buskey’s own reconciliation with her relative’s murderous past. She invites readers into her disbelief and vulnerability as she “tried to make sense” of what she had “learned about my family’s past” and “tried to find some wisdom in the present”. She poses a difficult question for modern Ukrainians: “How were Ukrainians themselves grappling with these difficult chapters of their history?” She correlates Ukraine’s “dark chapters” with those “which can be found in the history of any country”, including the United States. She then asks “How could a country know itself unless it knew all the things that had been.” Thus, Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet presents the unique story of one woman attempting to reconcile history, not only for herself, but also for her family and their role within that nation.

Additionally, Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet briefly exposes another tidbit of Eastern European history with which many western readers will be unfamiliar – that of Operation Vistula. Buskey describes the forced resettlement of more than one million Poles, Ukrainians and Carpatho-Rusyns (specifically Boykos and Lemkos) as a “different post-war mass deportation”. The operation’s ultimate goal was to suppress the UPA, and while Buskey does not explore the resettlement’s history in depth, the momentary mention of it might be enough to pique readers’ interest in the event.

While Ukraine is Not Dead Yet presents heavy questions about Ukraine’s history, it also seizes a few moments to contemplate Ukraine’s future. As the book concludes, readers encounter Buskey’s own assertions, “What the new Ukraine will be is a hard question to pose” and “The possible answers are harder still.” She acknowledges that the “task of building a new Ukraine will be complicated—full of moments of light and darkness and replete with concerns that cannot be easily resolved”. Buskey proves, too, with beautiful writing, thoughtful introspection, and brutal honesty that no matter how far Ukrainians are from the Carpathians or the steppes, no matter how much hardship and violence they may face, a new generation of Ukrainians, both native and diasporic, believes in a better, brighter Ukraine.

Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet: A Family Story of Exile and Return by Megan Buskey. Ibidem Press 2023.

Nicole Yurcaba is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. A poet and essayist, her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, New Eastern Europe, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University, and is Humanities faculty at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College in the United States. She also serves as a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.

In episode 135 of the Talk Eastern Europe podcast, Adam Reichardt sits down with Megan Buskey, to discuss her book Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet: A Family Story of Exile and Return.


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