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Adrian Karmazyn 

VOA’s Ukrainian Window on the 1996 Democratic Convention

Ukrainian-Americans voice their opinions on politics, Ukraine and the community


Photo: Adrian Karmazyn (L) interviews Orest Baranyk in Washington, DC.


Last year the Ukrainian Museum-Archives (UMA) in Cleveland was successful in acquiring a collection of some 5,000 audio and video recordings of Voice of America (VOA) Ukrainian Service programming.   The majority of the collection consists of television stories produced between 1993 – 2016.  However, the collection also includes hundreds of audio recordings spanning several decades.

For over 70 years – from the dark days of the Cold War to the declaration of Ukraine’s independence to the Orange Revolution and the Euro-Maidan Revolution of Dignity—millions of Ukrainians have been tuning in to VOA to hear America’s message of freedom, democracy, rule of law, respect for national identity, Western solidarity and Euro-Atlantic security.

This treasure trove of Ukrainian-language news, information and feature stories about American life and society now entrusted to UMA constitutes a unique chronicle of U.S.-Ukraine relations, the diaspora’s deep engagement with Ukraine and the experiences of Ukrainian-Americans in the United States. 

As an illustration of how the collection uniquely captures many voices – indeed, recordings of the actual voices! -- from the Ukrainian-American community I’d like to journey back to the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago where I had the privilege of covering the event as a radio reporter for VOA’s Ukrainian Service. Revisiting these recordings now provides an opportunity to reflect on the history and sensibilities of our community as we look forward to the upcoming 29th anniversary of Ukrainian independence and the U.S. presidential election this November.  It’s a snapshot of people’s perceptions and opinions about U.S. politics and policy towards Ukraine at the time, which can be compared and contrasted with the situation today.

My coverage of the convention 24 years ago included highlights from the keynote speeches of President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and First Lady Hillary Clinton who, respectively, talked about “building a bridge to the 21st century,” creating a “smaller, leaner, reinvented government,” and the interdependence of family and community.  Paralyzed movie actor Christopher Reeve (of Superman fame) called for more funding for medical research while activist Sarah Brady addressed the issue of gun control.  (Her husband, James Brady, was President Reagan’s press secretary and was left permanently disabled from wounds he sustained during an assassination attempt on Reagan).  At the time, VOA viewed coverage of the party conventions as a priority inasmuch as they were a celebration of American democracy and symbols of inspirational leadership and participatory politics in the USA.  Besides providing a window on this unique, quadrennial American political jamboree, it was also an opportunity to acquaint our audience in Ukraine with the activities and various political views of the diaspora.

Who will you vote for?

On the sidelines of the Democratic National Convention it was fascinating to explore what issues were most important to Ukrainian-American voters and who they would be supporting in the November 1996 presidential election – incumbent President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, or his Republican challenger, Senator Bob Dole. If during the Cold War the number one question for many in the Ukrainian diaspora was Washington’s support for Ukrainian aspirations for independence, freedom and democracy (or, at least, maintaining a tough policy against communism and the Soviet Union) – by the summer of 1996 (five years after gaining independence) there was a whole new set of considerations regarding U.S. support for Ukraine. And Ukraine was not the only concern that was on the minds of the diaspora.  Issues like the character of the candidates and the state of the economy were also important.

Chicago Ukrainian Baptist pastor Olexa Harbuziuk (age 76) said that the most important question for him is the issue of morals and character: “Bob Dole will get my vote… because he stands for the moral values of the people.  I’m a religious person and I unconditionally stand for morals and character, for the high morals of a person.  And because Bob Dole is building his campaign on those principles, he will get my vote.”

For Halyna Traversa the issue of morals and character was also very important, even more important than the economic situation. She said she is supporting Sen. Dole “because I’m more of a Republican than a Democrat and I think that even though the American economy is doing well under Clinton – inflation is low and the economy is moving forward – personally, I don’t like his character… I, actually, very much like his wife but she, unfortunately, is not the president… so, I will be voting for Dole.”

Clinton’s 1992 campaign famously used the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid” to highlight his focus on improving the economy.  Representing a business perspective, Ihor Wyslotsky, the head of Redex Packaging Corporation, said he is pleased with Clinton’s economic policies: “I think that the economic stability which has existed in America over the past three years and the priorities practiced by the current government provide confidence and encouragement to vote for stability.”

Not everyone we talked to had made up their minds, regarding who they would vote for.  Twenty-two-year old Sonya Danyluk did not yet belong to any political party and did not know who she would support in the election.  “I’m not yet registered to vote, because I don’t even know which party I like the most,” she said.

Despite the importance of other issues, for many in the Ukrainian diaspora in the USA in 1996, foreign policy remained the priority issue.  But, Orest Baranyk, a life-long Republican and Vice President of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA), explained that voters can’t automatically assume that a Republican will be better for Ukraine, and noted that he is satisfied with Mr. Clinton’s policies regarding Ukraine: “Basically, the Ukrainian community was always more focused on foreign policy during the Cold War – it was the top issue.  At that time, it looked like Republicans were more responsive to Ukrainian issues. I think that now it is not so straightforward since in recent years we were able to have access to the Clinton Administration, to have meetings with him and [Vice President] Gore and others.  They understand Ukrainian issues and they are engaged.  So, keeping this in mind, in this case, Clinton might be even more sensitive [than Dole] to Ukrainian issues.”

However, Myron Kuropas, also a Republican, who worked on ethnic affairs in the Gerald Ford White House, said he supports Bob Dole.  Mr. Kuropas argued that Senator Dole is an old and reliable friend of Ukrainian-Americans. Kuropas recalled accompanying Dole to a meeting of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, focusing on the issue of fulfillment of the Helsinki Accords: “Dole truly understands our issues.  Years and years ago when Bill Clinton did not even know where to find Ukraine on a map, Dole was defending human rights and was on the Helsinki Commission.  He travelled to Belgrade and I went with him – this was the first review of adherence to the principles of the Helsinki Accords, and he knows Ukrainians very well and he knows our issues.”

Still, Myron Kuropas, admitted that although he is a Dole supporter, he is pleased to see Ukrainian-Americans actively participating in politics, be it on the side of Republicans or Democrats. It’s a sign, perhaps, that neither party enjoyed monolithic support from the Ukrainian diaspora at that time. 

In a comprehensive interview, Julian Kulas, Chairman of the Ukrainians for Clinton-Gore Committee, took special pride in sharing that language regarding Ukraine was included in the Democratic party platform:  “We wanted the platform itself – that is, the action plan for the Democratic Party – to recognize Ukraine as a strategic partner of America – and this was done.  And that America commits to continue helping Ukraine economically and, most importantly, that America will always stand for Ukraine’s independence and Ukraine’s integration into Europe.”

Mr. Kulas said that under Bill Clinton he feels a real change in the State Department and other parts of government in terms of support for Ukraine as a bulwark against a revival of Russian imperialism.  “We support President Clinton because the Clinton Administration has truly taken a very positive position regarding Ukrainian issues,” he said, suggesting that many in the diaspora, which traditionally was more Republican-leaning, would be voting to re-elect the sitting Democratic president.

Julian Kulas also talked about the good state of the economy under Bill Clinton and expressed support for the president’s policies on social welfare, immigration and health care. He also noted that with Chicago being such a heavily Democratic city, Ukrainian-Americans could not avoid being active in Democratic politics. The community’s good relations with mayor Richard Daley seems to have helped facilitate the creation of the Chicago-Kyiv Sister Cities program, with Mr. Kulas serving as its first chairperson.

Another Democratic activist, Andriy Fedynsky of Cleveland, talked about how he came to join the Democratic Party two decades ago: “Democrats are more the party of the working class, people of more modest means.  My parents… were immigrants and I found refuge in this party whereas I felt that the Republican Party was more elitist and reflected the needs of people who were already rather well off.  I’m satisfied with the decision that I made 20 years ago.  I think our party works for the general good, for the benefit of all society.”

The highest ranking Ukrainian-American official participating in the Democratic National Convention in 1996 was House of Representatives Minority Whip David Bonior (D-MI).  When asked why President Clinton should be re-elected with respect to the issue of U.S. policy towards Ukraine, Congressman Bonior said: “Bill Clinton has been great to Ukraine.  Ukraine has gotten more foreign aid.  Bill Clinton’s devoted his attention to the situation in Chornobyl.  And he’s been pushing and moving the democratization process forward.  So, he’s been a valuable ally and friend of Ukraine. And we need him back.”

Among the 600 foreign guests at the convention representing over 100 countries was Ukrainian Member of Parliament Viacheslav Chornovil, leader of the People’s Movement of Ukraine and a former Soviet political prisoner. He noted that he’s also had the opportunity to observe the work of national legislatures and political parties in Great Britain, Austria and Germany and that this trip was a continuation of that political education process: “We are borrowing -- I don’t mean literally, but we are learning about Western political culture.  You know how long we were isolated behind the Iron Curtain.  That’s why it’s useful to observe activities like the convention in Chicago.”

Fifth Anniversary of Independence

The 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago practically coincided with local celebrations of the fifth anniversary of Ukrainian independence.  Commemorations included a prayer service at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic cathedral and, afterwards, hundreds attended a banquet at the parish hall where a representative of the White House delivered a proclamation from President Clinton in honor of this milestone. It was the perfect venue to survey the audience about their sentiments regarding Ukraine.

Marta Farion, chairperson of the Chicago-Kyiv Sister Cities committee noted that the partnership between the two cities recently marked its fifth anniversary with the visit of an official delegation from the Ukrainian capital and concert performance of the Kyiv Chamber Orchestra. “This all took place with great success and for the American public this was, to a large extent, an opportunity for Chicago to discover Kyiv,” she said.  Ms. Farion added that “the city’s two main newspapers wrote articles on the topic and reviews about the orchestra performance.  It was a great success.  And we continue to plan for the future.   We are joyful and congratulate all listeners on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of Ukrainian independence.”

Twenty-nine-year-old architect Yuriy Zajac, who was born in Chicago, shared warm thoughts regarding the independence anniversary. “I’m thrilled that I can celebrate the fifth anniversary here in Chicago,” he said, “but I’m disappointed that I can’t be in Ukraine, because last year I was in Ukraine – I was in Kyiv on the 24th [of August] -- we had a nice celebration, attended a concert at Ukraine Palace and watched fireworks.  In Kyiv it was wonderful, nice – to be there on this day.  And I send greetings to everyone in Ukraine, my fatherland.”

While Marta Farion and Yuriy Zajac were enthusiastic about their new opportunities for interacting with Ukraine, which were made possible by independence and the collapse of communism, 35-year-old Orysia (who declined to give her last name) had a more measured comment about this historic date.  Achieving independence was the fulfillment of an old dream says the Chicago-born Ukrainian-American, but she is well aware of the problems facing the people of Ukraine in the current period of economic transformations: “Those who are living in Ukraine are experiencing difficult times.  My husband is from Ukraine – he’s been here for seven years but the rest of his family is still there.”

Yaroslav Markevych (age 63), like other Ukrainian-Americans, is focused on continuing to support Ukraine, but did not hide his apprehension about the future: “I’m happy that Ukraine is independent for five years now.  I truly believe this is a miracle from God.  And if we don’t sustain it now then we will totally lose it.”

Although Ukraine’s achieving independence inspired many people in the diaspora to get more involved in Ukrainian matters – be it in Ukrainian community organizations or direct engagement with Ukraine – it did not spur everyone to be more active.  That was a concern for UCCA Vice President Orest Baranyk (age 52) who has heard some people comment that now that Ukraine is independent, the diaspora has fulfilled its mission.  “Unfortunately,” he said, “the reality is that Ukraine declared independence but is still far from a true independence.  I think that the mission of the Ukrainian diaspora is to help Ukraine stand on its own feet.”

A New Wave of Immigrants from Ukraine

The Chicago reporting assignment also provided an opportunity to explore diaspora community dynamics. In the late 1980s, a new wave of Ukrainian immigrants began arriving in the United States.  Representatives of the existing Ukrainian-American community (those who immigrated to America immediately after World War II, as well as their American-born children) were hopeful that the new immigrants would help rejuvenate community life.  Instead, the “older” diaspora often felt that the newcomers were shying away from active participation in traditional community organizations while the new immigrants sometimes found it difficult to fit in.

New immigrant Vasyl Klym (age 45), who as of 1996 had been living in Chicago for about three years, agreed that newcomers were not very active in the community.  He attributed it partly to the different mindsets of the two immigrations with the previous wave having had a vibrant, nationally conscious, independent civic life even before they arrived in America, while the new immigrants were raised in the Soviet system.  But a big part of the divide is economic reality, he observed: “When we came here, we did not participate in the organizations that exist, because we have very little free time, we work really hard.”  Mr. Klym said that although the Fourth Wave of immigrants may not be able to recreate the community dynamism of the Third Wave, “eventually the new immigrants will be drawn into community life but I don’t think it will be soon.  It will take a minimum of 10 or 20 years.”

Ivan, a recent immigrant with his own construction business, did not feel there is a big divide between the two immigrations in terms of politics, culture or worldview: “I think the problem of new immigrants is that they need to first integrate into this society, to get established here, to earn some money, and this is extremely difficult when you don’t know the language and when you arrive in a country with a totally different work ethic.”  But he said he already sees things changing as the Fourth Wave gets established: “The time is arriving when people will… need more spiritual life.  First comes the material —you need bread -- and then comes song.”

Having lived in Chicago for seven years, Fourth Wave immigrant Ivan Shkrobut noted that there are some tensions between the different immigrations but emphasized that he personally received support from a member of the older diaspora who said: “Why should you start from scratch, I will help you… you’ll get on your feet more quickly and you’ll go farther… He’s proud that he helped me and I’m also pleased.”

Native Chicagoan Roman Golash described his participation in a committee which helps immigrants compose resumes, find employment and access legal services.  He shared that with the assistance of the committee a local hospital hired 15 immigrants from Ukraine.  “You just need to give people an opportunity to work and after that it all depends on them,” he said. Mr. Golash noted with dismay that not everyone from the older diaspora welcomed the new immigrants (some even said they should remain in Ukraine) but most feel that the newcomers can make an important contribution to the organizational life of the diaspora:  “I think that the community is now united around the idea that you have this new immigration and this is very positive because you have fresh blood, new ideas and more people who can work in the community.”

The Task Ahead

The Voice of America series of radio reports on Ukrainian-Americans and the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago is just a small sampling of how the VOA collection at Cleveland’s Ukrainian Museum-Archives offers a unique window on the life of the Ukrainian diaspora and the history of U.S.-Ukraine relations. Listening to these recordings now you can experience the emotions and concerns of Ukrainian-Americans, genuinely expressed in their own voices. The gargantuan task of digitizing and cataloging thousands of audio and video recordings in the collection lies ahead -- but I hope this article helps convey that it will be well worth the effort.   


Adrian Karmazyn served as Chief of VOA’s Ukrainian Service from 2005 to 2015.  During his 27-year career at VOA he also worked as a reporter, program manager and producer.


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