For L.A. Ukrainians, There's No Ukraine-Town, But There's Plenty of Community

A joint Ukrainian/Venezuelan protest

Courtesy of YKOA joint Ukrainian/Venezuelan protest

A city is only as good as its neighborhoods, which might make L.A. the best city on Earth. We have not one, but two Japanese areas (Little Tokyo and Little Osaka), Little Ethiopia, Tehrangeles, Thai Town. We've got K-town, Historic Filipinotown, even the Byzantine-Latino Quarter (yes, really).

It seems like there's no ethnicity that doesn't claim at least a few blocks of territory somewhere in our 500 square miles. Yet recent news out of Eastern Europe has left many Angelenos wondering: Where the Ukrainians at?

The answer is that they've been spread out, largely assimilated into other neighborhoods. (In some cases, they even call themselves Russians, since Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union when they moved to L.A.) While some put the figure of ethnic Ukrainians in the city as high as 300,000, there's only about 40,000 self-identifying as such. There's no "Ukraine-Town." The sole Ukrainian restaurant in L.A., Roxolana, shut down in 2012. Before the Maidan crisis, many Ukrainian Angelenos held their national heritage in a loose grip.

Not any more. These days, they're united -  and they're angry.

A group of young Ukrainians called EuroMaidan Los Angeles has held 10 protests throughout the city, including ones at the Federal Building and CNN Tower, voicing their support for the Maidan movement and pushing to get Ukraine into the EU. Their last rally, a joint Ukraine-Venezuela freedom march on March 8, rallied about 100 people.

The hub of this newly reenergized community is the Ukrainian Cultural Center in East Hollywood, called YKO by its members. It's a surprisingly ornate and cavernous building for a community that mostly flies under the radar. The owners rent it out as a music and events venue; Arcade Fire played there in 2011, and it served as the venue for the popular Zine Fest in 2013.

On March 9, the community gathered at the YKO for the most important day of the Ukrainian year -  in fact, the most important Ukrainian holiday in a century: the 200th anniversary of the birth of Taras Shevchenko. 

Elizabeth Zaharkiv, Youlia Timoshenko and Andrea Kusina wear traditional Ukrainian costumes.

Isaac SimpsonElizabeth Zaharkiv, Youlia Timoshenko and Andrea Kusina wear traditional Ukrainian costumes.

There is no American equivalent to Shevchenko - a poet, an artist and a slave. He wrote passionately about the idea of Ukrainian independence, but never saw it in his lifetime. He is remembered as a spiritual leader more than a political one. As one Ukrainian put it, "Shevchenko taught us to believe in our independence. He promised it would come one day, and it did."

After hundreds of years of mostly Polish, Austrian and/or Russian rule (with a few runs of independence in between), Ukraine at long last became an autonomous state in 1991.

With Russia "annexing" Crimea, that independence is now being threatened. And YKO is experiencing a renaissance, with Ukrainians city-wide flocking to meet, discuss the situation and participate in old traditions that suddenly carry great weight. Shevchenko Day became an opportunity to come together not just for politics, but to celebrate cultural identity.

For Ukrainians, however, the two aren't always easy to separate. Mykhailo Lavrys, a young leader of EuroMaidan LA, describes it thus: "You can't distinguish politics from spiritual life. Shevchenko was a slave, our spiritual leader, not a political one. Still, he's the father of our independence."

Activists Alyona Fedorenko, Iuliia Warner, and Katya Dolbisheva

Isaac SimpsonActivists Alyona Fedorenko, Iuliia Warner, and Katya Dolbisheva

The Shevchenko Festivities consisted of three hours of speeches, readings of Shevchenko poems, traditional dances, and an elegy to the Ukrainains killed in the Maidan conflict. Afterwards, EuroMaidan Los Angeles, the group that organized the 10 protests, sat in a circle and spoke heatedly in Ukrainian. Students and professionals, they ranged in age from 20-60.

Lavrys describes their mission: "Ukrainians want to join the EU to become a part of the Western world. We want to choose our own destiny, not be run by a dictatorship."

Yulia Zhukovska, a friend of Lavrys' and fellow leader of EuroMaidan, goes further, "Yanukovich [the former president of Ukraine, ousted by rebels in February] wanted to return Ukraine to Russia, but students went to the streets and protested. They threw Yanukovich out of office, but now they must fight the Russians as well."

For Ukrainians, history, spirituality and politics are tied up in one national identity, an identity more of them are embracing. The crisis in their home country is something they feel viscerally.

Facing anger and fear, L.A.'s once-disparate Ukrainian population has come together, to comfort each other, and make their voices heard back home, thousands of miles away.

Turn the page to meet some members of L.A.'s Ukrainian community.

Bohdan Futala

Isaac SimpsonBohdan Futala

Bohdan Futala is a local high school teacher, and a leader of the Ukrainian community. He describes the four waves of Ukrainian immigration to the United States: the late 19th century, the early 20th century, after WWII, and the early '90s. His family was part of the third wave.

"Ukrainians have been spread out. A little bit here in Hollywood, a couple of buildings. But since the Maidan people have been very supportive, they come here and send things to family in the Ukraine."

Youlia Timoshenko

Isaac SimpsonYoulia Timoshenko

Youlia Timoshenko has been performing Hutsul her entire life. She, along with most of her family and friends, come to YKO for all Ukrainian holidays.

Katya Dolbisheva

Isaac SimpsonKatya Dolbisheva

Katya Dolbisheva is a student, and member of the Euro Maidan movement in Los Angeles. After the party ended, she was part of a large group who stayed and strategized about how to get their message out to Americans, and Ukrainians at home. "People are angry," she says. "That's why me and my friends joined."

Michelle and Paul Budilo

Isaac SimpsonMichelle and Paul Budilo

Paul Budilo is a second-generation Ukrainian, and his wife Michelle, although not of Ukrainian descent, is an active member of the community. Paul is a staunch supporter of Ukrainian independence, and is one of the leaders of the YKO. Still, he considers himself an American first, and says, "I bleed red, white and blue."

Mykhailo Lavrys

Isaac SimpsonMykhailo Lavrys

 Mykhailo Lavrys is a recent graduate of UCLA Law School. He came to the U.S. three years ago, and hung out with mostly Americans and other international students at law school. Now he's one of the leaders of EuroMaidan L.A., and in that capacity, organized the protests at the Federal Building and CNN Tower.

"In a way, a wake-up call feels good," Lavrys says. "We became friends through the revolution. 20 people became 800."

Turn the page for more thoughts from L.A.-area Ukrainians.

Yulia Zhukovska

Isaac SimpsonYulia Zhukovska

Yulia Zhukovska is a student and leader of EuroMaidan Los Angeles. She came for an internship when she was 23, and decided she wanted to stay. Before the conflict, she didn't hang out with many Ukrainians, but now most of her free time she spends with EuroMaidan.

She, along with Lavrys, is one of the founders of the movement. "Many people who come to LA get Americanized. But what's happening is bringing people together. Particularly young people."

Stephen Biskup and Christina Schymovich

Isaac SimpsonStephen Biskup and Christina Schymovich

Stephen Biskup and Christina Schymkovich are spokespeople for the YKO. Their most popular event is "Friday Night Live," a sketch show in the vein of SNL. Crowds have grown larger since the crisis began. Some nights they have 200 attendees.

John Kowalyk

Isaac SimpsonJohn Kowalyk

John Kowalyk is a priest at one of the four Ukrainian churches in East Hollywood. America, he says, provides much greater freedom of religion than in Ukraine. He likes Los Angeles because "I can say out loud what I think." 

A group of Ukrainian men at the YKO

Isaac SimpsonA group of Ukrainian men at the YKO

Eugene Fedorenko and his son are on the far right. Before the Maidan crisis, Fedorenko didn't even know about the YKO. Now he's a regular.

The patterned shirts are called Vyshyta Sorochka, ornate designs that are traditionally made at home by women. They can now be bought online.

Donuta Lopusiynska

Isaac SimpsonDonuta Lopusiynska

Donuta Lopusiynska moved to the United States 25 years ago. She is passionate about Shevchenko, and about the movement. "War could explode tomorrow, no one knows what will happen," she says. "It's bringing people together. I've never seen such patriotism."

Editor's note: A previous version of this story gave incorrect information about the number of years Ukraine was under foreign rule. We regret the error.

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