Kevin Stiner | May 05, 2022
How One Family Preserved Ukrainian Culture
Longtime emeriti couple spent decades collecting thousands of pieces of Ukrainian literature that were banned by the Soviet Union. Their work is now in jeopardy.
Imagine you’re born into a country that is rich in art, culture, and language but a larger region swallows your country whole and attempts to eliminate the uniqueness of your birthplace. This is the world that the late Wolodymyr “Mirko” Pylyshenko was delivered into.
During his 36 years as a professor in SUNY Brockport’s Art and History Department, Pylyshenko, a native of Ukraine, worked to reverse those efforts. He accumulated and preserved more than 15,000 works of Ukrainian literature that were banned during the Soviet Union’s rule. Pylyshenko and his wife Irma Töpper Pylyshenko, worked together to preserve and archive Ukraine’s rich tradition. Tragically, the Ukrainian writings they worked so hard to save are now again in danger after being gifted to a Ukrainian library just months before the Russian invasion.
Born in Volyn, Ukraine in 1934, Pylyshenko spent most of his childhood in displaced person camps in Germany during World War II. His family moved to Rochester, NY when he was a teenager, and he earned his degree from Rochester Institute of Technology.
In addition to teaching, Pylyshenko was a chairman of Brockport’s Art and History Department, and he met and married Töpper. A native of Germany, she helped found and chair Brockport’s Dance Department.
The couple was heavily immersed and invested in art and culture, especially that of Ukraine. Despite the suppressive reign from the Soviet Union over Ukraine, the couple was able to travel to the region.
“It’s because my parents were professors at Brockport that they were able to do this kind of work because it folded into their research.”
“It’s because my parents were professors at Brockport that they were able to do this kind of work because it folded into their research,” said Katja Kolcio, daughter of the Pylyshenkos. “My dad’s research was about Ukrainian arts and my mom’s work was around freedom of movement.”
Behind the Iron Curtain
While traveling in the region in the 1970s, Kolcio remembers her family being watched and her parents reminding her not to speak Ukrainian in public because it was banned. She even remembers a family member losing their job, being forced into manual labor, and going to prison for hosting Ukrainian book readings.
Around this time, dissidents of the Soviet regime began sharing all sorts of Ukrainian writing with Pylyshenko. In total he collected more than 15,000 books that documented and illustrated the history and culture of Ukraine. Many of the copies came from displaced Ukrainians all over the world.
“My mother really joined into my father’s effort to preserve Ukrainian culture,” shared Kolcio. “The fact is that my dad did a lot of this but most of it was my mom’s idea. She was instrumental in bringing costumes back, smuggling them because it was illegal. She knew they would be destroyed in the Soviet Union.”
Preservation, Perseverance, Triumph, Tragedy
The married couple made it their mission to preserve the culture of Ukraine until the day it regained its freedom. In 1991, Ukraine declared its independence, while the Pylyshenkos kept accumulating writings and costumes.
“Ukrainians were publishing books from displacement camps in Europe and Germany immediately following World War II,” explained Kolcio, a dance professor at Wesleyan University. “That’s the determination that the Ukrainians had in preserving their culture.”
Kolcio described how Ukrainian refugees opened libraries and schools once they reached the United States.
“I went to a Ukrainian school. This is a way that they very conscientiously preserved and taught Ukrainian history so it wouldn’t disappear completely in the hope that someday there would be a recognition that Ukraine is a culture, a distinct culture, and not Russian.”
As Pylyshenko progressed in age, he began to wonder what would become of his collection of Ukrainian books. There were several possibilities, including the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, but a visit to Rochester by Boris Filatov, a Ukrainian mayor, sparked a homecoming of sorts.
The books that were outlawed for years, would go back to an independent Ukraine. Filatov coordinated with the Pylyshenko family to build a library in Dnipro. Unfortunately, Mirko Pylyshenko passed away in February of 2021 nearly one year prior to the final shipment of books reaching their destination.
Regrettably, now as Ukraine once again finds itself in conflict with Russia, the literature is in danger of becoming collateral damage in the war-torn country.
Multiple podcasts explore the history of the Pylyshenkos preserving Ukrainian culture and literature. For more on the unbelievable preservation of Ukrainian culture by the Pylyshenkos take a listen to the podcasts listed below.