Ukraine Alive | Work of Arts
Ukraine Alive | Work of Arts

Ukraine Alive

Natalie Kononenko’s research provides insights into how immigrant groups adapt to their new country.

In Ottawa, Christmas decorations on Parliament Hill will stay up until January 8. That’s because Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7. It’s an important holiday to Canada’s large Ukrainian population, which immigrated to the prairies starting in the late 19th century. Many Ukrainians celebrate the holiday with a traditional vegetarian feast called Sviata Vechera, a 12-course meal with one dish for each of the 12 apostles. But some of the traditions surrounding the celebration have changed over the past hundred years, and that’s what interests Natalie Kononenko, a researcher at the U of A who studies the Ukrainian Diaspora and how Ukrainian immigrants in Canada and across the globe have adapted to their new homes.

Kononenko was born in a displaced persons camp in West Germany shortly after the end of World War II. Her family left Ukraine in 1936 to escape Stalin, and spent the intervening decade struggling to reach the west. She was only a few years old when her family made the trek across the Atlantic to move to the United States, finally settling in  New Jersey.

Kononenko studied at Cornell University, Radcliffe College and Harvard, and although she  initially intended to get a degree in mathematics, she switched to Slavic Studies after taking a literature class.  She received her bachelors degree in Slavic languages and literatures, then completed her MA and eventually a PhD at Harvard in Slavic and Turkic folklore.

From 1974 to 2004, Kononenko taught at the University of Virginia, but she was finally lured to the University of Alberta’s Department of Modern Languages & Cultural Studies and appointed the Peter and Doris Kule Chair in Ukrainian Ethnography in 2004. Inspired by Doris Kule’s career as an elementary school teacher, Kononenko decided that one of her projects at the University of Alberta would be to create a website for bilingual elementary education. The success of this project led to her current work on Ukraine Alive, an English language resource used in grade 3 Social Studies.  Kononenko describes it as one of her favourite projects, and one that she hopes will be used as a template for other subjects. “It could be used for many of the other social sciences, but not necessarily the social sciences only,” she says.


When Kononenko isn’t teaching classes, she travels frequently. Since Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, she has travelled there nearly every year. In 2011 she backpacked through northeast Kazakhstan. “I like excitement,” she jokes. But while the trip was partially inspired by her thrill-seeking nature, it was also an opportunity for Kononenko to compare the experience of the Ukrainians that settled the Kazakh Steppe with those who immigrated to Canada at approximately the same time in the late 19th to early 20th century. Much of Kononenko’s research focuses on religious traditions and rituals, and she found that Ukrainian immigrants in both Kazahkstan and Canada had adapted their religious celebrations to suit their new home. In Canada, for instance, many Ukrainians celebrate Malanka, a New Year’s celebration that falls on January 13 and compliments the rest of the holiday season, while in Kazakhstan, much of the focus is on Maslenitsa, which takes place before Lent and lands close to the traditional Kazakh New Year’s celebration

Kononenko hopes that her research, as well as the extensive fieldwork she’s done in Ukrainian communities across Canada, can help us understand how immigrant groups adapt to their new country. She also hopes that by seeing how Ukrainian-Canadian culture has developed over the past century, we may be able to anticipate the path future immigrant communities will follow.

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