Rediscovering my Ukrainian-ness
Updated: Dec 28, 2020
Written by Kimberley-Marie Sklinar
“Do you want to be like them?”
Until I was 13 or 14, my Ukrainian-ness was never something I thought about, but in my adult years, I learned how important it is to hold onto it. Huddersfield Ukrainian Club was a sizeable part of my childhood - my Ukrainian grandad, Ivan Sklinar, is one of the founding members of the Club. When I think about it, I’m aged 7. I can almost smell wafts of borscht coming from the kitchen and hear the sounds of the Ukrainian language coming from the bar. I never learned to speak it, but the sound feels like a big hug to me.
In fact, one of my earliest memories is standing in the corner of the Club’s main hall on a Friday evening. I must have been aged 3 or 4, and my mum was knelt down beside me, matching my small height. Normally I wasn’t allowed in this room when my parents and I came to the Club on a Friday night to meet with my grandparents and their friends - all members of the local Ukrainian community - but tonight mum has something to show me.
On Friday evenings, the hall was reserved for the Club’s dance ‘team’ and I don’t think I’d ever seen them before. But tonight I looked on, transfixed. I remember their bright red knee-high boots, delicately parading around the room in unison as they began their practice.
We watched and clapped. My mum turned to me as they finished and asked, “Do you want to be like them?”. I nodded emphatically. And thus, my ‘career’ as a Ukrainian dancer had begun.
I danced with the club for the next ten years - entering (and winning!) competitions up and down the country, where we’d dance-off with other local clubs, but also at much bigger contests. When costumes didn't fit, my mum sewed new ones for us, helped by other mums and grandmas in one of the upstairs rooms of the club - as we danced downstairs, the ‘costume design team’ would sit upstairs around big tables, chatting and laughing into the night.
I remember performing on the stage at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall and feeling like the stage was so big that it would swallow me up whole if I mis-stepped. Once, the dance group came to perform at my local village’s annual gala (much to the bemusement of my schoolmates!) near Wakefield, and my parents hosted a summer party in our garden for the dancers’ families in the warm July sun.
I remember these days very fondly, but as my teens went on, I outgrew the dancing and wanted to spend Friday and Saturday nights having sleepovers with my high school friends near home instead of donning red ballet shoes half an hour away. We stayed in touch by attending the usual weddings, christenings, and sadly, funerals. My late grandfather, Ivan Sklinar, passed away in the mid-90s, and my connection to the Club eventually began to wane. My parents continued to visit on occasion, but not half as much. I never really thought about my Ukrainian-ness in my earlier years - it had always just been a part of what we did and who we knew.
Finding my Ukrainian-ness
Growing up happened. I went to University, travelled, then moved to London in 2007. I was reminded of my Ukrainian-ness by all the new people I met along the way: ‘how do you say your surname?’ (“no, it’s not ‘sky-liner’...”), ‘where’s that from?’ (“it’s Ukrainian"), ‘have you ever been?’ (“no...but I’d like to…”). I learned how little the world knew about Ukraine - even less than me. I found some beginner Ukrainian classes at the Ukrainian Centre in Holland Park, West London. But I was early-career and couldn’t afford to continue after more than a term - and to be honest, who wants to sit in an evening class when you can be making friends in the bright lights of a vibrant, big city?
When my father, Zenko Sklinar, passed in 2011, some of the Ukrainian community came to his funeral (and danced the Hopak with me in my mum’s dining room!) but that was sadly the last time I had any contact with anyone from the club for many years. After the passing of my dad, my Ukrainian-ness was on my mind more often than it had been before - we’d not been to the Club for years, he was my last connection to it, and...how Ukrainian am I if I’m ‘second-generation’ anyway? I was raised to be proud of my heritage, but I actually didn’t know that much about it, or anything about my Ukrainian relatives. There was a bit of a gaping hole of ‘where do I come from?’, as well as the usual soul-searching when a parent passes away. Especially when you’re 29 years old.
My mum used to visit me in London sometimes. Family history is one of her hobbies, and we’ve never been able to trace the Ukrainian side. We didn’t know my grandad’s village name, or know much about his family - but we’d grab a bottle of wine, a laptop, and search online for things in Cyrillic. One time, we applied for some documentation, and lo and behold, it had my grandad’s village name on it when it arrived! I decided we were having little luck tracing my relatives online and I was going to go to his village to see what I could find on the ground. Off to Lviv I flew...
When back from my trip to Ukraine (where I succeeded in meeting my grandad’s cousin Paraskevia, who remembers the day he left), I felt a really strong desire to give learning Ukrainian - my ‘native language’ - another go. I felt so at home in Ukraine, but I was sad that I needed a translator to communicate with my own blood relatives. After my trip, I began to feel more confident in feeling very much Ukrainian.
I’d moved back to Leeds I was searching for Ukrainian groups on Facebook and realised that the Huddersfield Ukrainian Club has a Facebook group, where I saw adverts for the varenyky classes that had begun. I was tempted to go to one but also felt too nervous too - a little guilty about all my time away, if I’m honest. Eventually I bit the bullet and booked myself onto one about this time last year. Mum booked on as well.
Walking up to the Club after what’s probably been about 20 years was a strange, mixed feeling, and memories flooded my head as I approached on my walk from the train station. It felt homely and familiar as I made my way up the driveway, and I smiled to myself when I noticed how well-kept the grounds still are. The Club has always been proud of its setting, and rightly so.
I’d spent many a Friday and Saturday summers’ eve racing around those beautiful gardens with the other children before dancing class, playing hide and seek among the bushes and getting told off for walking through the rose garden whilst our parents and grandparents caught up with their friends in the bar.
I also felt a bit of guilt about how I’d been away for so long - would people remember me? Do they remember my family? Would I remember THEM? How would people react as I just traipsed into the Club after having been away for so long? I feel Ukrainian, even though I can’t speak the language, but I felt a bit like an imposter if I’m honest. But I needn’t have worried.
I walked in and was quickly ushered to a tea-making station. I didn’t remember many names but talking to Petro Dorotiak, I realised we used to dance together back when we were performing and competing in places like Nottingham, Leicester and Bradford. I was introduced to some others, and it turns out that I used to dance alongside one of the other varenyky makers too! We made our varenyky (yum!) and caught up in the bar whilst we were waiting for it to cook - looking at the walls, I saw my grandad Ivan’s name on the Club’s framed founders list. As I caught up with Petro and the others, we exchanged tales of being away from the club, and our various, very similar journeys of self-discovery in Ukraine. I really did have nothing to worry about, and felt like I was finding my place back in the Club once again.
A new Ukrainian-ness
Since that day, Ukrainian language classes have been revived at the Club, and I’ve been studying the language since February (currently online!) - I’m determined to be able to have a conversation by the time I can visit Ukraine again. It’s a great way to have a weekly connection with my heritage, and we all have similar experiences.
There are other ways we connect with Ukraine as a family too. My brother and I have our own lives and partners, and of course there’s that grown-up ‘who is spending Christmas with which family?’ palaver each year. So, we’ve created a new tradition. My dad Zenon passed on 7 January, which of course is Ukrainian Christmas. Instead of having a big family day on 25 December, we do it around 7 January. It feels like a natural way to honour my heritage, which my father passed on to me. Plus, my mum is guaranteed a Christmas celebration day with both her children around her, without having to play ping-pong with everyone’s diaries!
At the ripe young age of 38, I’ve finally joined the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (AUGB). I’ve also started writing a book so that our family’s history is preserved for passing on, once and for all. And, it there’s ever an adult dancing group - count me in!