‘It’s the least we can do to mark it this year, given the circumstances’
Easter strikes a different chord for Ukrainians in Greater Manchester
By Maria Romanenko
There’s a nagging sensation as I enter the Ukrainian Cultural Centre’s Easter fundraising event that takes me a moment to place: it’s the feeling of being at home. Coming alive on this busy pre-Easter Sunday afternoon is the building, known as “Dnipro”, which is over 60 years old. It was built on land purchased by Ukrainians who escaped persecution in post-World War II Soviet Ukraine. Today, it is welcoming those escaping Russia’s genocide in Ukraine in 2022 — something I myself did six weeks ago, when I fled Kyiv for Manchester.
In the building, a dozen vendors are selling their Easter basket fillers. Ukrainian tradition dictates that we fill the basket with pysankas (hard boiled eggs with pre-painted shells), sausages, cheese, and a paska — a traditional sweet bread filled with dried fruit and covered with sprinkles. These baskets are taken to churches late on Saturday evening or early on Easter Sunday morning (some people get to church as early as 5am), where priests spray their contents with holy water. After this blessing, we eat what is typically the first meal of Easter Sunday from the basket.
These Easter festivities are common across all generations of Ukrainians, regardless of whether or not they’re religious. For many — such as myself — this is the one time they’re guaranteed to spend time in a church (similar to how many British families will attend a church service just once a year on Christmas).
But this Easter will of course be different for every Ukrainian. More than 10 million, a whopping third of the country, will be spending it away from their homes, while 4.3 million Ukrainians will be spending it in an entirely different country.
One such Ukrainian is Larysa Deshko. Larysa is a 71-year-old writer and resident of Kyiv who’s visiting from the Netherlands, where she’s currently based. Chatting to me in a coffee house in Manchester, where her daughter lives, she tells me: “Of course we will celebrate Easter this year.”
“But other thoughts are dominating my head right now,” she continues. “I’m grieving for Mariupol, Borodyanka…But I pray every day, just like all the people who have relatives on the frontlines. Those who managed to leave are also praying. We’re all praying.”
I’m not especially religious, but I can understand the sentiment. I fled Ukraine on the first day of the invasion because of my job: as a journalist, I was concerned that I had been placed on a Russian kill list. Getting to Manchester was a gruelling 40-hour journey, 23 hours of which were conducted by foot, without food or water, on our way out of Ukraine. I’d been to Manchester a few times before because my partner, Jez, a British man I met via Twitter, lives here. Things are still hard, but they’re slowly getting better: today I went to pick up my mother from Manchester Airport. I’m hoping to help her embrace her new home by visiting a Ukrainian church together for Easter.
Helping Ukrainians in Greater Manchester get into the festive spirit is exactly what the organisers of the Easter Bazaar set out to achieve this year. It has been running for more than 50 years, according to Oksana Kovalyshyn, who is in charge of the centre's catering. “The Bazaar this year is special because we needed to drape the new arrivees from Ukraine with love; those who came because they had no other choice,” Oksana tells me.
Oksana explains that she grew up with New Year’s Eve as the main winter holiday (instead of the religious Christmas) and Russian ‘Ded Moroz’ as the symbol of the holiday (not Ukraine’s traditional Sviatyi Mykolai or Saint Nicholas). “We all grew up like that because we grew up in a Communist society,” says Oksana. “But the Ukrainian diaspora in the UK has maintained the Ukraineness and the religious holidays like St. Nicholas Day and Easter. They maintained and also developed them.”
More than two dozen paskas made by Ukrainian Liuba Drozd and sold at the Easter Bazaar, with prices between £6 and £9, go fast. In another corner of the hall, embroidered vyshyvankas (Ukrainian traditional shirts) are on offer, as well as other embroidered clothing items and accessories. Another Ukrainian, Anna Lytwyn, is running a pysanka-making workshop, a craft she has been practicing for 50 years after learning it from her mother.
“My mother saw some people making pysankas for Easter at the Ukrainian Centre in Bury. She loved the traditions and asked how to do it. My father got her the kits, and so she started. She also taught me, my younger brother, and younger sister. We always make them and ensure that year after year our pysankas go in the basket that we take to church to be blessed,” Anna said.
She tells me she’s taken on the love of pysankas to keep the children entertained, as well as to “keep it going for all Ukrainians.” She adds, “Some people here today who have come from Ukraine have never even done it, they only saw their grandmothers do it.”
The Ukrainian Cultural Centre Dnipro, which is run by the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (AUGB), operates a Ukrainian Saturday school for kids and a museum. Apart from the big centre, the Ukrainians in Manchester also have two Ukrainian churches: Autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church and a Greek Catholic church.
Genia Mandzij, the chair of the Association of Ukrainian Women (AUW) — Manchester branch, tells me that the aim of the April 10 Bazaar was to raise £1,000 in Ukrainian aid. Since February 2022, the AUGB and AUW have collected over a million pounds for this purpose.
“From the day the war started, people went on GoFundMe, and we were getting £100,000 to £200,000 daily,” Genia said. A free shop was also set up in the cultural centre for Ukrainians who need clothes, children’s toys, and sanitary products.
Because of using different calendars, most Ukrainians celebrate Easter a week later than the UK this year, on April 24, says Genia. “Some years, English Easter and Ukrainian Easter are on the same date, and some years they can be five weeks apart. That's because of the two calendars, Julian and Gregorian, and how they actually meet,” she says.
According to Genia, the Greek Catholic Church in Manchester starts the Easter service at around five or six o’clock on a Saturday evening. “The whole service is quite long, and then they do a procession around the church, with candles. Everybody comes outside and makes a ring around the church with their baskets and lit candles.” She says that at this point, the priest comes around and blesses the food. “Then they take it home and have it for breakfast, even before the Easter Sunday service. The tradition in Ukraine is doing it early on Sunday morning, then going home and eating. So, we’re adapting to that to do it more or less at the same time,” she explained.
Asked about how Easter 2022 will feel different, Genia tells me she can’t stop thinking about everything that’s happening. “I'm sitting at one or two o'clock in the morning looking at my phone or the news. I've started watching France 24 because I find it to be a good newscast and, of course, I get lots on Facebook.” She continues “You can't tear yourself away, you look at it all. All this savagery is grotesque, it’s medieval what they're doing and unbelievable in this day and age.”
I know what Genia means. When I first left Ukraine, I felt too numb to cry for the first few days. But when my boyfriend Jez showed me a video of a neighbourhood near Kyiv being bombed, I started crying in the restaurant. Sometimes after reading disturbing news about what’s happening back in Ukraine, I’m unable to sleep.
Two Ukrainians who run a tombola at the Easter 2022 Bazaar tell me it’s “a pre-celebration of Easter, the least we can do to mark it this year, given the circumstances.” They explain that every morning when they wake up, they think about the events in Ukraine. The first thing they do is check up on their relatives and parents. “But Easter should still be marked. All of us are selling what we can to help the Ukrainian army and our talents lie in terms of craft,” one of them says.
“There are people here today who have just arrived last week. There are also people who, like me, arrived 15 years ago and also the diaspora who have been living here for a couple of generations,” she added.
Oksana describes the “immense” role that the Ukrainian diaspora has taken on: “Here in the UK, in a foreign land, the Ukraineness and the Ukrainian traditions have been maintained. We maintained our identity,” she says. She explains that the Ukrainians, her included, are lucky that they have the Dnipro Cultural Centre in the UK, where there is “a part of Ukraine.”
“This land was bought out by our ancestors who were kicked out by Russia and had to flee to the UK with nothing at all.” Not only did they earn money in the UK, she explains, but they also bought houses and churches. “Today’s Ukrainians can be grateful to them that we have this piece of Ukraineness here,” she says.
It’s too early to say whether those fleeing war will find solace in customs from their home country. I know that my mother grew excited, when, on the way back from the airport, she spied a Ukrainian flag, and I know that, since she doesn’t speak much English, her best hope of finding a community here will be at the Ukrainian churches and centres. I went to university in Leeds and after studying here and being in a relationship with someone from Britain, I feel deeply anglicised. All the same: when on the phone to a Ukrainian woman working at the centre in Poland where my mother was briefly staying, I found tears in my eyes. It’s comforting to know that a little scrap of Ukraine exists here, thousands of miles away from home.