Anyone who’s spent time in Northeast Minneapolis is likely to have at least a passing awareness of the neighborhood’s status as the heart of the Twin Cities’ Ukrainian community.
Maybe they’ve stopped into Kramarczuk’s restaurant for a couple cabbage rolls or a giant Ukrainian meatball — one surefire way to warm up on a cold day. Or passed the Ukrainian American Community Center on the way to Boom Island. Perhaps they’ve found their way to St. Constantine Ukrainian Catholic Church to pick up sauerkraut pyrohy on a Friday, or watched people spill out of St. Michael’s and St. George’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church on a Sunday.
The density of these cultural institutions in Northeast Minneapolis makes the Ukrainian community, though not the largest European immigrant group in the Twin Cities, one of its most visible.
That’s especially been the case this week. Amid the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by Russian military forces, Northeast has become the center of the Minneapolis Ukrainian community’s efforts to raise awareness of Ukraine’s efforts to fend off Russia and raise money to help.
“If you think about the way the Ukrainian community here formed, it’s all because of wars,” observed Roman Lavriv, who is from Lviv, near Ukraine’s border with Poland, and moved to the U.S. in 2015 with his wife, daughter and dog, Dexter.
“Lots of people moved to the U.S. either during or after World War II,” he said. “We had another huge immigration wave, which was caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the whole break up, and now we have another humanitarian crisis in our hands with lots of people being dislocated and forcefully moved.”
Pre-World War I
Minneapolis’ Ukrainian community traces its roots back to around 1880, when Ukrainians, mostly from the western part of the country, left to pursue better economic opportunities.
“They were mainly working as laborers,” said Zina Poletz Gutmanis, who was raised in the local Ukrainian community and is now working on a documentary about it.
Many worked in mills along the river in old St. Anthony, across the Mississippi River from downtown Minneapolis. It was cheaper to live there than in what was Minneapolis at the time, Gutmanis said.
Ann Kmit, who is 84, recounted the story of her grandmother, who arrived in Minnesota in the early 1910s. Born in western Ukraine, a teenage Marie Sokol immigrated to the United States. She stayed with one brother in Pennsylvania. Finding him too bossy, she saved her money and bought a train ticket to Winnipeg, with plans to join her other brother.
As Kmit tells it, on the way, Marie’s train made an emergency stop at Minneapolis’ Great Northern Depot, then on the south side of Hennepin Avenue right on the river. Marie spoke little English, but managed to ask a policeman where the Ukrainians were. He pointed toward some houses nearby.
Marie approached one house and knocked. She was surprised to find a Ukrainian couple there who not only understood when she asked to stay the night, but said they had another Ukrainian girl boarding there. That girl was Marie’s cousin.
“Later, Marie was sure that it was fate that she was led to this house,” Kmit said. Her grandmother decided to stay in Minneapolis.
Missing some of the traditions of home, she improvised a way to create the traditional pysanka, Ukrainian Easter eggs, using materials she could find in the United States. Marie married and had children. In 1947, she and her daughter Luba started the Ukrainian Gift Shop. The shop is still in business and still operated by the family, and now sells pysanka-making supplies and gifts in Minneapolis’ North Loop neighborhood.
Gutmanis said that Ukrainian Americans in Minneapolis helped to keep the Easter egg tradition alive. Women would make them to sell at bake sales. Generations of Ukrainian American children in Minneapolis have learned to make them, too.
“In Ukraine, they lost that tradition during the Soviet era,” Gutmanis said. “People were finding out about the traditional designs and how to make them from Minneapolis.”
The World War I and the Russian Revolution
By 1913, the Ukrainian Minnesotans in Northeast established St. Constantine’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, at the corner of University and Sixth avenues. Now, Ukrainians in Minneapolis had their own church. St. Michael’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church followed in 1925.
Things were turbulent in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, between World War I and the Russian Revolution, including in Ukraine. Following the Russian Revolution, Ukrainians fought for independence. They were ultimately defeated and became part of the Soviet Union. The geopolitical tumult of the times sent a wave of Ukrainians to the U.S., some to Minnesota.
Ukraine continued to endure hardships after WWI. Between 1932 and 1933, millions of Ukrainians died in the Holodomor, a famine caused by Josef Stalin’s Soviet government that many countries, including the United States, recognize as genocide.
Gutmanis became interested in digging deeper into the history of Minneapolis’ Ukrainian history when she helped organize a Holodomor commemoration in 2018, the 85th anniversary of the famine.
The emcee of the event asked if there were any survivors in the audience. Two women Gutmanis had known her whole life stood up. She said she’d had no idea what they’d lived through. She got a grant and began an oral history project with the Minnesota Historical Society to start documenting her community’s stories.
During this time, Ukrainian Minnesotans were well aware of the hardships in Ukraine. They launched cultural diplomacy efforts to try to help raise awareness, and raised money, despite hardship in the United States brought on by the Great Depression.
One such effort was the Ukrainian National Chorus of the Twin Cities, which put on performances to try to raise awareness of the plight of Ukrainians, based at St. Michael’s, Gutmanis said.
The World War II-era
World War II again brought troubled times in Ukraine, with Nazi occupation and the Nazi genocide of Jewish people in the Holocaust.
After the war, Ukrainian Minnesotans organized to bring Ukrainians living in Displaced Persons camps to the United States. Under U.S. policy at the time, people could be brought over if they passed a battery of screenings and had a job waiting for them, Gutmanis said.
Ukrainians in displaced persons camps were stateless, Gutmanis said. “They didn’t want to go back to the Soviet Union because they would probably be immediately either sent to Siberia or just executed,” she said.
Alexander Granovsky, a Ukrainian American University of Minnesota entomology professor, was sponsored by St. Paul ad agency Brown and Bigelow to visit the camps with a list of job descriptions from Minnesota companies to recruit people for jobs, Gutmanis said.
“He himself, personally, brought hundreds of people back,” she said, including a famous artist who went to work at Brown and Bigelow; scientists; skilled carpenters. That’s how Minneapolis got an influx of skilled Ukrainians in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“This was his vision, to bring these people back so that they wouldn’t be lost in the system,” Gutmanis said.
Among the people who moved to the U.S. from Ukraine in the post-WWII era are the Kramarczuk family, according to the restaurant’s website.
Post-WWII to today
Gutmanis, who is 55, said growing up Ukrainian in Minneapolis during the Soviet era meant growing up with a strong sense of the importance of keeping Ukrainian traditions alive.
“We always knew that Ukraine was under communism and that it was not free. And it was incumbent upon us — maybe nobody necessarily told me this, but I felt it strongly — to somehow preserve that spark of Ukraine. And so we spoke Ukrainian at home. We went to Ukrainian Saturday school,” she said.
In 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became its own country. In the aftermath of the fall, many Ukrainians moved to Minnesota seeking economic opportunities.
People are still coming here for economic opportunities today.
Lavriv and his family came from Ukraine to California in 2015. The move was mostly work-related: Lavriv said his company told him they needed his skills in the U.S. But Russian aggression toward Ukraine also factored in. Russia had invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014.
“When, back in 2014, this instability started, it kind of was definitely one of the factors that made us finally pull the trigger and relocate,” he said.
They moved from California to Minnesota when Lavriv was offered a job here, and the family now lives in Vadnais Heights.
The Lavrivs have family in Lviv and Kyiv. They had plans to visit Ukraine later this year, but those plans are now up in the air.
“We were hoping that once the pandemic ends, we would finally be able to go to Ukraine and visit our relatives,” he said. “No, I don’t know when I’m going to Ukraine.”
Maria Digtiar came to Minneapolis from Ukraine in 2009 for her master’s degree. She stayed when she met her husband here, but still has family in Ukraine, near the border of Moldova and Romania.
“They had air raid sirens last night in the city, so they had to evacuate to the shelter,” Digtiar said Monday. “I think that the feeling with this war overall is that nobody can truly be safe … the civilians are being targeted as well. The kindergartens, the children’s hospitals. It’s truly horrifying.”
Gutmanis is keeping a close eye on Ukraine, where she has family, too.
She said she’s struck by how much of what’s happening there now feels familiar, with Russia trying to cover up aggression towards Ukraine. But in some ways, it’s different this time.
“History is rhyming, because Soviet crimes that took place were easily covered up. And people were left screaming in the wind,” she said.
“On the other hand, it’s only rhyming. It’s not repeating itself, because now the world understands disinformation. And also the world is rooting for Ukraine,” she said. “Ukrainians are innocent and they’re so brave. And they were brave before and they were innocent before but nobody knew.”