Volunteer Combatant statue in Kyiv

Volunteer Combatant statue in Kyiv

     Ми на своїй
 Богом даній землі!
We are are on our own
   God-given land!

A new statue has been erected in the Troyeschyna district of Kyiv, Ukraine. It is to the Volunteer Combatants of Ukraine in the Russo-Ukrainian War (2014 – ). Soon after Russia invaded Crimea, volunteers joined up to a hastily-formed National Guard to defend Ukraine. They were not in time to save Crimea, but they stopped Putin’s hybrid army in Odesa and Kharkiv and have been fighting him to a stalemate in Luhansk and Donetsk. Originally made up of EuroMaidan veterans with no combat experience mixed with a handful of army veterans, the National Guard is now a formidable fighting force.

It is appropriate that the statue is in Troyeschyna district, as it is a working class area from which many of the volunteer combatants are drawn.

Their task is not yet done. Invaders from Russia illegally occupy Crimea and Donbas, and they are shelling Ukraine’s defenders all along the front line in eastern Ukraine. Daily casualty figures tell the toll the dead and the wounded, bringing the total to nearly 10,000 killed and over 20,000 wounded since the Russo-Ukrainian War began. A disproportionate number of these are the volunteer combatants: defenders of Ukraine, of Europe, and of the West.

Commemorations in Lviv

Choir in traditional Hutsul costumeA city in the heart of Europe like Lviv has a rich history, with a lot to celebrate and a lot to mourn. This is the 760th anniversary of Lviv: in 1256, Prince Danylo founded the city and named it after his son, Lev. That’s why the lion figures so prominently in Lviv iconography, including its Latin name: Leopolis. In Ploshcha Rynok (Market Square) a temporary stage was set up for performances. This choir, in traditional Hutsul dress, was singing songs of Zakarpatya (Transcarpathia) when I was there.

Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation in UkraineMay 8 is Victory in Europe Day, commemorating the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945. In the Soviet Union this day devolved into a display of militarism and chauvinism, and continues that way in Russia now. But in Ukraine it has become a Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation. There were a lot of “sides” in Ukraine in World War II: allies and enemies, victors and the vanquished. A day to solemly remember all of those fallen in war unites the nation. This is the spectacular Lviv Opera House, bedecked with special banners for the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation.

Vigil to the Heaven’s Hundred on Parliament Hill

Andriy Parubiy at vigil for the Heaven's Hundred on Parliament HillTwo years ago, snipers opened fire on protestors in Kyiv, Ukraine, killing over one hundred. These victims of a brutal and corrupt state have become known as the Heaven’s Hundred, and the EuroMaidan protest in which they died has become known as the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. Two years ago, I took part in a vigil to the the memory of the Heaven’s Hundred around the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Yesterday, I did the same again.

The occasion was the the second anniversary of the Maidan killings, and also the visit to Ottawa of Andriy Parubiy. He was a leader on the barricades on Maidan, and served as deputy speaker of Ukraine’s parliament after Yanukovych fled his post. Parubiy gave a fiery speech at the vigil, and paid special tribute to his friend, Serhiy Nigoyan, who died of multiple gunshot wounds when the police assaulted the barricades on Hrushevskoho Street. Members of Parliament from all three of Canada’s major political parties made brief remarks. Particularly affecting was Borys Wrzesnewskyj talking about his cousin who was on Maidan. When the crackdown by regime forces turned violent, his cousin said: “It is better to die a free man than to live in slavery.”

Ustym Holodnyuk :: Устим ГолоднюкAt the vigil, I carried a black flag and a portrait of Ustym Holodnyuk. Ustym was 19 years old, and came from the Ternopil region of western Ukraine. He felt compelled to come to Maidan early on, in November of 2013, to fight for a better Ukraine. He was wounded, but after he recovered he returned to the barricades for three cold, tense months. In the final assault by regime forces against the Ukrainian people on 20 February 2014, Ustym Holodnyuk was shot by a sniper and died. I honour his memory. Slava Ukraini! Heroim Slava! Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the Heroes!

Family history uncovered: Edward MacKay, 1840-1884

1883 map of New York City south of 93rd StreetMy father has made a remarkable discovery about our MacKay family in the 19th century. He has uncovered a previously unknown uncle, Edward MacKay, who was a brother of my great-great grandfather, James Harold MacKay.

Edward MacKay was born in Canada – likely in Prince Edward Island, but his death certificate says New Brunswick. He was a son of William MacKay and Mary Ann Warren. He was born in 1840, moved to the United States in 1870 at the age of thirty, and died in New York in 1884 when he was only 44 years of age. He died of “acute phthisis” — tuberculosis. He was a carpenter like his father and his brothers (who were also shipwrights). We speculate that the family of William MacKay and his five sons were very hard hit by the Long Depression, which began in 1873, and by the collapse of the wooden shipbuilding industry in the Maritime provinces of Canada. All of the sons except my great-great grandfather left to find work in the United States.

The map of Manhattan is from 1883, the year before Edward MacKay died, and I’ve indicated where he lived on 3rd Avenue.

Kraków Ghetto and the Holocaust

Nazi German concentration camp Płaszów, Kraków

The mass murder of Poles who were Jewish by the Nazi Germans during the Second World War was almost total in Kraków. Before the war, there were 70,000 Jewish Krakovians; today, they number perhaps 500.

This is the memorial at the site of Płaszów concentration camp. The hearts have been torn out of the five human figures. Mostly, Płaszów was a transit camp for the extermination camps, but many people were killed here, including personally by the sadistic commander, Amon Goeth.

Ghetto Heroes Square, Podgórze, Kraków

The Jewish population of Kraków was sealed in a ghetto in the Podgórze district. On Saturday, March 13, 1943, the Nazi Germans cleared the ghetto from a square which at the time was called Small Market Square. People brought everything they could carry, including furniture, but the Germans made them leave everything behind. A large sculpture occupies the square today, consisting of scattered and empty chairs. Small Market Square is now known as Ghetto Heroes Square.

Remuh Synagogue, Kazimierz, Kraków

Before the Holocaust, Jews in Kraków lived in a district known as Kazimierz, named after King Casimir the Great. These days, Kazimierz is enjoying a revival. This is one of two remaining working synagogues in Kraków, and it is undergoing extensive renovations, as you can see. Remuh Synagogue is a place of pilgrimage for Ashkenazi Jews, as it is the burial place of Rabbi Moses Isserles (c. 1525 – 1572). The Polish state is putting some money towards the restoration of Remuh.

The Historic Centre of Riga

The Three Brothers, RigaThe Historic Centre of Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is listed for the mediæval old town and also for the late 19th century district which has the most substantial display of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. The first photo is the “Three Brothers” in the old town of Riga. The white building dates from the 15th century. Subsidence is due to the sandy soil and proximity to the Daugava River, and the small windows are the usual tax avoidance strategy of the Middle Ages: get around the window tax!
Art Nouveau staircase

The rows of Art Nouveau townhouses that were built at the end of the 19th century, just outside the old city walls, are impressive. The second photo is of a staircase inside one of them, looking up, in a building housing the Riga Art Nouveau museum.


Michael and TallinnFor most of its history, Tallinn was known by its German name, Reval. Our guide today, Eha, said that Tallinn means “fortress of the Danes” and that Reval is either from German “falling down” (like a deer brought down by a hunter) or from a Finnish word meaning “centre [place].”

Great Guild, Tallinn, EstoniaThe Germans kept power over the Estonian people even into Russian Tsarist times. Reval was an ethnically German city and the Estonians were bound to the land by serfdom through the power of the orders of knighthood and the merchants’s guilds. This is the hall of the Great Guild, on Pikk street in Vanalinn (Old Town).

EML SulevWhen Estonia was liberated from Soviet occupation, new allies got the resurrected Estonian navy back to sea. This is a minehunter, built in Germany, which was given to Estonia in 2003, renamed the EML Sulev, and it now is an exhibit at Lennusadam – Seaplane Harbour museum. This military co-operation among new allies needs to be renewed and strengthened today, as Estonians feel very keenly the imminent threat from Russia, as a front-line defender in NATO. As Eha said, Estonians have fought to keep their identity in the face of foreign invaders for 800 years, and can’t stop now.

Tallinn, Estonia

Town Hall Square, Tallinn, EstoniaThis is the view up Voorimehe from Raekoja Plats — Town Hall Square — in Tallinn, Estonia. I just arrived, with my parents, on a long journey from Ottawa, and we took a stroll to get our bearings. The old town within the mediæval walls is compact, and the historic sites of this great Hanseatic League port are within easy walking distance.

Town Hall, Tallinn, EstoniaThe town hall of Tallinn is the oldest surviving Gothic town hall in northern Europe, having been built in 1402-1404.

My first impression is that Tallinn is like Reykyavik (among cities I have visited): small, old but with very modern amenities, and with people speaking a language which only their compatriots speak but who are comfortable in English. Tere tulemast Eestisse! Welcome to Estonia!

A bear-pit session at CHASOPYS :: ЧАСОПИС in Kyiv

Talk in "Bathroom" at CHASOPYS :: ЧАСОПИС, KyivYes, you’re looking at a shower room, converted into a lounge for talks, meetings, and bear-pit sessions. Kyiv has gone all hipster cool. Chasopys is a techie-haven, co-working space, and hangout in the centre of Kyiv. I gave a wide-ranging talk on politics, elections, Ukraine, and cyberspace, but ended up listening as much as speaking. The spirit of Maidan lives on, and Ukrainians talk about politics in everyday conversation the way that people in most of the rest of the world natter on about sports and celebrity gossip. I left feeling the future is bright for Ukraine, where I see an engagement with real politics on so many levels.