From Eastern Europe to South America

(Edmonton) University of Alberta researcher Serge Cipko says very little is known today about the number of Ukrainians who immigrated to Argentina. The focus of his study, Ukrainians in Argentina, 1897–1950: The Making of a Community, published by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, is the first major English account detailing the large movement of people from regions that were later to be called Ukraine to the South American country.

Cipko, who is co-ordinator of the institute’s Ukrainian Diaspora Studies Initiative, says his research, published in the book, helps show how the world’s eighth-largest country came to be.

“This book explains a building block in Argentina’s history. Most often when people think of immigration to that country, they think of Italians and Spaniards, and for good reasons, because these are the two largest groups that immigrated to Argentina from approximately 1870 to 1950,” Cipko says. “But there was Eastern European immigration to the country as well. Before 1914, about seven per cent of immigrants to Argentina came from the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires.”

Most of the settlers arrived with Polish passports because, until 1991, the area now known as Ukraine did not exist as a country, except during a revolution from 1917 to 1921. The area and its people were controlled at different times by the empires, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Soviet Union, Cipko says. There was minimal immigration during the Soviet era.

“Fifty-eight per cent of the net total of immigrants to Argentina in 1930 to 1940 came from Poland. There was a very large foreign-born population in Argentina. It was nearly a third of the population,” he says.

Cipko says a main reason for the exodus was increasing pressure on land before the First World War in what was to become Ukraine.

“They moved because of the possibilities of obtaining land at affordable prices. While surveying land in Argentina’s wheat-growing regions, they found the prices too high. An agent tipped them about a subtropical region, Misiones, which was sparsely populated.”

Today Ukrainians represent one of the largest ethnocultural groups in Misiones, where they’ve perfected growing cash crops, including a popular beverage native to northeastern Argentina. “The most important crop Ukrainians cultivated in Misiones could be presented almost as an Argentine icon: it’s a tea called yerba mate. They also grew cotton,” Cipko says. “In some areas of Argentina they formed a significant portion of the population. In Misiones, about one in seven inhabitants may have had roots in Ukraine.”

The Argentines welcomed the Ukrainians mainly because of their agricultural skills, but their yields could be seen beyond Argentina’s farmlands. “There are three monuments to the national bard, Taras Shevchenko, and also streets named for Ukraine.”

Another product from Argentina is The Year 1933, a haunting painting by Viktor Tsymbal, a Ukrainian artist living in Argentina in 1933, in which he depicts the Holodomor—regarded as the period of famine in Ukraine.

“Tsymbal’s painting, which he began in 1933, may have been the first painting of its kind about the famine, as no one could do that publicly in Ukraine during the Soviet era,” Cipko says. That painting, and others Tsymbal created, was exhibited in the Galería Müller of Buenos Aires in 1936.”

Tsymbal collected money that was sent to help Ukrainians who fled to Romania during the famine, because a perception was that the Romanian government could not support the refugees, Cipko says. “Tsymbal and others were told some committed suicide rather than be sent back.”

Cipko says his research also helps explain patterns of Ukrainian immigration and how immigrants were politically and religiously organized in Argentina. “Before the First World War, the majority of Ukrainians that immigrated to South America were Greek Catholic, but from 1920 to 1939, it seems Greek Orthodox were the majority,” Cipko says. “And contrary to the period before the First World War, more Ukrainians were immigrating to South America than to North America during the same period.”

He says the origins of the immigrants sometimes explain the organizations they formed.

“Many of the Ukrainians who came to Argentina in the 1920s came from Volhynia, a region formerly in the Russian Empire, which after the First World War became part of Poland. Some immigrants from this area joined Belarusians in Argentina to form the Union of Ukrainian and Belarusian Workers’ Organizations, which was pro-Soviet,” Cipko says.

Cipko says this study is set apart from previous efforts by others because it draws from archives in both countries. He says the U of A’s extensive records on Slavic and Latin American groups also help distinguish the work.

“This university is a centre of excellence for Ukrainian studies, which is partly why the Ukrainian Diaspora Studies Initiative was established here, with support from Peter and Doris Kule. A focus of the initiative is on studying the larger phenomenon of Ukrainian migration over different times and territories. Our interdisciplinary program here reinforces the field of Ukrainian studies at the U of A and distinguishes this university as the only place to have such a program outside of Ukraine.”