Pittsburgh Ukrainians organize tribute


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Last year, Taras Filenko, a longtime student and professor at Ukraine's Tchaikovsky National Academy of Music, was staying at the Hotel Ukraine, which overlooks Kiev's Independence Square, to judge a music competition.

A Fulbright scholar who is also on the faculty of Duquesne University's City Music Center, Mr. Filenko recalled giving a television interview in the hotel lobby.

He recognized the lobby during television coverage of the clashes between protesters and police that killed nearly 100 people, wounded hundreds more and prompted the flight of Ukraine's pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and the formation of a new government.

Bodies of slain protesters were laid out on the floor, and friends told him that government snipers used the hotel's windows to fire on the crowd.

"Six people were killed on the steps of the academy of music where I worked and studied," said Mr. Filenko, a 55-year-old pianist who holds doctorates in ethnomusicology and historic musicology and now lives in Point Breeze. "I wanted to respond with what I know best, with music."

About 130 people showed up to a hastily organized "Tribute to Ukraine" concert Sunday night, which featured performances of classical works by Ukrainian and other composers and at-time graphic images from the protests and Russia's corresponding military incursions into Crimea after the new, pro-Western government was formed.

The free concert in University of Pittsburgh's Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, organized by Mr. Filenko and his son Paul and sponsored by the Ukrainian Community of Western Pennsylvania, raised money to be sent to families of the victims and gave Mr. Filenko a way to vent his anguish over the violence and the fast-developing international crisis.

"I wanted to have this event to show the rich history and culture of Ukraine," Mr. Filenko said. "They will be able to spread the word."

It was an emotional evening, with the mournful music providing the backdrop to wrenching images from the demonstrations.

"The whole world is now on the threshold of a third world war," said a tearful Galyna Seabrook, 50, of Shadyside, a native of Kiev and a member of the Ukrainian New Wave organization. Mrs. Seabrook stopped at the performance en route to another meeting to organize various Ukrainian groups at Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church in Carnegie.

Mrs. Seabrook, who has lived in the U.S. for four and a half years, still has a daughter and two grandsons in Kiev. Her son-in-law, she said, brought medicine to doctors working out of a cathedral to treat the wounded because authorities would not allow ambulances into the square.

"It's terrible," she said. "I make myself watch all the violent things for me to remember, for me to understand. ... My duty is now to do as much as possible for my country."

Mrs. Seabrook described herself as a nationalist but rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin's attempts to make the word a synonym for "fascist."

"Nationalism means a great love for your motherland," she said.

Mr. Filenko said many of the protesters were students, artists, business owners, teachers and medical professionals and that the protests began peacefully in November after Mr. Yanukovych's government announced it would abandon an agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union in favor of closer cooperation with Russia.

He said the demonstrations had less to do with politics than what he described as a Mafia-style government that came to be increasingly seen as hopelessly corrupt.

"It's about corruption, it's about cultural identity," Mr. Filenko said. "People care less about politics. It's about dignity."

Mr. Filenko and others, like Svitlana Tomson of Mt. Lebanon, had heard first-hand accounts of protesters gunned down by snipers.

"You cannot watch without crying. It's so hard to talk about this," said Mariya Zayats, 41, of Carnegie, who grew up in western Ukraine but has lived in the U.S. for 13 years. Ms. Zayats is president of the Ukrainian Community of Western Pennsylvania, which says it represents about 40,000 people in the area who immigrated from Ukraine or have close family ties to the country.

"We couldn't live there. We escaped from our own country because of the corruption. Ukraine was never truly independent," she said. "It was always under pressure from Russia. Now the whole world knows about Putin and what kind of evil he is."

Mr. Filenko compared the Russian occupation of Crimea, which Mr. Putin has justified as necessary to protect Russian interests and ethnic Russians in Ukraine, with Adolf Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland region of what was then Czechoslovakia, which was heavily populated with ethnic Germans and seen as encouraging Nazi aggression.

"It's quite a dangerous situation," Mr. Filenko said. "I'm afraid it can be quite bloody unless we stop him right now."

For information or to donate: Ukrainian Community of Western Pennsylvania, www.ucowpa.org or P.O. Box 13465, Pittsburgh, PA 15243-3465.


The Associated Press contributed. Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909. Twitter @rczullo.

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