Kononenko (above), at about 4 years old, sits on her grandfather
Konstantin's lap shortly after the family immigrated to
America. A professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures,
Kononenko (below) stays connected to her Ukrainian roots,
here wearing a traditional blouse.
professor's family history comes full circle
Kononenko's family fled Ukraine more than 50 years ago, fearing
for their lives. But she has recently been embraced by the country's
academic elite as one of their own.
Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in the United States recently elected
Kononenko as a new member, recognizing the U.Va. professor of
and literatures for her contributions as a scholar of Ukrainian
culture. The academy was formed in the mid-1990s through the merger
of the Ukrainian Free Academy of Sciences in New York and the
Academy of Sciences in Ukraine.
paternal grandfather, Konstantin Kononenko, was born into a noble
family in 1898, the youngest of 12 children. Living near Kharkov
in Ukraine, he was trained as an agricultural economist and served
as a delegate in the pre-Soviet Duma, or legislature, in Ukraine.
Active as a scientist and a teacher, his work has been publicized
in Ukraine and Germany.
during Josef Stalin's drive to create huge agricultural collectives
throughout the country, he spoke out against the program and fell
afoul of the Soviet leader.
"He was pink when he should have been red," Kononenko
observed, referring to her grandfather's failure to toe the line
of political orthodoxy laid out by Stalin, then secretary-general
of the Communist Party and later Soviet premier.
a result of his candor, the elder Kononenko was sentenced to 15
years in a Soviet gulag, but survived to direct an insane asylum
near Kharkov. Thanks to the fruits and vegetables grown in the
asylum gardens created to provide work therapy for patients
Kononenko and his family survived the widespread famine
that accompanied collectivization.
son, Oleg, met Natalie Kononenko's mother, Eugenia Kucher1enko,
at the University of Kharkov, where both were working on their
doctorates in organic chemistry. But life under Stalin was harsh
and the family feared that if Konstantin Kononenko were arrested
again he would not survive prison. In 1936, Konstantin, his wife
Olena, their son Oleg and their daughter-in-law Eugenia fled to
the West. They crossed into Poland, living there briefly, then
headed further west as World War II loomed. At one point, Oleg
was captured by Soviet troops and placed on a train heading back
to the U.S.S.R. toward political arrest, but he leapt off the
moving train and rejoined his family on their westward journey.
of family survival during the war years are sketchy. Kononenko's
father and grandparents have since died and her mother remembers
only living on the road, having to share a single spoon, and sleeping
in a tent. In 1946, Natalie Kononenko was born in a displaced-persons
camp in Allied-controlled West Germany.
still remembers her trip to the United States as a young child
by train from Munich to Hamburg, and by ship, the destroyer
U.S.S. Admiral Rickover, from Hamburg to New York City. Forbidden
to take money out of Germany, the family stuffed 100 U.S. dollars
into the head of Natalie's doll.
eyes used to move, and I remember that on the trip I thought my
dolly was broken because her eyes didn't move anymore,"
family lived briefly in New York, where Kononenko's parents
labored at menial jobs, before settling across the Hudson River
in Boonton, N.J., where her father worked as a chemist for the
next 50 years.
in the Boonton public schools, Kononenko received a bachelor's
degree in Russian studies from Radcliffe College and a doctorate
in folklore from Harvard University. While her doctoral dissertation
was on the Turkish minstrel tradition Kononenko is fluent
in Ukrainian, Russian, German and Turkish, as well as English
it was during her time at Harvard that Kononenko's interest
in all things Ukrainian grew.
the U.Va. faculty in 1993, she chaired the department of Slavic
Languages and Literatures from 1993-96 and served in 1998-99 as
president of the Southern Conference on Slavic Studies, the largest
and oldest affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement
of Slavic Studies. She is currently president of the Slavic and
East European Folklore Association.
1997, she won the Kovaliv Prize for her book, Ukrainian Minstrels:
And the Blind Shall Sing, which explored the lives of minstrels
in 19th- and early 20th-century Ukraine and included translations
of secret songs published for the first time. The American Association
for Ukrainian Studies also awarded Kononenko a prize for that
book last year.
in making her work available to the public, Kononenko edited The
Magic Egg And Other Tales From Ukraine, a retelling of traditional
Ukrainian folk tales for children.
the support of U.Va.'s Teaching and Technology Initiative
and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, Kononenko
is working on a large digital media project to make her photographs
of Ukrainian village life available over the Internet. She also
is writing another book, Ukrainian Ritual Celebrations of Marriage,
Birth and Death.