March 23-29, 2001
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Natalie Kononenko with grandfather
Patrick Gantz
Natalie 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.

Slavic professor's family history comes full circle

By Charlotte Crystal

Natalie 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.

The Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in the United States recently elected Kononenko as a new member, recognizing the U.Va. professor of Slavic languages 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.

Natalie KononenkoKononenko's 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.

But 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.

As 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.

Kononenko's 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.

Details 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.

She 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.

"Her eyes used to move, and I remember that on the trip I thought my dolly was broken because her eyes didn't move anymore," Kononenko said.

The 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.

Educated 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.

Joining 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.

In 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.

Interested 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.

With 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.


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