Ukraine's learned society comes home

November 13, 1998

Ukraine's oldest learned society, the Schevchenko Scientific Society, held an odd celebration in the western city of Lviv last month - its 125th anniversary.

The society organised an international conference, a memorial service for deceased members and a concert, while Ukraine president Leonid Kuchma hosted the sort of lavish reception normally associated with a centenary.

But 25 years ago the society did not exist in Ukraine. It had been closed by the Soviet authorities at the end of the second world war and survived only in four emigre outposts in France, the United States, Canada and Australia.

Only in the dying days of the Soviet Union in 1989 was the society able to re-establish itself on native soil. And, for the first time, it was able to draw in members from the whole of Ukraine.

Oleh Romaniv, who pulled the society together again, said the society's role today is twofold: to raise national consciousness through the humanities and foster know-how and technology for the Ukrainian economy.

The four foreign branches will continue to exist as formally autonomous bodies, but co-ordinating their efforts with the Lviv headquarters via a World Council headed by Leonid Rudnytskyi of Philadelphia.

The society was founded in December, 1873, in the city then known as Lemberg in Austrian-ruled Galicia. The name "scientific society", although hallowed by time as the official translation, is somewhat of a misnomer - the Ukrainian word nauka, like the German Wissenschaft, covers the range of scholarly knowledge.

Its activities have always been linked to the humanities. The society named itself after Taras Shevchenko (1814-61), the poet considered the prophet of the Ukrainian national renaissance.

When the society began, the Ukrainian language and all forms of Ukrainian expression - including teaching and publishing - were prohibited in the major part of Ukraine, which was under Russian rule.

Under Austrian rule, however, a degree of cultural autonomy existed. The founders hoped their society would become the Ukrainian academy of sciences. But after the first world war an Academy of Sciences was founded in what became the Ukrainian SSR and the society found itself "abroad" again under Polish rule. Now, finally it has returned home.

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