Espreso. Global

American entrepreneur Yurij Wowczuk about his grandfather, Bandera's associate: "If Ukrainians and Americans had listened to Ivan Vovchuk in the 50s and 60s, the situation would be different now."

Ulyana Stelmashova
5 June, 2024 Wednesday

For some time, the deputy of Stepan Bandera – the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) – was Ivan Vovchuk from the east of Ukraine. Until now, very little is known about him in Ukraine. At the same time, he was one of the most influential people among the Ukrainian nationalists and the Ukrainian diaspora, and even had influence on the American Congress


Vovchuk is an ideal character to dispel at once several anti-Ukrainian myths created and imposed by the Kremlin.

For decades, the Soviet and nowadays Russian propaganda have been trying to compromise Ukrainian nationalists and create an image of Nazi collaborators, haters of Jews, and anti-Semites of them. The figure of Vovchuk, a member of the OUN Provid (leadership) and Bandera's deputy, shatters this propaganda to the ground. During the German occupation, Vovchuk, who lived in Nikopol then, saved a Jewish woman, Sara Bakst, and her children.

In 1998, Israel's Yad Vashem - The World Holocaust Remembrance Center posthumously recognized this Ukrainian nationalist, an associate of Bandera and Shukhevych, as a Righteous Among the Nations for saving Jews from death. Thus, an OUN member received the highest award of the State of Israel, which is not given to Jews.

In addition, Ivan Vovchuk is a vivid example that destroys the Soviet myth that Ukrainian nationalism was rooted exclusively in Western Ukraine.  He was born near Poltava, studied agronomy in Kharkiv, worked as a school principal in Nikopol, and was opposed to the Soviet regime. He joined the ranks of the OUN in 1941, thanks to the marching groups of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists that went to the eastern lands of Ukraine.

Thanks to his charisma and authority, he already himself created a "nest of nationalists" in the area of Nikopol.

In 1943, Vovchuk had to leave Nikopol and later Ukraine forever. The occupying Soviet regime put him on the all-Union wanted list for betraying the Soviet Motherland. Just at the beginning of his emigration, he slightly changed his name and surname in order to confuse the agents: he was Fedir Ivanovych Vovk, and later became Ivan Fedorovych Vovchuk.

First, he emigrated to Western Ukraine, then to Munich, where he lived in a camp for displaced persons, and later, at the age of almost 50, to the United States.

It seems very symbolic now that Ivan Vovchuk left Ukraine on a simple village cart, and today his three grandsons own a company in the United States that deals with innovations in the defense sector.

"The Ukrainian nation is at war, I would say in a historical war, with Moscow. And war requires weapons," Vovchuk said back in 1953 during a speech at the Ukrainian People's University in New York. Last year, his grandsons, Yurij, Borys, and Zenovy, were named among the top 100 most influential American entrepreneurs with Ukrainian roots. They are also helping Ukraine, as their grandfather wanted, including with weapons technology.

It is also worth knowing about Vovchuk that in the United States he started publishing and editing the Banderite weekly National Tribune, became the head of the Organization for the Defense of Four Freedoms for Ukraine (ODFFU), founded the Ukrainian People's University in New York, sharply criticized the United States' policy toward Khrushchev and the USSR in general, and organized political actions and demonstrations in American cities.

He was an ideologue of the national liberation movement, a strong speaker and publicist. A number of narratives that Vovchuk delivered more than half a century ago can still be used today, both by Ukrainians and Americans. For example, back in 1961, at a demonstration in Chicago, he warned the United States that further cooperation with Moscow and failure to support enslaved nations "could lead this country of freedom to political suicide." 

He warned about "good Russians” as we would say now. "When it comes to the greatness of the Russian Empire, the political thought of the Russian emigration converges with the strategy of imperial policy."

Regarding Ukraine he wrote in 1950: "You cannot beg for the right of Ukraine to exist, you have fight and win!"

                     Ivan Vovchuk (sitting on the left at the table) and Stepan Bandera among the like-minded people in Munich (1945/1946)

In June this year, the Phronesis Publishing House in Kyiv will publish the first biography of this Ukrainian nationalist – “National Tribune. The Life and Ideas of Ivan Vovchuk”. The author of the book, Oleh Protsenko, collected information about Vovchuk's life practically in tiny pieces from various archival sources in Ukraine and the United States and integrated his biography into the detailed history of the twentieth-century Ukraine.

On the eve of the book's publication, we were able to talk to Ivan Vovchuk's eldest grandson, Yurij Wowczuk, who was born and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is the first interview that the grandson of the influential Ukrainian nationalist gives to the media in Ukraine.

Here is what Yurij Wowczuk had to say about his grandfather and his influence.

I asked him to bring me "a sausage and a book".

When my grandfather died, I was five years old. I remember him very well because we were very close and spent a lot of time together. It was he who taught me Ukrainian, which I can still speak and read. I didn't speak English until the first grade. He used to say: "I won't see independent Ukraine, but you will." 

My grandfather taught me the history of Ukraine because it was very important to him. I have a funny recollection: when my grandfather traveled to New York on business, I always asked him to bring back "a sausage and a book" for me. He would always bring them.

In Pittsburgh, he had a big house and a vegetable garden right in the city. He was an agronomist by training and really appreciated working on the land. I remember we had an old rusty swing that loudly squeaked. He took some old potatoes, mashed them with oil, made a ball out of the mixture, stuck it in the bearings, and fixed the swing.

He was very tall and had thick hair. Since childhood, I have had the feeling that he was an outstanding man. I listened to him prepare for speeches, saw his articles in the newspapers, and several times my grandfather even took me with him to conferences where I heard him speak. There I saw how great was his influence on people.

                                                                          Ivan Vovchuk speaking at the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the OUN (1954)

In 1973, at the Second World Congress of Free Ukrainians (WCFU) in Toronto, he delivered a report entitled "On the Situation in Ukraine and Tasks of the Ukrainian Community in the World."  It contains such concepts that are of great importance to me and my brothers. It says that the main task is to support Ukraine and Ukrainians.

I think this guideline is important for the entire Ukrainian diaspora in the United States. The fact is that the diaspora has been dormant for many years since Ukraine gained its independence. Therefore, what is happening in Ukraine now is to some extent also our fault.

Nonsense about Ukrainian nationalists is still heard in the United States

Russia's full-scale attack on Ukraine in 2022 did not come as a surprise to me. The war prompted my brothers and me to establish the Vovk Foundation to help Ukraine and Ukrainians. The foundation has focused on several directions: education, entrepreneurship, innovation (including in the defense sector), reconstruction, and bringing the truth about Ukraine.

As part of the foundation's work, we raise funds for drones, unmanned aerial vehicles and other military technologies to quickly deliver them to the defenders at the front.

For me, the direction of telling the truth about Ukraine is very important in the work of the Vovk Foundation. We pay a lot of attention to making sure that people in the United States understand not only the history of Ukraine, but also the history of the world. Actually, I have the impression that Americans have forgotten the history of the twentieth century or do not want to remember it.

Second, there are many myths that I hear from Americans.  For example, it is important to explain to them that about 90% of the American funds allocated to help Ukraine remain in the United States. This money is not sent to Kyiv, but goes to American companies that produce weapons. For some reason, people do not understand this.

Third, I believe that every American should understand that the Ukrainian state appeared several hundred years earlier than Russia.   

Also, in the United States, we still hear nonsense about Ukrainian nationalists who are allegedly Nazis. 

My grandfather's guidance influenced my brothers and me to pursue military innovation

One of Ivan Vovchuk's famous quotes sounds like this: "The tragedy of our society is that there are exaggerated ambitions with little ammunition."  I think that my grandfather's guidance ultimately influenced my brothers and me to start a joint business related to military innovation.

About 10 years ago, our youngest brother Zenovy founded the Civil-Military Innovation Institute (CMI2). Before starting this company, we had already managed to build our own careers. Zenovy is the author of more than 25 technical papers and the inventor or co-author of a lot of patented civilian and military technologies.

I was the General Manager of ITW Sexton, a manufacturer of special high-pressure containers. Borys was the head of postal operations at PNC Bank. 

First Borys and later I joined the management of CMI2. We feel comfortable in our joint business. It was important for our father Andrew, who passed away in October 2022, that we work together.

The company now employs about 100 people, and we have 14 offices in the United States and three in Europe. 

                                                                                                             Ivan Vovchuk's three grandchildren: Yurij, Zenovy, and Borys

CMI2 is engaged in defense innovation. We have grants and large programs that we run for the US Department of Defense. We work mainly for the Army, but also for the National Guard and the Navy.

This is a rather specific activity that involves closing gaps in defense technology and creating functional solutions to support soldiers with immediate effect. To put it simply, we work directly with the military: we examine the technologies they use in action, identify their shortcomings, and modernize and improve their quality.  

 We have a huge 3,000-acre (over 1,200 hectares) training ground in West Virginia to conduct experiments and test new technologies. We can test everything from tanks to artillery, drones, small arms, etc. There used to be a huge mine on this territory. The problem with that place is in its location, that the land was useless for anything. It was given to us, so we have the right to conduct various simulations with military equipment there. 

The structure of our business implies that we can develop completely new technologies for defense. For example, we have created an interesting radio frequency technology system that works against enemy drones. I can't disclose any details right now, but we plan to send our products to the frontline for our Ukrainian defenders as early as next month. I think this will have a huge positive impact in their fight.

In general, we would like to help Ukrainian companies create new military technologies. This will take time, but I think American companies could work directly with Ukrainian companies and the military to create new and better technologies faster. 

"The biggest obstacle is a lack of political love for Ukraine"

Our grandfather Ivan Vovchuk set out the task to help Ukrainian youth in the United States establish historical ties with Ukraine. To this end, in 1953 he founded the Ukrainian People's University in New York. Every Saturday, lectures on history, historiosophy, culture, politics, and economics were given there.

He made great efforts to keep the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States united. Unfortunately, these days this unity of the diaspora is very fragmented. I feel that we are not moving in the direction we should be.

There is a very apt phrase that Ivan Vovchuk once said in front of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America: "The biggest obstacle is the lack of political love for Ukraine... We all love Ukraine, but for some people that love is limited to physical love, at best to ethical love, and political love is often lacking."

He showed his political love by example. In the United States, Ivan Vovchuk, among other things, headed a completely political structure - the Organization for the Defense of Four Freedoms of Ukraine (ODFFU). Its practical activities were limited to establishing contacts with representatives of government circles in the United States and other countries, sending letters and memoranda to international institutions, anti-Soviet demonstrations, and distributing nationalist leaflets. I think that many people nowadays do not even realize how much influence this Ukrainian organization had in the United States.

Ivan Vovchuk was among the first Ukrainians to officially testify to the U.S. Congress about the Holodomor in Ukraine.

Ivan Vovchuk at a Ukrainian demonstration in New York. Next to him is his son Andrew

He worked and wrote a lot. Recently, a collection called Convulsions of the Empire was published, with my grandfather's publications from the 50s and 60s, although this is not even a tenth of his legacy. When I re-read his articles and speeches now, it seems as if they were written yesterday. All his theses can be applied to our time. Sometimes I think that if Ukrainians and Americans had listened to Ivan Vovchuk's advice then, the situation in the world would be different today.

Unfortunately, until now his figure has remained almost unknown and forgotten in Ukraine.  The first serious study of Ivan Vovchuk's life has only just been made by Oleh Protsenko. His book "National Tribune. The Life and Ideas of Ivan Vovchuk" is to be published with the support of the Vovk Foundation already in June.

I once sat down to do the math: the author managed to collect more than 40 important historical facts that had not been known until now in the book. For example, the correspondence between Ivan Vovchuk and Stepan Bandera was published for the first time. There is also a detailed story about the rescue of a Jewish family.

Niagara Falls, Canada (1955). From left to right: Stepan Bandera, Mykhailo Chereshnovsky, Stepan Lenkavskyi, Ivan Vovchuk, Stepan Halamay.

We plan to have the book translated into different languages. I am constantly talking about how important the truth is. I am sure that thanks to this book, the world will learn more about the activities and ideas of Ukrainian nationalists.

Author - Ulyana Stelmashova

All photos are from the Vovchuk family archive

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