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The War at Home
In the late 1940s, people from Ukraine came to settle in Leeds.
We meet two people of Ukrainian heritage and find out what they are doing to support a country at war.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the world reacted with shock and condemnation. Since then, millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee the country. At the time of writing, the war is still raging. The Ukrainian people continue to defend their country against a powerful aggressor.
But what of Ukrainians living in Leeds? We were keen to share the stories of older people from a Ukrainian background. After the second world war, many people fled from Ukraine and came to the UK; many settled in Leeds. How are they feeling right now, and what are they doing to support people in Ukraine?
I’m not surprised
about what’s been going on at the moment. And the way Ukrainians have fought. We always knew that Russia wanted to destroy Ukraine
Olga and Peter were kind enough to speak to Shine at a very difficult time for them. Both are very busy trying to support the people they know in Ukraine. But neither of them are surprised at the tenacity with which the Ukrainian people are fighting. As Peter tells us, it’s part of the “psychology” of the country.
Olga Callaghan is one of the people of Ukrainian heritage who help run the Ukrainian Club in Chapeltown. She was born to Ukrainian parents in the UK in 1950 but has never forgotten her roots. Olga is currently focused on raising money to support the Ukrainian people in that country. We met her in the Ukrainian Club to find out more.
Most of us here, our parents came to the UK in 1947. Our country was invaded by the Russians, then the Germans, then the Russians again. In the second world war, the Germans took people out of the country to work as slave labour in Germany. My dad worked on a farm and my mam worked in a munitions factory. She lived in a camp. They walked to the factory, accompanied by SS guards and dogs, worked, then walked back again on a night. That’s what they did in the war. My mam was near Essen.
Towards the end of the war, the Germans knew they were losing. They didn’t want people to know these camps existed. They made people in the camps walk for miles and miles. They had to hide in the forests during the day and walk at night, to avoid the Allied bombers flying overhead. Eventually they got them to Hamburg and they were caught. The Americans found them and took them to a big camp in Hamburg. When the war finished, certain countries would take certain people. So Australia were taking married couples – and England really wanted single people. My mum and dad decided to come to this country. But they didn’t “emigrate” – they were brought here by the government to work. There were labour shortages after the war.
Three quarters of the people who came then lived in camps in the UK. My dad lived down in Derbyshire. He had already met my mum by then. They’d work wherever work was found for them. They were given a pound and told to get on with it! My mum and her friend were given jobs in textiles mill in Bramley. Yates’s, it was called. There were lots of Ukrainians working there. A lot of them were in lodgings. Local people in Bramley took them in. Bit by bit, the camps disbanded. Most were full of young people. They were only in their early 20s when the war finished. Some even younger, they’d been taken by the Germans aged 14. Most married; some married Ukrainian people, some married Italians, some local people. And they got their own homes. My mam and dad married in 1949. By 1953, they’d bought their first house. They were both working. I was born in 1950.
Olga outside the Ukrainian Club in Chapeltown
The Ukrainian Club
The community bought our first Ukrainian Club in the late 1950s. We bought the current building in 1965. We all lived in Chapeltown back then. We had a great childhood! We’d go to school and have our English friends. We did what normal children did at school, spoke English, all the rest. But at weekends we’d come to the Club. We all spoke Ukrainian; we never spoke English. We’d speak Ukrainian at home. We had Ukrainian dancing lessons on a Friday night, Ukrainian Youth Association and Ukrainian school on a Saturday. On a Saturday night, we’d have Ukrainian music. A little band used to come and we’d have a dance. Church on a Sunday. There might be egg-painting or embroidery. We had a fantastic social life! Every summer our parents would send us off to a place just outside London for three weeks. You’d never see your parents - you might get a food parcel. We’d learn everything about Ukraine. History, literature, songs. It was packed with activities. It was just fantastic! I loved it; we all loved it. One weekend Leeds might have a dance, the next weekend Huddersfield or Bradford might have one. It was nothing to jump on a train and go over. We all knew each other from different towns across the North.
My mum and dad came from different parts of Ukraine. My mum was from the East and there’s no family there; they were all starved by Stalin in the famine of 1932 and 1933. She didn’t have anybody. My dad had a big family. His two brothers were both in the underground partisan army and were shot by the Russians. When Russia finally took over Ukraine at the end of the war, my dad’s parents were sent to Siberia. They had 25 years in Siberia as punishment. We used to send them parcels. Bearing in mind my mam and dad had little – very little. But twice a year we’d send it, a massive box with everything from soap to material. Headscarves, coats; anything that we could get to keep them warm. At that time my auntie was left in the Ukraine but, nowadays, I just have distant cousins.
In 1991, when Ukraine became free, we were ecstatic. People believed it would be the start of something good. It’s hard work. The younger people are the ones you have hope in. The older people have lived under Soviet rule and some of them don’t want to let go. But as they are getting older, the younger ones are taking over. They can see the West and want what we’ve got. They see that freedom and say, “Why can’t I have that?” In the old days you were frightened about your next-door neighbour listening outside your window and reporting you. Nowadays, you can say what you want.
I went back within 2 months of Ukraine’s independence in September 1991. It was still very Soviet-looking, obviously. The shops were empty. That was a reflection of where they were coming from, from under Soviet rule. There was nothing on the shelves, absolutely nothing. Completely bare. You couldn’t buy things –
it was all coupons then. You had to go down to the market. People would whisper to you, “Do you want to buy some Ukrainian money? Do you want this or that?” A lot of people still had that Soviet mentality. We went to get bread. An old lady was complaining that the bread they gave her wasn’t fresh, it was yesterday’s bread. So they said to her, “If you wanted it fresh, you should’ve come yesterday!” That was the Russian mentality. No sympathy.
A Ukrainian Way of Life
Things changed a lot in 30 years. The last time I went to see family was about 10 years ago. It was a completely different country. Young people were freer. I went to Kyiv and Lviv 2 years ago, before Covid. The country is beautiful. The people are beautiful. The food is beautiful. The typical dish is borscht. You’ve got to have it the Ukrainian way, not the watery way: plenty of beetroot. The Ukrainians can be quite laid back but they can get themselves wired up and have an argument about a paper bag! But they all like their food, they all like a drink. Horilka is a Ukrainian vodka. The last time I saw my auntie she gave me a bottle. And I got more bottles from others. My suitcase was sloshing by the time I came home!
I’m not surprised about what’s been going on at the moment. And the way Ukrainians have fought. We always knew that Russia wanted to destroy Ukraine. We knew they would make an attempt at some point. For 30 years, we’ve lived with little bits of sabotage. One person murdered, here, another there. Lies on RT television. Lies in the newspapers. We knew the threat was there. But to do this and not even admit you are invading ... tell that to the thousands of dead people. It’s terrible. At first, I was heartbroken. Crying all the time. But your tears don’t help, you have to pull yourself together and carry on. Do what you can.
The War Effort
We were collecting clothing at first, but it became too much for us. We have one big centre in Halifax that deals with that. We’re now collecting money. Some goes to humanitarian causes: money to feed the people remaining in Ukraine. People are living in subways. Children are being born in subways. To get medicines. Feeding the soldiers and volunteers who are fighting. We’re also collecting to clothe our soldiers. Volunteers might be given a gun, but they are given nothing else. We’ve been buying night vision cameras. We’re now trying to get walkie-talkies and quality bullet-proof vests. Tourniquets for injury. We want to keep the soldiers safe so they can continue fighting.
We get messages all the time from Ukraine. Mainly from women volunteers, who are working with the soldiers. They’ve been doing that since 2014, whenCrimea was annexed. They ring us all the time and say, “we need this” or “we need that”. And we try to get what they need. There will be some refugees coming to the UK. We’ll need some help when that happens. We’d urge people to contact their MPs to put pressure on the government to do more – do more to sanction the oligarchs. Since this has happened, I’ve had a lot of people emailing me,
saying things like, “I live in Leeds and my dad was Ukrainian, he came in 1947 and we never talked about it.” It’s sad because we’ve had the club since 1965 and some people didn’t properly tell their children, didn’t bring them here, didn’t enjoy the childhood we did. We had a great life! It’s sad that people missed out. Only to realise you’re Ukrainian later in life. A lot of Ukrainians married English people and wanted to forget about it. But were just around the corner all along!
In the 1980s and 1990s, Peter Solowka was guitarist for Leeds-based band The Wedding Present. Peter comes from a Ukrainian family and later in life became interested in that part of his history; he formed the band The Ukrainians in 1991. The band are playing a series of benefit gigs in Leeds and elsewhere, to raise money for the people of Ukraine. We spoke to Peter and he explained how his love for Ukrainian music has lasted all his life.
Peter Solowka and his father in the Ukrainian Club in Middleton, Manchester.
Barely a year goes by without there being a war somewhere in the world. You see them on TV and think it’s terrible, but it doesn’t touch you unless you have some link to it. With this particular war, a day hasn’t passed without me being in tears. It’s not that I was born in Ukraine, or that I’ve lived there – though I do have distant family there. There’s some- thing about having a link to a place, a story of history. It’s a sense of belonging that’s being attacked. You feel very vulnerable. It makes no logical sense as to why I should feel emotional right now, but I really do.
I was born in Oldham. My dad was from Ukraine, my mum was from Yugoslavia. They were both refugees/ migrants from the second world war. They came to work in the mill towns in the northern English towns. When I was a little kid – between the ages of 6 and 11 – there was a tiny Ukrainian club in Middleton, Manchester. Probably only 20 or so Ukrainian families. They’d hired a really old Co-op Hall. It was a tiny
place, with a bar downstairs and an upstairs room. It was a place for people to meet at weekends. On Saturday mornings, I’d be taken there and they’d try to teach me the language, the history and culture of the country, a bit of folk dancing. It was the community centre. Kids were there. But I didn’t like it! I hated it!
We’d have arguments at home about whether I should go or not – my dad was one of the people who ran it.
It just seemed so different from my “real” school. None of my friends went there because there were very few people with a Ukrainian background. I really didn’t take to it. What I did take to, was the music. Every tune I heard really stuck in my head. So even though I never learned to speak the Ukrainian language very well, I strongly related to the music. I don’t know why. It just hit me. I found being Ukrainian a bit of a burden, to be quite frank. The school I was in, it was mainly people from a traditional white working-class background. There were only 2 names that didn’t sound English or Irish – and they were both Ukrainian. So you did get a lot of stick. People would laugh at my parents’ accents; the smell of the food was very different. It wasn’t something I talked a lot about at school. It was something I hid. from. Maybe if I’d been in an area of Manchester that
had a stronger Ukrainian community, it might have been different.
Peter (centre, front) with The Wedding Present
Peter (sitting down with guitar) with The Ukrainians
A Musical Family
There was always a musical instrument in the house. My mum really wanted the family to be musical. There was an old pub piano in the house, the size of our front room. Even though I never went to any music lessons, I’d always play around with little tunes on the piano. My mum taught me the accordion; it was far too big for me! But I hated lessons. I didn’t like “formal” stuff. When I was 12 or 13, I picked up a guitar. That’s what you do when you’re a teenager. A few years later, in my early twenties, I started to explore the instruments my parents had taught me: accordions, mandolins, that sort of thing. They become the tools of my trade.
I was a member of the band The Wedding Present. In the early days of the band I was in 3 or 4 other bands. I just loved to play music with as many people as I could. That’s what I wanted to do with my time. And The Wedding Present was just the band that took off. It was the right people, making the right sounds, at the right time. What we did has become part of indie pop culture. Part of the pathway of bands. In the late 80s and early 90s we were certainly very influential.
In my 20s, I was experimenting with all things Ukrainian, going into those roots that I’d denied as a kid. I taught myself to read and write Ukrainian, to speak it a bit. I can sing it better though! And what- ever band I was in, I’d throw Ukrainian folk tunes at them. This was no different with The Wedding Present. If we had nothing else to do, if we were getting a bit bogged down in a song, I’d just start playing a tune and we’d jam along to these Ukrainian folk songs. We were about to do a session for John Peel – we did quite a few sessions for the late, great John. But we’d done one six months before and we realised we didn’t have any new songs! So I thought, let’s do something completely different. I said to the band, “Shall we do some Ukrainian versions of Wedding Present songs? But not tell John!” So we asked him if we could do something a bit different. John said, “Yeah, go for it.” That one thing – him saying yes – has made such a massive difference to my life. Because it opened the energy and the emotion of Ukrainian music to a generation of people who would never have heard it. When I look at those first efforts, it seems quite crude, quite rushed. But the energy of the music did come across. There was something in it.
After that first Peel session, there were so many people telling us how great it was, that straight away, they asked us to do another one. I then contacted a few more people to make the band sound bigger – another mandolin player, another vocalist. Those two Peel sessions were released as an album by The Wedding Present – and it got to No. 22 in the charts! That’s still a record for the highest chart position of any Ukrainian language record in Britain! I left The Wedding Present in 1991 and formed the band The Ukrainians. When we formed the band, Ukraine wasn’t independent. It’s weird, when you’re a kid and people say, “What’s your background?” And you say, “Ukrainian”. They say, “What’s that? You mean Russian?” “It’s not Russian – it’s Ukrainian!” So we thought the band name was pretty radical. 2 months later the country became independent!
I’ve been to Ukraine a few times since independence. To be honest, it’s spectacular. It looks like any other European city. The culture, the nightlife is exactly the same. The freedoms, the artistic expression. That’s what makes me so sad. The system the Russians are trying to impose does not have that freedom. Freedom is an idea that’s so close to Ukrainian identity – and it’s not going to be there if this war is lost. I’m not surprised by how hard the Ukrainians are fighting. It’s almost like 300 years of history have gone into the here and now.
The Psychology of Ukraine
There’s something very different about Ukrainian folk songs. There’s always protest songs in people’s culture. The ones in Ukraine – if they’re about conflict – are all about really deadly conflict. There’s no beating around the bush. Something in the psychology of the country is there. All Ukrainian folk songs are about standing up for what you believe in, going out there and fighting – and then dying for your beliefs. That’s in the songs, deep in there. Part of the identity of the nation. The people who are there now are expressing something the stories and songs they’ve heard their whole lives. This is worth fighting for.
The first time I went on tour was in 1993. We were out there with our version of Ukrainian culture – which was really from the 1950s. When we were in the Western part, in Lviv, people knew all the songs. But further east – Kharkiv – we didn’t hear any Ukrainian being spoken. Only Russian. We did the show and the audience clapped politely. And afterwards someone told us, “Those songs, they remind me of the songs my grandmother taught me.” In that part of the country, it was a very Russian culture. It’s amazing to see how, in one generation, the people have turned their back on the Russian language and embraced the Ukrainian language and culture. It’s because of that simple fact that to be Ukrainian is not to be Russian. To turn your back on that oppressive regime. People on the streets in Kharkiv are prepared to fight – to not be Russian. It’s a phenomenal change.
Thanks to Olga and Peter for talking to us.
The Ukrainians are playing several benefit gigs over the next few weeks raising money for Ukrainian refugees. For more information go to https://www.the-ukrainians.com
The Ukrainian Centre in Leeds are no longer taking donations of clothes but you can give money here: https://gofund.me/22b0fbf1
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