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Photo Essay: Preserving Ukrainian culture with the Baba Yelka project

A group of people walk with their backs to the camera on a snowy road. There are trees and buildings in the background.

The Baba Yelka Project tells a story of Ukrainian culture little known to the public.

Michael Andrews, a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Ukraine, is using his photography expertise to connect with and help preserve Ukrainian village culture and traditions. Michael began his Peace Corps Response service as an organizational capacity building specialist for 100% LIFE Kropyvnytskyi, an HIV-service nongovernmental organization, and has expanded his service to encompass a secondary project as a photographer in the Baba Yelka cultural expedition. He has taken on an important role in Ukraine that has enabled him to immerse himself in the culture of a region not well represented there.

A man stands with his camera around his neck in front of a mirror. To the right is a bright blue door, to the left is a plant

“Like most Americans, I knew nothing about Ukraine before I came here," Michael said. "Learning Ukraine’s history, traditions and culture, and experiencing first hand their challenges as an emerging democracy – sharing myself with them – has had a profound impact on my life.”

A young Ukrainian man stands speaking to two other men. He is dressed in a blazer.

Peace Corps Response plays an important role in building bridges between people and local organizations. The Baba Yelka Project is sponsored by the Nova Gazeta, a regional Ukrainian newspaper based in Kropyvnytskyi.

Four older Ukrainian women sit on a bench, wearing scarves on their heads and dressed in traditional clothing.

Baba Yelka is named for a woman named Elka, who lived in the Maloviskivskyi district of the Kirovograd region of Ukraine. “She knew hundreds of folk songs, treated people with herbs, raised ten children, and experienced the Holodomor.” She is the inspiration for this cultural preservation project, one that resonates with the team; many of the team members see their own grandmothers as their very own “Baba Elkas.” It is in memory of them that Michael and the Baba Yelka team work to ensure these cultural traditions are not lost.

Baba Yelka was conceived in 2018 by Inna Tilnova, editor of Nova Gazeta, Svіtlana Bulanova, a performer of traditional Ukrainian songs, and Viktoria Semenenko, a journalist and public relations professional. Photographer and video expert, Alexander Mayorov, helped launch the project. Michael became intrigued with their work soon after arriving in Ukraine and asked to join them. After deliberation, they said yes. That was ten months and thousands of photographs ago.

Two Ukrainian women dressed in traditional clothing sit on chairs in a green field. There is a camera crew behind them.

The team of five Ukrainians and one American, Michael, has visited 30 villages now with the goal of documenting and preserving authentic Ukrainian culture. During their visits, grandmothers in the villages share their stories, songs, traditional clothing and handiwork.

A man stands in the center of a stage playing an accordion and singing. Men and women in traditional clothing sing behind him

“One of the cultural markers of the true Ukrainian identity is the folk song, which Baba Yelka reveals and preserves," said Inna Tilnova, one of Baba Yelka's founders. "For some people, the Ukrainian folk song is something forgotten and not relevant. But for others, it is the whole universe, a way of identification and self-expression. We travel in search of authentic folk songs that have survived to record and share them. These are our greatest treasures, our sources, our depth.”

A group of Ukrainians sit around a table filled with food. They are in a colorful room.

The team didn't just interview Ukrainian villagers; they became a part of their culture, sharing meals and stories with one another. “I am overwhelmed by the generosity, hospitality and resilience of the people of Ukraine," Michael said. "I have been welcomed with open arms since the day I arrived in country, by my host families, at 100% LIFE Kropyvnytskyi (the organization that has enabled me to make an impact as a Response Volunteer), and by my Ukrainian friends on the Baba Yelka team."

A brochure with a gray textured background is covered in colorful photos of Ukrainian women

This brochure, created by the team, is used to promote this exhibition of authentic Ukrainian culture. Michael says it also serves as one of the only pieces of written material for the general public about folk culture in an oblast that is least represented and obscured by history.

A woman sits amid an ornately decorated room, telling a story. Michael is reflected in a mirror taking her photo.

"In spite of incredible hardships endured by Ukrainian people, particularly village grandmothers, they still have songs in their hearts and sparks of happiness in their eyes." - PCR Volunteer Michael

An older Ukrainian woman stands in traditional attire amid a green field and blooming tree.

These gallery-style photo presentations of village visits paint a larger picture. “Promoting understanding about these unique traditions both inside Ukraine and with the world is an important part of the country’s emerging freedom and independence," Michael said. "We want other communities to work to preserve and transfer the wisdom and knowledge of the 'old-timers' in the same fashion as the Baba Yelka expeditions.”

A group of people walk on a snowy road, their backs to the camera. There are trees and buildings in the background.

On serving as a Response Volunteer, Michael says, “I think it is important this story not be about me as much as it is about the important role Peace Corps Response fills in building bridges, what we accomplish together with our Ukrainian hosts. I hear this sentiment echoed by my Peace Corps Ukraine Volunteer peers; we feel we have two families – those we love back home and those we love here.”

Peace Corps Response sends experienced professionals on short-term, high-impact assignments in collaboration with local host country organizations around the world. View all PCR openings here.

About Michael Andrews: Michael is a Peace Corps Response Volunteer serving in Ukraine as an Organizational Capacity Building Specialist for HIV-service NGOs. He was expected to complete his service in July 2019 but is planning on extending his time at his current post by at least a year because he is committed to reaching PEPFAR’s goals in combating the Ukrainian HIV/AIDS epidemic.