Andy Warhol Comes to Kyiv
Next time you’re in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, don’t bother looking for Dostoevsky Street. It’s been renamed: it’s now Andy Warhol Street.
That’s not because Ukrainians have some extraordinary regard for his art. Most have probably never seen a Warhol. It’s because many Ukrainians regard Andy as Ukrainian.
Was he? The evidence is mixed.
Warhol has been studied as an artist, designer, writer, filmmaker, publisher, and even as a philosopher. He’s been called a genius, an idiot savant, a provocateur, and a fraud. His admirers emphasize that he revolutionized art with his Brillo Boxes, silkscreens, flat surfaces, and bold use of color. His detractors claim that he cheapened art by commercializing it. But the trend-setting New York avant-garde artist was also or, above all, a shy boy of Slavic peasant stock who was born and raised in a deeply religious and cloistered Eastern European community in Pittsburgh.
Andy lived in the Ruthenian ghetto of Pittsburgh from the day of his birth on August 6, 1928 until mid-1949 when he moved to New York. Ruthenians—or Rusyns, as they called themselves—were the largely Greek Catholic peasant people from the area corresponding to today’s western Ukraine, eastern Slovakia, and southeastern Poland who immigrated to the United States in the hundreds of thousands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Despite some regional differences, most Ruthenians shared a common material, spiritual, and folk culture and spoke mutually intelligible dialects.
When Warhol lived in Pittsburgh, few Ruthenians possessed a modern national identity. It was only in the period from the beginning of World War I to the end of World War II that Ruthenians, in the United States and in their homeland in Eastern Europe, divided into three national groups. Most opted for a Ukrainian identity; many reimagined themselves as Rusyns or Carpatho-Rusyns; some chose a Russian identity. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and of Czechoslovakia in 1993 a self-consciously active Carpatho-Rusyn national movement has emerged in the mountainous regions of eastern Slovakia and western Ukraine. At present, the number of self-declared Rusyns is about a million.
Andy’s parents were Ruthenian peasants from the village of Mikova in the Carpathian Mountains who spoke Ruthenian with their three sons and never quite learned English. For the first six years of Andy’s life, the family lived in a desperately poor Eastern European enclave bordered by a steep hill on one side and the Monongahela River and the railroad tracks on the other. In 1934, they moved to a working-class Slavic neighborhood on higher ground in the Oakland part of town.
Despite this upward social move, the Warholas—and Andrew—remained completely immersed in the local Ruthenian community. The Warholas’ extended family lived in Pittsburgh; they, like their Ruthenian friends and neighbors, were deeply religious, celebrated Christian holydays according to the Julian calendar—with Christmas falling on January 7, and not on December 25—and walked long distances to attend Mass at St. John Chrysostom Greek Catholic Church, where Andy was baptized. Ruthenian language, culture, food, rites, and rituals were a perfectly normal part of Andy’s everyday world.
Warhol’s sense of Ruthenian national identity was minimal, and he even identified his mother’s “thick accent” as “Czechoslovakian.” His background was “objectively” Ruthenian in that he was born and raised in a Ruthenian community and even spoke the language; but he never appears to have embraced “subjective” Ruthenianism and proudly claimed that heritage as his own. That said, Warhol remained a committed Greek Catholic all his life. He regularly prayed, both at home and in church, and frequently attended Sunday Mass. His bedside table contained a crucifix, a Christ statuette, and a prayer book. After he died on February 22, 1987, he was buried in St. John the Divine Byzantine Catholic Cemetery, some twenty miles south of Pittsburgh, in a simple grave next to his parents.
Unsurprisingly, both Carpatho-Rusyns and Ukrainians today claim Andy Warhol as their own. And both have grounds for doing so: after all, Warhol was born and raised a Ruthenian at a time that Carpatho-Rusyn and Ukrainian identity were only in the process of formation in Pittsburgh and the homeland. By the same token, neither nation can claim him as a self-conscious member. When it comes to objective cultural affiliation or subjective ethnic identification, the United States—with its diverse Slavic heritages—has the greatest claim on Warhol and his art.
Alexander Motyl, professor of political science, Rutgers University-Newark