The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause

Folk Dance, Film, and the Life of Vasile Avramenko


A quixotic figure, Vasile Avramenko (1895-1981) used folk culture and modern media in a life-long crusade to promote Ukraine’s struggle for independence to North American audiences. From his base in New York City, he built a network of folk dance schools and produced musical spectacles to help Ukrainian immigrants sustain their identity. His feature-length Ukrainian language films made in the 1930s with Hollywood director Edgar G. Ulmer, the “king of ethnic and B movies,” were shown throughout North America. Orest T. Martynowych’s The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause is a fascinating portrait how culture can become a political tool in a diaspora community.


“Martynowych succeeds beautifully at telling a life story that is captivating to read and powerfully convincing. Avramenko was a pioneer of monumental importance, yet his story does not fit the archetype of the Ukrainian immigrant. It is an edifying text for anyone interested in studies of folk dance and cultural production, and indispensable for those in Ukrainian studies.”

Marcia Ostashewski, Department of History and Culture, Cape Breton University

“Vasile Avramenko today enjoys legendary status as an impresario and populizer of Ukrainian dance. […] This study is indispensable reading for understanding how popular art forms developed in North America—particularly for seeing how the local and ‘ethnic’ intersected with the commercial and ‘mainstream.’”

Myroslav Shkandrij, Ukrainian Sun

“Martynovych is an extraordinary researcher and Avramenko, because he was so enamored of himself and his mission, left a huge archive. Using this, along with other data, the author has provided a much-needed book about a man who helped shape Ukrainian cultural expression in the West.”

Natalie Kononenko, Slavic and East European Journal

“The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause will be of interest to many Manitobans, including those who learned Ukrainian dancing from Avramenko or from his original students, those who performed in his films, and those who lost their money through investing in his projects. […] Some readers who remember Avramenko may question why Martynowych ‘tarnishes’ the reputation of a great man. But the author simply presents the truths of a well-documented life— the readers can decide. Now we know about the whole person, not just the persona.”

Orysia Tracz, Winnipeg Free Press

“This book stands apart from other studies of Ukrainians in Canada and the US by reaching beyond the politics, organizations, and churches of the Ukrainian community. Through his biography of Vasile Avramenko, Martynowych explores the passions of common folk, who were trying to fit into the North American cultural landscape.”

Bohdan Y. Nebesio, East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies

“The Showman and the Ukrainian Cause is the terrific new book by Orest T. Martynowych which combines meticulously researched scholarship with a compulsive prose style, handily delivering superb non-fiction literature which details the life and career of a visionary madman devoted to maintaining and promoting Ukrainian culture throughout the world in spite of its repression under both Communism and intensely rigid policies of Russification in post-revolutionary Soviet-dominated Ukraine.”

Greg Klymkiw, The Film Corner

“In the course of producing this fine little monograph on Avramenko, Martynowych has also provided readers with a brilliant little primer on Ukrainian diasporic politics, Ukrainian volunteerism in North America, the changing nature of the diasporic community over the years, and, perhaps most surprisingly, on North American popular culture during the 1920s and 1930s. Quite an achievement for 155 pages.”

Jim Mochoruk, Manitoba History

“Martynowych has produced a well-balanced work, but more importantly it is the only source that depicts Vasile Avramenko without a heavily sugar-coated framework. Martynowych debunks a national myth that was carefully nurtured within his own community, and one can only marvel at the risk he and the University of Manitoba Press were taking with its publication. While it might shock some readers to find out that the dance master was a only a modestly talented choreographer (according to later performance expectations) and a deluded, envious, and egotistic character, I find this publication also makes Avramenko more real and more human.”

Jennifer Boivin, H-Net Reviews

“Historians of immigration, and of Eastern Europe more generally, will benefit from the view of interwar Ukrainian immigrant life to be gained by looking over the shoulder of the dynamic and ubiquitous Avramenko. This sympathetic study likewise casts light on immigrant cultural consumption andacculturation in North America during the period.”

Rosamund Johnston, Harvard Ukrainian Studies


Manitoba Day Awards, Association of Manitoba Archives (2016)

About the Author

Orest T. Martynowych is a historian at the Centre for Ukrainian-Canadian Studies, University of Manitoba. He is the author of Ukrainians in Canada: The Formative Years, 1891-1924.

Table of Contents


Prologue: World Premiere at the Orpheum …. 1
Chapter One: The Man and His Mission.......... 3
Chapter Two: Dance Master ………………… 17
Chapter Three: Motion Picture Producer ...... 59
Chapter Four: Fugitive ………………………106
Epilogue: The Legacy Tour …...…………….132