Ukrainian transplants find unity in crisis

(Photo by Kseniya Sovenko)
The author’s tattoo of the Tryzub, the Ukrainian coat of arms. (Photo by Kseniya Sovenko)

When I went under the needle for the second time shortly after my 18th birthday, I was another tattoo obsessed teenager looking to annoy my parents. Conveniently, my thirst for rebellion coincided with my desire to preserve my ethnic roots and honor my homeland.

With a brand new American passport and an eloquent English vocabulary, I hungered to somehow show the world that my blood was Ukrainian.

So I branded myself with the ‘Tryzub,’ the Ukrainian coat of arms which represents a trident, a gyrfalcon, and the word voyla, Ukrainian for ‘freedom.’

I never thought that the ink under my skin would transform into one of the most important political symbols of my time.

“Before February, we were all very close as people,” said Michael Pedchenko while sipping on a cup of strawberry-kiwi tea. Since the beginning of the Russian intervention in Ukraine, Pedchenko, like many Seattleites, combed through his Facebook and unfriended certain individuals in order to avoid conflict.

“The small group of radical, [Russian] ultra-patriots who advocated for Ukrainians to be put in their place or crushed with tanks had to go,” he said.

With the war in Eastern Ukraine raging on for six months now, Seattle’s booming Ukrainian population and a large network of Russian speakers from across the former Soviet Union have felt their communities strained by the conflict.

“I always thought I would move back to Moscow. I have lots of friends there and no Ukrainian accent; I could blend in. But I don’t want that anymore,” said Pedchenko. (Photo by Kseniya Sovenko)
“I always thought I would move back to Moscow. I have lots of friends there and no Ukrainian accent; I could blend in. But I don’t want that anymore,” said Pedchenko. (Photo by Kseniya Sovenko)

Though born in the southeastern city of Zaporizhia, Ukraine, Pedchenko never hesitated to label himself a Russian. Studying at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, he called Russia his home for eight years and admitted to not recognizing a clear line of distinction between the two ethnic identities, a common mindset for Soviet-born individuals.

“Now, I feel myself completely as a Ukrainian,” he said. “I feel deeply connected to my nation and people in a way I never have before.”

Indeed, a previously latent sense of national pride is surfacing in the behaviors and attitudes of many ethnic Ukrainians.

Mariya and Petro Ksondzyk, a newlywed Ukrainian couple, proudly showed off the massive Ukrainian flag hanging over their staircase, as well as their vyshyvankas (traditional Ukrainian embroidered clothing) and a refrigerator door cluttered with the many emblems of their homeland.

Mariya laughs about her husband’s enthusiasm to wear his favorite traditional Ukrainian shirt. (Photo by Kseniya Sovenko)
Mariya laughs about her husband’s enthusiasm to wear his favorite traditional Ukrainian shirt. (Photo by Kseniya Sovenko)

Ukrainian-born UW student Olga Rublinetska likewise dedicated an entire wall of her living room to the flag, an enduring representation of her cultural identity. And, for the past ten months, the bright red door of my own apartment has been offset by the sunflower-yellow and sky-blue of a miniature Ukrainian flag.

The ethos of the pre-war atmosphere could be captured by the phrase ‘not all Russians are Ukrainians, but all Ukrainians are Russians.’ But now, the increasingly popular sentiment in the community is that all Ukrainians are just that — Ukrainian.

“My parents used to identify themselves as Russians because they spoke the language, and we all thought that was okay,” said Rublinetska, who left her hometown of Kharkiv, Ukraine with her family 13 years ago. “But now I always tell people that I am Ukrainian, that I am not Russian at all.”

“For me, there was never a difference between Ukrainians and Russians, besides the language,” said Mr. Ksondzyk, who spoke to me in Russian and is originally from the western Ukrainian city of Lvov. “Now, if someone asks me if I am Russian, I will always correct them and tell them that I am from Ukraine.”

His wife, who was born in the Eastern city of Donetsk, now home to the infamous Donetsk People’s Republic, added that her dislike of being identified as Russian is a new sensation.

Rublinetska proudly stands in front of her flag. (Photo by Kseniya Sovenko)
Rublinetska proudly stands in front of her flag. (Photo by Kseniya Sovenko)

A lack of respect for the growing Ukrainian identity is one of the main stressors on local Ukrainian-Russian ties, suggested Pedchenko.

It’s not uncommon for people from the former Soviet Union to feel belittled by a Russian desire to subsume all relevant national identities into a monolithic Russian one, just like back in the Soviet era.

“All Russians have nicknames for the people who tried to chip off from their influence,” Pedchenko said, referencing an increasing tendency by Russians to identify Ukrainians as “khokhols,” a degrading ethnic slur.

One source of these tendencies seems to be what everyone I talked to called ‘the propaganda machine’ of Russian media.

“I am really surprised to see how the propaganda machine there works, even on people living here,” said Sergey Krasnovsky. An American resident for the past 16 years, he identifies himself as a Ukrainian despite his background: 50 percent Russian, 25 percent Polish and 25 percent Ukrainian.

In spite of the tension back home, he’s found a way to stay on good terms with fellow transplants with a Russian background.

“I am the captain of a volleyball team in Bellevue and we have two Russians, two Belarusians, me — a Ukrainian — and a Lithuanian guy,” said Krasnovsky. “We are still all friends. We understand that it’s not between Russian people, but just Putin and his plan.”

Many Russians, outraged by the actions of their countrymen, have sought refuge in the comfort of the strengthening Ukrainian community in Seattle. Russian journalist Kseniya Kirillova, who wrote for ‘Novaya Gazeta,’ one of the last independent, liberal newspapers dedicated to investigating corruption within Russian political and social affairs, feels that she can never come back to her country.

“I feel like my homeland is physically not there anymore. Not that I’ve left it, but that it has ceased to exist,” she said in Russian, gloom discoloring the tone of her voice over the phone.

Pedchenko’s T-shirt is just one example of the Ukrainian community’s unprecedented desire to show off their heritage. (Photo by Kseniya Sovenko)
Pedchenko’s T-shirt is just one example of the Ukrainian community’s unprecedented desire to show off their heritage. (Photo by Kseniya Sovenko)

Despite the difficulty of her job and persistent pressure from the spying eyes and ears of the Kremlin, Kirillova never intended to leave her homeland. She felt a profound obligation to serve those citizens pursuing truth and freedom in the face of corruption. She felt tied to her place in the world. But six months ago she left, unable to recognize her country or its values.

“I’ve befriended so many Ukrainians here; they took me in with open arms,” she began. “Right now, writing for Ukrainian sites and supporting the Ukrainian people is my main passion. Ukraine has become my second homeland, because my real homeland is gone.”

Along with two friends, Kirillova helped organize Seattle for Peace: Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, United against Russia’s Aggression in Ukraine, a peace march from City Hall to the Russian Consulate which brought out over two hundred supporters.

Such involvement with relief and support efforts at home and overseas is one result of the strengthening Ukrainian identity in Seattle.

Sergey Krasnovsky, who was late to our meeting after picking up a pair of combat boots to send to Ukrainian soldiers with his nephew, constantly volunteers for a grassroots group called “Come Back Alive.” Concentrating its efforts on the 95th Brigade, currently stationed in Donetsk, this organization helps raise funds to deliver high tech equipment like night-vision and thermo-vision devices to the underfunded, undersupplied Ukrainian Army.

“The reason I was late was because I drove to Seattle to pick up boots. Tomorrow I’m going to drive to Olympia to pick up suits for soldiers,” said Krasnovsky holding up the shoe box. (Photo by Kseniya Sovenko)
“The reason I was late was because I drove to Seattle to pick up boots. Tomorrow I’m going to drive to Olympia to pick up suits for soldiers,” said Krasnovsky holding up the shoe box. (Photo by Kseniya Sovenko)

“How do the Ukrainian separatists have tanks when the national army can’t even clothe its soldiers?” he asked. “You wouldn’t believe it, but the pilots over there were flying with maps from the 1960s. We raised enough donations to get them GPS devices.”

Responsible for collecting money in all electronic forms, Krasnovsky has watched streams of donations trickle in from all over the world — the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Japan. Some currencies he had to look up, he admits.

Still, though the group receives donations at a generally steady rate of $1,000 a day, those funds are not enough to counter the power of the Russian army. Whenever he can, Krasnovsky also ships his old laptops and first aid items through a network of frequent flyers between the two countries.

“Just because we are far away doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” said Rublinetska. “There’s such a strong sense of the Ukrainian community coming together here. In reality, we can make an impact.”

27 Comments

  1. This article is absolute nonsense. I am embarrassed that my city would publish this. Spread of hate and propaganda. The individual who wrote it obviously is surrounded by a small group of new-nazis and is spreading false information to clueless Anericans. If you’ve read this humiliating article, do some research before you decide your perspective over the situation.

    To this pathetic Michael person, congratulations on unfriending on Facebook! Hopefully your nerves are more sane after this

    1. Kate,

      Please clarify how this article is spreading hate and propaganda, or a neo-nazi agenda. It is not doing anything except for bringing a real trend to the public eye: Ukrainians are feeling a stronger sense of ethnic identity. I think that any person on this given earth should be granted the right to be proud of their heritage. I would also like to hear about this “research” that you cite. I am assuming that you are upset because you believe this article is bashing people of Russian heritage, which was neither my agenda nor interest in writing this. In fact, not only did I speak to ethnic Russians, but it’s also clearly stipulated in the anecdotes of these individuals that many are still friends with Russians and other Russian-speakers. They are only choosing to avoid those few individuals who disrespect their heritage.

      It’s also pretty disrespectful to call somebody “pathetic” for choosing to unfriend somebody on Facebook. I’ve done it, we’ve all done it, and I am sure you have done it as well.

      Before you start ascribing empty, emotionally charged labels (like “nazi”) to perspectives that may conflict with your own, please consider that just because you don’t support a specific phenomenon doesn’t mean its rubbish or an unimportant story to report.

  2. Kate or whatever your real name is.

    There is a bit of advise for you. Don’t waste your time and energy on spreading hatred – it’ll impact your life. Bad vibe. :)

    Haters gonna hate. That’s why you break connections with them as soon as you can. Facebook included. :)

    Cheers

  3. This is a great article and it describes very accurately my personal journey – I speak Russian and live in Seattle, and now I make sure to clarify that I am from Kazakhstan, not Russia. I feel great sense of unity with Ukrainian community and in the past six months I found some many greats friends. We share the same ideals -respect for human rights and international laws and the right of every nation to choose its path freely . We all are Ukrainians today and stand with Ukraine against Russian aggression. Thank you for the great article and for sharing the thoughts and feelings of our community with the rest of Seattle

    1. Thank you very much for your comment and sharing your own personal journey, Kira. It is my pleasure to share the voices of these individuals and I am glad you were able to connect with it.

      1. Privet Kseniya,

        It’s now 2018 and would be very interested to know if there is a follow-up blog.

        I have become acquainted with several Ukrainian professionals since 2014 and being third generation of Slavic descent I am very empathetic to the story of your country and people in USA.

        I invite you to reply to my.e-mail as well.

        Regards,
        Stephen

  4. You are not brining “real trend to the public eye”, this is not a fashion matter.
    You are brining more confusion to American and Slavic community .
    If you are a dancer you should know, there must be a mutual respect .

    1. Mila, I believe I am, as this is a phenomenon which has not been discussed in the media very thoroughly, if at all. In addition to being a journalist, I am also a sociologist. The word “trend” doesn’t not automatically link to fashion. A trend describes a general course of changing or persistent direction. For example, you can talk about crime trends, or political trends, or social trends.

      Also, I believe I am clarifying an issue for many Americans. There are is a lot of confusion about the Ukrainian ethnicity. Many people don’t even realize there is a Ukrainian language. I am helping people understand that these are two increasingly distinct ethnicities, though they share a lot of commonalities, language being one of them.

      Lastly, I fail to see what my background as a dancer has to do with this issue. I have not shown any disrespect for the Russian community with my writing. Again I must bring up the fact that I sought out ethnic Russians, have many Russian friends, and speak Russian myself. This, however, is an undeniable and unprecedented transition of culture.

  5. Not once in this article did you specify that any of this conflict is caused by radical members of BOTH sides of the war, literally speaking. Similar in example is the generalization of radical islamists to Muslims as a group. Yes, it is on Ukraine’s soil that blood is being shed, and yes, the Ukranian people are now more patriotic than ever, but your article loses touch with the fact that it is not Russia as a whole, Russians as people, “Russian” as a culture, that are the antagonists of this conflict, as though there are not two sides to the coin. As a Ukranian expat who often had to clarify the difference between Russian, Ukranain, Latvian, Lithuanian, Moldavian, etc to unaware foreigners that lumped everyone from the former Soviet Republics together, it’s fairly offensive to read an article that demonstrates that Ukranian patriotism is only starting to emerge as a result of Russia’s antagonism. I have an allegiance to my country, my homeland, my “rodina”, whatever you want to call it, but I don’t respect this form of blame and hate mongering, especially in Seattle’s “news”.

    Perhaps you were not going for unbiased bipartisanship by publishing this article, but uninformed and impassioned finger pointing is not the way to start a career in journalism.

    1. In writing this article, it was not my goal to identify the root cause of the conflict abroad. I am unqualified to do so and have no qualms about recognizing that fact. That issue has been covered through and through and I cannot add anything to the perspectives being discussed that has not already been said. This article is about the effects of that conflict (whatever it may be) on a specific groups personal feelings; my role as a reporter was to give a voice to the local Ukrainian community. I did not know any of the people I interviewed before meeting with them, and as such did not prime the story to push some kind of blame on Russian people.
      I also think you are having a difficult time separating my opinions and perspective from that of my sources. Just as you are obligated to hold your opinion, so are they. The only part of this article which directly included my voice was the anecdote about me getting the tryzub tattoo. Not only did I get that far before the conflict began, but my justifications for getting it was because I have always felt Ukrainian, since I was a part of the generation born in the newly sovereign Ukraine. Don’t shoot the messenger.

      In regards to your point about the generalizing of the antagonists of this conflict, I’d like to bring your attention to this quote, in case you had missed it. “We are still all friends. We understand that it’s not between Russian people, but just Putin and his plan.”

      Lastly, the fact that you take offense to the fact that some peoples emerging allegiance with Ukraine is a result of Russian antagonism is an understandable one. However, just because you personally take offense to it does not mean that it is something that shouldn’t be discussed, nor does it invalidate the experience of those individuals who feel a stronger identity because of the conflict. That is your personal experience, these people have had a different one.

      It is fair for you to consider that this a bad start to my journalism career, as it is your opinion and you are obligated to it. However, I was not pointing fingers at anyone, only sharing the stories I had uncovered through my own curiosity.

  6. Kseniya, keep your good work. Writing about those things is as important as a history itself. Your case studies are interesting, engaging and very sincere. Thank you.

  7. This is a good and useful article. The feelings of Ukrainians who were interviewed coincide with my own. In my opinion, this is important that you, Kseniya, do. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Natalia. I am glad that you consider this useful, and that you have experienced similar feelings.

  8. Great article, and it reflects most of my experiences during the last year. I live in a Seattle area for many years now, and my circle of friends included a lot of Russian speaking people. Until a few months ago, I wouldn’t care if people called me Russian or Ukrainian. I grew up in a Russian speaking household, and for many years I was very proud of my great grandfather who was a Russian red army commander. However in March, many things dramatically changed for most of my Ukrainian-born friends. After Crimean occupation I began to receive phone calls and email messages from my Russian friends and many of them told me that they were ashamed of their government’s actions. Other friends preferred to remain neutral and not discuss any politics. But then I began to notice a demeaning and disrespectful language towards Ukrainians. I had to delete a numer of my so-called friends, and I know now that those friendships will never be restored. I also know that for every friend I lost, I found at least three more, as people in our community came together against Russian aggression. After multiple name callings I no longer identify myself as Russian, I began to read books in Ukrainian, and I try to speak Ukrainian as much as I can (though I do think in English now). My identity completely evolved and changed into Ukrainian-born American; no more Russian. And I no longer proud of my great grandfather, as I see a history of my native country in a completely different way. As for my remaining Russian friends, I will be forever greatfull for their continuos love and support.

    1. Irina,

      Thank you very much for sharing your story here. The thematic tenants of your own experience match the experiences of many people with whom I’ve spoken with. Though everyone has had at least one nasty or unpleasant experience, they’ve also found a great number of people who both support and appreciate their cause and perspective. The community really is strengthening here! Also, I too have noticed that those who can often try and speak Ukrainian more frequently. Ukrainian is my first language; moving to America at a young age, however, coupled with the difficulty of learning the English language, has made me forget it entirely. Now I only speak Russian, but I yearn to be able to speak both fluently again.

  9. Hi Kseniya,

    Thank you for this wonderful article. Here in New York, we have a similar situation in the Ukrainian and Russian-speaking community. Similar activists, similar stories, just different names.

    I’m originally from Russia, and I can relate with what Kseniya Kirillova is feeling.

    PS shared your article on this page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Russian-Americans-in-Support-of-Ukraine/707043659383048 (this is a page for other people who consider themselves to be Russian-Americans and who support an independent, unified, and democratic Ukraine).”

  10. Nationalism and Nazism are not exactly the same as patriotism. They are ugly no matter who promotes them. The article is obviously not about “embracing heritage” It promotes the views of only one side of the terrible conflict in Ukraine and makes a clumsy attempt to sell them as “educating” the Seattle and other English speaking public about it. The means are pretty primitive, talking about “Russian intervention”, “persistent pressure from the spying eyes and ears of the Kremlin”, and mythical anti-Ukranian sentiment in the local Russian community as if those were proven facts . What’s more alarming though is the attempt to promote the campaign of support and “relief” for not the people in Ukraine suffering from the assault of the Ukrainian army but that army itself! The very army that uses heavy artillery and air force to shell not the Russian army (as the article claims and all these “sources” want Americans to believe) but their own cities and citizens with banned cluster bombs and such just because they dared to disagree with the “revolution” in Kiev that was executed with a significant help of Ukrainian nationalist radicals but instigated and embraced by the US an the West only because it was anti-Russian. “Educators”, of course, won’t tell about war crimes and atrocities committed by the Ukrainian army and nationalistic armed gangs (“volunteer battalions”) openly wearing Nazi symbolic on their helmets . Neither they will go into much detail about how exactly the country Ukraine appeared on the world map just about twenty years ago. Creating an impression that this country and “nation” (within the borders of Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, of course!) existed for quite some time in the past, but later was occupied by evil Russians is another trick used by Ukrainian nationalists to attract the support among people in the West who don’t know much about the history of the territories that became “independent Ukraine” against the will not only the rest of the population of the Soviet Union expressed at the 1991 referendum but first and foremost against the will of a significant portion of the people who lived on the very territories assigned to the new country created by the separatists. It is cynical how “fighters for independence” now condemn “separatists”. It is laughable how those who spread the propaganda of one side complain about the propaganda of the other. It is pathetic how the sole goal of those who hailed “independence” became to give up that very independence and become a colony and voiceless satellite of a bloc of other countries just to hurt Russia they hate so much. This article is propaganda and does promote hate and division in the local Russian and Ukrainian speaking communities.

    1. Stanislav,

      Spoken like a true nationalist… However, it is not clear which side you support, that of the old Soviet Union or the one of Mr Putin’s regime (I refuse to call this the will of the Russian people, as the will presupposes an existence of a democracy). Wait, I forgot, Russia (Mr Putin’s regime) has no part in this war, as it takes guts to openly state that one is at war with another country… Russia (Mr. Putin’s regime) only has enough guts to openly support the illegal elections that happened last week, breaking a treaty it signed in Minsk, just recently. That is on top of the treaty that Russia signed in 1994 guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine giving up the nuclear weapons (the treaty was broken when Russian soldiers occupied The Crimea Peninsula).

      I don’t believe that Russia as a nation supports this war or openly hates other people (Ukrainians) to the point of supporting a shadow war that kills hundreds of innocent civilians, the war that is a direct result of the totalitarian regime that Putin installed over his rule. It is a shame that you do…

  11. Kseniya,
    Great article! I recommend putting little effort defending your article against “Kate’s” comments. I spent enough time in Ukraine to understand hard charging Russia propaganda. Kate sounds like Putin’s stool pigeon..
    Keep up the good work!

  12. Great article. Kudos to the author. As a Ukrainian, I identify with the issue you brought up in the article. So far, most people of Russian decent in my circles have been very understanding and respectful. I think here in Seattle, we all feel American and therefore are tolerant of each others backgrounds, I suppose it is a melting pot effect. It is too bad that people could not figure how resolve this conflict peacefully back in Ukraine and Russia. There was absolutely no need for the loss of lives of innocent people on both sides.

  13. Thank you so much for this piece! Excellent writing and a really important issue to raise. I feel there is a lot of confusion in the world about what is going on in Ukraine, which is not surprising. When I came to the States for the first time in 2007, many people I met had no idea where the country is located or even that it existed at all. I hope this article will help clarify some the sentiments of Ukrainians.
    To all the aggressive commentators, I would recommend re-reading the article. It is not about blaming anyone or promoting nationalism. It simply explains how the war encourages people to appreciate their national identity and how this identity helps them oppose imperialistic ideologies.
    Also, Kseniya, I was really impressed by the scale and diversity of your activities Best of luck with all your projects and dreams! I am truly looking forward to reading more of your articles.

  14. Kseniya,

    Thank you for the well-written and researched piece. I’ve been curious about Ukrainians in Seattle–and your story tells a lot. Keep up the great writing.

    Jason

  15. There are ethnic Russians in Seattle area??? I lived in Seattle for 5 years, and I only met ukrainians from western ukraine.

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