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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”