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For Many Former Soviet Immigrants, Russia’s War on Ukraine is Horrific

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A protester holds a sign that says "peace" in Russian, with drawings of the Russian and Ukrainian flags, in front of San Francisco city hall on Feb. 24.  (Nastia Voynovskaya)

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ike many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, I’ve been glued to my screen in horror since last week, unable to look away from the real-time updates of Russian forces attacking Ukraine. Videos of women, children and elderly people hiding in bomb shelters and of explosions going off outside of people’s windows have sent our community into distress.

Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine feels particularly vile because it’s so contrary to the kinship many people from both nations feel. I was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and as a child I immigrated with my family to the Bay Area in the late ’90s, joining a multi-ethnic wave of post-Soviet immigrants and refugees. In Russian-speaking pockets across the United States, Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Georgians, Belarusians, Kazakhs and many other ethnic groups broke bread, raised children and helped each other acclimate to our new country. I grew up with a Ukrainian stepfather from Odesa, and thanks to him, I have U.S. citizenship and an American-born younger sister who is half Russian and half Ukrainian.

That experience is not uncommon. When I went to the anti-war protests outside of San Francisco City Hall last Thursday and Sunday, I heard speeches in Ukrainian, Russian and English. Russian-speaking Ukrainians were prominent among the turnout, but I saw protest signs that indicated that Russian, Latvian, Azerbaijani and Taiwanese people were also there in solidarity. As Russia and NATO continued to face off in a geopolitical chess game of superpowers, everyday people showed up to hold each other in mutual grief and support as many awaited updates from family members hiding from bombs in Ukraine.

“We’re terrified,” said Bay Area author Masha Rumer when I met up with her at the protest on Feb. 24. Born in Russia to a Jewish family with roots in Ukraine, Rumer came to the U.S. as a refugee in the early ’90s. “I know some family members right now in Kyiv cannot leave because the air space is closed, and they cannot get enough fuel to get out of the country and they’re afraid for their safety and the safety of their child,” she said.

Rumer’s book Parenting With An Accent builds bridges among immigrants of different cultures, and that’s what she hoped to see at the rally. “Many of us left the former Soviet Union because we don’t agree with the policies, and yet we’re still finding it reverberates all over the world all over again,” she said. “It’s a very complicated relationship. Many of us speak the Russian language, which was forced upon people from across the former Soviet Republics. But at the same time, it’s the language we grew up with, and now we’re finding ourselves in a difficult time where we’re ashamed of what the government is doing.”

A protester holds a sign that says “Putin occupant” in San Francisco on Feb. 24. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

Anastasiya Mutungi, manager of San Francisco Russian-language bookstore Globus, expressed similar feelings when I spoke with her on the phone late last week. She immigrated to the U.S. from Belarus in 2009 and said she feels “accountable and responsible” that the government of her home country is supporting the aggression. She changed Globus’ small, Richmond district window display to feature books by Ukrainian authors.

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“We all feel emotional here because there’s very little we can do about anything,” she said. “Yesterday we had a couple people who immigrated from Ukraine recently and they cried over the conversation. We can offer comfort and emotional support.”

The window display of the Russian-language shop Globus Books in San Francisco features Ukrainian authors. (Anastasiya Mutungi)

As much as the anti-war effort is bringing immigrants from the former Soviet Union together, it’s also prompting us to reflect on and respect our differences. Odesa-born Berkeleyside journalist Ally Markovich recently told KQED’s The Bay that when she was growing up in Ohio, she’d tell people she was Russian to save herself the trouble of explaining her Russian-speaking Ukrainian identity. But current events have reminded her of the importance of taking pride in her culture.

“I think for me it’s particularly painful because I feel in touch with how much effort has gone into developing a national identity in Ukraine, how much work and love was put into defining what Ukrainian people [are], only to have that concept be threatened by Vladimir Putin and Russia,” she said, referring to recent efforts to promote the Ukrainian language, which the Russian Empire and, later, the Soviet Union treated as secondary to Russian throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

“I think of being Ukrainian as being closely intertwined with an identity of resistance,” Markovich said. “For a long time, a Ukrainian identity has been a deliberate choice. It’s something that people have said to distinguish themselves from the ruling class.”

Jess Makhlin, a.k.a. Mishka, a San Francisco-born DJ whose parents are immigrants from Russia and Ukraine, is thinking of these themes of identity as she programs her NTS Radio show focused on Russian and Eastern European music. On Monday, she re-aired an episode with Ukrainian singer Ivan Dorn and published a list of places to donate humanitarian aid.

“I think in the time being I’m going to focus my programming on highlighting Ukrainian artists and seeing how things unfold,” she said, adding that she has several friends who escaped from Kyiv to Poland over the weekend.

“Most people I know in Russia in the artist community don’t want this war and want peace,” she said.

Protesters hold a sign that reads “Russians against war” in San Francisco on Feb. 24. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

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ver 6,400 people in Russia—where the main opposition leader is currently imprisoned, and where people can’t legally protest without permission from authorities—have been arrested for taking to the streets to say “nyet voyne,” or “no to war” since Feb. 24. A friend in Moscow texted me that she ran away while police dragged protesters into an AvtoZak, or prison transport bus. “That’s how it usually is, and that’s the reason more people don’t come out in the streets,” she wrote in Russian.

Ordinary Russians are risking their freedom to oppose senseless bloodshed, and are now bearing the brunt of economic sanctions that have already done significant damage.

Putin justified the invasion by claiming that Russian speakers in Ukraine are oppressed, but Russian-speaking Ukrainians are challenging that narrative. “My family has never asked to be rescued by Russia,” wrote Russian American San Francisco journalist Sasha Vasilyuk, who has family in Eastern Ukraine, in an opinion piece for The New York Times. “For eight years this conflict has done nothing for my family except tear it apart. This is just the latest ugly chapter.”

Putin also justified the war as an effort to “denazify” Ukraine. While Ukraine’s Azov Regiment, a neo-Nazi militia that has been accepted into Ukraine’s armed forces, should be denounced like any other white supremacist movement, Putin’s reasoning for an invasion is laughable when his brand of far-right, Christian authoritarianism has been heralded by David Duke and Richard Spencer as a beacon of white power. (Not to mention, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a Jewish descendent of Holocaust survivors.)

White people around the world, including former Soviet people, have a responsibility to counteract the horrors of racism and antisemitism. Ukraine certainly has problems with both. African students have reported abuses by Ukrainian authorities at border crossings. (Here’s a list of ways to help African and Asian people leaving Ukraine.) But Russia is also a deeply racist and antisemitic country that needs to clean up its own house instead of invading someone else’s.

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This war isn’t about anyone’s liberation or any other noble cause. It’s about global superpowers vying for greater influence, and it’s everyday working people who will ultimately pay the price.

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