Reading the news. Calling family. Watching the news. Calling family. Making emergency plans. Calling family. Repeat.
On Friday, President Joe Biden said he was “convinced” Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade Ukraine and will target Kyiv, the capital.
These are frightening times for the Seattle area’s Ukrainian community, as their home country stares at the looming possibility of a Russian invasion and widespread war. Even after eight years of war and border skirmishes following Russia’s invasion of Crimea, this time feels different. Ominous.
At European Foods, her small grocery and restaurant in an Aurora Avenue strip mall in North Seattle, Oksana Lozynska goes about her business. She stocks the shelves and refrigerators with jams, chocolates, cheeses, cured meats and homemade pelmeni. She serves lunch customers borscht and cheesecake.
But every day she calls her mother, her brother and other relatives in western Ukraine. They’re as worried as she is. More so. Her brother says he’ll volunteer for the military if there’s an invasion and war.
“It’s just really stressful and everyone thinks the worst can happen,” Lozynska said, her son translating. “Everyone’s worried about their families. Everyone’s going to church to pray.”
“It’s been frustrating and scary and it’s just terrifying to hear the news every day,” said her son, Grygoriy Lozynskyy. “We’re just talking every day, every night, calling our family back home seeing how they’re doing seeing what they’re seeing on their news.”
Lozynska’s shop is Ukrainian, but serves a largely eastern European clientele. Her customers are Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Russian. Here, some 5,500 miles from the eastern Ukrainian border where as many as 190,000 Russian troops are stationed ominously, there is no hostility, no nationalism.
People come in, they ask Lozynska how she’s doing. They commiserate. Apologize even.
One man, a Russian, came in last week wearing a vishivanka, a traditional embroidered Ukrainian shirt. He brought a Ukrainian flag that’s now perched in the European Foods dining room.
“That was really nice, seeing that,” Lozynskyy said. At least once a day, he said, a customer will ask how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, how their family is.
There is a sense, no matter the nationality, that everyone is subject to the whims of an authoritarian ruler.
“They’re not happy that Putin is trying to invade, attack,” Lozynskyy said. “Regular people can’t do anything about it. Obviously no one wants to have a war.”
There are many cultural and linguistic similarities between Russian and Ukraine, said Scott Radnitz, an associate professor of Russian and Eurasian studies at the University of Washington, which makes the possibility of war all the more devastating.
“Russians who live in Ukraine, Ukrainians who live in Russia, these are two countries that are close in lots of ways,” Radnitz said. “And that’s why it’s especially tragic now that the Russian government is threatening to do various kinds of damage to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.”
Liliya Kovalenko, president of the Ukrainian Association of Washington, calls her parents in Ukraine every day.
Her parents, her friends and former classmates in Ukraine, “they feel this tension, this rising of this pressure, but at the same time they don’t want to run away, they want to stay in Ukraine, they want to protect their land,” Kovalenko said.
Her two kids keep asking when they can visit Ukraine, because “they worry it won’t be a country in the future.” Kovalenko pauses. “That’s my emotions. It’s hard to talk.”
There will be a rally Saturday at 3 p.m. at Seattle Center, just “to show that we are here,” Kovalenko said.
At the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Madrona, they began nightly 8 p.m. prayer sessions a couple of weeks ago, as Russian troop buildups and warnings of war intensified.
“We all pray for peace in Ukraine and around Ukraine and as well in the world,” said Father Andriy Matlak, a priest at the church. “We are trying, at least through prayers, because that’s all we can do.”
Matlak, like everybody, is consuming the news. When he talks with his mother in Ukraine she tells him what she’s seeing, he tells her what he’s reading.
“It’s on every news, you open any website and you see Ukraine there and the crisis,” he said.
Karl Cherepanya, a Ukrainian and Russian language teacher, is reading both Ukrainian and American news, comparing them. He watches pro-Russian talk shows and pro-Ukrainian ones. He served in the Soviet military before immigrating to the U.S. 27 years ago.
He’s concerned, but sees more concern in Ukrainians outside Ukraine than those in the country.
When he talks to his 88-year-old father back home he tries to avoid politics.
“This has been going on for a long time,” he said. “There’s other things for us to talk about.”
Sofiia Fedzhora is only here for a short time. A Fulbright scholar teaching Ukrainian language at the University of Washington, she arrived in September and will return to Kyiv in June. Or, perhaps, sooner.
When war first looked imminent, a few weeks ago, she was ready to leave her program and fly home.
“I am ready like every day or at one moment to leave here and return to my family in order to be with them,” Fedzhora said. “I can’t even imagine how I can be here and they can be in Kyiv.”
Last weekend, she helped organize a run around Green Lake to bring attention to Ukraine’s plight.
She talks with her parents every day. They are nervous. Worried. Her mom put together a bag with important documents, money, medications, in case they need to leave in a rush.
“But we have no land but Ukraine,” Fedzhora said.
She tries to get her parents to watch less TV news. They watch too much, she said. It’s too dramatic. Overwhelming.
Sasha Senderovich, an assistant professor of Slavic languages at the University of Washington, is not Ukrainian. This semester he’s assigning his contemporary literature students a Ukrainian novel, “The Orphanage,” published in 2017 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but just translated into English for the first time.
The novel, by Serhiy Zhadan, describes a Ukraine under siege by Russian-backed separatist forces.
“And the television is on the whole time. He never turns the television off, even at night. It’s like their very own eternal flame, burning to commemorate the dead rather than entertain the living,” Zhadan writes. “The news has been just plain scary.”
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