Ukrainians in New York Anxious Over Tumult at Home

March 7, 2014 Updated: March 9, 2014

NEW YORK—For a Ukrainian of Natalia Sonevytsky’s generation, house cleaning is a weekly, more often daily routine.

She hasn’t cleaned her house in two months.

These days, Sonevytsky, 79, wakes up and checks for news from Ukraine, and then calls her family there. They have grown increasingly anxious as the turmoil escalates. So has she.

Between her volunteer job at the Ukrainian Museum and her roles in other organizations, Sonevytsky is glued to the news. An avid reader with a 40-year tenure as a librarian at Barnard College, she finds little time to read anything but the news. She doesn’t go out as much. And when she does, all talk turns to the trouble at home.

“It really is absolutely devastating to see what is happening,” Sonevytsky, who lives in the Ukrainian enclave in the East Village, said.

Just like overseas, many Ukrainians in New York believe different versions of what happened in Ukraine.

Some, like Sonevytsky, side with the protesters in Maidan, also known as Independence Square, located in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine in the western part of the country. They believe the protesters stood up for human rights and opposed corruption.

Yet others think the opposite, seeing the protesters as armed rebels who took over the government illegally.

But fear and anxiety grip all Ukrainians in New York—regardless of conviction. No one wants war.

“In general, I feel extremely worried and sometimes terrified,” said Svetlana, 45, also from the East Village. Svetlana and several others who spoke with Epoch Times for this article did not want their last names to be used due to the sensitive nature of the subject.

Svetlana, who works in nonprofit management, believes Putin told the truth in his interview on Ukraine, that no Russian troops had entered Ukrainian territory, and that the people behind the military coup in Ukraine are neo-fascist extremists. She believes the protesters in Maidan are largely a “peaceful and confused group who didn’t have any control over the nature and execution of the coup.”

Ukrainians’ view of the conflict depends in large part on which area of the country they are from.

Sonevytsky, the retired librarian, was born in Lviv in Western Ukraine, which mostly sides with the protesters in Maidan, the square in Kyiv where the opposition encamped. Svetlana, the nonprofit manager, was born in Uman in Eastern Ukraine, which has strong Russian ties and where people view the Maidan protesters with skepticism, if not spite.

What news media Ukrainians turn to plays a role as well.

Russian television, mostly state controlled, fills its broadcasts with crowds waving Russian flags and reporters referring to the Maidan protesters as “club-wielding head cutters.” But Svetlana finds bias in Ukrainian and Western broadcasts as well, while saying Russian media has Ukraine’s interests in mind.

“It’s clear that every side has its interests. Ninety-nine percent of what the media produces serves the interests of their given country,” Svetlana said. “The Ukrainian media have reached an extreme in portraying hatred toward Russia. This has never happened to such an extreme before. American media have their interests too. They were never really positive about Russia.”

Media bias can even splinter views within the same family. Julia H., a 28-year-old aspiring medical student, has family in the southern part of Ukraine that gets a lot of Russian channels. Her grandfather, after watching the news from the Russian perspective came to believe that “the people in Maidan are just crazy, doing violent things,” she said. But having access to different media in New York, she, on the other hand, supports the protesters.

“Depending on the media, depending on where you live, people have different opinion of the situation,” Julia H. said.

Deciphering Truth

In the ocean of information, discerning truth from falsehood is difficult.

Yarko Dobriansky, 31, of Brooklyn, has been told by his friends from Ukraine to take some posts down on social media because the reports came from what they said are unreliable sources.

Dobriansky, who waits tables at Veselka Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village, is proud of the protesters who stood up for their country, but scared of what may happen next. He wakes up to the news and checks with friends in Ukraine to verify what he reads.

“There is a lot of propaganda out there right now,” Dobriansky said.

Though he was born in the United States, his father brought him up to “love freedom and learn Ukrainian culture,” Dobriansky said. An aspiring artist, he sings folk songs and dances as part of the Syzokryli, a traditional Ukrainian ensemble.

Taking Action

On March 8, Dobriansky is scheduled to perform the Ukrainian national anthem at the New Jersey Devils hockey game.

Dobriansky also joined protests in New York City to raise awareness of events in Ukraine.

The largest such protest took place in Washington, D.C., Thursday. Dobriansky could not attend because he could not leave work.

According to Ivanka Zojec, a member of the Ukrainian Coordinating Council, 11 busloads of Ukrainians headed to Washington from the tri-state area alone, adding up to the largest protest held by Ukrainians there since the 1960s.

The Ukrainians on these buses oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, something the Russian president has denied. In the bitter cold Thursday morning, Zojec waved down latecomers and guided them to one of three buses parked on Second Avenue. Across the street black-and-white photos, candles, and withered flowers lay at a sidewalk vigil for victims of the clashes on Maidan.

“This is different countries, different communities combining together to make it known to the government that they have to do something to stop Putin,” Zojec said, referring to Ukrainian Tatars, Turks, Poles, Circassians, and Georgians expected at the protest.

Afraid of War

For other Ukrainians, like Inna, a dentist from Brooklyn, the protest in Washington, D.C., is a mistake. She fears that if another force intervenes, Ukraine could turn into “another Serbia.”

“They just want to live in peace,” Inna said about her family in Ukraine. “They don’t know what exactly is going on. They say it’s some shadow game unfolding.”

Inna said that she is singularly opposed to the ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, but does not approve of the violent methods protesters used.

“In this case this is Slavs killing each other, people who have always lived together. These are people that have children, sons, and brothers together, they marry each other,” Inna said. “But now it’s all turning to war.”

Julia H., an aspiring medical student, donated money for the people wounded in the protests. She had to cancel her trip to Ukraine due to fear of the conflict. Now she worries for her family.

“No one wants war,” Julia H. said. “When two governments clash, their own people suffer more than the actual governments.”

“The misinformation that people have is that Ukrainians hate Russians, which is not true. Ukrainians dislike the Russian government,” said Dobriansky, the folk artist. “But Russians themselves they are fellow men. They are fellow humans. There is no reason to hate them.”

Follow Ivan on Twitter: @ivanpentchoukov