Iryna Haak wrung her hands when she hung up the phone. Her blue eyes were tinted red. Her voice cracked as she spoke.
“I’m hysterical right now,” Haak said, after another sleepless night. It was 1 p.m. on Saturday at her home in Fox Chapel, and 8 p.m. in Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine, where her family lives.
“My mom is making Molotov cocktails,” said Haak, and her sisters were standing “in line with thousands of people waiting to donate their blood.”
She extended her phone to display images sent by her friend Nadiya earlier that morning. Bodies, or what remained of them, lay in the wreckage of a vehicle that had been hit by a Russian rocket.
“She says she is trying to be brave. She says everything is fine,” said Haak of her friend. “That’s really difficult for me because I know that it’s not fine. She’s such a strong person for me right now.”
Among Pittsburgh’s Ukrainian diaspora, the Russian invasion of their homeland presents a crisis that they feel deeply despite geographic distance. As loved ones face direct threats and violence, they pray in safety and watch as the conflict escalates.
“It’s a hard feeling. You can’t sleep well, you’re always thinking about them,” said Misha Radetskyi from his seat across the table in Haak’s living room. “There’s nothing you can do here, there’s nothing [you can do] to help.” He and his brother, Ivan, gathered along with their friend Max Kryvenko at Haak’s home on Saturday afternoon.
“I would go crazy if I had to be by myself right now,” said Kryvenko, a U.S. Army reservist whose mother and sister were sheltering at their home outside of Kyiv during the intense fighting. Relaying information from his family, Kryvenko said that all the bridges between their home and Kyiv have been destroyed, either by Russians or Ukrainians trying to stop the invasion. “All the ways to escape Kyiv are gone.”
Prayers for Ukraine
On Sunday at St. Mary’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in McKees Rocks, Alla Kovtun clutched a Ukrainian flag throughout a special service to pray for those defending her homeland. “Church is our center,” she said.
A scholar of Ukrainian history, Kovtun was born in Kyiv. Her brother, Alex, is an officer in the Ukrainian Army. She said that when they last spoke on Friday, he told her: “Don’t be scared. … We can protect all of Ukraine because we are not alone”.
“We have not just the Ukrainian Army, we have 40 million soldiers in Ukraine,” she said, referring to the country’s entire population. “Everybody who has hands, legs and eyes can help.”
Kovtun’s 70-year-old mother is sheltering in her apartment in Kyiv, and the two remain in contact for as long as communications are working in the capital.
Kovtun serves as the event officer for the Ukrainian Community of Western Pennsylvania [UCOWPA]. Along with her organization, she is working to coordinate with volunteers on the ground to send Ukraine food and medical supplies, which will likely need to be delivered through Poland. Kovtun encourages anyone who wants to contribute supplies or donate to reach out to the organization. UCOWPA also plans to launch a GoFundMe.
Before service, Vitaliy Kukhar lit a candle inside of St. Mary’s. “I need to pray,” he said. “I need to give support to Ukraine.”
Kukhar’s friends are fighting. If not for his two daughters, Kukhar said that he, too, would leave to defend Ukraine.
At home, flying another country’s flag
For local Russians, the present moment forces a reckoning with their national identity.
“I do feel ashamed. How do you explain this to people when you say that you are Russian?” said Alex Dombrovski, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh who was born and attended medical school in Moscow. He last visited his home in 2015.
“It’s sort of like a death in the family … You wake up in the morning, and then you have this feeling that something is wrong but what is it? Oh, yes, they invaded Ukraine. It feels like a loss.”
Dombrovski flies the Ukrainian flag outside his home in Squirrel Hill, a gesture he feels is necessary to show support, but he wishes he could do more.
“There was this feeling of hurt and disbelief, but also feeling powerless and really wondering what can be done. I felt very angry and in a way invigorated, but at the same time there is not much we can do.”
“I don’t feel represented by Putin,” he said of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But “there is another Russia, and it will endure.”
Unity in spite of Putin
“At first I felt really lost and ashamed. Now? I’m outraged,” said Elena Kuptsynova, 38, who was born in Chelyabinsk, a Russian city just north of the border with Kazakhstan.
Two years ago Kuptsynova met Evelina Gagatko in Pittsburgh, and the two have been friends ever since. Gagatko, 25, was born in Ternopil, in western Ukraine.
Both echoed the importance of unity in protest of the Russian invasion and placed the blame on Putin. “It all comes just from one person,” said Gagatko. “He is trying to make us hate each other, and I hate him for this. She is my friend. Her relatives, her family, they are my friends.”
“I am not ashamed to be Russian. I am furious that those people call themselves Russian,” said Kuptsynova, who made an important distinction between her people, culture, and homeland and Putin’s leadership. “I’m so angry that now my country is a pariah because of a group of terrorists at the top … I am heartbroken over what’s going on.”
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