“What language are you speaking?” they asked.
“I speak Russian,” said the boy.
The teenagers’ tone immediately changed, becoming aggressive.
“Oh, you’re Russians?!” they probed, not realizing that the little boy was born in the United States and that his mother was from Ukraine, watching in horror as the Russian military bombed her homeland. Nor did they know that the boy speaks Russian because of Russia’s longstanding suppression of Ukrainian language. The little boy, however, didn’t budge. He explained it the best way he knew how.
“What is my child now going to be getting thrown at him for speaking Russian?” questions his mother Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, a poet, who emigrated from Dnipro, Ukraine, two years after Soviet Union collapsed. “And how is he going to handle it?”
Russia’s attack on Ukraine has left the ex-Soviet diaspora in the United States reeling in shock and anger, forcing them to confront their complex identities while mobilizing to help the victims.
Since the war began, I’ve struggled to verbalize what it’s like to watch the slaughter of a nation and have no power to stop it, to see images of missiles dropping on the city where my grandmother grew up, to know there’s a convoy of armored vehicles approaching the city where my cousin lives. Many of my relatives, now and for generations earlier, are from Ukraine, including both of my grandmothers. I grew up in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), hearing Russian peppered with occasional Yiddish and Ukrainian words, and immigrated soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Therein lies a particular terror of this war: many Russian and Ukrainian families are blended — or were blended, up until now.
This is also the case for Irina Klay, born in Russia and raised in Odessa, Ukraine. Her cousins are scattered across both nations.
When she learned of the invasion, Klay immediately jumped on the phone with relatives overseas. Every day since, she’s been helping them plan their escapes and finding them shelter remotely. She just secured a place to stay in Germany for her childhood friend, who fled Odessa with her son and mother-in-law with no time to pack their belongings.
“I cannot believe this is happening,” says Klay, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Some three and a half million refugees have fled Ukraine since the war broke out on February 24. Not everyone is able to evacuate, however, or wants to. Klay’s childhood friend left her husband and father-in-law behind: males between the ages of 18 and 60 are barred from leaving Ukraine in case they are needed for the fight.
The family of Klay’s nephew in Odessa can’t leave because his relatives are too frail to make the risky journey to the border. Klay’s Russian cousin cannot leave either because her parents are ill and in their 80s. She is against the invasion and terrified for her future in an autocratic country. But she isn’t protesting, since anti-war protesters in Russia have been getting arrested by the thousands and enduring physical abuse in detention. Were something to happen to her, a single mom, there’d be nobody to care for her family, Klay explains.
“They’re going to be basically without food in a couple of months,” says Klay about relatives in Russia. “I want to make sure that we're in touch and they know that they can ask me for help.”
Many ex-Soviet immigrants are also watching their fraught histories replay before their eyes. Ukrainians and Russians grew up in the shadow of collective trauma in the post-World War II Soviet Union, raised on our grandparents’ stories about Nazi sieges and bombings of evacuating civilians, now a reality again. For Ukrainians, the wounds run deeper. In the 1860s and ’70s, the tsarist regime banned the printing of books and performances of plays in Ukrainian — a ban that lasted until the Revolution. Then, in the 1930s, as Ukrainian culture was flourishing in the Soviet Union, its leading poets, writers, and artists were rounded up and shot in what has come to be known as the “Executed Renaissance.” Perhaps most importantly, the war triggers memories of Holodomor, Stalin’s genocide by famine of seven million Ukrainians in the early 1930s.
“It is two countries that lived through unimaginable things and the history of it is alive in both,” says Sasha, a Bay Area-based software founder who was born in Moscow. His last name is being withheld for the safety of his family. “If I were to pick one word, it’s shame, deep and paralyzing shame, even though I’ve lived most of my life in the United States,” Sasha says. “My country's gone.”
His family in Russia is active in the anti-war movement. His cousin and his wife have been arrested twice in the past two weeks and prior to the war, too, for participating in anti-Putin demonstrations.
Sasha has been donating to various relief organizations for Ukrainian refugees. He is also trying to get the engineers at his company out of Russia, where many have bought into state propaganda, he explains, referring to the Kremlin shutting down and blocking independent media and social networks and making “fake news” about the war punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
“While I’m not by any means equating the suffering that Ukraine is going through to what Russia is going through, what is about to happen in Russia is an economic disaster that is arguably worse than the fall of the Soviet Union,” Sasha says. “And nobody is going to help.”
When it comes to identity, there’s also the fact that millions of Ashkenazi Jews trace their roots to Ukraine, once a home of their forefathers. For generations, the Jewish population of the Russian Empire was forced to live in the Pale of Settlement, on parts of modern-day Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Poland, and Lithuania, enduring pogroms and poverty. It was in Ukraine that one out of every four Jewish Holocaust victims was murdered during the Nazi occupation, including my relatives. After the Holocaust, antisemitism comfortably lived on in the Soviet Union. It says much about how far Ukraine has come since the USSR’s collapse that its president, elected in a landslide victory in 2019, is Jewish.
“[You were] taught from the beginning that in the Soviet Union, you were never Ukrainian. You were never Russian. You were Jewish,” says Dasbach. That was the designation of the family’s nationality (or ethnicity, in Western parlance) in their Soviet passports.
Yet after emigrating to America, she was treated as a Russian. Dasbach was called a “commie” by classmates and voted “most likely to be uncovered as an alien,” dragged into some Cold War Hollywood cosplay she wanted no part in. Americans didn’t know what to make of her family’s Ukrainian identity, even inquiring whether Ukraine was in Africa.
“When I hear that Dnipro is getting bombed, I physically feel it in my body,” says Dasbach, fighting back tears, also mentioning the destruction in Bila Tserkva, her great-grandmother’s hometown, which once had a vibrant Jewish population.
Dasbach and her friend, Olga Livshin, a poet and translator raised in Odessa and Moscow, recently organized an online reading, “Voices for Ukraine,” featuring contemporary Ukrainian poets and their translators. In addition to raising money, the organizers say they wanted to amplify Ukrainian voices and provide a tool for processing trauma. “My parents were very devoted to their roots,” says Livshin, who lives outside Philadelphia and whose late father was a prominent journalist in Ukraine and Russia. Translating Ukrainian poetry is “kind of a way for me to hook into that legacy,” says Livshin, whose work appears in the 2017 anthology Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine.
A San Francisco couple, Marina Eybelman and Alex Furman, were also determined to help victims of the invasion. They began by donating, but wanted to do something more, remembering how the community helped their respective families when they arrived in the United States years earlier. So the couple pooled their savings, raised money, and with friends co-founded Cash for Refugees.
As part of this initiative, Furman, a biotech entrepreneur, recently flew to Romania, a major Ukrainian refugee transit point, with $200,000 in cash. For a week, he gave out the equivalent of $90 per family to the people — mostly women and children — crossing the border, for critical items like clothes, transportation tickets and lodging. “They lost everything. They don’t have a plan, they’re just running,” says Eybelman, a photographer. “It makes me feel that I’m doing something.”
Meanwhile, Irina Klay, in addition to helping her fleeing relatives, is mobilizing volunteer efforts at the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties, where she is in charge of community outreach. She’s never seen the Jewish community so unified, she says. The organization has recruited attorneys to give free legal advice; hundreds of people have offered money, housing, and job search assistance.
But nothing can undo the destruction. “It’s like reliving immigration all over again,” Klay says. “Yes, I’m in a secure place, I have a job, I have responsibilities. But it’s like losing your home. Again.”
Masha Rumer was born in the Soviet Union and now lives in California. He work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Literary Hub, and other publications, and has been awarded by the New York Press Association. She holds graduate degrees in Comparative Literature from the City University of New York Graduate Center and in Communications from Georgetown University. She is the author of Parenting with an Accent: How Immigrants Honor Their Heritage, Navigate Setbacks, and Chart New Paths for Their Children (Beacon Press, 2021).