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Voices of the Diaspora: Reflections from Ukrainians Worldwide

By Mariya MykhaylovaAugust 28, 2022

Voices of the Diaspora: Reflections from Ukrainians Worldwide
I start my morning in California by checking in on what happened in Ukraine while I was asleep. As I get ready for the day, I listen to Ukrainian music and podcasts. At night, I furiously immerse myself in our language and history. On weekends, I cook traditional Ukrainian dishes. I donate to the Armed Forces of Ukraine monthly (and whenever I need a pick-me-up). The patriotic bumper stickers on my car and the vyshyvanky in my closet are multiplying.

I wasn’t always like this.

A first-generation immigrant, I came to the United States as a child over 20 years ago. Since then, I lost my accent, finished school, and launched a career. My immigration experience has always been a formative part of my identity, and I have also felt more or less at home in my American life for many years.

The war has changed that. I catch myself having strange thoughts — such as whether it is possible for the process of assimilation to suddenly start moving backward. My connection to my Ukrainian identity is stronger than ever, and I am curious about these internal shifts. Hungry for mirroring and understanding, I find myself reaching out to fellow Ukrainians. As I make contact more and more with others in the Ukrainian diaspora, I notice echoes of my experience in each encounter.

A Ukrainian Awakening

Every Ukrainian with whom I’ve connected has experienced a heightened sense of Ukrainian pride, belonging, community, and solidarity. Alex, a Jewish Ukrainian who immigrated to the US from Donetsk in childhood, responded to the full-scale invasion with a reawakening of his Ukrainian identity. “I feel a sense of connection to Ukraine that I never felt before. It’s new and empowering,” he said. “I feel like Russia’s genocidal aggression is a violation of me and my family and my ancestors who built their lives in Ukraine.”

The invasion has brought many dormant things to the surface. “The war pulled some strings deep inside and seems like my ties to Ukraine are stronger than I thought,” shared Ekaterina, a Ukrainian who grew up in Lithuania. “Since the start of the war I have dreams almost every night where I see my great-grandma…We talk a lot and laugh. She also sings to me my favorite lullabies.” I too dreamt of my late grandmother for the first time in years after the start of the full-scale war. In my waking life, I’ve found myself revisiting memories that were long forgotten and checking up on childhood friends I have not spoken to in decades.

For many in the Ukrainian diaspora, the invasion was an overwhelming call to action. Tetyana, a Ukrainian author in New York, is using her voice in her personal war effort. She has been writing about the Ukrainian diaspora in magazines and giving interviews on podcasts. Ukrainian identity has always been central for Tetyana, and she responded to the February escalation with all-in commitment to the cause. “It has really solidified and magnified who I was raised to be,” she said.

For Svitlana, a Ukrainian Canadian, her Ukrainian connection had always been through an active Ukrainian diaspora community. Since February, she has shifted her priorities. “I was always interested in Ukraine, but I was never as connected to Ukraine voices from Ukraine as I am now,” she said. Nataliya, a Ukrainian who immigrated to Canada in childhood, feels similarly. Since the invasion, their primary focus has been on amplifying contemporary Ukrainian voices, including those of journalists and activists.
Ukrainians worldwide are finding ways to feel connected and make a difference. Maryann is hosting a displaced Ukrainian woman. Sophia is partaking in Harvard’s Ukrainian Summer Institute and exploring a career shift. Dean is working with the ProEnglish Theatre company in Kyiv. Alina is learning traditional embroidery. Olessia is learning to play the bandura. Many are determined to return to Ukraine in the future, whether to visit relatives and familiar places, help rebuild after the war, or reroot in the place that feels most like home. We are donating to our military, joining local relief organizations, educating others about the war, bolstering our Ukrainian language fluency, rediscovering Ukrainian music, and learning more about our culture and history.

Reckoning with Russian Colonialism

Immersing ourselves in the Ukrainian culture also requires Ukrainians in the diaspora to confront a longstanding history of Russo-Soviet subjugation. A common theme for many Ukrainians has been a renewed reckoning with the impacts of Russian colonialism and imperialism. Several Ukrainians with whom I have spoken have echoed that decolonizing the Russian empire is necessary in order to stop Russian aggression and ensure lasting peace. Olessia, a first-generation Ukrainian American, discussed her commitment to educating herself thoroughly on the history of Russian colonialism so that she is better equipped to advocate for the decolonization, denuclearization, and isolation of Russia.

Nataliya noted that while they always viewed Russia as a colonizer, “the invasion was the equivalent of opening up an old wound.” Nataliya examines Russian content for roots of colonialism, which they say is “insidious in Russian culture.” Nataliya is disappointed by average Russians. “While Ukrainians are fighting centuries-old colonialism and imperialism, Russians I know seem to only be protesting the current iteration of the government,” Nataliya shared. “The path forward must include a decolonial lens, and I am incredibly frustrated that I am not seeing this from any Russian source right now.”

For some Russian-speaking Ukrainians, certain aspects of this awakening are new. “The recent war has highlighted to me how my family and I speak Russian as a result of years of colonialism and violence against the Ukrainian people,” shared Katya, a Ukrainian American who grew up in a Russian-speaking home in the US. Since February, Katya no longer feels comfortable using Russian as her main language and is increasingly embracing Ukrainian as a primary means of communication. Katya is not alone. Russian-speaking Ukrainians all over the world are facing the question of whether to continue using the language of the aggressor.

Anastasia is a Russian-speaking Ukrainian from Southern Ukraine who immigrated to Canada 10 years ago. Since February, she has become more conscious of the pervasive nature of Russian imperialism and is rethinking the place that the Ukrainian and Russian languages have in her life. Anastasia has started to use Ukrainian in a number of contexts, and continues to speak Russian with her family. “It’s really the only place where that language will remain for me, I think,” Anastasia shared. “Because it’s my family, I don’t associate it with Russia, but everything else — I can’t stand it.”

Yasmeen, a Ukrainian currently based in Canada, learned Russian as her first language before moving abroad. “Now, I just don’t want to speak it,” she said. “I just want to forget that I know Russian.” She exclusively speaks Ukrainian at home with her family. “Russia uses everything as a tool to spread propaganda and to minimize other countries’ achievements,” she stated, “and the only way to fight that kind of imperial action is to fight everything Russian.”

Ukrainians have been resisting the erasure of our language and culture for a long time. “There’s a reason Ukrainian culture is still alive despite all the persecution. It’s because so many people, all of our ancestors, saw value in it,” Svitlana stated. “And I don’t want to lose that, even if I end up living [in Canada] for the rest of my life.” For Svitlana, maintaining a connection to her Ukrainian identity has also meant resisting certain forms of assimilation into the dominant Canadian culture, including embracing her full Ukrainian name instead of opting for an anglicized nickname. She spoke of the pain she feels when she witnesses recent immigrants who seem to rush to assimilate.

For members of the diaspora, cultural preservation and assimilation are often in conflict. For Alex, succumbing to the pressures of assimilation upon immigrating resulted in a disconnection from his Ukrainian identity for many years. His revived connection to his roots informs his current perspective. “Where we come from is important,” he said. “It’s a part of who we are, and assimilation can’t come at the price of losing a core part of yourself.” Anastasia has come to a similar conclusion. After spending many years trying to fit in abroad, she realized that assimilation was not fully possible and was only depriving her of an authentic identity.

Between Two Worlds

Without a doubt, Ukrainians in the diaspora benefit from the privilege and protection of being far from the conflict during wartime. Our physical safety is not at risk, and we were not forced to decide whether to stay or go during the colossal disruption on February 24 and the days that followed. Yet, though we are embedded in non-Ukrainian settings, we are preoccupied with the events unfolding back home.

Many Ukrainians abroad face the expectation that they can provide a condensed summary of the entire history of Russian aggression and the current events in Ukraine at a moment’s notice. While this gives us an opportunity to fight Russian disinformation and nudge others in the right direction, it can also be jarring and taxing.

“I have to balance all my worry, fears, and stress about the war with needing to be able to put on a friendly, educational face to explain the conflict to people and respond to common questions,” shared Dany, a Ukrainian American living in the South. “And that feels particularly hard when it’s a day of the war when something especially tragic happens and all I want to do is pray and meditate.” He added that of course, “this little hardship pales in comparison to the horrors of war.”

Regarding his sense of identity, Dany reflected that he does not feel any less American, but he does feel more Ukrainian since the full-scale invasion. A few others revealed that they feel a lesser attachment to their country of residence, a lesser pull toward assimilation, and a reinvigorated pride in their Ukrainian identification. For many, the dissonance and in-betweenness of being in the diaspora during the war has been a source of great pain.

“My life as an immigrant has become difficult and alienating in many ways,” Nataliya shared. Nataliya and several others expressed feeling disconnected and dissociated from their environments in countries like Canada and the United States. Ukrainians who have found their political home alongside progressives have been disheartened by the responses of many on the Western left. Maryann, a Ukrainian Canadian involved in social justice and climate justice activism, feels isolated from many in her community and saddened and angered by their views of the war. “I feel that my worldview and politics have been upended because of the position of many I know, including some leftists who are pro-Putin, and their unwillingness to listen to Ukrainian voices.”

Repeated dismissals of Ukrainian perspectives have strained some relationships between Ukrainians and their friends and colleagues. “I’ve stopped talking to Americans about the war,” Olessia said.

In response to these ruptures, Ukrainians are turning to each other for support. Valeria, a Ukrainian in the Netherlands, feels the need for the company of other Ukrainians now more than ever. “It felt and still feels like nobody but other Ukrainians can understand my pain, because we all share it,” she said. While some Ukrainians abroad are nestled in bustling diasporic communities, others are actively forging new connections, both online and offline. Several Ukrainians have stressed their gratitude for social media as a means of connection at this time. For Nataliya, the company of Ukrainians on social media has been a safe haven. “I know I speak for many of us when I say that the sense of belonging and camaraderie is carrying us through from day to day,” they said.

Dean, a Ukrainian American in New York, said that he feels something in common with other Ukrainians, a “general cultural tie that comes from within.” I couldn’t agree more. In the past six months, an unrelenting clarity has come over me — a clarity about priorities and purpose, and a deeper understanding of my sense of self. I am reminded of the Ukrainian saying that the vyshyvanka is the genetic code of our nation. The vyshyvanka is a traditional linen shirt with embroidery patterns that are specific to the various regions of Ukraine. A longstanding signifier of Ukrainian culture, the vyshyvanka has become a contemporary symbol of Ukrainian identity, unity, and patriotism.

Perhaps there is something deep within us that binds us to one another and to our homeland. While for many in the diaspora, the tie to identity stems from an intergenerational thread, I’ve gathered that most Ukrainians do not feel that their identities are defined by their DNA. Ukrainian identity is about a conscious commitment — an intrinsic feeling of belonging and an interest, respect, and alignment with Ukrainian values, including history, culture, and language. In myriad ways, Ukrainians everywhere are feeling the pull toward home — and toward each other — during this time of war.

A Form of Resistance

The realities of war and genocide are leading to a certain cultural phenomenon among Ukranians, including Ukrainians in the diaspora. Many of us find ourselves holding on to our Ukrainianness more fervently than ever before — as if our lives depended on it.
The threat of erasure and extermination of Ukraine and Ukrainian culture by Russia is neither a metaphor nor a new development. For Dean, Russia’s actions starting in 2014 and continuing today are a vivid reminder of what his grandmother taught him from a young age. “One thing I’ve understood from earliest childhood … was that Ukrainians, their history, and their culture, could vanish forever if we don’t fight to preserve it all,” he said. Today, his grandmother’s voice, which never left him, is louder than ever.

Ukrainians worldwide are responding to this threat by fortifying their connection to their Ukrainian identity. “It almost feels like it’s my duty to maintain my roots and pass it on to the next generation,” Valeria said. “I do feel that in difficult times Ukrainians unite, which probably also contributes to me identifying stronger as a Ukrainian.” Alina shared a similar sentiment. For her, fully leaning into her Ukrainian identity has been a meaningful way to take action from a distance. “I’m on the other side of the world,” Alina expressed. “The only thing I can do is become as Ukrainian as possible and pass that down to my kids.”

Yasmeen has been curious about why she is asserting her Ukrainian identity more strongly. “I feel the need to understand why I care so much. What is it that I want to protect from the Russians? Is it the land, a certain idea of Ukraine, the people, culture, memory?” she wonders. “And, of course, when you’re consciously going through all these things and trying to find answers, you start to feel a stronger attachment to your identity.”

Yasmeen’s words — and the words of many of the people I’ve spoken to — have stayed with me. This very process of reflection and conversation brings all of us closer to our Ukraine and the Ukraine that we carry within us, no matter how far away and spread out we may be. These days, as my San Francisco feels a little more foreign to me, I strive to create an integrated feeling of home. Knowing that my Ukrainian diaspora siblings are razom — together — with me in this, I feel a little less alone.

LARB Contributor

Mariya Mykhaylova is a a Ukrainian social worker in the Bay Area.


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