Crisis in Ukraine Grips Immigrants, Divides Facebook Friends

Saint Petersburg, a store in Brighton Beach. (Photo by Svetlana Didorenko/Voices of NY)

A customer at Saint Petersburg, a store in Brighton Beach. (Photo by Svetlana Didorenko/Voices of NY)

Stroll around Brighton Beach – known for its Russian-speaking residents hailing from Odessa, Ukraine’s third largest city – and there are few signs of political activity. Russian pop videos, not the latest news, play on TV at the Ocean View Cafe, a popular lunch spot.

Most Russian- and Ukrainian-born New Yorkers find themselves separated by geography from the events in their countries. However, apparent lack of activism does not mean indifference. Many are voicing their views on the conflict the way they did in Soviet times: around the kitchen table and, its 21st century version, on the Facebook wall.

“Brighton Beach is not active,” said Tina Goloborodko, 35, an Odessa native who has helped organize several pro-Ukrainian protests, including one held March 2 during which several thousand demonstrators converged in front of the Russian consulate in Manhattan. “We don’t get a lot of support from Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Many left Ukraine while it was still part of the USSR and they just don’t have patriotic feelings towards their country.”

Even some of those with family members still in Ukraine are too busy with work and family life to make time for activism. “In Kiev, everybody was touched by this. My parents and brother went to Maidan everyday,” said Yurii Dudkeen, 37, an ethnic Ukrainian who moved to Brooklyn from Kiev 15 years ago. “But everybody here has their own life. We care, but none of my friends went to the protests in New York.”

Some Russian speakers travel to Brighton from other parts of the city for the sole purpose of picking up a book in the Saint Petersburg bookstore. Here is where a variety of opinions and discussions of conflict may be heard. “I think our shoppers think about the situation deeply, but they try not to comment and discuss it publicly,” said Violeta Lazareva, the bookshop’s owner.

Boris Mizhen, 37, who immigrated to New York from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv 19 years ago and currently lives in the Brighton Beach area, took a Facebook holiday this week because he was beginning to feel too emotional about his online discussions.

When asked about the viewpoints of others living in Brighton, Mizhen said that although he has not heard anything firsthand, he believes that many older people may be pro-Putin. “Their chief source of information is Russian television. They also don’t understand the current Ukrainian nationalism and are afraid that it is fascist,” said Mizhen referring to anti-Semitism exhibited by the Ukrainian nationalists during WWII.

Lev Deych, 53, who moved to New York from Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, said that for the past few weeks he couldn’t tear himself away from reading the news on the Internet and discussing the issue on Facebook. “Putin’s actions are amoral and I am glad that Ukrainians are showing him that they are not slaves,” he said.

Although the majority of his social circle is anti-Putin, Deych said that two of his Facebook friends shocked him when they said they side with the Russian leader. “I can’t believe these people exist here in America, I ended my friendship with them over this conflict,” said Deych. “Not many people are active, but I went to Sunday’s protest and signed all the possible petitions.”

But Lazareva said she is not meeting these people in the bookstore and elsewhere in Brighton Beach. “People who came here and chose this way of life are pro-West. It’s hard to find Putin supporters,” she said.

Nicolai from the Crimean city of Yevpatoriya gave his reasons for supporting Putin. “My only goal is to rent out my property there,” he said declining to give his last name. “I choose the stronger power and Russia has more resources than Ukraine.” On March 7 both houses of the Russian parliament said they would support a move by residents of Crimea to break away from Ukraine.

There are approximately 200,000 Russian speakers in New York. Of these, according to some community estimates, more than 25 percent emigrated from Ukraine. Many Ukrainian-born, Russian-born, and even those hailing from other western republics of the former USSR do not distinguish among themselves. They speak a common language, Russian, and have a common cultural heritage that they acquired in the former Soviet Union.

Goloborodko wishes there was more activism from Russian-speaking Ukrainians, but this does not stop her from spending all of her free time organizing protests and writing letters to the White House and Congress. “I feel like I can actually influence something,” said Goloborodko who is organizing a boycott of Lukoil and Smirnoff Vodka, two Russian brands sold in the United States.

Marina Temkin is a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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