Living in a nightmare
Russian-Ukrainian war puts students’ families and friends across seas in danger
April 8, 2022
The Russian-Ukrainian war may be 5,300 miles away, but the conflict there is hitting home here, as it puts families and friends of LZHS’s Ukrainian-American students in direct danger. As a first-generation Ukrainian-American who knows students of both Ukrainian and Russian descent, the war impacts both sides and creates unmeasurable stress.
“Everybody is obviously really stressed and kind of terrified, but most of [my family and friends in Ukraine] are in a more safe area, so physically, they’re fine,” Solo Mendyuk, first-generation Ukrainian-American junior, said. “[Ukraine was] doing pretty well in the war for the first while because the Russian military is a lot of younger people being used as bodies for disposal, but [Russia has] been targeting civilians more now.”
The conflict began on February 24, when Russian president Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” on allegations that Kyiv was launching genocide upon pro-Russia separatists in Ukrainian provinces Luhansk and Donetsk.
According to the United Nation Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR), there have been 1,563 civilian casualties in Ukraine as of April 5 and 167 children as of April 6, although the OHCHR “believes that the actual figures are considerably higher.” For Russia, 557 soldiers have died, according to a Russian defense ministry report to the BBC on March 2, while Ukraine’s Ministry of Foregin Affairs claims the death count is over 18,300.
While there have been extensions for negotiation from both Ukraine and Russia — Russia most recently demanded the surrender of Mariopal, Ukraine — the conflict has continued to escalate, with Russian troops continuing to invade and bomb cities.
Both Ukrainian-American and Russian-American students focus on the personal impact the war has on them and their families.
Families and friends overseas live in danger
For Mendyuk, the war puts grandparents, uncles, aunts, and friends in danger, who are scattered throughout the Ukrainian provinces of Ternopil, Lviv, and Ivano-Frankivsk, all of which have been hit with bombs, but are not active war zones, as of an April 5 BBC report.
“It’s very stressful [having family in the war]. I’ve been in contact with all of them to make sure that they’re all safe. My close friend in Ukraine, she lives really, really close to that airport that was bombed, like three blocks away, [and] could see the smoke coming from the building from her window,” Mendyuk said. “She was sending me videos of everything; it’s not great having family there, but it’s worse for them.”
Mendyuk says they often visit Ukraine in the summers and winters, and seeing the current destruction of cities adds to a “not great” feeling, Mendyuk said.
“I was in both Kyiv and Lviv last year, so seeing the literal streets that I was walking on and taking pictures on, that I’ve been to several times, being destroyed is just very jarring,” Mendyuk said.
Mendyuk says they first heard about the war through a group chat with their close friends in Ukraine, who told them Putin declared a “special military operation.”
“I immediately stood up and ran to my parents in the living room, and started bombarding them with questions about what was happening. That was just an hour-long sit down of every single detail of [the war],” Mendyuk said. “I was doing really badly for the first week, very dissociated in all classes. I was constantly checking the news to make sure [bombings] weren’t actively in places where my family lives. I didn’t really sleep well for the first week; I’ve been better now because I’ve kind of gotten more used to it.”
One way Mendyuk says they try to cope with the war is by contacting family and friends “to let me know they’re safe.” Additionally, a lot of their friends in the US “have been very supportive and doing a lot to support Ukraine” as well, Mendyuk said.
“A lot of them have been supporting me, making me little jewelry with colors of Ukraine,” Mendyuk said. “One of my friends used a lot of their own money for a donation to humanitarian services and gave me an envelope so my mom could send it to the donation place.”
To show support for Ukraine, Mendyuk says LZ students should “definitely keep themselves educated about what’s happening” in Ukraine.
“I do think it’s really amazing how much support Ukraine is getting with all this because tons of other countries who are in war and have been in war for a long time have been very unrecognized,” Mendyuk said. “I think this one’s been recognized mainly because it could very easily escalate into something that affects the rest of the world. It is still something that I’m very grateful for, that people are supporting Ukraine.”
Broken ties with Russia
It is not only Ukrainian-American students who are affected by the war. Michelle Raskin, first-generation Ukrainian-Belarusian-American junior, has a unique perspective on the war as her ethnicity stretches to both fronts.
“My whole family left [Russia] when they could during the late 80s, early 90s, but I have my friend there, [who] was going to see his friends and family in February, but cannot leave now,” Raskin said. “They have witnessed bombs 20 kilometres away. Some had to get involved [in the war] and some had to run away to neighboring countries.”
Like some of Mendyuk’s family, Raskin’s friend is currently in Lviv and “has been sending real footage of bombs striking 20 kilometers away from the place he was staying at,” which adds to her worry, Raskin said.
“It makes me worried for their safety and I worry when they will come back. My family is [also] very worried and scared for what will happen next, and [about] the innocent lives being lost and at stake,” Raskin said. “The tension of the political climate sets tension even between surrounding countries and worry that [the war] will escalate to other countries besides Ukraine and Russia.”
Raskin says she is “disgusted that to this day, these conflicts still exist” and that she “never thought there would be thousands of lives taken away, homes abandoned and destroyed, and families divided.”
Despite this, Raskin says she does not see the war ending anytime soon.
“The truth is, I believe the war will not stop until Putin gets what he wants,” Raskin said. “The war on Russia had a negative impact for the first two weeks, however, Russia and its economy have virtually rebounded, meaning Russia has created a larger alliance with China and India; Russia essentially killed its reliance on the West for natural resources. The ruble is now backed in gold, meaning the ruble can’t actually die.”
In Raskin’s opinion, part of the reason the war started was because “Putin did not want NATO to border on Russia,” although propaganda on both sides has influenced the way people perceive the conflict.
“I am not there and haven’t been there, so I may be wrong or I may be right. No one truly knows what is going on, but yes, of course there is propaganda,” Raskin said. “It has influenced many people’s perspective on the war and whose side they’re choosing, like the Grammys, Zelensky presented in front of Congress and pleading for a no-fly zone, and the Ghost of Kyiv.”
Impacts of war reach the US
The Russian-Ukrainian war stretches far larger than their borders, and even Europe. When Rudy Tabachnik, first-generation Ukrainian-American senior, who has a family friend in Kyiv, first saw Putin’s “special military operation” announcement on Twitter, his reaction “was very simple,” according to Tabachnik.
“I had three things going through my head: first and foremost, how’s my family friend doing? Then it was, how does this impact me and the United States? And then lastly, what is it that we can do about it in order to correct the situation, or leave it alone and not poke it with a stick?” Tabachnik said. “Recently, it’s been obvious that something’s going to happen, and I genuinely at one point thought, ‘I know it’s going to happen during this [presidential] administration.’ I didn’t realize how early, but [Russia has] been stacking troops on the border of Belarus and Ukraine for a couple months now so that way they could set up an invasion point.”
Having visited Kyiv once when he was younger, Tabachnik says he is “not as emotionally attached to it,” which is why he is “more concerned about what’s going on in the United States and [how] the impact of what is going on over [in Ukraine affects us] here,” Tabachnik said.
“It’s definitely depressing to think that the population in Ukraine is being displaced to a point where Russians are destroying homes, [but] Ukraine and Russia are [international] net exporters of wheat; wheat has gone up, so food and grocery stores are already having a significant hike,” Tabachnik said. “Saying that gas prices are Putin’s tax is not true by any stretch of the imagination. The amount of sanctions that we’ve placed on the Russians caused the price of barrel to skyrocket.”
But it is not only the economy that the war has impacted. During the week of March 14, the school hosted a donation in support of Ukraine; however, “you’re talking about a live conflict,” Tabachnik said, and therefore “this is something that we have no idea as to what is going on,” so students must be “hyper aware” as to where those donations are going.
“You don’t even know where it’s going. When you’re talking about foreign aid, [donations are] being shipped to a humanitarian plant, and then from the Polish border to the Ukrainians, and that’s how they’re going to get their stuff,” Tabachnik said. “What are LZ students going to do? Where’s that money going anyways? Where’s that food going? People want to do what they want to do to clear their conscience. They want to stick their money into places that probably won’t even go where they want to; by all means [donate], but know where it’s going and what’s going on. You have to be hyper aware of the situation that you’re in, and if you’re not and just following one narrative after another, you have no idea what you’re doing.”
While some students may feel the need to help and support Ukraine now, Tabachnik recommends students “wait it out and see what’s going on.”
“We’re all under this idea of sensationalism [and] want to be informed immediately, so people are scrolling through Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat stories and talking about what’s going on in Ukraine,” Tabachnik said. “Truth be told, they really have no idea what’s going on. In Kharkiv, [Ukraine] there were conflicting reports saying that it’s been taken over by the Russians, but then the mayor was like, ‘That’s not true. We’re still here. We’re still fighting,’ so you don’t know. The best way to stand with [Ukraine] is by being informed and hypercritical. Don’t for a second parrot what everybody else is saying, because you’re just going to fall into the same talking points that every single person has been saying.”
Writer’s perspective: Too close to the front
Sleepless nights, bystander’s guilt, and stressful worry.
When my mother told me Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border at Donbas on February 23, I was not concerned, for this was not the first time Russia invaded Ukraine.
“Everything will be okay, it will be just like Crimea,” I told her, reminding her of the 2014 invasion.
A few hours later in the evening, I heard muffled crying. I saw my mother on the phone with my aunt, trembling in a horrific way that you never want to see your parent: my cousin, who just graduated from his city’s military academy, was sent to the front.
No one slept that night.
The next day at school, I was disgusted to hear the laughs from students who were making fun of Putin’s “special military operation,” snickering at memes someone made. But I could not blame anyone; a year ago, no one knew what or where Ukraine was, and now the Russian-Ukrainian war is all over the news.
The first three days since the start of the war were denial. I refused to believe that my family was in any danger, that the war could ever get to their province, that my 23-year-old cousin was serving on the front. It was only last summer in June that he graduated from the Academy, there is no way he is fighting already. No one, not my grandparents and aunt, nor my mother and I expected him to fight at all.
The denial soon turned into an unnerving anxious feeling pulling me to stare at the news or message my family to make sure they are okay. “Just come online, that’s all we could ask. You don’t even have to respond,” my mother tells them.
The real terror set in two days later, when we watched reports on Ukraina 24, a Ukrainian nation news channel, of apartment buildings and homes in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Chernigov in ruin. We were frantic, unable to think clearly. “How is this possible?” my mother asked. “Why are they playing with lives like this?”
Five days into the war, my family told us they were in a bomb shelter.
“There was a loud siren and we ran to the podval across the street,” my grandmother told us. I pictured my grandmother, whose leg injury 40 years ago bothered her to stand, running to a bomb shelter in the midst of chaos. “A nightmare, this is a nightmare,” my mother and I said in sync. In a matter of two weeks, the Ukraine of June 2021 was gone, destroyed by bombs.
My family hung up the Ukrainian flag we bought from Kyiv. We started wearing the crosses we bought seven years ago in Kirovograd. The weekly calls to my aunt and grandparents became hourly messages of “How are you” and “Everything will be okay.” We started praying, something we have never done, as we are not particularly religious.
One thing is certain: as a Ukrainian-American myself, I know the Russian people are not at fault. They are victims in this war as much as the Ukrainian people. It is sickening to see lives lost for a pointless effort to remake the Soviet Union, but I do agree with Mendyuk, Raskin, and Tabachnik: everyone should do extensive research as to what is really going on in Ukraine, tune out the propaganda, and wait. This war is not an excuse for activism, but a time to see through propaganda and understand that what is happening in Ukraine impacts everyone.