The war in Ukraine from afar: locals with ties to the region reflect

Vsevolod Petriv stands in front of his Malden home that proudly bears both an American and a Ukrainian flag. (Photo by Kim Brookes)

By Victoria Pudova

It has been 804 days since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. According to Ukrainians and Russians living in Malden, the horrors of the war remain just as real and present in their lives as day one.

Busha Husak, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine, was born in Connecticut and has lived in Malden since the winter of 1998. She visited Ukraine for the first time in May of 2015.

“The trip to Ukraine and the four days we spent were absolutely amazing,” she said. While Husak was in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, she experienced a culture shock. “People didn’t smile, at first,” she said. “But once they got to know you, they would feed you and give you the shirt off their backs.”

With the events of the past two years on her mind, Husak says she feels grateful that she was able to visit Ukraine before the war.

Busha Husak with her husband, Eric Cunningham, in an ancient cave built by monks in Rozhirche, a village in Western Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of Busha Husak)

Maria Yulikova, a Malden resident who’s originally from Moscow, Russia, has never been to Ukraine, but has many Ukrainian friends.

When the war began, Yulikova said that her life took a turn, and it would never be the same. “I felt like all of a sudden, I started living in another world, like, I was dead,” she confessed. “I felt that I stopped breathing. I stopped living, and, in reality, I was present, but in my mind, I felt that life stopped.”

Yulikova became hyper-aware of the fact that she was Russian in her social circle, but when she saw that her Ukrainian friends still treated her the same way they had before the war, she said this was a comfort that helped her battle her depression. “They knew that I have nothing in common with these policies, and that I was always against Putin,” she said. “They still thought that I was their friend. And that was true.”

On New Year’s Eve of 2022 and 2023, she hosted a gathering for all her friends to try to lift up everyone’s spirits; they drank champagne, wishing for peace.

Spurred to action by the unfolding events in Ukraine, Maria Yulikova co-curated an art exhibition in Malden last summer to raise money for Ukraine. Pictured from left: Maria Yulikova, Malden Mayor Gary Christenson, and co-curator Anita Young Coelho.

Vsevolod Petriv, President of the Boston branch of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, has lived in Malden for the past twenty seven years. He says that he anticipated the war through his conversations with people in Ukraine, the news, and the history between Russia and Ukraine, which has been conflict-ridden going back centuries from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union to the present day. He reasons that Russia is governed by imperialism. “They basically try to take over things,” he said. “And so they work to try to pull into them any of the other cultures or destroy the cultures.”

That is why, when asked whether a distinction between Ukrainian and Russian culture should be made, Petriv asserts, “It’s important, and we should make it clear.” However, he points out that this is a difficult thing to navigate because it’s a multilayered issue. “Internally, we should understand what the ebb and flow was,” he said.

Husak is fascinated by both Ukrainian and Russian cultures and continues to learn their history. She said, “It’s like any other countries or languages that are similar, but yet they’re different. They come from different roots.” Even so, she admits that learning about the relations of these two countries is overwhelming at times. “I definitely think there was a lot of conflict. There’s so much of it that I can’t even get my head around it.”

As Yulikova recalled her college years in Moscow, she said, “Nobody cared about who’s from where. Ukrainian or not Ukrainian. It just, it was not the subject of our conversations. It was not in our conscience. It was nothing.” She wasn’t aware of there ever being a conflict between Russia and Ukraine until Putin started preparations for the invasion in 2022. “I learned about this conflict just reading the news,” she said.

A question that then arises is, how do we isolate what is Ukrainian and what is Russian? What makes a person or a thing one or the other? Petriv pondered this for a few moments, saying, “There have been so many people involved in fighting for Ukraine and what that means, that aren’t necessarily of Ukrainian blood, but they get the feel of it.” He believes that the distinction between what’s Ukrainian and what’s Russian goes beyond blood and ancestry. To understand it, Petriv focuses on the shared history between Russia and Ukraine that involves cultural overlap and oppression of the Ukrainian people imposed by Russia’s repressive regime.

“In that shared history,” he said. “There is a set of, a code or a set of principles or an approach to life that is unique based on those principles, so how can somebody be Ukrainian if they don’t have that? They can get there because they have an aspiration, or an affinity for those principles.”

Petriv mentions that one can’t lump people into two opposing groups: Ukrainians and Russians. There are many divisions to be made within those. Looking at the big picture, he says, “Ukrainians, as anybody else, are members of a wider world…There are other strands of other cultures whose experiences have an affinity, a greater affinity with yours than others, and that allows for a quicker sense of commonality between different cultures.” In other words, Petriv claims that a person chooses their identity based on what most closely aligns with their beliefs and outlook on life.

Ultimately, he concludes, “Being Ukrainian is a state of mind.”

Husak addresses the tie between Ukrainians-by-blood and their country. Husak said, “I feel that Ukrainians believe so much in their land that it goes back generations.” She also spoke about her cousin who did not feel a deep connection to his Ukrainian roots when he was younger. “But as he got older and learned more about Ukraine and spent time there,” she said, “it really was in his blood. And he feels very strongly about it.” This feeling has been further strengthened over the duration of the war.

Busha Husak at a small farm in Ukraine.

Reflecting on her own connection to Ukraine, Husak says, “And, you know, being Ukrainian, seeing the country, coming from that cultural background, I don’t want to see it disappear.”

Despite the complexity of the war and all the questions that come with it, the pressing gore, destruction of city infrastructure, and premeditated loss of life resulting from Russia’s invasion remind us of what is most important. Petriv says, “It all gets down to if the Russians stop, the war’s over. If the Ukrainians stop, Ukraine’s over.”

Victoria Pudova is a rising sophomore at Emerson College, majoring in Creative Writing. She is completing her spring internship with Urban Media Arts. Victoria is of Ukrainian descent and speaks fluent Ukrainian.

1 Comment

  1. A timely and well done article. Very informative, and also put a human face on the war. Unfortunate that this article had to be written.

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