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May 20, 2022, 5:02 a.m. EDT

‘People who appreciate and value their freedom do not stay quiet.’ Observing the war from afar, Ukrainians and Russians here in the U.S. recall life under Soviet rule

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By Abdi Mohamed

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Outside information was heavily curated and radio news stations from across the border were interfered with. Occasionally, Kovbasnyk was able to tune his radio to hear music coming across Ukraine’s western border and listen to rock music from bands like Black Sabbath and Scorpions.

Yearning for independence toward the end of Soviet rule

During the late ’80s, there were several demonstrations that called for the independence of Ukraine from Soviet control as the USSR’s influence began to wane in the region. Participating in these public demonstrations brought on grave consequences and secret police were often documenting and arresting those who took part.

Rafa participated in these rallies and remembered how the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag became a symbol of the nation’s endeavor to achieve freedom.

“The first time I saw the Ukrainian national flag was in 1988,” he said. “A few months later, it was more common.”

As a young man, Kovbasnyk had never seen his native country’s flag until the rise of these demonstrations. Showcasing the Ukrainian flag came with a prison sentence, so many Ukrainians avoided such activity until signs of the Soviet collapse became more commonplace.

Also see: ‘You need friends when you’re struggling the most’—How 2 U.S. cities are helping Ukrainian sister cities

Kovbasnyk was overcome with emotion when he first saw the flag raised publicly as an act of defiance. “I was literally crying,” he said.

Looking around at the other 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds who were at the forefront of the movement created a sense of kinship for a young Kovbasnyk.

“All of a sudden everything just clicks. Everyone around you feels like [your] brothers and sisters, this is our country, and everything became one. United under this flag,” he explained.

Views on how Russians and Ukrainians can get along

Three decades later, Ukraine is still fighting for its independence. It’s the fourth time in Kovbasnyk’s lifetime that his country has had to defend itself, with this latest conflict being the deadliest.

It’s also been the most contentious for him and a close friend, who still lives in Ukraine, whom he recently conversed with about the current conflict. The call didn’t go as Kovbasnyk hoped.

“A few weeks ago, we had this conversation on the phone, and I think that is the last one I’ll have with him,” he said. “It was very painful, and I was so frustrated with his view on the situation.”

Although Russian and Ukrainian Americans have often interacted with one another and share a history, the relationship between the two communities has been strained in recent years since the invasion of Crimea in 2014. Differing opinions on geopolitical matters have polarized friendships and family dynamics for many.

Before 2014, the Ukrainian and Russian communities in Minnesota had a long history of fundraisers, joint events, and other cultural collaborations, according to Kallevig. She believes events like the annual Festival of Nations in St. Paul, Minnesota, which is used to showcase diverse cultures and foods, could be a way to foster understanding and bring about peaceful dialogue around the conflict here in Minnesota.

“I think it would be great to have maybe open community conversations. Bringing people together through Zoom /zigman2/quotes/211319643/composite ZM +0.88% since people are still wary,” she said. “The pandemic at this moment is kind of on the back burner, but the virus is still here.”

Kallevig also believes the lack of conversation between the local communities makes people more susceptible to misinformation campaigns from the Russian government. She sympathizes with Russians who may be misinformed as to the motivation behind the invasion and believes that Putin himself is unaware of the truth as  he’s isolated himself from the world and his own people.

“We really cannot even blame people who have those beliefs because people are brainwashed,” she said. “Putin is isolated from the real world. He’s not only afraid of the virus — he’s afraid of the people.”

Lessons for the next generation

For Rafa and Kovbasnyk’s generation, the lessons of freedom had to be learned as the Soviet’s grip of control began to loosen. Each of them admire the fervor in which the younger generation of Ukrainians are fighting to defend their homeland and preserve its sovereignty.

“It’s easier to take freedom from a person who never had it; it’s very hard to take freedom from a person who lived as a free person their entire life,” Rafa said of the younger generation.

“People who appreciate and value their freedom do not stay quiet,” Kovbasnyk said.

In sharing some parting thoughts, Kallevig encouraged people to remember the family members of the young men being pushed to fight battles on behalf of their leaders with no end in sight.

“Please be kinder to people and remember that the tears of Ukrainian mothers and the tears of Russian mothers taste the same,” Kallevig said. “I’m not on either side. I’m praying for peace and the preservation of lives.”

Abdi Mohamed is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in St. Paul, Minn. He writes about racial injustice, politics, culture, arts, education and technology. 

This article is reprinted by permission from  , © 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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