HOW THE WAR IN UKRAINE IS AFFECTING OUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS
BY LIZA LONG
“Friends, Americans, in your great history, you have pages that would allow you to understand Ukrainians, understand us now, when we need you right now. Remember Pearl Harbor, terriblemorning of December 7, 1941, whenyour sky was black from the planes attacking you. Just remember it, remember, September the 11th, a terrible day in 2001 when evil tried to turn US cities into battlefields, when innocent people were attacked from air, just like nobody else expected it and you could not stop it. Our country experiences the same, every day, right now at this moment.”
– Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in his March 2022 address to the United States Congress
In a country dominated by partisan politics, one tragedy has united most Americans: opposition to Russia’s unjust war in Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the comedian-turned-politician and Ukraine’s sixth president since the country earned independence in 1990, has become a near universal symbol of freedom in his brave response to autocratic Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s unjust and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.
When this magazine goes to press, the outcome of the war in Ukraine may not yet be determined—but we can be certain that there’s no going back from this moment. We are living through history, and what happens in Ukraine affects our friends and neighbors in Idaho.
For me, as for many in the Treasure Valley, this war has a personal connection. My brother and his wife speak Russian in the home, and three of my nieces were born in Russia. Most of my sister-in-law’s relatives still live in Russia, including a brother who may be conscripted into the Russian army. My brother’s family know firsthand how propaganda dominates the Russian media, keeping the truth of the invasion from the Russian people.
Eve Bentley, a Boise resident who came to the United States from Russia 17 years ago and became a U.S. citizen, shared similar stories from her brother and sister who still live in Russia when we spoke by telephone.
“People are starting to believe the propaganda —they are getting brainwashed. Unless you have family abroad who can tell you what is happening, it’s nearly impossible to get outside information,” Bentley told me, reporting her siblings’ concerns.
“Russians are afraid to express their views because they will lose everything if they share what the government calls ‘fake news.’ When it first became clear that Russia was at war with Ukraine, there were numerous protests in Russia, but the government has effectively squashed this with a 15-year prison sentence. My brother said you could kill a person and not get 15 years. The government controls the media and continues to push the false narrative that Russia is in Ukraine to fight Nazis. People know this is not true, but no one can speak up anymore,” Bentley said.
Both the Ukrainians and the Russians I spoke to for this article agreed that overall, the Russian people are not to blame for Putin’s atrocities. Angela Matlashevsky, a native Ukrainian and studio art major at the College of Western Idaho, conducted primary research about Idahoans’ attitudes toward people of Slavic descent for one of my courses last year.
She found that even before the war, media (especially movies) has sometimes reinforced negative stereotypes about Russians in people’s minds.
I reached out to Matlashevsky by email in March 2022, and she told me, “The war has had a sobering effect on me. Being Ukrainian used to be inconsequential trivia and something I was proud to be, but it did not pop up in my daily life. Today, wherever I go, I have people asking about my family that still lives there, and about my opinions.”
As a Ukrainian, Matlashevsky’s message to our community focuses on people, not politics. “I think it’s important to distinguish the Russian government and military from the general [Russian] populace and to support, not boycott, Russian businesses and individuals. I fear that the current climate will mimic Cold War levels of Russian hostility if we forget that.”
Natasha Kravchuk, an Eagle resident and author of “Natasha’s Kitchen,” a popular food blog that includes traditional Ukrainian recipes, feels similarly. Kravchuk shared with me that her parents’ church, in coordination with other local Ukrainian and Russian Christian churches, partnered to raise money and support for Ukraine.
“We have to remember that immigrants to the U.S. are not coming here to promote Putin’s agenda. They want to be Americans, and they embrace the American ideal. We need to remember that many Russians both in the country and outside of it are against this war.”
-Robert Harbaugh, Department Chair of Culture, History, and Politics and associate professor of political science at the College of Western Idaho
“They shipped over 2,300 boxes with medical supplies, food, hygiene and clothing to Ukraine,” Kravchuk said. “They accomplished more than they ever dreamed, and we’re so thankful for that. But really it took a community to get it accomplished.”
Bentley has family members in both Ukraine and Russia. Her aunt and uncle have decided to remain in Kyiv for now to protect their property from looters. As for Russians, Bentley told me what the media has also reported: Many are leaving the country.
“People with resources will leave everything behind—you can’t take much money out of the country anymore, and travel is restricted,” Bentley told me. “To flee the country, you need to have assets somewhere abroad. For the working class person, no matter how badly you want to leave, you don’t have that option.”
I reached out to Robert Harbaugh, Department Chair of Culture, History, and Politics and associate professor of political science at the College of Western Idaho, for more context on the conflict. Harbaugh (speaking for himself and not the College), noted that the war in Ukraine, which has personally affected two of his students, has created an opportunity to apply what students learn in the classroom to their real world experience.
Harbaugh is saddened but not surprised by Russia’s aggression, he told me when we spoke via Zoom.
“I have been arguing for a long time that the idea that the age of conquering is over is naive,” Harbaugh said. “The nuclear question is what is preventing the U.S. and European allies from getting more involved. Everyone talks about this conflict in terms of strategic nuclear weapons, but we need to be more concerned about tactical limited use nuclear weapons.”
Regarding Russian immigrants in our community, Harbaugh stressed, “We have to remember that immigrants to the U.S. are not coming here to promote Putin’s agenda. They want to be Americans, and they embrace the American ideal. We need to remember that many Russians both in the country and outside of it are against this war.”
Elena Filenova, a native Russian who co-owns a business in Eagle, is one of those Russians. She proudly displays her support for Ukraine in her business’s social media posts. When I spoke to her by telephone, Filenova choked back tears.
“This is just killing me. I am so thankful that I am here and not in Russia. I don’t think I can ever go back as long as this government is there,” Filenova said. “I feel horrified for my friends there who are openly against Putin and may be arrested or put in jail. It is very hard to be proud to be Russian right now—my whole world is crushed.”
Filenova’s son Lev Spaulding, a student at Boise State University who spent many childhood summers with his grandmother in the Russian countryside, gently reminded his mother about all the positive things that Russian culture and people —from Tolstoy to Tchaikovsky — have contributed to the world. “Don’t let Putin take that away from you,” he said.
Harbaugh, the political science professor, noted that supporting local Ukrainian businesses and groups is important right now. There are numerous online opportunities for donation,
including refugee relief organizations, the American Red Cross, and humanitarian relief providers.
Unfortunately, Harbaugh does not see any way that Ukraine can be made whole after so much civilian destruction, and he fears a long, ugly stalemate in the war with Russia. However, he noted that “NATO is more united than ever” as a consequence of the conflict. “We overestimated Russian military capacity by a lot and underestimated the Ukrainian resistance—God bless them!” Harbaugh said.
For our friends, neighbors, and family, both Russian and Ukrainian, this unexpected and unwelcome war has reminded us once again of how vital it is to pray for peace.