Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

SoCal Ukrainians divided over future of home country

Mary Billey, a Ukrainian immigrant, said Russian President Putin mistepped by sending troops into the southern peninsula of Crimea.
Mary Billey, a Ukrainian immigrant, said Russian President Putin mistepped by sending troops into the southern peninsula of Crimea.
Josie Huang/KPCC
Mary Billey, a Ukrainian immigrant, said Russian President Putin mistepped by sending troops into the southern peninsula of Crimea.
Tatiana Samarskaya-Vozniouk (far right) considers herself to be Russian-Ukranian.
Josie Huang/KPCC

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In the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Los Angeles, Mary Billey sang Catholic hymns with dozens of other immigrants in their native Ukrainian tongue.

The start of Lent was just days away, but worry over relatives in Ukraine had followed her to the place where she seeks solace.

"I am scared and angry, I’m all of that," said Billey, a 79-year-old grandmother who emigrated to the US as a young girl. "You get emotional because you don’t forget where you were born."

Ukrainian immigrants in southern California have nervously watched as political protests in Kiev that began in November resulted in the ouster of Ukraine's president more than a week ago.  Russian president Vladimir Putin added spark to the situation on Saturday, ordering troops into the pro-Russian Crimean Peninsula to protect Russian interests in the region.

Whether Russia was justified in its invasion has divided Ukrainians, who have long-standing cultural and historic ties to their powerful neighbor. And just as split are immigrants in the Los Angeles area, home to more than 20,000 Ukrainians, who are able to follow developments through Skype calls to relatives, Facebook posts and satellite television.

Billey belongs to the camp that believes Putin is trying to keep Ukraine — once part of the Russian empire and the former Soviet Union — under his thumb, despite warnings from the West. In a phone call to Putin, President Obama said that sending troops into Ukraine is a “clear violation” of that country’s sovereignty.

"Why the American president even bothers talking with Putin when you can’t trust the guy?" Billey said. "He just wants to be on top."

But some other Ukrainian immigrants in the LA area say they feel a strong bond to Russia and, in fact, support its military involvement.

“We are more pro-Russian," said an immigrant named Helen, who did not want her last name used. "All our economy is very close connection with Russian economy."

Helen emigrated to the US from southern Ukraine, where she grew up speaking only Russian, though she considers herself Ukrainian. She worries that in the political upheaval, nationalists from the western part of the country will try to marginalize the Russian speakers concentrated in the south and east. 

"In my family everybody speaks Russian," said Helen, adding one cannot learn Ukrainian "overnight."

She said that Putin’s military maneuvers are keeping Ukrainian nationalists in check.

“What Putin did when he put peaceful armed forces, it stopped all this big mess," she said.

Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, described Ukraine as a "very divided, very mixed, very complicated society.”
Rojansky said beyond linguistic differences, countrymen disagree where they think Ukrainian society should go next.

It's not only about Europe versus Russia, Rojansky said, "but also this kind of post-Soviet mentality of get-it-while-you-can and the state is your feeding trough, versus a newer generation that increasingly wants to be a part of the global economy, and wants to be about high technology and human capital.”
But despite separatists' calls to split up the country, Rojansky said there is no way to make a clean break.

For one thing, the divisions between Ukrainians and Russians are not uniformly deep throughout the country, he said. And there have been many examples of intermarriage.

Tatiana Samarskaya-Vozniouk, a parishioner at the Ukrainian church, knows this first-hand as the daughter of a Russian mother and Ukrainian father. 

The Russian side of the family points out that Crimea used to be part of the Soviet Union.
But her father's family in Kiev wants the Russians out. They still have memories of harsh treatment at the hands of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

And that "makes things more complicated because I cannot take anybody’s side,"  Samarskaya-Vozniouk said.
She said she keeps what she hears from each side of the family to herself. She doesn't want to make a tense situation worse.