Ukrainian-American artist Ola Rondiak grew up in Ohio but moved to Kiev with her husband in the 1990’s, shortly after the nation declared independence from the Soviet Union.
Her husband, also Ukrainian-American, works at an importing company there, where the couple raised their three kids. Rondiak came to the U.S. last month to visit, but now said she’s facing the prospect of never returning home. While her children are in the U.S., her husband is still in Ukraine, preparing to flee at any moment.
“The car is packed and he’s made arrangements for our two dogs. He’s all set with a backpack should he have to go by foot,” she said. “It’s a beautiful free and sovereign independent nation. It doesn’t deserve to have a gun to its head like this.”
Like Rondiak, Ukrainian-Americans in the New York City area are watching headlines and getting increasingly ominous messages from friends and relatives. Russian President Vladimr Putin has reportedly stationed 150,000 troops on three sides of Ukraine in a show of force similar to what precipitated Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. The situation turned more dire this week, with Russian lawmakers authorizing military action in certain areas. President Joe Biden responded Tuesday afternoon, imposing economic sanctions against Russian oligarchs and banks.
“People are in shock. I have so many just single texts in my phone from people who are like, ‘I have no words’ and that’s it,” said Andrij Dobriansky, the co-chair of the United Ukrainian-American Organizations of New York. “This is not something anybody imagined could happen — to roll back the independence of a country.”
The East Village, once dubbed “Little Ukraine” was once the heart of New York City’s Ukrainian immigrant community, home to an estimated 60,000 members of the diaspora, many of whom fled to the United States during and after World War II. In recent days, some of the remaining Ukrainian-owned businesses in the area had placed the nation’s yellow and blue flag in their storefront windows in solidarity.
Veselka, the popular Ukrainian eatery on Second Avenue had done the same. Third-generation Ukrainian-American owner Jason Birchard said the restaurant’s staff members were hoping for a peaceful resolution, and customers had been extra generous in recent days.
“Everybody’s a little bit on edge and everybody’s just trying to stay hopeful and trying to stay positive,” Birchard said.
One of Birchard’s managers, Vitalii Desiatnychenko, 30, grew up in Kiev and moved to the East Village as a student a decade ago. He’s in regular touch with his parents who are still there. Up until Monday they seemed calm, though he said his conversation with them Tuesday morning was jarring.
“They had to go to a grocery store and buy some extra groceries, they had to go to a gas station to buy some extra gas in case they need to relocate for a moment,” he said. “There’s more and more pressure in the air.”
Down the street from Veselka on Second Avenue, a group of older Ukrainian women gathered in the offices of the Self-Reliance Association of Ukrainian Americans for a weekly conversation on current events.
Oleksander Matsuka, a retired United Nations diplomat who lives in northern New Jersey came to speak to the women. His stepson in Kiev enlisted in the country’s Territorial Defense Forces in the last few weeks and had started training. His wife’s brother was preparing to leave retirement to return to the army.
“Everyone does whatever he can,” Matsuka said. “Ukrainians are not panicking. They are prepared to fight.”