By Adolphus Ames—
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his plans for military operations in Ukraine Feb. 24, Ukrainian-Americans have been monitoring the developments in their native country with worried eyes. Onancock resident Nina Nesteruk, who immigrated to the United States in 2002, is among those who can’t stop thinking about her homeland.
“One of the things I love about Ukraine is the way it smells,” said Nesteruk. “No place on Earth smells as wonderful as Ukraine. Whenever I take a breath there I smell the richness of its earth, and I know I’m home.”
When Nesteruk first heard news reports of the Russian invasion, she couldn’t believe it. Nesteruk, along with her partner Al McKegg, had just returned home Jan. 18 from a brief trip to Ukraine. “This is what makes it so hard for me to accept,” she said. “I was just there a few months ago and everything was normal.”
Many of her fellow Ukrainians were caught off guard too. “Russians and Ukrainians view each other like brothers and sisters,” she said. “Intermarriage has been happening between us for many years. Nobody was thinking about the possibility of war. Not even President Zelensky.”
Now Nesteruk finds herself concerned about the well-being of her relatives and friends who are still in Ukraine. Her mother is still in their hometown Bronnyky, a rural village 20 miles west of the city of Rivne.
“We talk on the phone every day,” Nesteruk said. “Lately, she hasn’t been sleeping very much and is watching the news constantly. Recently, an airport nearby in Rivne was bombed by the Russian military. I am concerned about my mother. She is 80 years old.”
Some of Nesteruk’s friends are located near the Belarus border. “My friends have stayed behind by choice because they have husbands and fathers working and fighting,” she said. “They are helping the army by making food, sandbags, and Molotov cocktails.”
The invasion has disrupted millions of lives for those who are still within Ukraine’s borders. People are no longer strolling the streets and living carefree. “People’s daily routine has changed,” said Nesteruk. “They have to keep an eye on news reports and assist soldiers. Some are hiding in bomb shelters with their kids and loved ones whenever the sirens or air notifications inform them that the Russians are nearby.”
Nesteruk’s daily routine has changed as well. “The situation has given me anxiety,” she said. “I’m not sleeping or eating as much. I check the news constantly and have trouble focusing at work. There have been days where I’ve laid in bed all day.”
“I’m trying everything I can to get her to eat more and keep her mind off the war,” said her partner, McKegg. “It’s a horrible situation.”
Nesteruk’s biggest fear is that more civilians and children will die. “The Russians are indiscriminate in their shelling and airstrikes,” she said. “Many people have lost their houses and the death toll is rising daily. I wish it would stop right now.”
She also fears Ukraine will revert back to an authoritarian lifestyle similar to when the country was part of the Soviet Union. “Back then everything was controlled,” she said. “The education system was very pro-Soviet. We didn’t know much about Europe, America, or other countries and we couldn’t speak negatively against the Soviet Union. We could only watch particular movies and couldn’t listen to a lot of foreign music. If people happened to get a hold of a Beatles album or American music, they had to hide in the basement and listen to it secretly. We were basically isolated from the rest of the world.”
Nesteruk, like many other Ukrainians, believe that Putin harbors a Cold War mentality and a strong contempt for members of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). “Putin grew up in an old Russia and is a former KGB agent,” Nesteruk said. “He doesn’t want NATO near his borders and doesn’t want Ukraine to join the alliance. He views it as a threat. I believe his goal is to get rid of Zelensky and place a pro-Russian leader similar to Yanukovych in power.”
Viktor Yanukovych is a former Ukrainian president. Following accusations of widespread corruption and his decision to reject Ukrainian membership in the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia, a series of violent clashes and protests broke out known as the Maidan Revolution. Yanukovych was ousted from office in 2014 as a result and has been living in exile in Russia ever since.
America’s reputation for being the land of democracy, dreams, and opportunity, along with the fact that the United States hasn’t fought a full-scale war on its own soil since the 19th century, may make it easier for Americans to take their lives for granted and harder for them to relate to Ukrainian’s history and current plight.
“I see Americans arguing over things like whether or not to wear a face mask or worrying about when their next paycheck will come,” Nesteruk said. “None of that seems important to me. Nothing is as important right now as the situation in Ukraine.”
Nesteruk yearns for peace and the day she will be able to visit her homeland safely again. “Currently, I work as a private duty CNA nurse,” she said. “I hope I can go back to Ukraine one day and help those in need.”
For this reason, she would also like to see NATO and its allies provide more assistance to Ukraine. “We need more food and more weapons,” she said. “More assistance would give us a better chance of protecting our country and winning the war. President Zelensky and Ukrainian soldiers aren’t just fighting for Ukraine. They are fighting for everyone in Europe.