TOPICS > Nation > Ukraine crisis

In New York’s Little Ukraine, tension mounts ahead of vote

March 15, 2014 at 5:17 PM EDT
Metropolitan New York City is home to more than 113,000 ethnic Ukrainians. NewsHour visited Little Ukraine in the East Village to gauge local sentiment about the conflict in Crimea.

IVETTE FELICIANO: This is little Ukraine, a small enclave in the East Village of Manhattan.   There are more than 113,000 ethnic Ukrainians living in the metropolitan area, some of them right here.  There’s a Ukrainian butcher, book store, a church, a museum and a sidewalk memorial commemorating the dozens killed during recent protests against the former pro-Russian government.

We came here to see how the Ukrainian-American community was reacting to the current crisis.  In a small office above a restaurant we met Ukrainian-Americans discussing plans to protest the Russian incursion into Crimea.  Their goal, to get athletes at the Paralympics in Sochi to publicly support the new pro-western Ukrainian government in Kiev.

MARIYA SOROKA: We can try to get in touch with them through the Facebook page.  Alsoa lot of athletes, they have their Twitter accounts.  We can tweet at them.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Mariya Soroka, is the community relations director at Razom, a privately funded Ukrainian community organization.  Razom means “together” in Ukrainian.  Soroka has lived in the United States for ten years, but her father and many of her friends still live in Kiev.

MARIYA SOROKA: A lot of my classmates are there.  Some of them were injured.  So it’s very close home– extremely close home.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Images out of eastern Ukraine show pro-Russian demonstrators rallying in large numbers.  But Alexander Motyl, a professor who focuses on Russian and Ukrainian issues at Rutgers University and has Ukrainian roots himself, says that the east/west divide in Ukraine has been overstated.

PROFESSOR ALEXANDER MOTYL: What people do here in the U.S. and especially the media, frankly, is they– they make that fundamental mistake of comparing the two extremes and then projecting those characteristics on the rest of the country.

And it’s just not quite the case that everything falls neatly into two black and white boxes.  That’s really the bottom-line. 

IVETTE FELICIANO:  Motyl points to a poll conducted in February by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology which showed that a majority of the country wants an independent Ukraine.  Even in Crimea, the same poll showed that, only 40 percent of the population wants unification with Russia.  And he says that the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States, whether from the east or west of Ukrainebroadly supports the new government in Kiev.

PROFESSOR ALEXANDER MOTYL: Everybody pretty much agrees — Yanukovych, the former president, had to go.  The democrats have to triumph.  Putin is an imperialist.  He has to be stopped or else he will dismember the country.  That’s putting it in a nutshell.  But I would bet that over 95 percent of everybody who claims to be from the Ukraine, or has some kind of loyalty to Ukraine, would subscribe to these tenets.

IVETTE FELICIANO:  Moytl says that’s because the Ukrainians who came here have adopted American values.

At popular neighborhood Ukrainian restaurant, Veselka, we met, Bohdan Kobystianskyj, a member of the Ukrainian National Home, a cultural organization.  His father was a member of the Ukrainian underground during World War II.

BOHDAN KOBYSTIANSKYJ: He had to fight against the Germans and against the Russians.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Kobystianskyj visits relatives and friends in Ukraine two or three times every year, the last time was just this January during the protests in Kiev against the former president. 

BOHDAN KOBYSTIANSKYJ: They didn’t want to have violence, they didn’t wanna have confrontation.  They just wanted to have change, but in a peaceful way.

IVETTE FELICIANO: When you heard that Russian troops were going into Ukraine, I mean, what did that feel like?

BOHDAN KOBYSTIANSKYJ: You feel like you wanna do something and you can’t do it from– and you’re hoping that you get some support from the world.

IVETTE FELICIANO: He believes that the West isn’t doing enough to support the new Ukrainian government.  Jason Birchard, is a third generation Ukrainian-American and one of the owners of Veselka.  He says that everybody in the restaurant is very tense about the conflict.

JASON BIRCHARD: I think the people here, whoever– Ukrainian-Americans — feel very angry– there is some sense of people wanting to go home to enlist– to fight, possibly.  But we were hoping that there will be a peaceful resolution as time goes on.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Birchard took us into the kitchen, where borscht was being prepared … a beet soup that many consider to be quintessentially Russian … But Birchard makes a point to say that the soup is actually Ukrainian.

Chef Olesia Lew says that everybody in the restaurant is glued to their phones and the news… waiting for every little piece of information about the conflict.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Your family in Ukraine, what are you hearing from them? What are people feeling?

OLESIA LEW: Well, I think people are very nervous.  You know, my family’s from the west, so that conflict isn’t happening there, but they’re still very nervous.  No one wants their country torn apart.

IVETTE FELICIANO: A couple blocks away from the restaurant is Surma Book and Music, a Ukrainian gift shop.  Markian Surmach’s grandfather opened the store in 1918.  Its filled with Ukrainian art, books, and music.  Surmach can’t believe that that a crisis like this could happen in the 21st century.

MARKIAN SURMACH: I didn’t think that this is how people behaved anymore.  I thought that was relegated to history.  But now, apparently it’s okay for another country just to go in and to claim another part of another country as theirs

IVETTE FELICIANO: Surmach supports sanctions and travel restrictions against Russia, but stops short of supporting military action. 

MARKIAN SURMACH: The thought of– of this becoming a global conflict with different countries taking sides, that frightens me beyond imagination.

IVETTE FELICIANO: It was a common sentiment, war is not the answer. It’s what we heard from Bohdan Kobystianskyj, a decorated Vietnam War veteran.

BOHDAN KOBYSTIANSKYJ: We don’t want war.  Especially military people like myself.  Because as soon as a war starts, Ukrainians will die first.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Professor Alexander Moytl says the conflict has stirred the Ukrainian American community like never before… bringing together ethnic Ukrainians of different generations and from different parts of Ukraine.  

PROFESSOR ALEXANDER MOTYL: And what this crisis has done is force people to say, “You know, I guess, I’m Ukrainian.”  And I guess it means something.