(Video: Sasha Maslov and Sasha Arutyunova for The Washington Post)

The Ukraine war through the eyes of Ukrainian and Russian New Yorkers

‘Since the war began, we live in two time zones’

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The New York region is home to a quarter of the Ukrainian and Russian immigrants in the United States.

And over the past two months, many members of these communities have been glued to the television and social media, watching the war in Ukraine unfold. Many Ukrainian Americans are terrified for their family and friends, and desperate to help. The Russian Americans are horrified by the violence and wary about the crackdown in their native country.

We interviewed several people about the crisis and how it affects their community. Below, we’ve told their stories.

Lubow Wolynetz, 83

Wolynetz is a curator and librarian at the Ukrainian Museum and Library of Stamford, Conn., and lives in Queens, N.Y.

To Wolynetz, the recent scenes on television of Ukrainians fleeing with as many of their belongings as they could carry felt familiar. It was “quite similar to what we went through,” Wolynetz said.

As a child, Wolynetz fled Ukraine with her family to escape communism and spent four years at a displacement camp in Germany. She later immigrated to the United States after World War II. From what she has seen, the current exodus is “a much more horrific situation nowadays. More cruel, more murderous, much more inhuman.”

Lubow has long been active in the Ukrainian American community and is a curator and librarian at the Ukrainian Museum and Library. Lubow was last in Ukraine in 2021, on the 30th anniversary of the country’s independence from the Soviet Union. “It was a wonderful, very uplifting time,” Wolynetz said. “And then came the war.”

Alexei Druzhinin, 45

Druzhinin, a hedge fund trader, works in New York City and lives in Connecticut.

Druzhinin grew up in Sukhumi, Georgia, before fleeing to Moscow to escape the war between Russian-backed separatists and the Georgian army in Abkhazia in 1992.

“When I speak to friends in Russia about the atrocities being committed, most are willing to listen, but they still find what I say hard to believe.”
— Alexei Druzhinin

Today, he lives in Connecticut with his wife, Tanya Voitkevich. He describes the conflict in Ukraine as one between the Western rules-based order and a Kremlin clinging to the vestige of its former global influence.

Druzhinin said his friends in Russia are extremely cautious about discussing the conflict. “Every call I do has to be over an encrypted service. People are scared,” he said.

The biggest challenge, he added, is breaking through the information barriers being erected by the Kremlin as the conflict unfolds. “Russian society is divided,” he said. “When I speak to friends in Russia about the atrocities being committed, most are willing to listen, but they still find what I say hard to believe.”

Dora Chomiak, 52

Chomiak, who lives in New York City, is the president of Razom, a nonprofit Ukrainian American human rights organization.

Chomiak leads Razom, which means “together” in Ukrainian. It was founded in 2014 with the goal of creating a more prosperous Ukraine. For years, the group has provided job training, mental health support and English-language learning.

That has changed since the war began.

“Our work 24/7 since February 24th … has been to save as many lives as we can,” Chomiak said, adding that Razom has been providing Ukraine with medical supplies and other resources. When the conflict broke out, Chomiak “couldn’t believe that my mom’s childhood was happening again,” she said.

“My mom is in her 80s, and she grew up as a war kid,” Chomiak said. “I really didn’t think that we were at a place as human beings on this planet where we were so barbaric that we would just attack, unprovoked and with this level of devastation and brutality.”

Arthur Zgurov, 31

Zgurov is a neurosurgeon who lives in New York City.

Zgurov immigrated to the United States about 2½ years ago.

“Since the war began, we live in two time zones,” he said. “We live in an American time zone and in [the] Ukrainian time zone.” His relatives have not left Ukraine because “they want to stay on their land.”

Knowing his family is still in Ukraine “is a stressful thing, but on the other hand, I’m feeling an overwhelming respect of their choice.” He encourages Russians and Russian Americans to be vocal about the war.

“Unfortunately, a lot of Russians, not all of them, but a lot of them just decided to keep silent,” Zgurov said. “With this horrible situation, silence is a crime.”

Irina Sheynfeld, 49

Sheynfeld, an artist, lives in Manhattan.

Sheynfeld moved to the United States from Odessa in 1988, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. Ten years earlier, her parents applied unsuccessfully to immigrate to the United States, triggering retaliation by the authorities that set the stage for a decade-long struggle to escape Soviet persecution.

Sheynfeld, who speaks Russian, is today an American citizen living in Manhattan. “The war is numbing in its horror. It is the worst crime Putin has committed,” she said.

A successful artist whose works have been exhibited around the world, Sheynfeld recently organized an exhibition at New York’s Ceres Gallery to support the Ukrainian people.

“It felt especially good to reconnect with all the people we know in New York who all feel exactly the same way,” she said.

Sheynfeld is painting 12 portraits of Ukrainian women displaced by the conflict, set against a backdrop of the Odessa landscape. “It feels good to help anywhere we can,” Sheynfeld said.

Leonid Pevzner, 58

Pevzner lives in Brooklyn and runs Brighton Care Pharmacy.

On Aug. 19, 1991, Pevzner stood opposite Moscow’s Russian parliament building and watched Boris Yeltsin climb atop a tank to speak out in defiance of the military coup underway to oust Mikhail Gorbachev. As Russian civilians poured into a nearby square to protest the coup, Pevzner saw the writing on the wall.

A year later, he immigrated with his family to the United States. Today, he owns Brighton Care Pharmacy in New York City’s Brighton Beach, known to city residents as Little Odessa.

Gorbachev’s policy of economic liberalization — called glasnost — had triggered an inflationary spiral in Russia similar to the one being wrought by Western sanctions today. “I didn’t like where Russia was going economically, and I needed to find an opportunity to work. There was nothing available in Russia,” Pevzner said.

“I am totally against the war in Ukraine,” he said.

Pevzner said his conversations with friends and relatives in Moscow reveal a stark disconnect between the reality being presented to Russian citizens and that being witnessed by the rest of the world. “I have lived in America for 30 years, and they have lived in Russia for 30 years. Putin has been in power for 22 of those years. I think they’ve been brainwashed,” Pevzner said.

He said that while the Russian residents of Little Odessa are still divided on the conflict in Ukraine, opinion is strengthening against the war after Russian propaganda outlets were barred in the United States.

“Most of the community here used to get their news from Russian outlets which were reporting pro-Russian propaganda.” Now that they have been blocked, “the reality of what is happening is becoming clearer,” Pevzner said.

Michael Buryk, 72

Buryk is a retiree who lives in North Caldwell, N.J.

Buryk hosts “Krynytsya,” or “The Well,” a podcast that features interviews with Ukrainians around the world. He said the outbreak of the war was like a “bad nightmare” come to life.

For Buryk and many Ukrainian Americans, the conflict began not on Feb. 24, but eight years earlier when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula.

“Ukrainian Americans have seen this coming for a long time because having a neighbor like Putin on the border makes it rather difficult for Ukraine,” he said. Watching and reading about the war has made an already proud Ukrainian American even more so.

“Ukrainians have done an absolutely fantastic job of trying to hold it together and to defend their freedom,” he said.

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