Ukraine's turmoil fuels new sense of unity here

  • Article by: ELIZABETH HUSTAD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2014 - 11:07 AM

Ukrainian-Americans in the Twin Cities are feeling a swell of pride in their roots. One Crimean native called it a “revolution of dignity.”

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Ophelia Karamushko (left), Stefan Iwaskewycz and Walter Anastazievsky, Minnesotans with a Ukrainian heritage, held U.S. and Ukrainian flags Wednesday as they described signs of ethnic healing and growing support for individual rights.

Photo: RICHARD.SENNOTT@startribune.com,

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The recent turmoil in Ukraine not only has riveted Minnesotans of Ukrainian heritage, it’s also created a fresh sense of what it means to be Ukrainian, some of them say.

First came the large-scale demonstrations in Kiev by Ukrainians wanting stronger ties with the West. Then came tension between Ukraine and Russia, which last week annexed Crimea, long considered part of Ukraine.

The result has been a whiplash of emotions. But Ophelia Karamushko, Walter Anastazievsky and Stefan Iwaskewycz, who are active in the Twin Cities-based Ukrainian advocacy organization Maidan Minnesota, said that the events overseas also are serving as catalysts for a new identity, especially for those born in the post-Soviet era.

“It went from being an ethnic identity to being an identity of a citizen of a country,” said Anastazievsky, 51, of Shoreview.

Minnesotan Natalia Krasnobaieva, who was born shortly before Ukraine’s 1991 independence and is from Crimea, said that as she began organizing pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in Minnesota, she saw people coming together in an unprecedented way.

Previously, people had been reluctant to say they came from Ukraine, but now there is pride, she said. “It is a revolution of dignity,” she said.

Karamushko, 38, of Eden Prairie, said that her husband was among those who once felt some shame about being of Ukrainian heritage. “When people asked what country he came from, he’d always say Russia, because unconsciously, it was embarrassing to say you were from Ukraine,” she said.

Ukrainian politics is sharply divided, with pro-Russia parties deriving support from eastern provinces and more Euro-minded parties finding support in the west. The State Statistics Committee of Ukraine estimates that of the approximately 45 million people living in that nation, 17 percent are ethnic Russians, concentrated in the country’s eastern and southeastern regions.

But Taras Rafa, 40, of Minneapolis, who emigrated from Ukraine in 2005, said the myriad ethnicities and languages are losing the significance they had during the Soviet years. The recent protests and Russia’s invasion of Crimea “unified the nation to the extent it was never unified before,” he said.

Demands for individual freedom are replacing ethnic considerations, said Paul Jablonsky, 54, of Minneapolis, a first-generation American long active in preserving Minnesota’s Ukrainian culture.

Those who grew up in an independent Ukraine are living a radically different history from those from earlier generations, he said.

“Many [older people] believed that Ukraine would never be free. They truly believed there’d be nothing to go back to,” Jablonsky said of emigrants who, like his own parents, left their home countries in the postwar exodus.

Generational differences

At times, this difference in life experience can make it hard for younger Ukrainians to communicate with their parents, Krasnobaieva said.

Many in her overseas family get their news through television, which in Crimea and many parts of eastern Ukraine is dominated by propaganda-heavy Russian channels.

“We are perceived as aliens, in a way,” Krasnobaieva said of younger Ukrainians who are most likely to question authority. They have grown up with access to the Internet and social media and had more opportunities for education and travel.

“What [older Ukrainians] remember and what they care about is the bread on the table,” she said.

Maidan Minnesota’s Iwaskewycz, 39, of Plymouth, said he thinks the way Moscow has framed the current conflict is a clever attempt to appeal to older Ukrainians who found some comfort and security in living under a domineering government.

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