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‘Shock, Desolation, Disappointment’ : Russian, Ukraine Natives on Big Island React to War

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She’s angry. She feels helpless. She hides her tears from her children and doesn’t want to scare them with the news.

For Natasha R., a Ukraine native who now lives in Waikōloa, the Russian invasion of her homeland hits way too close to home, especially since she has family still living there. She didn’t want to share her last name in fear of backlash from supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I’m terribly angry. I’m just desperate that I can’t help my family,” she told Big Island Now. “I call my mother every hour and try to support her morally. Fortunately, the internet and cellphones work.”

Emotions are running high in the Ukrainian and Russian communities on the Big Island. Several of them were willing to share their thoughts about the invasion, which commenced late Wednesday night, Feb. 23, Hawai’i time.

According to a story from the Associated Press, Russia unleashed airstrikes on cities and military bases in Ukraine and sent troops and tanks into the country from three sides in the opening salvo of the invasion. Scores of Ukrainians, civilians and service members alike, were killed in the first full day of fighting.

Natasha R.’s family lives in Berdychiv, a city near Zhytomyr, the administrative center of Zhytomyr province in north-central Ukraine. She said they are extremely scared.

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“An airport was bombed near my house in Zhytomyr. Roads are partly closed. My brother drove from Kyiv to Berdychiv (60 miles) for around eight hours,” she said. “When my mother called me (Wednesday) night and said that the war had begun, I was at work. I just could not breathe and speak from horror. I can’t sleep and cry all the time.”

She said Ukrainians didn’t think Putin would take military action.

“Everyone hoped that this was a show and political intrigues,” Natasha R. said.

Putin, for weeks, denied plans to invade Ukraine, according to the AP story.

“The autocratic leader made clear earlier this week that he sees no reason for Ukraine to exist, raising fears of possible broader conflict in the vast space that the Soviet Union once ruled,” the story said. “Putin denied plans to occupy Ukraine, but his ultimate goals remain hazy.”

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While she feels helpless to do anything, Natasha R. said Ukrainians aren’t sitting idly by and letting Russia do what it wants.

“People are tired of being afraid and are ready to go to the end,” she said. “The civilian(s) of Ukraine began to actively resist. Our friends (they are hunters) near Kharkov burned a Russian tank with Molotov cocktails (the tankers were saved and captured).”

She added that Ukrainians are lining up as volunteers for the army. But the rest of the world needs to step up, too.

“Ukraine needs help from the whole world,” Natasha R. said. “This bloody idiot won’t stop at taking over Ukraine.”

Fear, anger and shock were common emotions among those in the Big Island Russian and Ukrainian communities who spoke with Big Island Now on Thursday. Many of them didn’t expect Putin to take such measures while others saw it coming. A common thread, however, is that none of them want war.

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“War is happening,” said Natasha G., a Moscow native who now lives in Waimea. She also didn’t want to give her last name for the same reason as Natasha R. “And nobody wants it − not Russian, not Ukrainian people. Just one person who started it wants to show the whole world that he can do it, and for him it doesn’t matter how it’s going to affect all of us in the future.”

She and her family were on O’ahu on Wednesday when they saw the first news about the invasion.

“We were in shock, desolation, disappointment,” she told Big Island Now. “We could not believe in it, that Russian government started war. Not people, government. Of course there is some people who is supporting Russian government, and military people who is following commands and orders from government. But so many Russian people doesn’t want that.”

Natasha G. thinks Russians and Ukrainians everywhere are upset and frustrated about the events currently unfolding in Eastern Europe.

“We don’t want this war; we didn’t ask for it, there was no reason to start it,” she said. “I think nobody knows what is ‘the goal’ for all of it. Nobody knows what is going to be next. Personally, I’m expecting Ukrainian people to fight for their country, and Russian people fighting against Russian government to stop the war.”

Lily H., who is originally from Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, and now lives in Waikoloa, said she’s terrified because there’s no guarantee Putin will stop.

“There is no guarantee that this psychopathic dictator will stop before killing hundred thousand people standing for their freedom and sovereignty,” she told Big Island Now. She also didn’t want to share her last name because of fear of backlash from supporters of Putin in the community.

On one hand, she and others have followed the news about Russian forces gathering around the Ukrainian border for the past couple of months. From another, she didn’t expect it was going to be such an open shameless and ruthless military intervention in front of the eyes of the whole world.

“I believed it was a bluff. Unfortunately, I was mistaken,” Lily H. said. “It’s hard for me to imagine what Ukrainians who have family members living in Ukraine feel right now. I utterly support them. I wish them to stay strong.”

Alexander Sidelev, a native of Saint Petersburg, Russia, and whose family is ethnically Russian and Ukrainian mixed, now lives in Hawaiian Beaches. He heard about the invasion while checking social media Wednesday night as he was just about to sit down for dinner.

He was one person who expected something to escalate.

“Too many indicators were lit up prior,” Sidelev told Big Island Now. “Still, even if you expect a war, you are shook when you hear it.”

He is saddened by the unnecessary loss of life and prays that the conflict ends as quickly as possible.

“As a Christian, I condemn all war,” Sidelev said. “Many of my compatriots feel the same way; there are anti-war protests in Saint Petersburg and Moscow.”

His mother, Olga Sidelev, who also now lives in Hawaiian Beaches, said she feels anxious, sad and worried about what’s happening in her homeland.

“I am crying just watching the new(s),” she told Big Island Now. “However, I feel that the current situation is the failure of the world diplomacy.”

Olga Sidelev said as much as she hates Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, she thinks the Ukrainian president should have surrendered to save people’s lives. She also said, as a new American citizen, she doesn’t want the United States to send troops to Eastern Europe to support a Ukrainian regime she said has failed in everything — economy, diplomacy and supporting its people.

“I cannot see more people die,” she said. “Because all of them are my people. Russian, Ukrainian, American soldiers — they are my people. Having a son of that age, I do not want them to die. And now I am crying again.”

And as much as emotions were running high, some politics also were in play among members of the Russian and Ukrainian communities on the island.

“It is obvious that Russia is currently ruled by the Nazi government, which kills its opposition leaders and threatens not only its neighbors but the whole progressive world with a nuclear weapon,” Lily H. said. “Putin’s maniacal idea of restoring the Soviet Union is what we are witnessing right now in Ukraine.”

She strongly condemns Russia for all its actions against Ukraine and hopes a progressive world will keep Putin accountable for all the lives he has already taken.

Natasha G. said she and her fellow compatriots simply want to live in peace and communicate with their families and friends.

“I strongly believe that Russia shouldn’t do anything with Ukraine and not to interfere in the internal politics of Ukraine and certainly not to seize the territories of Ukraine that do not belong to Russia,” she said.

Alex Sidelev said natural gas is still flowing from Russia through Ukraine toward the rest of Europe. And since the green energy movement can’t keep up with demand, Russia will continue to dominate the energy sector.

“Russian investors are still trading on global markets,” he said. “Western sanctions are a paper tiger, especially in the world of web3 (Cryptocurrency, blockchain, etc.). It truly feels like the Western allies served Ukraine up on a silver platter. At the end of the day, Russia is a more important business partner.”

He was also critical of the United States’ part in what’s happening in Eastern Europe.

“The events unfolding are results of failed U.S. foreign policy,” Sidelev said. “Putin had seen an opportunity to expand, and he took it. Once the Afghan allies were betrayed, so, too, would the Ukrainian. Unfortunately, the devil in the Kremlin is more important to the West than Ukrainian lives.”

Regardless of their politics, however, the consensus was that it didn’t have to come to war.

“My family is not supporting any violence against Ukraine,” Natasha G. said. “We grew up in Soviet Union; for us, people who speaks Russian, who knows Russian language, is not our enemy. Yes, we do have some different visions of our lives, politics, religion, etc. But I think there is still some relationship between Russian and Ukrainian people can feel.”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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