May 07, 2014

For Ukrainian Americans, Events in Eastern Europe are Up-close and Personal

UT PhD student Tony Smith discusses the timely question of Ukraine’s future as a European state on Wednesday, April 9. Photo by Taylor Johnson

UT Ph.D. student Tony Smith discusses the timely question of Ukraine’s future as a European state on April 9. Photo by Taylor Johnson.

By Emily Compton
For Reporting Texas 

Sandy Kloberdanz may no longer have family in Ukraine, but her Ukrainian heritage and the news of Russian President Vladamir Putin’s invasion of Crimea this past February stirred up deep emotions nonetheless. Recalling stories her mother and aunt told her about growing up in the Ukraine and being imprisoned in Nazi Germany’s POW camps in World War II has made the ongoing crisis very personal for Kloberdanz.

“It’s just stirring up emotions I didn’t even know I had because now I really understand what my mother and my aunt had gone through,” said Kloberdanz, 57.  “I never thought living freely in America that this type of thing would hit so close to home, but it does.”

Throughout the U.S., as in Texas, individuals of Ukrainian descent share a sense of involvement in the Ukraine’s troubles. Today, there are approximately 976,000 Americans of Ukrainian heritage living in the U.S.—15,547 of them in Texas. Many of them share in common traditions and, importantly, a desire to see the Ukraine, not Putin, in control of the area. They have watched as the crisis has deepened—from Russia’s invasion of Crimea on Feb. 27, to the recent shooting of the mayor of Kharkiv, the area’s second largest city, on April 26, and ongoing clashes between Ukrainian and separatist forces in the eastern part of the country.

While pro-Putin ethnic Russians and the Ukraine’s pro-independence forces continue to bicker over history and borders, however, such tensions aren’t generally reflected closer to home in Texas. Most Ukrainian Americans in Texas are hoping that Ukraine can stay intact, and show their support on Facebook groups and through protests, petitions and financial aid to their family and friends in Ukraine and the Ukrainian troops.

Indeed, over half the Ukrainian American population nationwide hails from western Ukraine, especially the second, third and fourth generation Ukrainian Americans, said Hanya Krill, program coordinator at the Ukrainian Museum in New York. Texas’ Ukrainian population is modest compared to states such as top-ranking New York and Pennsylvania, according to the 2000 U.S. census, which has the most recent information available on Ukranians. New York had a populations of 148,700, compared to Pennsylvania’s 22,291.

Though the Texas community is small, Marta Petrash, 54, a biology teacher at Sunset High School in Dallas, said it is very much steeped in Ukrainian culture and “thriving.”

“Most people I know support Ukraine’s independence,” Petrash said.

According to Petrash and others, Ukrainian Americans in Texas are doing what they can to support their ancestral homeland. On March 3, the Ukrainian American Cultural Club of Houston staged a protest in front of the Russian consulate in Houston to “stop aggression in Ukraine.” The club’s Facebook page encourages pro-independence Ukrainians to fly the Ukrainian flag in a sign of support and provides links to sites where donations can be made to aid Ukraine’s military troops.

Meanwhile, members of the Dallas area-based Ukrainian American Society of Texas are focused on signing online petitions and writing letters and e-mails to congressmen, senators and other influential people to urge the U.S. to get more deeply involved in managing the crisis. An online “We the People” petition posted on March 21 urged the White House to get involved in the movement to “stop military aggression and protect territorial integrity in Ukraine.”

The organization, established in 1983, is based in The Colony, a suburb of Dallas, and works to preserve Ukrainian culture, history and language. Ukrainian American Society of Texas’ president Chrystya Geremesz, 54, is a first-generation Ukrainian American whose parents came to the U.S. after World War II. She still has aunts, uncles and cousins living in Ukraine.

“Putin’s aggression is alarming and should be alarming to the world,” Geremesz said.

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and if more people around the world would write their congressman, organize demonstrations and let our leadership know how important an issue this is, then maybe work can get done,” said Kloberdanz, a second-generation Ukrainian American who has been a member of the Ukranian society for 30 years.

Meanwhile, experts in post-Soviet geopolitics said they aren’t confident that recent U.S. actions, including the Obama administration’s sanctions against Russia, will make a big difference in the crisis.

“America’s response stems from U.S. national interests and is not an outcome of extensive lobbying,” said William Reisinger, a professor of political science at University of Iowa. “Ukrainian Americans’ efforts are likely to have an impact, but a small one. Probably a lot of even more powerful groups such as businesses that trade with Russia are competing with them right now.”

One of Reisinger’s University of Iowa colleagues, Marina Zaloznaya, an assistant professor of sociology who previously resided in Crimea, agrees with his assessment of the Ukrainian American impact: pressure from the Ukrainian Americans will have little effect on U.S. foreign policy effectiveness.

Zaloznaya remains pessimistic about the situation in Crimea. Crimea was part of Russia until 1954 and has a heavily ethnic Russian population. Putin said he reclaimed Crimea to prevent the limitation of Russia’s presence in the Black Sea, but for many Ukrainians, Crimea’s annexation stokes fear of further annexation of eastern Ukraine. However, Zaloznaya believes Putin has the support of residents of the Crimea.

“Despite the possible short-term improvements in [the Crimea’s] economic situation, in the long term [residents there] will suffer from the oppressive domestic policies of Vladimir Putin,” she said.

“At the same time, based on my conversations with relatives who still live in Crimea and my reading of local news sources, I think that the annexation of the peninsula is absolutely in line with the desires of the majority of its residents,” Zaloznaya said.

Reisinger, the political science professor, said world stability demands that national boundaries in Europe “not be changed by force.”

“Recent events raise the danger of the postwar peace breaking down, and the U.S. and its allies must try to impose some pain on Russia for its actions,” he said. “There is not a whole lot the U.S. can do, but it cannot just be a bystander.”

Petrash, the Dallas-based biology teacher, said that there is less of a divide between ethnic Russians and Ukrainian citizens of Ukraine than one might think, especially in western Ukraine. Tony Smith, a doctoral student in the government department at the UT-Austin, echoes this statement with regard to Ukrainians in America. Smith, whose wife is Ukrainian, studies elections and electoral manipulation in states of the former Soviet Union.

“I have found there to be a much more pro-Ukrainian sentiment among those I have spoken with in the United States,” Smith said. “Divisions exist more in Ukraine and Russia because of access to media.”

“Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea, all pro-Ukrainian broadcasting has been shut down,” Smith said. “Citizens in Crimea are only able to access pro-Russian programming” that features “a continual undercurrent aimed at stoking fears among ethnic Russians of negative repercussions should pro-Western Ukrainians control the country.”

Geremesz, president of the Ukrainian American Society of Texas’ said that maintaining a Ukraine separate from Russia is important to Ukrainians who have often been mistaken for Russians.

“The obstacle we face is that people think we’re Russian — but we’re Ukrainian,” she said. “We always will be Ukrainian. It’s our identity that we’ve had to defend for all these years.”