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Opinion: I lost a close friendship to Putin’s war on Ukraine

A woman in a red coat leans over a coffin at a cemetery.
A woman with her husband’s coffin in a cemetery in April 2022 in Irpin, Ukraine, after Russia’s invasion.
(Sergei Supinsky / AFP/Getty Images)
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When I immigrated to the U.S. from Moscow in the mid-1990s, the first thing I learned was that people in the Soviet diaspora didn’t care where you came from. The fact that I’d spent half my childhood in Ukraine and the other half in Russia carried no significance in the new immigrant reality. The community consisted of families from Moldova, Belarus, the Caucasus, Central Asian countries and the Baltics as well as Russia and Ukraine. Regardless of origin, everyone went to the same restaurants and bought kielbasa at the same grocery stores. We exchanged tips on the best dentists, got each other jobs and even married each other. The diaspora seemed like one post-Soviet melting pot united by our newfound autonomy from the problems of “the old country” and, simultaneously, by our shared cultural dissimilarity from “amerikantsy,” the Americans.

Now, as Russia’s war in Ukraine nears its one-year anniversary, deep fissures have emerged in this diaspora, splitting friends and families — even those who came here decades ago.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine last February, rifts emerged immediately in our community and took many by surprise. While I was lucky that no one in my family, including those in Ukraine, Russia and the U.S., supported Putin’s aggression, I did lose a close friend, an immigrant from Russia. The last time I saw her had been a few weeks before the war. Our sons, who used to go to the same day care in San Francisco, were scootering nearby while she’d gushed about her recent visit to Moscow. We didn’t discuss politics. But when Russia attacked soon after, I wrote an antiwar article and she began to ghost me, ignoring my calls and telling a mutual friend that “we had nothing in common” because, apparently, she had sided with Putin. I never thought someone living here for many years could have such powerful political allegiance to Russia. I also never imagined a friend would choose Putin over me.

That surprise of finding out which side people fell on has become a common experience in the diaspora during the past year. “I lost many friends I had, or thought I had,” Russian Armenian writer Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry told me. Lyudmila, a Ukrainian friend in the Bay Area, said she has a strained relationship with her mother-in-law, who is from Ukraine but watches Russian television at her home across the Bay. My own mom, who is a therapist working with people in the community, has struggled to keep her cool when some of her patients recounted Russian state propaganda they’ve heard on TV during their sessions. She recently told me, “Everything literally hurts inside me when I hear that nonsense.”

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In theory, immigrants should be able to have a balanced view of this conflict since they can consume information from all its three sides, the U.S., Russia and Ukraine. But in practice, that hasn’t been true. Instead, most people silo themselves to follow whatever source they already believe in, including Russian state television that has been available in the U.S. for years.

These divisions are not dissimilar to those that shocked American society during the Trump administration. How many Americans have learned the art of staying away from politics during family dinners? The difference is that for my community, the split isn’t just political. It carries with it the destruction of whole cities and loss of human lives in a war.

The good news, if any can be found, is that Russia’s shocking invasion of its neighbor has also brought out solidarity. It’s not surprising that the Ukrainian diaspora has been a united force that continues to tirelessly fundraise, sending people and supplies to the war zone. However, they haven’t been the only ones. Last April, Californian volunteers from various former Soviet republics helped the thousands of Ukrainian refugees who had arrived at the Mexican border. Many members of the diaspora also have volunteered to sponsor Ukrainian refugees to come to the U.S. through a government program called Uniting for Ukraine. I, too, sponsored two families that I didn’t know. Among writers and artists, there have been many cultural fundraising events in California and around the country featuring Ukrainian artists along with those from other former Soviet republics who also support Ukraine.

Yet despite this positive outpouring, I’ve never seen this community as fractured as it is today. I fear the trajectory of the diaspora will echo whatever happens in “the old country.” Already, I hear my cousin in Kyiv tell me he no longer cares which Russians are “good” or “bad” because, he says, “they can all go to hell for all I care.” I don’t blame him as his life is now filled with bombing threats, power outages and relentless reports of death and destruction. But what’s to stop the growing hatred from repeating itself in the diaspora? After all, as long as shelling and mobilization continue, no one can begin to heal, there or here.

A year into the war, it’s natural that some Americans take down Ukrainian flags and skim past the headlines of the latest bombings. But the millions of us who have ties to the region continue to feel the increasing mental, moral, financial and professional toll of the war that has splintered our community.

This splintering doesn’t just mean we lose friends and our children can’t scooter together. It also means we cannot act strongly as one community. We can raise funds and awareness, sponsor refugees and call our loved ones back home. But unless we’re united, we’re powerless to do more.

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Sasha Vasilyuk is a journalist based in San Francisco and author of the forthcoming novel, “Your Presence Is Mandatory.” @SashaVasilyuk

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