Here’s a war story you haven’t heard yet. February 2, 2014. Super Bowl Sunday. A small group of friends, Ukrainians and Russians living in the Seattle area, have gathered for a party at the home of a Russian couple from Saint Petersburg. On the wide screen: The Seahawks are about to send the Broncos home to Denver in disgrace—43 to 8. There’s food, there’s beer. Everyone’s cheering for the same outcome.
Then they aren’t.
A woman—a Russian—brings up, more or less jokingly, the mastodon in the room. Crimea. For weeks both Russians and Ukrainians have watched anxiously as events unfolded back home.
First in the Ukrainian capitol of Kiev, peaceful protests against the policies of Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych unraveled into police-instigated violence and the ousting of Yanukovych. That spurred speculation about Moscow’s eventual response, including rumors that Russian president Vladimir Putin would seize the Ukraine-controlled—and militarily strategic—peninsula of Crimea.
The international crisis has touched local Ukrainians and Russians in unexpected ways. “People began to unfriend each other on Facebook.”
“I wish with all of this mess in Kiev,” the Russian woman at the Super Bowl party says, “Russia would just take Crimea back,” referring to the decades when the region lived under Soviet rule. The faces around her go slack. At first maybe someone drops an uneaten potato chip back into the bowl. Maybe someone else takes an extra long pull on his beer. Oksana Bilobran, an immigration lawyer from Ukraine, goes straight to the mat.
“We started fighting,” Bilobran later recalled of the debate that rippled through the party. “Crimea had always been a source of Russian pride, and they would often bring it up in a teasing way. But now it wasn’t funny.” The arguing between factions—divided down nationality lines—soured the party, and attendees left in a huff.
Twenty-five days later, a pro-Russian militia raided and took control of the Crimean parliament building.
The international crisis—as of press time there is talk of a complete takeover of Crimea and other portions of eastern Ukraine by Putin’s army—has touched local Ukrainians and Russians in unexpected ways. “People began to unfriend each other on Facebook,” says Bilobran.
Sundays, though, remain the worst.
Refugees from both countries poured into the Northwest in the mid-1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed. (An estimated 35,000 Ukrainian natives live here now, as do 22,000 Russians.) Common history, and in some cases common language, connect the two populations. And where those two populations interact the most is at church.
“Pentecostal churches, Seventh-day Adventist churches—they’re large, and the parishioners come from former Soviet countries,” Bilobran explains: Ukrainians, Russians, Moldovans, here because of religious persecution under the USSR. “It used to be absolutely no problem. Now they are faced with this hatred inside of the churches.” On one church’s Facebook page, parishioners resorted to vicious name-calling. The pastor, a friend of Bilobran’s, had to announce to his congregation that the behavior must stop, that it wasn’t the Christian way.
In March, a Seattle Times story quoted local Russians who implied that the initial protestors in Kiev were neo-Nazis—a claim promoted by Putin and his administration.
“Do I look like a Nazi?” said Olha Krupa in late April at a coffee shop near Seattle University, where the native of western Ukraine teaches public finance. Ukraine fought Germany in World War II. “So the claim that we are Nazis or that the east needs to fear the invasion of the ‘Nazis’ in western Ukraine, it’s grotesque.” (Krupa’s husband still lives in Kiev and could see the explosions in the city square from his nearby apartment when, by February 20, some 100 protestors had been killed.)
She said she was looking forward to May 25, when Ukrainians in Seattle would journey to San Francisco (the closest Ukrainian consulate) to vote for a new president.
That won’t necessarily ease tensions between fellow former Soviet Union citizens. Bilobran, the immigration lawyer, was eight months pregnant in April. Rather than endure a replay of the Super Bowl party, she said, “I’ve decided not to have a baby shower.”