Image credit: Protest in New York City, Shutterstock / Ido Simantov
The war that Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched on Ukraine has affected the entire world in many ways. Eastern Europe experiences a refugee crisis, since around four million Ukrainians have left their home country. UK citizens struggle to pay utility bills, because the war pushed prices for oil and natural gas higher. Russians participating in anti-war protests end up in jail or flee the country due to increased political repression. The list of countries and consequences may be infinite—the entire globe continues feeling the effects of slower economic growth and countless humanitarian disasters.
Indeed, Putin’s war echoes even in America. As a native Russian and newly-minted New Yorker, I know this firsthand. Since the war started on February 24, I have visited the East Village’s Little Ukraine several times. These blocks on Sixth and Seventh Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan are home to Ukrainian restaurants, cultural institutions, and expats. Residents dand guests of this neighborhood have been expressing their support for Ukrainian people by all means.
On weekends, the famous Ukrainian restaurant Veselka is overflowing with people, as customers line up to support a Ukrainian-owned business. Passing by the line on March 27, I saw many people wearing blue and yellow icons or holding Ukrainian flags. Further down Second Avenue, I found several posters with a portrait of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pasted on the walls of houses and traffic lights. The entire neighborhood was—and still is—full of yellow and blue. Even the flowerbeds are painted in these two colors.
Supporting Ukrainian business seemed like a good idea, so I met an old acquaintance, David Lysenko, in another Ukrainian restaurant in the West Village. David is a software engineer constantly on the move from one American city to another. At the restaurant, I ordered a traditional Ukrainian soup—borscht—and David went for the varenyky. He preferred a fancy cocktail, and I, as a homesick Russian, ordered the famous Russian beer Baltika. The waiter told me I was in luck, since this was one of the last few bottles. The restaurant doesn’t plan to cooperate with Russian producers anymore.
Both of David’s parents are Ukrainian expats. Unsurprisingly, the war hits close to home for him. Many of David’s relatives remain in Ukraine as he tries to help them in any way he can: “My relatives from my father’s side, for example, live in a town called Cherkas’ka Lozova, near Kharkiv. The first couple of weeks they were stuck in the cellar of their house. They heard shots and explosions all around and simply could not come out.”
His 18-year-old cousin started feeling very sick and throwing up whenever she heard loud noises, so the family decided to take a train from Kharkiv to Lviv. “They had to weave their way past explosions all around them on the way to the train station,” David said. “Once there, the station in Kharkiv was full of panicking people. Someone stepped on my 70-year-old aunt’s leg, tearing a tendon in her leg. Luckily, my aunt and my two cousins were eventually able to get out of the country and are now safe in Poland”—and hoping to travel soon to the United States. “What shocks me most of all is that all three of them do not intend to stay in the United States: they have all unequivocally stated their desire to return to Ukraine as soon as they can.”
David is surrounded by people who find ways to help Ukraine, not just through moral support, but also through action. “My girlfriend, who has Ukrainian roots, lives in DC and coordinates the evacuation of Ukrainian refugees to Europe. She has already raised $50,000 to pay for buses to evacuate over 1,500 people from Kharkiv. I also have a friend from college with no connection to the region who flew to Poland and started driving people from Ukraine to Poland. He is an American who just wanted to help. In fact, he happened to be the one who drove my family across the border.”
The longer the war lasts, the more refugees from Ukraine will find their way to America. President Joe Biden has already promised to welcome 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. However, the path from the besieged Ukraine to the United States is likely to be long and dangerous, as Maria Cherniakovych, a 33-year-old Ukrainian model based in New York, explained to me. When the war began, Maria was visiting her mother in Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine. Pinned down by shelling, she witnessed the terrifying onset of the war. “I constantly heard explosions,” she told me. “They were especially intense at night. Once a shell flew into the city’s central square. Some of my acquaintances saw buildings crumbling.”
Since it was unsafe to try to escape to the west, Maria drove to the Russian city of Rostov, where she took a train to Moscow: “After a stopover at my Russian acquaintance’s place in Moscow, I flew to Istanbul. Then from Istanbul, I finally flew to New York.” It was a traumatic experience: “I’m still shocked. Even here in New York, sometimes I think I hear explosions.”
Besides people of Ukrainian origins, many Russian New Yorkers have faced significant challenges because of the war. However, their experience is rather different and mostly related to financial issues. Within the framework of the unprecedented Western sanctions against Russia, major payment networks Visa, MasterCard, and American Express have suspended operations in the country. All Russian credit cards have been blocked abroad, and Russian citizens can transfer a limited amount of dollars and euros to other countries and experience difficulties with withdrawing cash due to both Western sanctions and internal prohibitions.
This creates real difficulties for Russian students studying in New York. “My cards issued in Russia are blocked in the US, but I had time to withdraw some money beforehand,” Diana, a freshman at Parsons School of Design at The New School, told me. She preferred not to disclose her last name to avoid possible troubles with her U.S. visa and on the Russian border.
“The entire situation affected my parents’ business in Russia,” Diana said. “They sell imported alcohol, but now supply chains are disrupted. I am looking for on-campus jobs to support myself financially. I also applied for additional financial aid from the university. It is impossible to plan, but I will continue my education as long as I and my family can afford it.”
The other difficulty that Russians face in the US, and in New York in particular, is great difficulty in reuniting with relatives. According to Diana, her mother had an appointment at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels to receive a U.S. tourist visa, but her passport was returned and the visa was not approved. Fortunately, she was able to receive a visa later on to visit Malta. “I can’t fly to Russia—this is too dangerous. I’ll probably try to reapply for a student visa somewhere in Europe soon. My current visa expires this summer. If I don’t receive a new one, I won’t be able to leave the US until the end of the [four-year undergraduate] program.”
Many Russian students worry that they will be expelled from European and American universities. However, some schools in New York, including The New School, have offered both Russian and Ukrainian students free counseling support, and organized meetings for such students to discuss the difficulties that they currently face.
Arsenii Mun, a young Russian musician and a sophomore studying at the Julliard School, explained to me how the war has so far affected him: “My school supports Russian students, they understand that we are against the war and we shouldn’t be punished just for the fact that we were born in Russia.” But other institutions have been less forgiving. “I wished to participate in the Dublin Piano Competition and I passed the qualifying round. In the beginning of March, I received a letter announcing that the competition would ban all Russians from participating”—and Arsenii thinks this is unfair.
“Many Russians who live abroad don’t support this war. We also don’t have any connections with the people in power and don’t take part in such decisions,” he says. “Politics shouldn’t affect the world of music.” Fortunately, the organizers in Dublin reconsidered their policy, and will allow the young pianist to compete after all.
The experiences of Diana and Arsenii resonate with me. As a Russian citizen studying journalism in New York, I feel concerned about my future as never before. Of course, our troubles pale beside the suffering Ukrainians are experiencing right now. Still, we anti-war Russians in New York are in a kind of limbo, often feeling unwelcome in both Russia and in the West.
It is believed that people adapt to everything. I am already fine with New York’s enormous rent prices, loud sirens, and small talk. But I’m not sure I will ever be able to adapt to this monstrous war.
Anastasia Shteinert is a political reporter and MA Candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research.
Correction, May 10, 2022: An earlier version of this essay described Cherniakovych as pinned down by Russian shelling in Donetsk.