When people ask where I’m from, it’s a complicated question that usually causes some anxiety. I am American, having lived here my entire life. So I usually begin with, “I’m American,” and follow with, “My parents are from the former Soviet Union.” Usually, they say something like, “Oh, so you’re Russian?” and I tell them, “My dad is from Ukraine and my mom is from Belarus.”
They proceed to give me a friendly “cool!” and ask if I can say something in Russian. It makes sense why many people assume I am Russian. My first language was Russian and it is a dominant language among my family; I eat Russian food and participate in many cultural traditions and holidays. But I am also Ukrainian and Belarussian and am proud to represent these countries through my heritage.
My parents lived in these countries until they were 19 years old. They immigrated to the United States as refugees fleeing antisemitism, seeking a place where their educational and professional opportunities weren’t restricted because of their identities. I am only here because my grandparents decided to leave everything they knew to give their children and future grandchildren a chance.
The history of Ukraine is complex, going back to the first Slavic state in the Middle Ages, Kievan Rus, which both Ukraine and Russia trace much of their culture to. The first independent Ukrainian state emerged after the Russian Revolution and lasted until around 1921, when most of modern Ukraine was integrated into the newly formed Soviet Union. In the decades before the collapse of the U.S.S.R., Ukraine endured extreme devastation, including a man-made famine known as the Holodomor caused by Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture, where five million people died. Ukraine became a battleground between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II, where an estimated 5-7 million Ukrainians were killed, including 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews, with thousands more being displaced.
Growing up, my parents lived in a world where their countries weren’t independent but existed as part of the Soviet Union. Shortly before they both immigrated (my mom in September 1991 and my dad in January 1992), Belarus and Ukraine became independent. Most people do not know this history, or how more recent conflicts have contributed to the current war.
In 2014, a series of mass protests broke out in Kyiv’s Independence Square over the pro-Russian government’s withdrawal from an association agreement with the EU. These protests, known as Euromaidan, saw the deaths of over 100 people and ultimately led to the overthrow of the highly authoritarian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and the formation of a relatively democratic government in his place. In response to Ukraine’s new orientation towards NATO and the West, Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula to Russia, and instigated an uprising by pro-Russian separatists in two provinces of Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking east, prompting the ongoing War in Donbas.
This past week has been very painful. I have witnessed the Russian invasion of Ukraine shift from a hypothetical, far-fetched possibility to a bitter reality. People are dying and buildings are burning, including in Ukraine’s largest two cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv. It is an unreal experience to watch a place you are connected to fight to survive. I think about my dad, who grew up in Kharkiv, and all of the memories he associates with his first home. He spent weekends going to the local movie theater with friends and rooting for FC Metalist Kharkiv at soccer games. Before going to college in San Francisco, he played one year of college basketball at Kharkiv Polytechnic University.
He has been glued to the news and his phone for the past week, anticipating updates from his friends who are currently in bomb shelters with minimal supplies and food. One friend has taken refuge in a bomb shelter in his apartment after his house was occupied by the Russian military, while another has left Kharkiv for a small village in the middle of Ukraine.
I feel helpless. All I do is refresh the news and ask my dad for any updates on our friends. I feel incredibly privileged to be in a country and institution where I do not have to worry about my safety. Simultaneously, I feel isolated and secluded from what is happening in Ukraine, somewhat living an alternate reality. Every morning, I wake up and run through my mental checklist of what I have to do: laundry, statistics homework and Spanish class. In Ukraine, my childhood friend, who is around my age, hides in a bomb shelter, separated from her family. It is difficult not to view daily life and my to-do list as trivial and meaningless when so much more is at stake.
I know life and my obligations cannot be put on hold, but I feel even more alienated being in an environment where not many people are talking about this war. I urge people who are not familiar with what is happening to educate themselves. Read the news, listen to a podcast, protest, donate. It doesn’t take a lot of time. Ask your Ukrainian and Russian friends how they’re doing, and how their families are doing. I know we live in a world where tragedy and violence feel perpetual. I know we live in a world where the news cycle feels endless and exhausting. And yet, war and death cannot become normalized. We cannot pretend we are separate from it.
Guest columnist Valerie Braylovskiy PO ’25 is from San Francisco, CA. She loves poetry, long hikes and going to the beach.