For Ukrainian students, conflict overseas hits home

Two U students say they’re frustrated by the crisis abroad.

Clint Birtzer

Hanna Okhrimchuk was sitting in an economics class when she got a message from her mother in Ukraine.

The message described recent news from Okhrimchuk’s home country, where she and her older brother, Anton, still have friends and family. She left the classroom as fast as she could, holding back tears.

The siblings attend the University of Minnesota, remaining distant from the geopolitical crisis in Ukraine. Still, they feel frustrated.

“I really want to go there and fight,” Anton said. “Like, grab a baseball bat or an ax. I’m not angry; I just want to act.”

Former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych abandoned a long-promised move to align with the European Union and instead decided to strengthen ties with Moscow. The decision fueled violent protests in the Okhrimchuks’ home city, Kiev, killing nearly 100 people.

“My country’s sovereignty is in jeopardy,” Anton said.

If the conflict escalates, Anton said he would leave the United States and work to help his home country.

“I would probably just drop school and go to war,” he said. “I feel like I’m not going to respect myself if I stay here while my brothers die.”

Hanna, a Carlson School of Management business freshman, said she was home over winter break and witnessed protests. But she didn’t expect them to escalate so drastically, she said, and the resulting violence scared her.

The country’s instability is part of a long-reaching historical process that may allow it to solidify its identity, said August Nimtz Jr., a University political science professor.

“This situation is the most recent phase of that centuries-long struggle,” he said. “And perhaps for the first time, the Ukrainian people may actually achieve what they’ve been seeking for some time.”

The siblings’ parents are glad their children are at the University and removed from the crisis, but Hanna said she remembers feeling helpless when she first heard about her country’s political turmoil.  She said she wishes she could play a more active role.

“And at the same time, you want to do something but you don’t want your relatives to do something, because you’re afraid for them,” she said.

In addition to his parents and one half-brother, Anton said, he has friends living in every region of Ukraine. The siblings return home when they can — Anton said he’s going over spring break.

Anton said people he knows are displeased with Russia but care less about national divides than they do about a peaceful

“If you’re Russian, you can live in our country,” Anton said, “as long as your army doesn’t invade us.”

Russia released a statement Monday condemning acts of lawlessness in the Crimean peninsula, a region that the Russian military began occupying late last month.

The Ohkrimchuks said they’ve found solace in the large Ukrainian community in Minneapolis, as well as from friends.

“I’m really surprised that a lot of my American friends … they read the news and they ask me about how I’m doing with the situation,” she said. “It’s really nice.”

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have escalated since the ouster of Yanukovych last month, culminating in a bloodless military standoff.

The largest point of contention between the two sides is the Crimea region, which became part of Ukraine in 1989 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to the area weeks ago.

Putin does not recognize the newly formed government of Ukraine as legitimate and still considers Yanukovych to be the acting leader of the country, said University political science assistant professor James Hollyer.

Anton said Russia’s involvement irks Ukrainians  and most of the country’s people want their own identity. He said it’s time to cut the countries’ close relationship.

Yanukovych fled the country during the protests, which he called a coup.  A warrant has been issued for his arrest, and he has found safety in Russia. 

University history professor Theofanis Stavrou said Russia is still reeling from the loss of Ukraine after the Soviet Union dissolved more than two decades ago — a move that has spurred decades of political conflict.

 “I’m very sorry for them,” Anton said. “But they’re not going to get us back.”