By Marco Poggio
Published: March 11, 2014
As the crisis in Crimea continues, the Russian-speaking world is revealing a profound division that previously might have been neglected or forgotten, but that has its roots in the history of the Soviet Union.
Now that Russian and Ukrainian states are engaging in a face-to-face confrontation over the Crimean peninsula, buried discord seems to have emerged, bringing up painful memories of the past.
Since the three-month upheaval in Kiev has lead to the ousting of former President Viktor Yanukovych and the escalation of tension in Crimea, traditional feelings of brotherhood tying these two post-Soviet era communities have started to waver.
Nationalistic sentiments and soviet nostalgia starkly divide the community of Brighton Beach, which is home to the highest concentration of post-Soviet Union natives in the city of New York.
Both Ukrainians and Russians live in this densely populated neighborhood. They walk together in the streets, they share apartment buildings, businesses, and, more notably, they share relatives.
Walking down Brighton Beach Avenue on a cold and windy evening, a certain apprehension can be sensed in the air. Many people refuse to talk about Ukraine.
“Since it happened, no one wants to talk,” said Irina Perelman, 49, owner of a liquor store on Brighton Beach Avenue. “People are afraid. I don’t know what they’re afraid of,” she continued.
Both the Russians and Ukrainians who frequent her store are generally pretty talkative, Perelman said. But lately, people avoid conversations, especially about the thorny subject.
Perelman’s store sells tens of varieties of vodka, and customers constantly come and go, buying liquor and lotto cards.
“I am not pro-Putin,” Perelman said, arguing, however, that in Crimea, the President of the Russian Federation has done “the right thing.” The western Ukrainian movements that fueled the uprising in Kiev, she believes, are “fascist” and threaten the security of the country.
With her penetrating, clear blue eyes and the aroma of tobacco all around her, Perelman said that she was born in Russia but grew up in Ukraine.
“Maybe my reaction comes from me being a Jewish person,” Perelman said in a rusty voice. And she began telling the “history of Ukraine,” as she knows it.
She talked about the historical divide between western and eastern Ukraine, drawing an approximate map of the country on a small piece of paper. On the side representing the west of Ukraine, she drew a little swastika.
“During World War II, they had their leader: Bandera. He was a Nazi.” Stepan Bandera was a Ukrainian politician leading the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, a nationalist movement that sought Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union. Bandera hoped for an alliance with Nazi Germany, but the Nazis arrested him and suppressed his movement.
Perelman argued that the same far-right sentiments that have been active in western Ukraine for decades are still alive today—more than ever—and that these sentiments are largely behind the Euromaidan revolution.
“They were always nationalists,” Perelman said, expressing her diffidence towards the movements in Kiev. “The rest of Ukrainians doesn’t [sic] want them,” she said.
As she wants to have a complete picture of current events, Perelman claimed to be following the news through various channels.
When asked about how she feels about Vladimir Putin, Perelman’s tone switched and she began steering towards American foreign policy. She mentioned the military operation the United States carried out on the island of Grenada, in the Atlantic coast near Venezuela.
In 1983, the US troops invaded the island after a coup overthrew a moderate government and installed a pro-communist one. Perelman said the pretext for that military intervention, which was dubbed Operation Urgent Fury, was comprised of 1,000 medical students, mostly American, who were on the island at the time the coup took place.
“When Americans went to Grenada, it was about 1,000 people, students. They walked right in there and said ‘This is my country,’” she said.
“[In Crimea,] 60 percent of the population is Russian. Do you think [Putin] did the wrong thing?” she asked.
A few customers inside the store, however, disagreed with Perelman. Yaroslava, a blonde woman in her forties, from Lviv, a city in western Ukraine not far from the Polish border, said she couldn’t trust Putin because of his past as a KGB agent.
Yaroslava said she hopes that President Obama will be “stronger with Putin.”
“This is dangerous not only for Ukraine, but for the whole world,” she said ardently, adding that she is scared a war could break out.
When Perelman pointed out that former Ukrainian President Yanukovich was legally elected, the atmosphere in the store got heated.
“He is a criminal,” Yaroslava cried out, adding that Ukrainian people are tired of living with corruption. Vast portions of the population, she said, live in shabby pensions for $100 a month.
Yaroslava said she follows the events on BBC and Fox News. She alluded to the declarations made by the Putin administration that have denied any presence of the Russian army in Crimea.
“‘We don’t have any troops in Crimea’?” Yaroslava said with a frown. “How can you believe that?”
After Yaroslava left, Perelman’s store became quiet. No one wanted to give comments. Out in the street, people avoided speaking to journalists.
A gentleman sitting inside the smoky hall of National Restaurant, at 273 Brighton Beach Ave., said he is Russian but declined to leave any opinion.
Other business owners reacted the same way. A lady inside a beauty salon on Brighton Beach Avenue said “we don’t have any business with Ukraine,” and turned down any request for a comment.
“I don’t know anything about Ukraine. I don’t want to know,” one of two gentleman running RBC Music-Video Store said.
The personnel of Saint-Petersburg, a popular Russian store selling books and souvenirs on Brighton Beach Avenue, coldly avoided releasing any comment.
The few retailers willing to share their opinion were mostly Ukrainians. Many, if not all, still have deep ties with their homeland, despite having lived in the US for years or even decades.
“I speak to my friends in Kiev. They don’t like Putin,” said a Ukrainian woman in her fifties. She runs Balizia, a fashion store on Brighton Beach Avenue, together with her husband, Alex Pasternak. Mrs. Pasternak recounted a phone call with a friend in Kiev. Her friend’s neighbor, she said, is “unhappy with what is going on in Kiev because they destroyed street [sic] and monuments.” Her friend, Mrs. Pasternak said, argued back with the neighbor saying, “I understand, everybody is upset. “But how can you survive if you only have [a little more than $100 per month] and you have to pay [around $80] only for your apartment and bills?”
Mrs. Pasternak, almost crying, said that with the money left after paying rent, her friend’s neighbor could buy “only 10 pieces of bread and 10 bottles of milk.”
Years of corruption and dire economical conditions have led most Ukrainians to justify the revolution, if not to endorse it. The older generations seem to be the most heavily afflicted by penury.
Mr. Pasternak, 52, the co-owner of Balizia, said that thousands of old Ukrainians who worked their entire life for the government now can’t survive with the retirement they receive. “That money is nothing,” he said.
The Pasternaks, who are both from Kiev, maintained that they were deeply astonished by the events.
“This is crazy,” said Mrs. Pasternak. “In our memory, all our life, Russians and Ukrainians were friends. We have best friends from Saint Petersburg; they love to spend time with us.”
Alex Gersom, 75, an acquaintance of the Pasternaks, who said he was in Kiev recently, thinks that the situation in Ukraine will soon get under control.
“It’s a small war,” Gersom said. “It will be ended in three months.”
However, the rapid development of the Ukrainian crisis seems to leave no chance for quick solutions. The Kremlin—the Moscow complex that serves as the official residence of the Russian President—has backed the secession vote, approved by the pro-Russia regional parliament in Crimea. With the tension rising in the region, the chances for a direct military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine become more realistic every day.
“If I have to go and fight against the Russians, I will go” said Oleh Kachur, 50, from Mosvideofilm, a DVD and bookstore on Brighton Beach Avenue. Kachur said the future of Ukraine rests in joining the European Union and that Russia has a negative influence on Ukraine. He said he has relatives back in the “motherland” and he is willing to be drafted if the Ukrainian army needs him.
“They are drafting men up to 40 and women up to 45,” said Lena Zemba, 30, a Brooklyn College graduate student from Vinnytsia, a city in central Ukraine.
“But our military is really bad,” Zemba said. “No one expected this could happen.” Zemba participated in a Chain of Freedom: a long procession of Ukrainian nationals who walked across the Brooklyn Bridge last February 22, chanting their national anthem and manifesting their support for the protests that removed Yanukovych.
“We lost the information war,” Zemba said. “Putin controls three channels,” she continued, alluding to the control Kremlin has recently tightened on Russophone media.
Zemba thinks that Russian propaganda has tried to disguise the action in Crimea as a humanitarian mission, but that in reality, Russia is seeking to “play the same scenario as with Georgia,” during the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.
Many western Ukrainians refuse to believe Putin’s claim that intervening in Crimea is “for the protection of Ukrainian people.” Even more, they refuse to believe Putin when he says that Ukraine is Russia’s “brother country.”
“A brother country?” said Antonina Ayzenberg, 22, a communications student at Brooklyn College. “I guess big brothers are always the bullies in these situations,” she said, referring to the posture Russia has taken in the Crimean crisis.
There is no doubt that Russia’s strategy has been successful so far. Part of that success is owed to the media campaign the Russian government has been employing, both in Russia and in eastern Ukraine.
Western media has responded, accusing Russia of wanting to “brainwash” eastern Ukrainians and being responsible for the escalation of tension in Crimea.
“Western media are russophobic,” said Dmitry Todoshchenko, 21, a student who now lives in Sheepshead Bay and is studying English at Brooklyn College. Todoshchenko, originally from Bratslav, in the center of Ukraine, suggested looking closely at American media as they try to show Russia’s shortcomings while objectively omitting mention of US foreign policy. Todoshchenko took a more moderate stance about Russia than most Ukrainians did.
“Nobody is going to say that Putin isn’t corrupt,” Todoshchenko said. “Everybody knows that he’s corrupt,” he continued, “but at the same time, he at least has some self-awareness of it.”
Todoshchenko’s perspective echoes Perelman’s, who said that “[America] is very naïve. We never had a war on our land. It’s always somewhere else,” she went on. “God forbid.”