Ukraine Conflict Hitting Home

Sunday, September 07, 2014
Hanover — The ongoing bloodshed between Russia and Ukraine may be 4,500 miles away, but for many residents of the Upper Valley, the violence hits close to home.

Take Natalia Karaulova, who moved to the United States from Ukraine four years ago and now owns Candela Tapas Lounge in Hanover with her husband.

While juggling the daily tasks of managing the restaurant, Karaulova is also coping with a steady stream of tragic news coming out of her homeland.

She recently received a call from her father, who told her that a schoolmate had been killed while fighting against Russian-backed rebels.

He was 21.

“It’s really sad because they draft 20-year-olds, whoever can hold a weapon in their hand,” Karaulova, 24, said. “They have basic training and then send them to fight.”

Karaulova, like thousands of Twin State Ukrainian-Americans, is dismayed by reports of ongoing fighting in Eastern Ukraine between government troops and rebels supported by the Russian military.

On Friday, after a round of heavy shelling by advancing rebels, the two countries agreed to a cease-fire in the conflict that has killed more than 2,500 people and caused as many as 260,000 to flee their homes.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin has denied or minimized the role Russian soldiers have played in the conflict, while some experts have called it an audacious land grab being carried out largely by out-of-uniform members of the Russian military.

Upper Valley residents with family ties to Ukraine and Russia are watching carefully as the drama unfolds. In New Hampshire, there are about 3,800 people of Ukrainian descent, including 600 who were foreign born, according to 2010 Census Bureau estimates. In Vermont, there are about 1,750, including fewer than 200 foreign born.

The Russian origin population is larger; the Census Bureau estimates that New Hampshire has about 13,200 people of Russian descent, including about 1,200 who were foreign born, while Vermont has about 1,500, including about 600 foreign born.

An Encounter in Hanover

The bloodshed overseas can lead to occasional social tensions in the Upper Valley between the two groups.

In late August, Karaulova said, a mother and daughter from Moscow came to eat at the restaurant.

In an effort to be friendly, Karaulova said, she greeted them in Russian, their native tongue, and identified herself as Ukrainian.

“She looked at me, like, I don’t know” Karaulova said. “It was fear in her eyes.”

Soon, they were discussing the region’s politics.

“ ‘Putin is doing a good job,’ ” Karaulova remembers the woman saying, “ ‘I don’t understand why your military is killing people.’ ”

Karaulova replied that Ukrainian forces were trying to liberate the city as part of an anti-terrorism campaign.

The discussion became so awkward that the conversation ended in silence before the patrons paid their bill and left.

“It was clear,” Karaulova said, “that we were too far apart.”

William Wohlforth, a Russian foreign policy expert and government professor at Dartmouth College, said Karaulova is not alone.

“My guess is that many Americans of Ukrainian descent are going to be very outraged,” he said. “They don’t like Russia’s infringements of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

Disputes between nations with opposing interests are common, Wohlforth said, but the brashness of Russia’s military intervention, which began with the annexation of Crimea, is unusual in modern times.

“What makes Crimea weird is it’s the annexation of territory,” he said. “That is in fact very, very unusual today. It’s really just not done anymore.”

Ukrainians have always been torn between two spheres of influence, with communities of ethnic Russians concentrated along the eastern border, and European allegiances more dominant in the country’s western areas.

Visit Back Home

Karaulova grew up in western Ukraine, away from the fighting, but she said she saw the impact firsthand during an August visit there.

After landing in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, she took a train to her hometown, one of many communities in the west that is being inundated with refugees.

“They had to add three extra cars that were full of extra refugees,” she said.

With hundreds of refugees on each train, she said, the impact is massive. Everyone had a sad story, she said.

“Their homes are destroyed,” she said. “Their lives are destroyed.”

The violence has also been keenly felt by Victoria Somoff, an assistant professor of Russian at Dartmouth who immigrated to the U.S. from eastern Ukraine when she was 25.

Ever since the violence first broke out, she has been monitoring a steady stream of news from global and Ukrainian media outlets, supplemented by posts on Facebook sites and Skype sessions with her friends in the country. “I have a difficult time ungluing myself from the screen,” she said. “It’s constant.”

Somoff grew up in Donetsk, a city of 1 million people which was rocked by artillery shells on Thursday. “It’s kind of a weird feeling to see a street on American news where I went to school or on a date or something.”

Her fondest childhood memories are being obliterated, one building at a time. “A school is destroyed, and a friend of mine went to that school, or I had a sports event there,” she said. “At the hospital where I had my appendix removed, a bomb blew up.”

Somoff said she is used to sorting out problems rationally, but the conflict has put that approach to the test.

“It’s becoming this full-scale anger. It almost scares me because I’m not a confrontational person,” she said. “I feel it’s so unjust and unfair for Russia to take over my town and my country.”

Somoff said national tensions have led to sharp disagreements between her and colleagues, many of whom live in Russia, where local support for Russia’s action runs high.

Wohlforth, who spent three weeks in Russia in the spring, said that, while Putin’s aggressive foreign policy has sparked international outrage, his moves are popular with the Russian people and have created a wave of nationalism.

“The feeling of empowerment and status and prestige and recognition and this feeling of assertion is more than compensating any fear of deteriorating relations with the West,” he said.

That point was underscored to Somoff on Wednesday, when a conversation with a professor in Russia turned sour. “We were supposed to talk about scholarly matters, a completely unrelated topic,” she said. But the international conflict looms so large that it’s almost impossible to ignore, she said, and soon the discussion became heated.

While her colleague wasn’t defending Russia, he said some blame also was due to the Ukrainian government for its poor treatment of Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens.

But Somoff said she can no longer afford to see the picture in shades of gray.

“I am a scholar. I see complexity,” she said. “But there is a point where the boundaries are drawn and arguments for complexity play to Putin. I am kind of losing any ability to be objective here.”

Frustrated by Distance

Wohlforth said Russia’s intervention has the opposite of the intended effect, pushing many previously ambivalent Ukrainians toward a pro-European stance and triggering talk about the country joining NATO.

The conflict comes with high stakes for Ukraine, which has not fared well in the post-Soviet Union era.

“Poland and Ukraine are about the same size and they were about the same level of wealth when the Soviet Union collapsed,” he said. “Now Poland has three times the wealth. Everywhere they look, their neighbors are doing better.”

Wohlforth said the Ukrainian people are determined to do away with corruption in their political structure and find a path forward to peace and prosperity, a path that is usually assumed to come with collaboration with the West.

“These people have a lot of hope,” he said.

But for Ukrainians who, like Karaulova and Somoff, have transferred their allegiances to the United States, the distance can be a source of guilt and frustration.

It’s difficult to watch the crisis from afar, Karaulova said, because “ you know that you can’t do much. You really want to be there.”

She said her father, who was born in Russia, moved to Ukraine and then to the United States, is ashamed to call himself Russian right now.

Somoff said that the situation has tainted her job as a Russian language teacher, which includes a celebration of Russian culture.

“In a way, there is some guilt,” she said. “This conflict goes straight through me.”

Alexis Rastorguyeff, a deacon in the Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Claremont and an employee of New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services, is the son of Ukrainian immigrants.

Rastorguyeff, who has been following the news closely, said he feels the trouble is an unintended consequence of nationwide protests that ousted the Ukrainian government last year.

“Though it might not have been a well-liked, democratically elected government, at least it was a democratically elected government,” he said. “Basically, it was taken over by mob rule. And when you have a power vacuum, people are going to step into it.”

The Rev. Andrew Tregubov, leader of the same church, grew up in the Soviet Union before immigrating to the U.S. in 1975 with his wife, Galina Tregubov.

Tregubov said he doesn’t condone Russia’s actions, but said they are an example of a larger pattern of instances in which political figures rely on fear and war in order to gain power over their own people.

“The Russian government couldn’t care less about the Ukraine,” he said. “They’re using the opportunity to gain control of their own people.”

He likened the underlying forces behind the conflict to other military actions around the globe, including the U.S.-led war on terror in the wake of 9/11.

“It is not only the Russian people who are led by the nose,” he said. “All the politicians do the same thing.”

Wohlforth said the crisis is ultimately a battle of wills, one he fears Russia will win because it is more invested in the situation than other world powers, which are reluctant to commit troops to the region. “Ukraine is closer to Russia’s core national interests than it is to Germany, France, Britain or the U.S.,” he said.

President Obama has said he will not take military action in the region, a stance which has strong public support.

Karaulova said she is also disappointed with the response from the global community. “We get understanding, but no one is really telling Russia there will be consequences,” she said.

Somoff said the outcome has meaning not just for Ukrainians in the Upper Valley, but for everyone.

“If (Putin) gets away with it,” she said, “it means we’re living in a different world. It means it is possible.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at or 603-727-3211.

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