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For Ukrainian-Americans, unity against Putin has solidified their bonds

Demonstrators rally in New York City's Times Square in support of Ukraine on Thursday.
Kena Betancur
AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators rally in New York City's Times Square in support of Ukraine on Thursday.

The Ukrainian-American community is mobilizing after Ukraine was invaded by Russia. One scholar says that in the past decade, opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin has unified this community in a new way.

Emily Channell-Justice, the director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at Harvard University, says that the Ukrainian-American community is multi-generational. "You have a lot of folks who came over, or their parents came over, during World War II, for example," she notes. "Or people whose parents evacuated Ukraine during the war, went to displaced persons camps in Germany and then came to the U.S., so they'll have siblings who were born in Ukraine, in Germany and in the U.S. That's one generation. There are also many younger Ukrainians, particularly in New York, who came over in the 1980s or 1990s."

Many of those later immigrants, Channell-Justice notes, came to the U.S. speaking Russian, not Ukrainian, because they grew up in the Soviet era — but developed both a more overtly personal Ukrainian identity, along with a more politically pro-Ukraine identity in the past decade, after the Maidan revolution and the annexation of Crimea in 2013-14.

"The first invasion really brought people together in a kind of unified opinion," Channell-Justice says of the Ukrainian diaspora.

She also notes that the Ukrainian-American community comprises a multitude of religious groups, including Jewish people (ranging from those whose ancestors came to the U.S. many decades ago to those who left in the 1980s and 90s), to various Christian communities, including Ukrainian Catholic, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox.

Regardless of the particularities of their individual backgrounds, however, Channell-Justice says that in her observations, Ukrainian-Americans have mobilized and unified against Putin.

One of the Russian leader's rhetorical arguments, she says, is to say that Ukraine is the same as Russia culturally, historically and linguistically.

"I have not seen any single diaspora Ukrainian agree with that type of statement, ever," Channell-Justice says. "Instead, very many of them push back on those types of statements and push back against any of those statements that try to erase Ukrainian heritage."

Channell-Justice says Ukrainian-Americans do so in part because those arguments actually long predate Putin.

"It's the same type of language that was used to justify the repression of their parents and grandparents before they left Ukraine," she notes. "They're not just hearing it from Putin — it's the same stories they've heard from their grandparents and from their parents about why they had to leave Ukraine in the first place."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 23, 2022 at 9:00 PM PST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly gave Vladimir Putin's name as Boris.
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.