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Ukrainian natives watch, worry from afar

A rally for peace in Ukraine is planned at Peace Plaza 5 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28.

Wolanskyj Ukraine.JPEG
Alexandra Wolanskyj, left, and Lidia Wolanskyj pose for a picture by the Founders Monument in Kyiv in 2017.
Contributed photo
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ROCHESTER — Alexandra Wolanskyj was hoping her sister, Lidia, would leave her home in western Ukraine for neighboring Romania when the Russians invaded their ancestral home country.

However, when Wolanskyj learned her sister was housing eight other people from areas in Ukraine under greater threat of Russian attack, Wolanskyj knew her sister wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“In Ukraine, there’s no such thing as a stranger,” Wolanskyj said.

Although Wolanskyj, who lives in Rochester, can’t directly help her sister or anyone else in the path of the Russian invasion of the country where her father was born, she says she’s no more resigned than resolute people resisting the invasion.

“I refuse to feel helpless,” she said.

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Wolanskyj is helping plan a rally in Peace Plaza at 5 p.m. Monday where people can publicly demonstrate their support for people in Ukraine. She plans to share information about organizations helping meet humanitarian needs there and to suggest people put pressure on lawmakers to support policies that put pressure on Russia.

“I want individuals around the world to understand that what’s happening impacts all of us because this is an attack on democracy, really,” Wolanskyj said.

Wolanskyj chatted with her sister this weekend online. The picture on the video call was black. The area was under an air raid warning, which meant all lights in the city were turned off.

Russian military forces launched an invasion of the country Thursday. Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified the invasion as a peacekeeping and “denazification” mission.

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Wolanskyj scoffed at this, noting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and his grandfather was one of four siblings who survived the Holocaust.

“That’s what I would say to that, and they can draw their own conclusion,” she said. “Ultimately, I think the big goal is not to allow self-determination for the people of Ukraine.”

When Rozalina McCoy saw news footage Saturday of a missile striking a high-rise apartment in Kyiv, her thoughts went to her sister-in-law who is caring for her mother in the Ukrainian capital.

When the Russian invasion began, the two would go to the basement of the 16-story building from the 13th-floor apartment. Now, the effort is too much of a bother for the elderly woman who is battling cancer. Now when the sirens sound, which McCoy says is often, they simply move to an interior part of the building.

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“That’s the scariest part is we see these pictures of these buildings getting hit and I have no idea if my sister-in-law is in it,” McCoy said.

McCoy, who lives in Rochester, moved to the U.S. in 1993 from Latvia. She remembers when Russian forces tried to occupy there after the Soviet Union dissolved. Images of Russian tanks remind her of that, she said.

“I remember vividly, all of it falling apart,” she said.

Her brother, who was a member of the Soviet Air Force, ended up stuck on a military base in Ukraine when the Soviet Union fell. He married a Ukrainian native and then followed his sister to the U.S. in 1994.

McCoy said a sense of national pride and resistance to Russian influence runs deep in many of the former Soviet states, especially in Ukraine.

Wolanskyj agreed.

“We have known liberty and we have known oppression,” she said. “And they refuse to be oppressed.”

Katya Roberts, an artist from Ukraine who lived in Rochester, had a sense of deja vu when she was installing her “This Side of the Sun” show at a gallery in New Hampshire over the weekend.

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The show first went up at the Castle in Rochester in 2020 just as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Minnesota. Here she was again installing it in the backdrop of another major world event.

Roberts, who left Ukraine at age 12, said this has struck her harder than she expected.

“I think those (Ukrainian) roots are deeper than I realized,”

The show might help her explore that reaction. For now, the best way she can describe her reaction to the news of the invasion is feeling “gutted.”

“I’m mourning for my birthplace and home,” she said. “I’m mourning for the entire people there.”

Her family tells her food is getting scarce. All that’s left on the grocery store shelves near her brother’s home south of Kyiv is laundry detergent, her sister-in-law tells her. Another family member has had to halt cancer treatment.

“Everything I do right now, I think of them,” Roberts said. “When I bring food to my mouth, I think about my family who's running out of food; every time I take a shower I wonder how long they’ll have running hot water.”

Even as things get scarce, people continue to share, she said.

“They do not have the mindset of hoarding,” Roberts said. “They have a mindset of we’re going to walk this.”

It’s an attitude of literally going on walks and figuratively moving forward through a crisis, she said.

Wolanskyj said the generous spirit of culture there was on display last time she went to Ukraine in 2017 and looked for the house her father grew up in near the city of Kolomyia. She found it and she and her sister were invited inside and treated to a celebratory feast. The celebration? Meeting new people.

“They treated us like we’re family,” she said.

John Molseed joined the Post Bulletin in 2018. He covers arts, culture, entertainment, nature and other fun stories he's surprised he gets paid to cover. When he's not writing articles about Southeast Minnesota artists and musicians, he's either picking banjo, brewing beer, biking or looking for other hobbies that begin with the letter "b." Readers can reach John at 507-285-7713 or jmolseed@postbulletin.com.
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