Truck convoys stretching for miles across a frozen landscape. Fire-blackened apartment buildings. Desolated streets. Burning tanks. Corpses. People in winter coats huddling in dim shelters. Image after transmitted image, captured by photojournalists and other witnesses, showed the reality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The violence, which began in bleak late February, took place seemingly a galaxy away from sunwashed Southern California, but it is a measure of humanity’s connectedness nowadays as well as America’s diversity that the pain was felt there, too. These photographs and interviews by Stella Kalinina, a Russian-Ukrainian photographer in Los Angeles, testify to that.
Reaching out to local Russian and Ukrainian communities, Kalinina met with women and men and asked simple questions: How do you feel? What is your connection to this terrible situation? “As an immigrant, I relate deeply to immigrant Americans and our shared yet diverse experiences and stories,” Kalinina says. Though the immigrants she visited in and around Los Angeles, some 6,000 miles from the actual fighting, were spared the blood and hardship, their heartbreak and tears are real. So is their hope, thank goodness. Their point of view on the war is uniquely instructive—a combination of deep emotional history and clarifying distance.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising to hear from the Russian immigrants that they are appalled their native country would so brazenly attack Ukraine, but their shame is, somehow, reassuring. Likewise it’s useful to know that some Russian-speaking Ukrainians, like Andrew Berezin, are as startled as the rest of us are. “The sheer disbelief and the sheer shock that this is really happening, the brother nation is attacking us,” Berezin told Kalinina. There are roughly 2.5 million people from Russia and 1 million people from Ukraine living in the United States today. They’re our neighbors, colleagues, friends. Let’s learn from them. –Terence Monmaney, executive editor
Born: Mariupol, Ukraine
Now lives in: Los Angeles
Occupation: software engineer
My father’s attitude was that I should somehow leave Ukraine, and that’s what I did, and immigrated to the U.S. seven years ago. I guess there are two types of people, who stay and try to build the country, and people who just wish for their children to go and contribute to the places where democracy and other things are already established.
We all grew up with an idea that the U.S. is the best country. That’s from Hollywood probably. L.A. seems to be the best place because of the opportunities, because of the size of the place, all the different cultures, the weather, the ocean, the mountains.
My parents moved out of Ukraine three weeks ago and are now living with my sister in Israel. I helped them immigrate. Even before the invasion, I was looking at the buildup of [Russian] troops, and it was a huge amount of troops just located in Belarus and in Russia. And Mariupol is 20 minutes away from the war zone. I was reading U.S. intelligence news and U.K. intelligence news, and I just thought it would be safer if they relocated somewhere not so close to Russia. They started packing, and with my 90-year-old grandma, they drove to this place, Dnipro, and they were staying in this Airbnb for a week. Then, one night, before going to bed here, I checked the news, and Russia entered the territory. And I said, “Okay, it happened. So there’s no way back for you.” So they relocated to western Ukraine, to my friend’s house—actually, a friend in L.A. His parents are from Ternopil. I got them connected, and they stayed for ten days or two weeks. The Sochnut organization helped them to relocate to Budapest and then flew them to Israel, and now they’re staying at my sister’s house.
I grew up and I got my education in Mariupol, but I never really liked the city. But I visited a year ago with my wife, and it was prosperous. I was so shocked to see how good it is from what I remember. Beautiful parks, nice restaurants, new coffee shops. It changed in such a good way, and I was very pleased.
And now this, where 95 percent of the buildings are destroyed. All of your memories from childhood erased.
Before, Ukraine was sort of a developing country. People didn’t know where Ukraine is, and when you say Ukrainian, it’s hard for people to comprehend where it is, or who you are basically. It feels now that Ukraine means freedom, courage, liberty, and patriotism in a good way. And I feel like a lot of people, a lot of Ukrainians now, they’re very united, which they were not before.
I believe our country will change significantly. And I feel like this could be the moment, if everything is resolved peacefully, a lot of people and immigrants may be willing to go back and bring the economy of the country back, and contribute to the country, be proud citizens. That pride wasn’t there before. I speak Russian, I don’t speak Ukrainian. I was always sort of distant from the Ukrainian culture. Now I feel my identity changed because I’m not close to Russia anymore. Now it’s, Okay, I’m Ukrainian.
Everything is changing. There will no longer be friendship. How can there be friendship, at least right now in this generation, when thousands of people died in this war, killed by your brother nation?
Born: Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine
Now lives in: Oxnard, California
Occupation: preschool director
Born: Kyiv, Ukraine
Born: Kyiv, Ukraine
High school student
Victoria Shevkunova: Seven years ago we moved from Ukraine to the United States. We wanted more and a better future for our child.
Volodymyr Shevkunov: My mom is in a bomb shelter right now. She celebrated her birthday there.
Victoria: My parents are trying to escape. My friends are trying to get them out as we speak. They are in western Ukraine, so hopefully we will see them soon.
Vlad Shevkunov: Having my grandparents right now in the line of danger is very scary.
Victoria: We do try to help. There’s a Ukrainian community here. We went to protest, we gathered money. The boys were getting some vests, night vision goggles, whatever, to ship to Ukraine to help common people protect our motherland. Americans are helpful, they bring a lot, anything for the kids: warm blankets, socks, diapers, formula, whatever. All the donations will go to Poland to the Polish camp for the Ukrainian refugees.
Volodymyr: My feelings about the war are hard to explain. When I was born, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. Even though we didn’t live in prosperity, we lived well together. One person managed to break up the Ukrainian and Russian peoples, possibly forever. But we have to thank him for uniting Ukraine. If previously Ukraine was divided, now it’s united as one people that no one will be able to conquer.
Victoria: We fought together elbow to elbow with Russians against Hitler during World War II, and now Germany is sending us weapons to defend our motherland against Russians, our ex-brothers. It’s the hatred which is the sad part.
Volodymyr: There’s too much spilled blood, and for nothing. Ukraine has never attacked anyone. The blood is being spilled because of the ambitions of one person who decided to recreate the Russian Empire. Ukraine will never surrender. Ukraine has already won. Morally it has won completely. The question is how much will the world help Ukraine.
Victoria: The hope that we could live in peace with our neighbor was lost.
Vlad: I get some hope from my grandparents back in Kyiv. It’s incredible to see how even in the face of all of this, we call them and they have a smile. They are cracking jokes, they have a positive attitude. That gives me some hope that everything will turn out okay, in the end.
Volodymyr: There are many more good people than bad people. This gives me hope that despite everything, good will win over evil. Life will continue and the next generation will have a much better life.
Victoria: Without knowing what war is.
Born: Khmelnytskyi, Ukraine
Now lives in: Arcadia, California
Occupation: electrical engineer
I was born in 1937. That year, my father was arrested. He was in the military. There was a purge of the military then [under Stalin]. He was sent to Pechory, Russia, as an “enemy of the people.” In 1941 the war started. We evacuated with difficulty as part of a wagon train, first to Poltava, Ukraine, then by train to the Caucasus, then by Caspian Sea to Central Asia, then my uncle transported us to Altai, Russia.
I lived for many years in Siberia. I spent my childhood in Rubtsovsk and finished school there. I went to college in Novosibirsk and started working as a test man for electrical equipment. I rose to the level of department head. I started a company, the Association of Siberian Power Engineers, and ran it for ten years. In ’99, I moved to the Moscow region.
My lifetime coincided with the war, which made me an adult when I was still a child. My family saw many losses. During my lifetime, I saw the Holocaust, we lost people in the war, and saw repressions, as is typical for a Soviet person. Nonetheless, I lived, worked and strived. I have many inventions, including three American patents. I’m interested in poetry. I’ve published a few books.
Everything would have been fine if I hadn’t found out that I was living in a country ruled by a tyrant. The tyranny didn’t end with Stalin. I always felt that there was the Communist Party which ruled everything, and I was just a cog in the machine. Over time, things got worse and worse. A kind of hopelessness set in.
I didn’t leave during the wave of economic emigration in 1991. I earned well, but I couldn’t buy anything. All my life and the childhood of my kids was spent waiting in line to buy something. What for? Where’s the sense in it? This is why, when my children grew up, I started to encourage them to leave the country.
The ’90s led to wild corruption [in Russia]. Everything that I had been building turned out to be useless. There was a total loss of ideals, disappointment. Happiness is when you are doing necessary work, people are happy with you and your work, and you are happy that you are creating something. Also the corruption was terrible. You had to give bribes everywhere, but I didn’t know how and didn’t want to. The wars in Chechnya affected me.
I made the decision to leave, so that my children could live in a free world. Since 2001, I’ve been living in America. I didn’t want to be idle until retirement. I’m still working today. In a few days I will be 85.
When these terrible current events in Ukraine started, we helped financially for my nephews to leave Kharkiv, which was under bombing attacks. At the beginning of the war, I had seven relatives in Ukraine. Now there’s only one left.
This war has been the biggest blow of my life, after my father being arrested and repressed without cause. The pandemic and this war ruined my old age. This war has been a personal tragedy that will be impossible to heal from. I know that even if peace is declared tomorrow, it will only be on paper. To re-establish what’s been lost materially, five to ten years will be enough. Mentally, it will take one to two generations. But I no longer have this time.
I grieve that the rulers of Russia pushed the people around so much the population is accustomed to being slaves. What Putin has done is a terrible foolishness and a crime against both the Russian and Ukrainian peoples.
For me, Ukraine has chosen the correct way. They hold elections. The country is moving with difficulty but nonetheless toward civilization. But their road will continue to be long.
Lucky to Get Out
Now lives in: Los Angeles
Occupation: garden master
I moved to Los Angeles in 1956 when I got married at 19 years old. I’ve been a member of Wattles Farm community garden for 29 years. About 45 percent of our membership is from the former USSR, many from Ukraine. I share a bond with our Russian-speaking members and the whole community because my mother was born in Odesa. It was Russia at that time. Her family escaped during a pogrom. They were lucky enough to get out. She was one of four children. And first, they weren’t accepted by the United States. So the whole family migrated to Canada. And then in Canada she met my father and they migrated to the United States.
This war has brought back so much of my history and my heritage. I think of the hardships that my family went through getting out of Russia and making a new life for themselves. I’m very proud of my mother coming to Canada when she was a young woman. I think she was about 15.
I bonded with the Russian-speaking people the minute they came into the garden, and they know that I am their advocate. Our gardeners from the former USSR come from all walks of life. We have scientists, we have doctors, we have one member that started out working for the director of the equivalent of our Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He worked on spaceships. And he lived in Ukraine when he was in the army. We have people from Chernobyl. They have provided us with courage. They tell me stories that just broke my heart, how they’d have to wait for an hour to get bread, and what went on during the war, and how they were persecuted in Russia.
At Wattles Farm, they could speak Russian and be understood and it makes them feel it’s their home away from home. It’s where they can bond and share memories of Ukraine. And they have this spot that nobody can touch. Nobody can touch that bond that they have with each other.
Once a month, the members get together to work in areas where we grow fruits and vegetables for the community. And this weekend, it was so heartbreaking. I couldn’t contain myself not to cry because they have families still in Ukraine. We have families that have people in Russia and Ukraine. So families are fighting one another, killing one another. The crew that I was working with yesterday stopped and we all had a moment of silence and sent our prayers over to Ukraine. It’s just horrible. When are we going to learn? Breaks my heart, at 85 years old, I have to see what’s happening to humanity.
Born: Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia
Now lives in: Los Angeles
Occupation: photography agent
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is in the far eastern part of Russia. It’s actually closer to Alaska than it is to Europe. My father was the captain of a crabbing boat. When I was 3 years old, my father passed away. And my mom ended up marrying someone from the U.S., and that’s why we immigrated. I was 6. We moved to Anacortes, Washington. That’s where I grew up.
I settled here in Los Angeles right before the pandemic, in November 2019. I like that it’s really culturally diverse. It’s also a very queer-friendly city.
I still have family in Petropavlovsk. My aunt and uncle moved to Anapa, which is in Russia on the Black Sea. I have some other relatives in Moscow. And my mom’s aunt is in Ukraine in Smila, which is central Ukraine.
For me personally, there have been continued feelings of sadness, a lot of anger as well, also definitely a feeling of helplessness.
I was talking to my mom, and she was like, “Don’t tell anybody that you’re Russian.” But I’m like, “It’s pretty obvious from my name.” I’m not in support of anything that’s happening. I stand with Ukraine. This whole situation feels really close to home. It feels far away but also really close.
But I feel like there are honestly, for me, some things to feel embarrassed about, like this war, how Russians treat the gay community, and racism as well. I don’t identify with their politics. I don’t identify with a lot of negative cultural things that happen there.
There are so many beautiful things about Russian culture, but it’s just a really complicated feeling for me at this time. I feel overwhelming sympathy and empathy for people having to flee. Because all of the scenes from the war in Ukraine are very similar to the scenes that I grew up in, such as the architecture and the way that people are dressed, it feels really close to me.
I’ve been planning to do a trip back to Petropavlovsk and shoot a photo book there. And I was going to set a goal of doing that sometime in the next five years. Which, you know, that’s definitely a little ways away. So it could still happen, but now I have pretty mixed feelings about going back, and want to keep some distance for sure.
Born: Sumy, Ukraine
Now lives in: Los Angeles
I lived in Sumy, Ukraine, until I was 15, and then we moved to United States. First I lived in Arizona. I graduated from high school in Tucson, then went to Phoenix, to Arizona State University. I went to medical school at University of Arizona in Tucson. And I’m here for residency in psychiatry at UCLA. My wife’s American. All her family’s in Arizona. And my mom and my stepdad live in Arizona, too.
Sumy is about 30 kilometers from the border with Kursk region of Russia. It’s a fairly Russian-speaking town. School was in Ukrainian, but we would speak Russian outside of school.
I felt like I was Ukrainian, but it wasn’t the biggest piece to my identity. Things changed for me in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea and began to take over the Donbas region. That was a breaking point for me, where I felt I am way more Ukrainian than Russian.
When I meet people who are American, and who really don’t understand the situation, and they say, “Ukraine. Maybe it’s best for it to be two different countries, because there’s a Russian-speaking east that’s pro-Russian, and pro-European west.” I say, “Well, I’m from the eastern part. And we all speak Russian, but nobody wants to be a part of Russia. The value system is very different.”
Something that we, I think, as Ukrainians share with the West is the idea that truth is important in itself. If you think human life is important, truth is important. There’s certain ideals that we all aspire to. That the State should be in service of human beings that live there. That’s different from, say, people in support of Russia as a super strong country, militaristic country, Russian conquest. They see people as a means to an end, of a great empire. If the truth hurts Russian state, if human life is seen as a burden for Russian state, it can be eliminated. That value system puts the State above individual.
I can’t imagine having to go to sleep and not knowing if the rockets are going to come your way. That’s a stress that I just can’t, right now at this point in time, empathize with, just because I haven’t lived through it. So, my stress is that what can I do to help with the situation? What can I do personally to really stop that?
I’m really glad people have been reaching out and telling me they support Ukraine. I made a decision to really try to raise awareness, to encourage people to donate to important causes, humanitarian and especially military. That’s really interesting, because it’s an uncomfortable space for doctors, especially psychiatrists, to talk about lethal aid. I’m basically saying, “No, this is really to stop the bombs from falling on people like my grandmother.”
Let’s not forget, Ukraine had one of the biggest nuclear arsenals in the world, in 1994, when United States, Russia and United Kingdom gave Ukraine guarantees of its sovereignty and protection for giving up nuclear arms.
I have an uncle who I was really close with when I was younger. He was a firefighter. He and his wife are from Vorozhba, which is a little village, and basically it was occupied by the Russians. He and his wife, in their 70s, had to live in the cellar inside their own house, because the Russian troops invaded. If you’re not willing to give them whatever they want, they’ll just kill you on the spot. Their tanks were in the front yard. So, it was really scary for him. They didn’t have any electricity or any utilities for about two weeks. We were just so happy that he and his wife survived.
Growing up, I felt there was a lot of community. We all were poor. We all didn’t have anything. We’re playing on the streets, and playing either soccer, or something else. There was something about Ukraine, the country was beautiful. There was a lot of nature that you could go to. There’s a lot of parks, even though it was dilapidated in a lot of ways.
My mother was a single mother. We would have to skip meals because we didn’t have enough money to eat. It was so bad. I distinctly remember feeling, “Wow. Some kids are so lucky to be able to eat what they want.” I think I was 12 years old, and we would always have fried potatoes for dinner. I liked fried potatoes, but I wished I could eat more. I was still hungry. That feeling stuck with me. Just being jealous about food. Having to wear the same clothes over and over again, because we just didn’t have the opportunity to buy anything else. That was reality of our life.
It was my grandma, who is living there now under the bombs, who was like, “You need to be somebody. You see this situation. Do you want to live your life this way?” She instilled that in me, that I have to grow up really, really fast. That I have to fend for myself and provide for my family. She always treated me like an adult, that I could be whoever I want to be. I just have to work really, really hard.
She grew up homeless, actually. Her family, who came from the money, actually from Odesa, and they were killed by the Communists. She always hated communism. She worked for the administration in Sumy. She probably had one of the highest roles for women at that time, but she could never advance because she refused to join the Communist Party. A lot of my views about Soviet communism come from her, because she was in that planning department. She could see the ridiculousness of the planned economy, and the danger of totalitarianism and communism is something that I learned firsthand.
My hope, of course, is for victory. My hope is that the Russians will lose, and I think they will, honestly. I just think the spirit of the [Ukrainian] people is amazing, and I don’t think they’ll let them get away with what they’re trying to do.
And I just feel like these ties that two countries had, that they shared common heritage, have been really cut very hard, very deep. And I don’t know how many generations it will take to rebuild them. Especially in the eastern part of Ukraine, almost all of us had some relatives living in Russia. Seeing them spitting out Putin’s propaganda just breaks all kind of bonds for people.
And initially, it was just a state of shock and deep fear. I mean, I couldn’t sleep for days. I was just like, “Oh, my gosh. They’re going to take over Kyiv.” They’re going to destroy every single city that there is. Everything that I know is going to be completely destroyed.
But then watching these images lately, of Mariupol, and of Bucha, seeing these dead bodies just made me want to cry. I mean, I just can’t watch it because I tear up when I see these. So, it’s been really a roller coaster of emotions for me.
We are taught to be strong, and to not show a real emotion. And sometimes those emotions are really scary. Anger is quite common. And sadness, and guilt, and love, and everything. Expressing those emotions, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and saying, “This is what I feel,” and try to really feel it in the body. And sit with it, and let it be. Let it come and cry on it. I think that gives you strength.
I also have a wide professional network. So I use that network to raise awareness, and to really argue my position. I signed, I don’t know how many petitions now, probably tens of hundreds. I went to rallies. I wrote letters to representatives, and I’m very honest, I say, “I’m a psychiatrist who believes in mental health. Yada, yada, yada. Kumbaya. I want lethal aid. This will help people survive.”
Our Desired World
Born: Donetsk, Ukraine
Now lives in: Santa Monica, California
Born: Moscow, Russia
Now lives in: Santa Monica, California
Evgenia Ozerova: We live together. We’re both artists. We share a living and making creative space together.
Eya Ozerova: We moved here in 2011. We lived in Moscow as a family with two kids, Evgenia and her brother. I had visited the United States many times on creative and work trips, as well as a tourist. My husband, now ex-husband, worked with the United States. We liked the country, that it was quite free, that people had diverse lifestyles.
I heard on Radio Free Europe an announcement about a contest for drawings from Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s trial in 2004. Putin wanted to lock him up. I went to the trial to draw, because it was not possible to photograph there. There were several of us artists there for two months. We draw during all the proceedings. It was really interesting because I saw how in reality the accusations against Khodorkovky were fabricated. It was like a theater. I participated in exhibitions with the work I made there. Then I started getting suspicious phone calls. At the same time, my husband got his green card related to his work with the United States. In 2008, he moved, but we stayed a bit longer. I had an active life there, including a creative life. I had many students; everything was going well. But we began to get these phone calls. I started to get an uneasy feeling, a feeling that I wasn’t free.
I was born in Donetsk, Ukraine. I went to college in Moscow and then stayed there. We traveled often to Ukraine and vacationed there with our kids. In 2014, my mother came here. Once my father got here, we applied for political asylum for my parents, but we didn’t get it. In the end, we applied for family reunification and they got their green cards. Now my parents are here with us. My aunt, her son and his family are still in Donetsk.
Evgenia: So when I was 14, we made the move. And it was obviously not in my control. It was also something that was just another adventure in the child’s life.
When we came to the U.S., we moved to Santa Monica. My dad is from a town on the sea, on Black Sea and Azov Sea, so this is just somewhere he wanted to be, close to the sea.
I went to high school and I think half of my classes were English as second language classes. I met lots of international kids, and that’s kind of how my life has been since then. I see this country as a welcoming country to many foreigners, and many people are just different kinds, and just with different quirks, different interests, and and I’m really grateful for this country.
Eya: Never in my life did I divide people into Russians or Ukrainians. To me, a person is a person. Being an artist is an international profession, more tied to the person, personality, liberal arts.
I lived for 20 years in Ukraine and spoke the Russian language, because almost everyone in Donetsk spoke Russian. But I know and love the Ukrainian language. Right now I feel closer to Ukrainian culture. I value it more, and am learning more about it.
Evgenia: Traveling to spend time in Donetsk, Azov Sea, and Odesa in my childhood, I would always bring the Ukrainian accent back to Moscow. And I would say some things in Ukrainian not realizing it, and there would be a lot of prejudice about it. They would call me as someone from the country or someone not from the capital and there would be kids that would laugh at me.
Eya: I have a lot of artist friends from Donetsk and Dnipro who have lived their lives in Kyiv. But now they’ve had to leave Kyiv. They are in Slovakia, we helped them a little. When they fled, they couldn’t take anything, as they were running from the bombs.
Evgenia: When the war became a thing in the U.S., we became like, Wow, it’s something in the news. We just had to address a lot of friends being in such peril. We still carry on living half of our life here in the physical space that we occupy, but also half of it through our friends, FaceTiming, staying in touch with people always.
We [my mother and I] both talk about it and we know that the worst thing is to actually sink into despair and anger.
Eya: There is something about this war which makes us evolve every day to control even our thoughts and emotions. This is the time to believe and trust that love and light will win. It’s time for each person to look within themselves and choose. To say, I choose whether I’m part of the problem or part of the solution.
Despite the war, the injustices and human suffering, it is the beauty of the human soul and our capacity to transform everything into love that will save the world. This time is touching something very deep in all of us. My hope and belief is that this war will bring repentance and forgiveness. From this, a more just and beautiful new world will be born.
I asked myself, What can I do? I was previously scheduled to teach an art workshop in Sacramento. I didn’t know if people would show up because the war had just started. I felt that we had to make a piece together as a group, not as individuals, as normally happens in my workshops. I remembered right away about Maria Primachenko, my favorite artist who is Ukrainian. We would each recreate a part of one of her pieces and each person would send their love, thoughts and faith for the war to end soon. In the workshop, we did everything together. We sang songs, we talked about our beliefs that the war will end. We held moments of silence together. We offer people a way to get together, to create beauty with their hands, to unite, and to co-create—not just with their hands but with their thoughts—peace.
Evgenia: Ukraine now means hope to me.
Eya: For me, Ukraine is my home.
Ukraine is a beautiful country, beautiful land, people. It’s a unique culture and history. It’s the most beautiful nature, southern sun, quiet evenings. My childhood friends. My artist friends. Ukraine is beautiful art and speech. Ukrainian songs, music. Love, warmth, amazement. Heart, the deepest feelings. Beloved people.
Evgenia: I think the war will continue and then end, and its calamity will awaken purpose in many of us. We will have a world and trust to rebuild.
I find hope in spending time with my community sharing, singing, crying, being bored and sad together, wishing, inventing a new day.
Eya: An artist creates a painting: He comes up with an idea and brings it to life on the canvas or in his work. He lives this work. He realizes this idea, for example, an idea of love and good. An artist has an understanding that with our intentions, our paintings, our creativity, we create our desired reality, our desired world.