“Aren’t you from Russia?”
“When did your family leave Russia?”
“So, what is Russian food like?”
“Do you still have family in Russia?”
“Is your family strict? Because you know, Russian.”
I have received these questions several times throughout my life from people who didn’t understand my Ukrainian-Jewish identity, or that my family left Kharkiv a few decades ago when Ukraine was still a Soviet republic. However, I cannot blame them. Ukraine was often referred to, whether by international diplomats or by Vladimir Putin, as a “peripheral” state to the Russian ethnic and cultural sphere. Too often, the country was seen as just one of many in Russia’s diplomatically gravitational force. Its distinctiveness and sovereign identity were not known very well. Ukraine’s long history of association with and subjugation at the hands of Russia has led to the proliferation of common misunderstandings and misconceptions about the country, as well as a more complex linguistic reality within the country itself. Some even think of Ukraine as a region, belittling its sovereignty, and it’s no wonder why so many people say “the Ukraine” even today. Now, Ukraine feels, at least to me, like the center of the world.
The somber yet powerful emergence of Ukraine in the global discourse following the February 2022 Russian invasion inspired people to seek a further understanding of what Ukraine and being Ukrainian means. People are now becoming aware of the linguistic, cultural and national distinctions between being Russian and Ukrainian. Shortly after the invasion began, my sister Anna posted on Instagram: “I used to tell people that I was Russian because it just seemed easier. But I am 100% Ukrainian, 100% Jewish and 100% American. Today (and on), we make the distinction.” That resonated with me. For too long, peers and family members who share my background and I have spoken very, very little about being Ukrainian and what that means for us. Some of the most common cultural and culinary practices we have grown up with and become accustomed to were always labeled Russian, when in reality, they are of Ukrainian origin.
The horrors of war and the brutal attack on Ukraine’s legitimacy have revitalized for Ukrainians a transnational desire to understand and embrace their own identity. Putin’s militaristic and cultural genocide has done more than just unite Ukraine. It has culminated in a global solidarity and unity among Ukrainians that is a testament to just how crucial the fate of the country is and how it is tied to identity in the first place.
Vassar students have touched upon their experiences earlier as the war broke out, sharing concerns and providing valuable insight about the long path of oppression that preceded the invasion that has killed thousands and displaced millions of Ukrainians. Amidst these brutal tragedies, I seek to continue the conversation and remind the college community and beyond to stay aware of the developments coming out of Ukraine, as well as to understand what being Ukrainian means. I asked Ukrainian Vassar students to reflect on their identities in a more broad and lifelong sense, and how the war has impacted their connection to Ukraine. Ethnic identity, after all, remains constant, but perception of it can change.
Ievgeniia Chyzhykova ʼ25 is Ukrainian by nationality and identity, and is fluent in English, Ukrainian, Russian and French. “I grew up speaking Russian because I was born in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine, but Ukraine represents my nationality and main identity,” Chyzhykova said. The city and oblast of Donetsk are part of the eastern Ukrainian lands that Putin declared as independent republics, fueling his justification for war. Most people in Donetsk Oblast speak Russian due to historical Russian influence over the area, and Putin has issued Russian passports to roughly one-fifth of the population, according to Voice of America News. It has been the site where 14,000 people have died since fighting began in 2014.
Filipp Kazatsker ’23 was born in Odessa. He is fluent in Russian, but not in Ukrainian. Kazatsker stated, “Ethnically, my family and I are Ukrainian, and according to an ancestry test, we were mostly rooted in Western Ukraine. I was born in Odessa and lived there for the first two years of my life.” He continued, “Culturally, I grew up in a Ukrainian household where we ate Ukrainian food and followed Ukrainian culture. I grew up in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn, so environmentally-wise, there were very strong Ukrainian cultural influences.”
Maryna Hrytsenko ʼ23 is from Kharkiv, Ukraine and is currently in Lviv after studying abroad in London. “I am from Ukraine, my family is from Ukraine, my relatives are from Ukraine, so we really do not have much influence from any other ethnicities. I do not have any close ties with Russia. I very much consider myself Ukrainian,” Hrytsenko shared. She actually visited Lviv for a school trip during her childhood, and recounted that it felt like a different country since—unlike Kharkiv, which is located in the Russian-bordering Kharkiv Oblast—everybody spoke Ukrainian. The Russian historical influence on eastern Ukraine has been strong, but despite the prevalence of the Russian language there and eastern Ukraine’s historically heavier leanings towards Russia politically when compared to that of western Ukraine, Ukrainians living in eastern oblasts now overwhelmingly demonstrate their resistance to Russia’s invasion.
Although Igor Martiniouk ʼ24 [Disclaimer: Martiniouk is the Photography Editor for The Miscellany News] was born in Queens, he still grew up surrounded by Ukrainian culture, language and cuisine. Growing up, he was surrounded by Ukrainian culture, language and cuisine. “Each year, I would visit Ukraine and go to the western region. Ukrainian was used in my household and I went to Ukrainian school on Saturdays. I did ballroom dancing with a Ukrainian teacher and Ukrainian folk dancing. I don’t quite know what an ‘American’ meal is. To me, pudding is ‘kasha.’ Ukrainian food was my cuisine at home,” Martiniouk shared.
I asked the students what kinds of misconceptions or moments of confusion arose regarding their identity in non-Ukrainian environments. According to Chyzhykova, people frequently confused when she was speaking Ukrainian and when she was speaking Russian. “I think people struggle to understand why people use both Ukrainian and Russian in the country,” she explained. Due to centuries under Russian subjugation and the migration of ethnic Russians, many Ukrainians use Russian as a means of communication, but that does not remotely signify Ukrainians’ association with or fealty to Russia. Chyzhykova commented that her conception of her own identity evolved as she grew. “By 2014, the international community started integrating, and there was a realization of how progressive Ukraine is. And the music we listen to, the way we party, are unique. Growing up for me meant that being Ukrainian was something to be proud of and not ashamed of.”
“I’ve always had to explain to people that I am Ukrainian and I am from Ukraine,” Hrytsenko recalled. “I’ve never even been to Russia. It always felt a bit awkward being with my friends when my mom would call me and I would talk to her and they would be like, ‘Oh, that sounded so interesting in Ukrainian,’ but it was in Russian. A lot of times, I wouldn’t even say that. A lot of times people just assume that if you’re speaking Russian, you are either from Russia or pro-Russian or both. Right now, the question of using the Russian language is heavy on the minds of Ukrainians, especially in Western Ukraine.”
Kazatsker, who speaks Russian but not Ukrainian, shared a similar sentiment when it comes to what speaking Russian means for his own identity following the Russian aggression. When speaking about his childhood, Kazatsker recounted, “In elementary school, there were a lot of Russian and Ukrainian students, but we were pretty much lumped together as ‘Russian’ kids and spoke Russian with one another. Maybe when I was young and experienced that [lumping together] I wouldn’t make it a point to say I’m Ukrainian if I was called Russian, but by the time I was 12 or 13, and especially after EuroMaidan, I would assert my Ukrainian identity.” Now, he plans to learn Ukrainian during the summer, and adamantly supports Ukraine’s independence, denouncing the narrative of an existing “brotherhood” between Russia and Ukraine. “Brothers don’t invade or starve each other,” he said.
Kazatsker’s experience resonated with me. My sister and I have often called ourselves Russian as a response to others when we were younger, considering it a filler term for who we are. However, our own growth and Ukraine’s political circumstances have had an impact on how we perceive our own identity.
Hrytsenko added, “Before the war, I spoke Russian with, for example, several people in our grade at Vassar. We have people from Kazakhstan, Georgia, Ukraine, and before, it really felt like we’re Slavic and Eastern European; therefore, a sense of unity was there. It was good to connect with people that way.” She later restated her thoughts on speaking Russian, “It is only now that I feel conflicted speaking the language of those coming to kill us.”
Unlike the other students interviewed, Martiniouk speaks Ukrainian and not Russian, but his experiences still reveal the misconceptions surrounding Ukrainian identity. “I told somebody my name last semester and they asked me where I was from. After telling them I was from Ukraine, they asked if I spoke Russian. I told them I am Ukrainian and speak Ukrainian, and they said Russian and Ukrainian are basically the same thing. That hurts because for centuries Russia has stolen Ukrainian identity and called it its own. Artifacts from Ukraine in Russian galleries are called Russian. They attempt to make everything Slavic Russian.”
As a Ukrainian-Jewish person, the Russian theft of various aspects of Ukrainian life trickled into my own experiences as well. My family often fed me borscht, a delicious soup made of red beetroots, often considered a trademark food among Russian families. However, borscht is a dish of Ukrainian origin, something I unfortunately learned only two months ago. Will I uncover more childhood experiences that have Ukrainian origin instead of Russian?
The Ukrainian students I spoke with shared a consensus that the war has changed their thought process and approach to their own identity. “If anything, [the war] just made me prouder to be Ukrainian. My parents have always told me how brave our people are and how much our ancestors loved our land. I really did see, probably for the first time, truly how deep that goes. You don’t have to live in Ukraine to feel that. The attachment to our roots and culture is the highest it’s ever been,” Kazatsker said. Adding onto Kazatsker’s words, Martiniouk said, “What Russia is doing is not forgivable. As a Ukrainian I feel it’s my obligation to raise awareness in a way that is informative.”
The students also were united in the idea that to help protect Ukrainian identity, governments must bolster the flow of military aid to Ukraine. While the students expressed appreciation for the global effort, they claimed that more needs to be done. Martiniouk claimed, “Against Russia, some people might say we need negotiations. That would be great, but there’s a historic understanding that Russia doesn’t follow its word. They move the front line closer with negotiations. We’re trying to protect ourselves. Governments have to supply Ukraine with as many weapons as possible.”
When I asked Hrytsenko what needed to be done to save Ukrainian identity, she explained that Russia historically tried to slowly sap Ukraine of its cultural capital and delegitimize its political agency, before she took a pause and bluntly said, “Send in more weapons.” While Chyzhykova agreed with this position, she also asserted, “Spreading culture is what matters. Globally, people should be inclusive towards Ukrainians and cooperate with Ukrainian artists and organizations. We often learn about other countries through the culture, so the world should definitely make that a focus.”
Martiniouk brought up an excellent point at the end of our conversation. “If you ever need verification on relevant matters, talk to us Ukrainian students on campus. We’re here. We’re willing to talk to you.”