Durango resident Roman Bohachevsky recalls arriving 72 years ago to a shipping port in New York City. He was only 8 at the time. His family had fled Ukraine shortly after his birth in 1942, and they planned to make a new start in America.
When Bohachevsky and his family stepped off the ship, he believed the past was behind him. But in recent days with the invasion of Ukraine, Bohachevsky’s past has come back to haunt him.
Bohachevsky believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is intent on taking the country “back” for Russia.
The war, he said, is “heartbreaking.”
“We fled the Russians once. And here I am, I’m 80 years old, and the Russians are a menace again,” he said.
Bohachevsky said he feels saddened and helpless.
“I can’t even go back and throw Molotov cocktails, because I’m too old,” he said. “I’m just frustrated. It’s terrible. These are very good people.”
When Bohachevsky left Ukraine, it wasn’t for good. He returned in 1994, about three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was sent by the U.S. Library of Congress to help the newly independent Ukraine establish a congressional library of its own where members of parliament had all the information they needed for state decision-making.
He was there for one week. Before sessions with delegates, he would walk and jog through Kyiv. He talked casually with taxi drivers and hotel staff members, and he remembers feeling a kinship with the people of Ukraine. He said even though all his Ukrainian relatives are dead today, he considers the people to be his brothers.
And he is devastated to see Ukraine’s work over the last three decades at building an independent democracy – work he contributed to, in his small way – in danger of toppling at the hands of Russia.
“They’ve been coming along; they’ve been corrupt, they’ve had all kinds of issues,” Bohachevsky said. “But they are starting to make it. And here this comes (war with Russia). It’s unbelievable. I don’t believe it.”
Bohachevsky said Putin doesn’t consider Ukraine to be its own country, and he suspects the Russian president wants to reunite the territories that made up the Soviet Union. Putin acts like a czar, he said.
“I think he really sees himself as a really powerful man,” he said. “I think he wants to restore greatness. I don’t want to make any comparisons about ‘making America great again,’ but he is a populist.”
The Russians have always been a menace from Bohachevsky’s point of view. But not everyone thinks Putin’s cause is malicious.
Durangoan Svetlana Koshevaya, an American citizen from Lithuania who self-identifies as ethnically Russian, said Putin is furthering efforts to support people who want independence from Ukraine. She said she supports Putin’s actions in Ukraine and doesn’t consider the developing conflict in Ukraine an invasion.
Other Durangoans with ties to Russia and Eastern Europe shared similar sentiments in an interview Saturday with The Durango Herald. They, too, support the separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and see the war as a progression of those conflicts that erupted about eight years ago.
Ekaterina Woodard repeated Kremlin talking points that Russians aren’t attacking civilians. It is actually Ukrainian Nazis who are killing their own people, she said.
“Basically, Western and Eastern Ukraine is what the conflict is,” she said. “Nazis, they came from Western Ukraine. They are killing their own people and making it look like Russians are doing it.”
Elena Frank, who used to live in Kyiv and has family in Luhansk, also said that Nazi or neo-Nazi forces are behind the violence in Ukraine as well as Luhansk and Donetsk. She said Ukrainian nationalists aim to criminalize the Russian language and allow only Ukrainian to be spoken.
In 2019, Ukraine passed a law making Ukrainian the nation’s official state language. The law made it mandatory for public officials, teachers and doctors to speak Ukrainian, but the law does not ban the Russian language, either.
The law was passed by former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who was succeeded by current President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who speaks Russian and Ukrainian.
Irina Hermesman was born and raised in Siberia, Russia. She has lived in Durango for the last 23 years. Her stepmother lives in Ukraine. Over the last several years, she has worked with Russian adoptees to connect them with their biological families in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other former USSR countries, she said.
Like Bohachevsky, Hermesman is saddened by the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. She was planning to visit another family in Russia in April, but now she doesn’t expect the trip to be feasible.
“Everybody will be affected by this conflict,” she said. “Everybody. People in Ukraine hurt. People in Russia are going to be hurt.”
Her biggest fear is she might not ever see her family in Russia again, she said. She is also worried how sanctions against Russia for starting the conflict will affect Russia’s people. Her family is afraid, but they, too, support Donetsk’s and Luhansk’s separation from Ukraine.
“We don’t want conflict and we are deeply hurt by what’s going on in the countries,” she said.
She wishes warring Russians and Ukrainians would go home and that leaders “would find courage and wisdom” to sit down together and peacefully work things out.
Bohachevsky said the root of claims about Nazis tearing Ukraine apart from within lie with World War II. Western Ukraine has long held a nationalist yearning to become its own country. The people sided with Germans during their occupation of Western Ukraine because they hoped the Germans would help them create a free Ukraine, he said.
“They were never Nazis,” Bohachevsky said. “They were opportunists.”
But Eastern Ukrainians have always looked at their western neighbors with some suspicion, he said.
Bohachevsky said he understands how people might be susceptible to Russian claims of “denazification,” as unfounded as they may be – but he draws the line at war and said the invasion is unjustifiable.
He said he expects the people of Ukraine to fight until the last man dies. He is grateful for support shown by people across the world, but he fears for the future of his people.