For some Alaskans, a foreign war hits close to home

A family of four poses for a photo on top of a high hill, with mountains behind them
Violetta Strait and her family in the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine in 2014. (Courtesy of Violetta Strait)

There were no Ukrainian schools in Violetta Strait’s town growing up. Strait spoke Russian at a Russian school in the Donetsk region of Ukraine.

But when she was old enough to start teaching, she helped open Donetsk’s first Ukrainian school. Not long after that, she worked toward Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union.

Now, she’s in Alaska, watching from Kenai as Russia invades her country. And she said she’s worried.

“My biggest fear is that Russia’s always wanted to see Ukraine as a younger brother,” she said.

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Strait is from what’s now being called the Donetsk People’s Republic — a separatist region within Ukraine. It’s part of the area Russia declared independent from Ukraine earlier this week before launching an invasion into the country.

Strait moved to Alaska with her husband in 1999 and settled in Kenai, where she’s a classroom aide. Her relatives are still overseas.

“All my family is still in Ukraine,” she said. “Some are on occupied territories and some are on freshly occupied territories. Some are on those that are not occupied yet. And hopefully they will not be occupied.”

She’s been following news on Facebook and a Ukrainian channel and getting updates from her mom every day — sometimes just a sentence, to let her know she’s OK.

Many Ukrainians are evacuating. But others are worried if they leave, there will be nothing to come back to. She said her mom and some of the members of her congregation decided to stay.

“And she said that most of the people are older people,” she said. “They cannot be on a bus, waiting on a bus for two or three days trying to figure out where they go. So they all decided to stay and they just hope for better, for peace.”

Gregory Weissenberg is a retired world history and Russian teacher from Moldova, living in Soldotna. He was in Ukraine last year, visiting a group of former students for his 70th birthday. They spent time in the capital, Kyiv.

“You could sense the freedom. It was nothing like a former Soviet Republic,” he said. “If it wasn’t for this invasion, I planned this year another trip to Kyiv.”

One of the students he was with on that trip called him Thursday.

“She called me on WhatsApp and she was crying and just wanted to share with me her frustration. So it’s personal for me now,” Weissenberg said.

Weissenberg said he’s been watching the news nonstop.

He also knows what it’s like to live under Soviet control. The first year he left Moldova to teach on the Kenai Peninsula was 1991, the year the USSR collapsed.

And, as a history teacher, he said it’s really important for people tuning into this week’s news to rewind the tape.

“I think the news that I’ve been watching, I like the coverage,” he said. “The only thing … I would suggest that Americans try to put more history behind the news.”

He said that’s critical both for understanding what’s happening in eastern Europe today and to fight misinformation.

But he said it’s also necessary to zoom in and understand the human toll.

He likes to say history is personal. His home country, Moldova, borders Ukraine.

“I mean, the current government in Moldova is very nervous,” he said. “But that invasion, of course, sends some chills down the spine.”

It’s certainly personal for the Ukrainians in Kenai.

A group of people holding protest signs with slogans like "support freedom" and "God bless Ukraine"
Strait and friends supporting protests in Kyiv from Kenai in 2014. (Courtesy of Violetta Strait)

Strait said the Ukrainian women she knows in the area are all coping differently with the news.

“There are different opinions but most of them are really shocked,” she said. “Most of them are seeing it as an invasion. Some are more proactive and try to send money and try to spread the news and try to talk to others. And some people are just kind of watching and inside being numb.”

She said she can’t look away from what’s happening now. She was in Ukraine when the country was fighting for its independence — spreading information to people there before the referendum vote in 1991 and beginning her teaching career as the Soviet Union dissolved.

“And I think that’s why I feel like I’m involved a lot,” she said.

She kept up the work since coming to the U.S., doing some translation for a Ukrainian journalist. She and her husband have returned to the country to do missionary work and visit family, though she worries if Russia takes control she won’t be able to go back.

She said she’d like people to think globally, especially in a small, seemingly far-away community like Kenai. Apathy, she said, is dangerous.

“Turn on your brain,” she said. “Think and don’t be indifferent.”

When it comes down to it, she said, the world isn’t all that big.

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