Nikolay Burinskiy closes his eyes, and it is dawn in Kiev.
He can see the warm glow of the sun below the ancient city’s skyline, a jumble of historic buildings that survived World War II, Soviet-era apartment blocks, and gilded church domes rising out of endless plains along the Dnieper River. In a moment, the golden tips of the cathedral towers will spark, then explode with light, beacons ablaze in the serene morning sky.
This is how Burinskiy prefers to remember his native Ukraine, which he left in 1992. Because when the 51-year-old Ashland resident turns on his television now, he sees starkly different images: riot police holding back waves of angry, rock-throwing demonstrators, the bloodied faces of activists who say they were kidnapped and tortured, and billowing black smoke from burning tires raining chemical ash over Kiev’s central square.
Burinskiy, like most of the approximately 26,000 Ukrainian-Americans in Massachusetts, is following every twist and turn of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, where protesters and politicians allied with the so-called Euromaidan movement are squaring off in an increasingly violent struggle against the embattled pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
For Burinskiy and others who left Ukraine after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the images of chaos represent a depressing slide backwards into the hard times they fled.
“We came to the United States like refugees in 1992. It was a very difficult time,” Burinskiy said, describing political turmoil and a food shortage that prompted him to leave.
“Now, it’s a very bad time again. This president wants to dictate everything. They snatch people off the street and put them in jail for nothing. They take away the people’s right to even speak. For me, it’s very sad.”
Leaders of Boston’s Ukrainian-American community describe widespread support for the opposition and intense anger directed at Yanukovych.
“Everyone regards him as corrupt and a thief, and were shocked he was elected,” said Peter Woloschuk, an author and communications professor who is writing a book about Massachusetts’ Ukrainian-American community. “Ukrainian-Americans would prefer to see a free, democratic Ukraine as part of the European community.”
Ukraine, long a crossroads between East and West, is deeply riven over whether the former Soviet satellite should shift its orbit to the European Union or strengthen economic ties with neighboring Russia, its historic dominator. Opposition supporters point to Poland, which tacked west after the decline of communism and has a growing economy and higher wages to show for it, as evidence that shunning EU advances is a mistake.
The current demonstrations began in late November when Yanukovych’s government, under pressure from Russia, suspended preparations for signing a planned trade agreement with the European Union. Yanukovych’s government and police have tried to stifle dissent through both legislation and force. But those moves seem only to have fueled anti-government anger, even in the mostly Russian-speaking eastern half of the country that originally propelled Yanukovych into office in 2010.
A tent city of protesters now occupies central Kiev, and activists have taken over government buildings across the country. The crackdown has resulted in the deaths of several Euromaidan protesters, which, along with accusations of human rights abuses and corruption, have led to widespread calls for Yanukovych’s resignation.
Locally, Ukrainian-American organizations have staged three demonstrations at the State House to raise awareness, organized meetups to galvanize their community, and sent about $10,000 to help feed the protesters and support their cause. Leaders are also meeting with the Massachusetts congressional delegation to push for US sanctions against top members of Yanukovych’s government.
Ukrainians have a long relationship with Boston, said Woloschuk, a Ukrainian-American who was a Boston Globe reporter from 1971 to 1982.
Between the 1880s and 1990s, thousands of Ukrainians arrived here in four distinct waves that coincided with major world events, including both World Wars and, most recently, the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Woloschuk believes there are far more Ukrainian-Americans in Massachusetts than the 2010-2012 US Census American Community Survey tally of about 23,000 indicates. His estimate of 110,000 to 120,000 residents with Ukrainian roots is derived from the Census, immigration, and paternal organization membership records. He said the discrepancy is due to the frequent failure of Ukrainian-Americans to identify themselves as such in the Census, because their ancestors emigrated here many generations ago, or because there are many ethnic groups in Ukraine, or because of the country’s fluctuating status as a distinct entity.
Ukrainian-Americans tend to be ambitious and well-educated, Woloschuk said. And decades of exposure to American values have reinforced staunch prodemocracy beliefs that were hatched under harsh regimes back home.
“Quietly, Ukrainians take their obligations very seriously. They believe in democracy and, statistically, they vote at very high percentages,” Woloschuk said, ticking off a list of local elected officials with Ukrainian roots. Moves by the current Ukrainian government to restrict civil liberties represent “a major conflict with their values,” he said.
Last Sunday, practically every member of the congregation at the Christ the King Ukrainian Catholic Church of Boston had a personal story to tell about a family member who had fought for Ukraine’s independence, even as the front lines of wars between stronger neighbors swept back and forth across the perpetual borderland.
Kateryna Dumanchuk, an 85-year-old retired schoolteacher who moved to the United States in 2011, lost three brothers who died fighting for the Ukrainian resistance against Soviet incursions after World War II. Soon after, her father was sentenced to 25 years hard labor in Siberia for “Ukrainian activities.”
“My parents and grandparents and classmates fought for a free and independent Ukraine for years,” she said in Ukrainian through a translator. “They gave their last drop of life.”
As a young child, she smuggled food and supplies to Ukrainian partisans operating out of the forests near her village outside Lviv. As an adult living under Soviet rule, she traveled to Kiev three times to protest Russian attempts to stamp out Ukrainian language, culture, and nationalism. And during the so-called “Orange Revolution” in 2004 and 2005, at age 76, Dumanchuk spent a week in the streets alongside protestors. Now, she watches the Euromaidan protests from a distance — reluctantly.
Asked if she would march in the streets today, given the chance, the diminutive woman grabbed a reporter’s hands and said emphatically, “I would be standing on the barricades.”
Dumanchuk and other Ukrainian-Americans see Euromaidan as a continuation of a century-long struggle for independence. The country was briefly independent after World War I, and then again since 1991.
“The current protests are an attempt to continue down the path we began in 1991 with the declaration of independence, to really get there,” said Vsevolod Petriv, president of the Boston branch of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.
Petriv said the crisis has helped recruit new, young faces to Ukrainian civic organizations.
Many current leaders of the local community are several generations removed from ancestors who were born in the country, but repeated attempts to suppress Ukrainian identity have only strengthened their resolve pass down their language and culture through family lines, Petriv said.
That resolve was apparent last Sunday in the lobby of Christ the King, where US-born 43-year-old Acton resident Mykola Konrad ducked out of the service to quiet his fussy young daughter, whispering to her soothingly in Ukrainian. The last direct relative of Konrad’s to live in Ukraine was his grandfather, who was captured by German troops during World War II.
“People in my own family fought for freedom, so there is a kinship” with Euromaidan protestors, he said, as the choir on the balcony above launched into a hymn. “It makes you think, would I go to Boston Common today and protest if I knew there was a chance the police would pick me up and beat me? With the kids that I have? It would be a tough decision. So think about how bad the situation must be there that parents feel they must protest and risk their lives.
“That makes me proud.”