Ukrainian-born Berkshire residents concerned about turmoil in their homeland
PITTSFIELD, Mass. -- The crisis in Ukraine may be happening some 5,600 miles away, but for a number of Berkshire residents, it’s hitting close to home.
They say that the situation is going to get worse before it gets better, and after this weekend’s developments -- troops being mobilized from both Russia and Ukraine, the increase of pro-Russian rallies in eastern Ukraine, the blockading of an airport in Crimea -- it seems they’re quite right.
"It’s horrible," said Irina Borisova. She and her husband, Eugene Mamut, are originally from the Ukrainian city of Kharkov but now make their home in the Berkshires. They work as creative and technical artists and operate the AniMagic: Museum of Animation, Special Effects and Art in Lee.
Borisova was in Kharkov in October and November, visiting family and working on a show for the Kharkov State Puppet Theatre, when the protests against President Viktor Yanukovych and his cabinet began.
The administration abandoned an agreement on Nov. 21 that would have strengthened ties with the European Union and helped to anchor the Ukraine’s economy. It was on Nov. 30, Borisova’s birthday, that the police launched their first violent raid against what was said to be a peaceful gathering of protesters.
Since then, back in the Berkshires, Borisova has been bound to watching every development in the region via the Internet and live broadcast streams found online via YouTube -- from the fiery storming and bloodshed in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) to current developments and rising tensions in the aftermath.
"I would watch YouTube 24 hours a day. I couldn’t sleep. I was very worried. All those young people were dying," said Borisova on witnessing the height of the revolution.
Igor Greenwald, of Pittsfield, has been following the conflict through Facebook feeds and blogs of journalist friends from the Ukraine.
He was born in Kiev to a family of Ukrainian Jews. Though he left with family in 1979, he returned in 1995 to work as a journalist and foreign correspondent, eventually helping to lead the formation of the Kyiv Post, the Ukraine’s first English-language newspaper.
Greenwald calls the uprising of the Ukrainian people in Maidan "inspiring" as "an instance of popular revolt." But he said that though Yanukovych has left the country and a new leadership has formed in Ukraine’s parliament, "there are a lot of bad things still to come."
He describes the country’s economy as "a basket case," a state which has been ongoing, even before this recent revolution. As Russia threatens invasion, the economy grows increasingly unstable.
"Putin’s biggest ally is going to be the weak economy," Greenwald said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Eugene Mamut said the everyday people of Ukraine, from students to the elderly, are faced with poverty, struggling businesses, food and housing insecurity, among other issues. Unlike in the United States, families have no systems like food assistance programs, soup kitchens or other kinds of welfare benefits to fall back on.
"Even if a good government is elected in May, the government doesn’t have any money anymore," said Mamut. "They’re going to have to cut pensions and cut benefits. How can you take things away from people who are already poor?"
Greenwald said Ukraine could very well see bankruptcy and high rates of inflation before it regains any kind of composure and balance.
He said the interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is described by many analysts as an "economic technocrat," but that the country cannot solely rely on that sense of promise.
"Yes, Ukraine needs an honest economic reformer but the problems there are so deep and have accumulated for so long, it’s been in a permanent state of crisis for years," said Greenwald.
Even though he only lived in Ukraine until age 8, Leo Yantovsky, 27, now of Pittsfield, recalls what it was like and how his family struggled.
"I remember the poverty," he said.
As detailed in the CIA World Factbook: "Although final independence for Ukraine was achieved in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR, democracy and prosperity remained elusive as the legacy of state control and endemic corruption stalled efforts at economic reform, privatization, and civil liberties."
Yantovsky recalled how his parents used to work in a glass factory in Konstantinovka and cash was in short supply. Instead of cash, they were "paid" with rations like canned food and clothing.
"I remember my mother would take things to a market in Moscow -- it was a long, long trip -- and try to sell things for money or trade them for something we needed," he said.
He remembers a scarcity of fresh food. "My mother would sometimes find something, like one banana, and cut it in half and give one piece to me and one to my brother. She wouldn’t have any for herself. For us, it was a treat."
On March 3, 1995, the Yantovskys packed up and moved to the United States.
"We left nothing behind," said Leo.
Yantovsky now works as an interdepartmental support specialist for Pittsfield Cooperative Bank and says he’s proud and grateful to live in the United States.
But he said watching the revolt and seeing things like the discovery of President Yanukovych’s opulent estate struck a nerve with him, as it has with countless others.
"He’s been living like a king when people are starving in that country," Yantovsky said. "When conditions get that bad, people will get desperate. They will revolt."
Eugene Mamut said because of the nation’s history of political corruption, many Ukrainians are divided on the nation’s future.
"Half my friends think this was a good revolution that will lead to a new Ukraine. Half my friends say things will never be good in Ukraine. That it will be one corrupt government traded for another," he said. "But the situation is not black and white."
In the meantime he and his wife, Irina Borisova, hope for peace and for the preservation of the rest of Ukraine’s land and infrastructure.
"Ukraine is a beautiful country with nice people, very well-educated people. It has big cities, lots of culture, agriculture, a nice climate and rich soil," she said.
Igor Greenwald said that much will hinge on how much and for how long people will continue to press the government for Ukraine to join the European Union and to make other critical reforms.
"Perhaps residents can take pride in what they’ve accomplished and carry out this new sense of civic spirit," said Greenwald. "Having fought together to preserve their country, maybe now people will be more willing to work together to clean the city and pursue economic freedom."
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