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Know the West

Reflections from Ukrainian and Russian immigrants: Dmytro and Pavel

Southern California residents wrestle with events unfolding back home in the Russia-Ukraine war.

This story was originally published by KCET and is republished here by permission.

California is home to roughly 112,000 people of Ukrainian descent, and about 26,000 live in LA County. Russian-Ukrainian American photographer Stella Kalinina interviewed Ukrainians, Russians and others from former Soviet states living in Southern California about their personal experiences and reflections on the war. This is the third in a series of five stories.


Many people Stella spoke to for the series worried about family in Ukraine and Russia. Some struggled to make contact as relatives lost electricity; they waited for news from those in battle zones or from those who had fled. Others lost friends in arguments about the war. Three people who were originally set to be photographed withdrew, citing concerns over Russia's fifteen year prison sentence for those who criticize the state, and repercussions for family members. What follows are reflections from Ukrainians, Russians, and a Belarusian who now live in Southern California and grapple with the events unfolding back home.

Dmytro Gorbanov, 33. Los Angeles, California.

Dmytro Gorbanov
Age: 33
Downtown Los Angeles 

I’m from Izium, Ukraine, and have been living in the U.S. since 2015. All my childhood friends from Izium are still there. I still keep in touch with them. I went to college and graduate school in Kharkiv. Then I moved to Kyiv for work. While there I received an invitation to go work in New York. I’ve now been in LA for almost three months.

Izium in recent years has been in economic decline, but nonetheless there’s a certain comfort. It’s a small town surrounded by nature. You can always go enjoy the outdoors. I used to get on my bike, ride to the beautiful Donetsk River and then ride on a path along the river. We used to go foraging for mushrooms and fishing. It’s a town where you can live not in front of a computer or television, but instead go for walks. We played soccer every single day when I was a kid. We always had something fun to do.

I look at pictures from Izium now, and it’s all bombed out. The center of the city has been hit really hard. The train station has been destroyed. A school and a new hospital were hit. I don’t know why they are attacking Izium. There have never been any military bases there. I saw a picture of a bomb that landed in Izium but did not explode. It was just sitting in the middle of the street, this 500 kilogram bomb.

On the first day of the bombings, people stayed in their homes. Then it became clear that things were getting much worse. At that point people went to hide in bomb shelters. My parents helped re-open one of the bomb shelters in town. But these bomb shelters are totally unequipped, there are no amenities there. They’re not in ruins, because they were built in Soviet times with very thick walls. But they haven’t been maintained. My dad wrote to me and said that they are sleeping on concrete floors. It’s a miracle that there are generators.

The Russians have taken control of half of the city. At first, the attacks only took place at night, from airplanes. Then they moved on to artillery. As I understand, for the last several days the bombings and skirmishes have continued non-stop both night and day. The residents don’t even leave the bomb shelters. How do they prepare food? The bomb shelters are not heated, so they are cold. My dad wrote that they have jackets, comforters, but still. This time of year the snow has probably started to melt, so it’s probably damp. It’s very easy to get sick in these conditions and develop pneumonia. And then there’s COVID.

About a year ago, Russian politicians started writing articles about how Ukraine as a nation does not exist, that it was invented by Lenin, that we are not an independent country. Then Putin started saying the same thing, so I was afraid something would start. But I didn’t think they would bomb our cities, residential neighborhoods. I was worried about eastern Ukraine, because at least half of the people there had a pro-Russian attitude. I was worried that they would accept the Russian troops. But they didn’t, because it’s their land.

The war, however terrible it is, has united the Ukrainian people such that when the war ends, it will be a different country, hopefully less corrupt. I understand that there will be a lot of ways to steal when the rebuilding starts, but with the way our people have united, the way they are helping each other, I think that it will not happen in a big way.

The war, however terrible it is, has united the Ukrainian people...

When the war started, I didn’t sleep or eat for two days. I tried to convince my parents to leave, but they didn’t want to. Every few minutes, I checked different sources of information. Then I started going to protests and joined groups here in LA that are trying to help in all sorts of ways. This helps to distract yourself. At work they told me I can take time off. I’m also constantly trying to reach my parents, but I’m not getting through.


Pavel Bondarchuk, 49. Irvine, California.

Pavel Bondarchuk
Age: 49

I was born in Vorkuta, Komi Republic. It’s a polar part of Russia. It’s an area of very infamous Gulag camps [Soviet labor camps that detained political prisoners of the Soviet Union]. My grandfather served a 10-year term there: eight years in a camp, and then two in Vorkuta, at the coal mine. When I was six years old, we moved to Leningrad area, St. Petersburg area, where I grew up, finished school and then studied at the St. Petersburg Institute of Technology.

The first time I came to the United States was in 1998 for a business trip. The next year, after Russia’s default, I got an invitation from my company, and we moved to Orange County. I was 25 at the time and have lived here about half my life.

I have relatives in Ukraine, mostly in the eastern part, and I have relatives in Russia. I would call our family Russian-Ukrainian. My mother loved to sing Ukrainian songs; I grew up reading Ukrainian books, watching Ukrainian cartoons and visiting my grandparents in Ukraine every summer. My first language is Russian, but my Ukrainian has improved over the past 10 years because I’ve spent a lot of time there for work. I work for a software company, and we have most of our developers in Ukraine.

I’m angry. I’ve never been so angry in my life. These events have finally made me make a very important decision about what is evil and what is not. Before, I tried to be as tolerant as possible towards Russia. I really liked St. Petersburg. I love my country. Sometime in the future it will be a great country. I was so proud of Russia’s success in the early 2000s. But I started seeing that things are going wrong, maybe a little bit later than many people. I have friends who immediately after Putin came to power said, “Okay, nothing good will happen anymore. We have a KGB agent in the government.”

These events have finally made me make a very important decision about what is evil and what is not.

I think the time has come for collective guilt for the Russian people. I am a Russian. Even though I’m half Ukrainian, I think I’m guilty as well, because I probably did not spend enough time talking to my friends and family back in Russia; I didn’t voice my opinion in stronger terms. Now, the country is committing war crimes.

Even if Russia withdraws right now, I would like to see the sanctions continue for two, three years. So people in Russia will understand that all their wealth that they enjoyed in the last years actually happened because they were part of the world economy. I want them to understand their position in the world.

I have no mercy for Russia. I’m not going to until I see some actions, civil actions, protest, whatever it takes. If everybody goes to the streets, I think this regime will collapse. The Russian oppression machine cannot work with such a huge crowd. We saw this in Moscow in 1991 [when protestors rallied against the preservation of the USSR]. And we could see it again.

Unfortunately, right now you get 15 years in prison for saying something. It’s scary to go outside knowing that you can get such a harsh sentence. But what else you can do? People must speak up. The next thing you know, they could just start taking people from their apartments for no reason, which is most likely what happened with my grandfather. So either people sit and wait, or they do something.

Stella Kalinina is a Russian-Ukrainian American photographer based in Los Angeles working on contemplative stories about human connections, personal and communal histories, and the places we inhabit. She brings empathy, curiosity and a collaborative approach to portrait-based stories that are firmly rooted in a sense of place. 

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