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Know the West

Reflections from Ukrainian and Russian immigrants: Mila and Roman

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 second 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.

Mila Inukai, 46. Los Angeles, California.

Mila Inukai
Age: 46
Highland Park

I was born and raised in Moscow. I left for France in 1997. After living in France for a long time, we were transferred for work to Japan; from there we moved to LA in 2012 for work in the entertainment industry.

My son left LA to study computer science and the Russian language in Moscow. He is currently finishing his degree there, with only three months to go. Every day we have dramatic phone conversations with him, trying to convince him to return to LA.

In my social group in Russia, everyone has divided into two camps. Some people are entirely on my side and think this is the end of the world, that you cannot attack another country, regardless of the reason. Then there are others who refuse to understand and really see what’s going on. They are finding strange explanations. If Russia supposedly wanted to “liberate” Donbas or Luhansk, then why did the Russian troops keep going into Ukraine?

I never voted for Putin. I’ve always taken my constitutional right to vote very seriously and wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always voted in Russian elections. Friends in Russia tell me, “You emigrated a long time ago. You don’t know what’s going on here. You don’t have a right to an opinion.” But I cannot remain silent. To be silent is to be complicit in the crime. I have lost many friends, as have many others.

To be silent is to be complicit in the crime.

I’m not a religious person, but I believe in the power of repentance. This war has to be stopped immediately. We have to begin to ask Ukrainians for forgiveness, and then the world, and then our own people. I don’t see any other way out. Repentance saved Germany in the end. It saved Japan to an extent, although they are still in the process. It takes great intellectual courage to stand up and say, “Please forgive me.”

I’ve visited Ukraine many times, including Kyiv and Lviv. When you arrive in Ukraine, you are filled with happiness. First of all, it’s always sunny there. I never remember there being bad weather. You land and there are banners everywhere welcoming you. I’m not saying that it’s an ideal country. I’m certain Ukrainians have many problems. Nonetheless, they have this quality of hospitality, as if you are at the home of a very close friend. There’s laughter, a feeling of joy.

In Russia we develop friendships over shared problems. I’m not saying that Russians are not good at friendship, but that the strength of friendships is tested by misfortune. I think that in Ukraine, friendship is built around joy.


Roman Melnik, 53. Pasadena, California.

Roman Melnik
Age: 53

I am originally from Minsk, Belarus. I came to the U.S. as a refugee with my parents at the age of 12 in 1981 back in the Soviet period. When we left Belarus, we took a train. The Soviet-Polish border was closed because of the Solidarity movement in Poland, so everyone leaving Belarus had to go through Ukraine. You took a train to Chop, which was on the Czechoslovak-Hungarian-Soviet border, in Ukraine, and that’s where you crossed into first Czechoslovakia and then into Austria.

I realize logically that I'm not responsible for what the Russian government does. I'm not even from Russia, although Belarus is obviously a co-aggressor here. I’m an American citizen, but nevertheless, I felt a real sense of shame. I’m ashamed that the cultural space of which I am a part could have allowed people like that to come to power and to have done what they did. The one thing that Putin is right about, although this by no means justifies invading another country, is that Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are part of the same cultural and linguistic space. It is very literally a fratricidal war. It’s relatives killing relatives.

It is very literally a fratricidal war. It’s relatives killing relatives.

When Russia went into Crimea in 2014, a significant percentage of the Russian speaking community here in the U.S. was pro-Putin, and supported the invasion. Unfortunately, there's still a significant percentage that supports Russia’s actions, something that I find completely unfathomable. Because these people have access to free media. They’re not restricted to the propaganda on Russian television. So it's difficult for me to digest that.

I think it has to do with the phenomenon of the echo chamber, and believing what you want to believe, because believing the alternative is uncomfortable. The alternative is that your country is acting in a genocidal manner, that it is killing civilians, that it is intentionally destroying hospitals, that it is dropping half ton bombs on residential areas. For Russian citizens who grew up with stories of World War Two, of fighting Nazism, of being the good guys, it's a real psychological leap.

My mother has been a Putin supporter for a long time and religiously watched Russian TV, and she finally came around. She called me a few days ago and she said, “Okay, I’ve been wrong all these years. He’s a monster. He’s lying. And now I see that.” I respect her for being able to admit that. But it’s easier for her because she lives here and has access to Western media. If you’re the average person in Russia, who doesn’t know how to use VPN or Tor browser, then you have to want to get the alternative information. And even if you’re confronted with it, you then need the strength to admit that your country is doing something awful. I think a lot of people don’t have the courage. I’m not saying that Russians are more morally deficient than others. I think that we’ve seen that phenomenon in the U.S. as well.

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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