Reflections from Ukrainian and Russian immigrants: Roman and Stella

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

Part of 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 fifth, and final, 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.

Roman Korol, 24. Los Angeles, California.

Roman Korol
Age: 24
La Cañada Flintridge

I am a graduate student at Caltech in Pasadena doing a degree in theoretical chemistry. I’m also a Ukrainian citizen and have a strong connection to my home country. I go to Ukraine at least once a year. And my entire family is there except for my wife and child who are with me.

I went to Canada in 2014, after finishing high school in Ukraine, to do my bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto. I met my wife there, and made a lot of friends. In 2018, I moved here to start a Ph.D.

My parents are from two towns in northwestern Ukraine. My mom is from Lutsk, the city center of Volyn region in Ukraine. It’s a city of about 200 to 250,000 people. My dad is from an even smaller town called Volodymyr, right next to the Polish border. I grew up going back and forth between the two towns.

I started school in Lutsk and lived with my grandmother there for many years while my parents were working. She was a primary school teacher. She knew about Ukrainian traditions, all sorts of folklore that she taught my parents and then taught me as well. I did Ukrainian dance since I was five and a half years old, and I got quite good at it. When I moved to Toronto, that’s part of what helped me get established in the community. I was a member of two different dance ensembles there and met a lot of wonderful people through that. Here in Los Angeles I’m in an ensemble called Chervona Kalina, at the Ukrainian Cultural Center. The last three rehearsals were canceled for obvious reasons, but other than that, every Saturday I go there and practice dancing. Then we perform at different festivals and weddings and all sorts of events.

This war is a continuation of Ukraine’s struggle for independence. It has been treated as Russia's colony for a long time. Since it regained its independence about 30 years ago, it has struggled to decisively establish its sovereignty while sharing a border with a powerful and unpredictable country. Whatever you do, you can’t anger Russia too much.

For over 30 years, people have been vacillating between a pro-Western move and pro-Russian move. You can see that in the history of Ukraine. Ukrainians have become increasingly reluctant to join trade deals and economic relationships with Russia and have started to focus more on the European Union countries, which we hope will bring us more money, more benefits, better lives. I myself am from Western Ukraine, so you can imagine I’m very much pro-EU, pro-Western democratic freedoms, but I can understand others who weren’t ready for those, or didn’t accept them, or didn’t think they were valuable or something they needed.

I think that on one hand, the oscillations between Russia and the West, and on the other hand, this fear that Russia will again be aggressive towards Ukraine, were holding us back. We can see now that it was a justified fear. Since 2014, it’s stopped being a fear and started being a reality. Russia has been at war with Ukraine since they annexed the Crimean peninsula. These past eight years were sort of a gentle war. The war that nobody, neither side, wanted to escalate. And that’s no longer possible as of 15 days ago.

This fight is costly and bloody, and it’s important not just for Ukraine, but for the entire world, that we win.

The women and children in my family all went to Poland when Russia invaded. And of course, my father, my uncle, my grandfather are still in Ukraine and doing everything they can to help. It isn’t possible to describe with words the feelings, the emotions that you feel when your family is in the war zone and is in danger every day. I certainly wouldn’t wish that experience on anybody.

It’s important to know that Ukrainians are fighting for their identity, their freedom and their ability to elect a democratic government independent of tyrants’ influences. This fight is costly and bloody, and it’s important not just for Ukraine, but for the entire world, that we win. I would like to build a stable environment where Ukraine can prosper with its neighbors and not against them. But it’s going be a tough job for somebody 10 years from now. Whatever the time frame is, it’s going be a long one.

Stella Kalinina, 41. Los Angeles, California.

Stella Kalinina
Age: 41

I was born in Moscow, Russia, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1994 at the age of 13. Growing up, I spent summer vacations visiting our relatives in the small town of Izium in eastern Ukraine. As an adult, I traveled to Ukraine a number of times to visit my grandmother, who passed away last summer. Though the seeds of my love for Ukraine were planted during those childhood trips, it was my visits as an adult that cemented my connections to my ancestral homeland. I’m half-Ukrainian and half-Russian, and this conflict cuts through the core of who I am.

Between trying to get updates about my elderly relatives in Izium, keeping up with the news and images coming out of Ukraine in the media and on many Telegram channels — and working on this project — I have not thought about much other than the war during the past five weeks. Prior to the war, I felt that the end of the Soviet Union and my migration story were long in the past — what is now considered history, both of my family and the world. Then, in the blink of an eye, this personal and collective history was thrust to the forefront of current affairs. Memories of the difficult years immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union flashed through my mind’s eye like scenes from a long-forgotten film. I thought, “All the suffering, only to … get to this war?” I was baffled, heartbroken, confused. It’s a bit like suddenly learning that a disease that you believed you had successfully recovered from as a child has rotted your body from the inside out, to a point of a terminal diagnosis. I found myself rewriting my family’s history and the history of the world as I drove around Los Angeles from one interview and portrait to the next.

The beautiful spring light and the clear blue skies in LA felt entirely incongruous with the gray and smoky scenes of destruction and people fleeing Ukraine. One evening, I went for a walk and encountered a man and then a woman I thought were Ukrainian, because they also seemed distraught, and they reminded me of the people I had just photographed and the people I saw in news photos. In reality, I had never previously come across anyone who I thought was Ukrainian in my neighborhood! In the course of an hour-long walk, as I sensed the onshore breeze, I felt as if my body were descending back to the ground from a dark cloud floating above.

It occurred to me at the beginning of the war that this is an experience many Angelenos, immigrants from conflict-torn places, must have had many times before me. It’s strange yet humbling to join this group of people. I realized how selfish and irresponsible I was not to have followed past conflicts with the same level of attention and obsession as I have the war in Ukraine. I began to fear that people all over the world would reach a saturation point and not be able to continue following the news from Ukraine, a concern people I interviewed shared. In the days of the buildup of Russian troops around Ukraine, I saw a photo of a Ukrainian soldier in the trenches. That same moment, I had a realization that my culture and Ukraine’s had been reduced to a conflict photograph. How many cultures around the world was I exposed to only through conflict and war photographs? I felt pain from this realization, but nothing like the pain that would follow just a few days later when Russian troops attacked Ukraine.

I realized how selfish and irresponsible I was not to have followed past conflicts with the same level of attention and obsession as I have the war in Ukraine.

Everyone I met in this series was shaken with emotion, heartbreak, fear, anger. The conversations we shared felt emotional, cathartic and traumatic all at once. I came to learn about their families and loved ones, many of them still in Ukraine or among the millions of refugees who have fled. I felt a kinship with everyone I met, found in a dark hour.

My last phone conversation with my elderly relatives in Ukraine was on Feb. 24, when my great-uncle assured me that the town of Izium was quiet and would remain so. He told me that Izium didn’t have any military infrastructure, so there was nothing there of interest to the Russian troops. Then, a few days later, at night, the town got attacked — with force. We lost contact with my relatives after learning that they no longer had gas for heating their home in the middle of winter or for cooking, and no electricity for charging phones, or municipal water. After about a week of total silence, we learned that they were in a bomb shelter, news that came as a great relief. Images and videos of destruction in Izium have trickled in through various Telegram groups. The town has been decimated over the course of weeks of attacks. My great-aunt and great-uncle, both in their early 80s, have been in a bomb shelter for about four weeks now. And Izium is still being contested.

I know more about strangers in news photographs than my own family.

The most painful aspect of the last couple of weeks has been feeling my relatives recede in my consciousness as their life has become unknowable and abstract. I know more about strangers in news photographs than my own family. How can an 83-year-old who could barely walk, and who needed new knees even before the war, find any comfort in a concrete bomb shelter in the middle of winter? I try not to imagine.

I think of my next visit, perhaps to help rebuild Izium, and how we’ll sit together at the outdoor table in their garden, drink tea in the dark and share our stories.

But I fear the stories that they will tell me then.

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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