Reflections from Ukrainian and Russian immigrants: Vladimir and Alex

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 first 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.

Vladimir Shindich, 76. Wattles Community Farm, Hollywood, California.

Vladimir Shindich
Age: 76
Wattles Community Farm, Hollywood

I was born in April 1945, at the end of WWII. My mother was a Jewish partisan in Ukraine. My father was Belarusian, born in 1901. They had a big age difference. When Ukraine was liberated, everyone was sent to Kyiv to rebuild. My mom was transporting tar paper in war-ravaged Kyiv with a female friend. They were settled in a building with no window panes, and they were trying to cover up the windows. My father was driving, delivering something for the hospital where he was recovering, and he helped my mom and her friend. That’s how my parents met, and then I was born.

I remember Kyiv of back then very well – war-ravaged, old, but nonetheless beautiful. When I came to Los Angeles in 1994 I was almost 50 years old. I spent the best years of my life in Kyiv with my friends, kids, mom, dad; I loved Kyiv very much. We bought a dacha [summer house] on the Desna River. It was wonderful there. I used to give tours of Kyiv during work conferences and everyone was always amazed by the city. When I saw how the Russian troops are attacking Kyiv now, my soul broke into pieces.

When I saw how the Russian troops are attacking Kyiv now, my soul broke into pieces.

I worked in Chernobyl soon after the nuclear disaster in 1986 because I was in radiophysics at the time. I was in charge of one of four teams at the Academy of Sciences tasked with finding contaminated areas in Chernobyl and monitoring the ecology there. We had to make sure the radiation would not go to Kyiv, that it wouldn’t get in the water. I worked there for three years, every day with a dosimeter in hand. When I saw that the Russian troops attacked Chernobyl, I was scared because I understood what it meant. The Chechens who Putin brought in kicked out the workers, but they don’t know how to use the equipment. If you don’t know what you are doing, what remains could also blow up. Then they attacked the other power plant, Enerhodar.

I have relatives and friends from Moscow and Leningrad. When one of them who lives here tells me, “Do you see what your Ukrainians are doing, killing our people?” I look at him and can’t understand. I tell him, “What are you talking about?” He says to me, “Don’t you watch TV?” He watches Russian TV. I tell him, “I watch TV, but that’s not what’s going on there.” He hangs up, and we don’t speak anymore.

I’m certain that Ukraine will not surrender. I know the people. I lived and worked with them. The young people who survive this will never forgive Russia. I think this is the hardest. You can get in an argument and still find common ground after. But after they kill your father, mother, child, wife, it’s impossible.


Alex Fridman, 37. Long Beach, California.

Alex Fridman
Age: 37
Long Beach

We immigrated from the former Soviet Union, from Ukraine, when I was about 10 years old. The city we came from is called Dnipro, but back then it was called Dnepropetrovsk. We moved to New York City, first to Brooklyn and then to Queens. All of my family is in the New York area right now; we don’t have close relatives left in Ukraine. It has been strange to experience what’s going on in Ukraine, when I just have my childhood memories that are there.

We lived in a big apartment building. Almost everyone in my family was an engineer. I remember having a lot of freedom as a kid, running around with my friends and playing near the Dnieper River. We had a farm, a plot of land in a village where we would grow strawberries, cherries, currants and beans. In a different plot we grew sunflowers and potatoes. My main memories were happy, but there’s a lot that we were kind of shielded from. For example, I didn’t even know that we were Jewish until a couple years before we left. I think it was just not talked about. I remember my mom telling me later that our neighbor or my teacher was anti-Semitic, but at the time, I had no real sense of it. When you’re a kid, things just happen to you, and you don't necessarily know why.

The trauma of past migration and forced migration is coming back for a lot of people.

The trauma of past migration and forced migration is coming back for a lot of people, for a lot of Ukrainians and even Russians who are living here now. I was reading about how Jewish communities in Ukraine are 2000 years old. I’m afraid, as a Jewish person, that a lot of Jews will leave Ukraine and not come back – they’ll go to Europe or to Israel. And then this 2000 year history of Jews in Ukraine, what will become of it? Jewish people have lived in so many different places, but there's also the history of being exiled from those places.

I think a lot about the things lost in war, like the many artifacts that were looted and sold on the black market or destroyed during the Iraq War. Obviously, war has this enormous human cost in lives, but there’s also what’s lost when products of culture are destroyed, these items that have been treasured and saved and passed down. There is also the impact on LGBTQ+ people. Ukraine, which is not perfect, is still a lot better than Russia for queer and transgender people. What small gains have been made will probably be erased, and that’s also incredibly tragic to me.

I was thinking about the long history of oppression of Ukraine, like Holodomor (man-made famine that caused mass starvation in the Soviet Republic of Ukraine in the 1930s). Ukrainian people have a long memory of this history, just like Jewish people do. It’s a beautiful country with a unique culture. I think a lot of Americans don’t fully understand that the Soviet Union was an empire that exerted power over all these different cultures and ethnicities.

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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