Perspectives on Ukraine-Russia tensions from Sebastopol’s Ukraine sister city

By Steve Levenberg, SoCoNews, February 21, 2022

ukraine sister city

Sebastopol World Friends hold the Ukrainian flag in solidarity with Sebastopol's sister city. (Courtesy Steve Levenberg)

Lately, even here in calm and relatively isolated Sebastopol, our lives have seemed somewhat fraught. The pandemic, national issues of great controversy, how to help the homeless and many other issues command our attention and our public discourse; but war on our border, next door, is not really something that occupies our attention. Unfortunately, for our friends in Ukraine, especially in our Sister City of Chyhyryn, war on their border is all too real.

Chyhyryn, Ukraine, Sebastopol’s Sister City, is roughly in the center of Ukraine, but only about 500 km, a little more than 300 miles, from the area where the Russian incursion in Donbass occurred in 2014.

Just imagine if a foreign power threatened the national sovereignty of the United States as close as Reno. That’s how close the front line in the current Russian-Ukrainian tension is to our friends in Chyhyryn.

What do they think about this, and how is it affecting them? It seemed important for us, here in the safety of our lives in Sebastopol to understand this and to know what we can do. How can we help?

Many of us in Sebastopol have long-time friendships with Chyhyryn’s citizens, so we reached out and asked how this is affecting them and what they think of the current tensions. Our contacts with friends in Ukraine extend beyond just Chyhyryn, so we were able to also hear from friends in Kalush, near the western border.

Communication, even with good friends in Ukraine, is not always easy. The time difference, +10 hours, is challenging; technology does not always sync perfectly; and, especially in Chyhyryn, internet access and computer availability is not widespread. Oh, and there’s the language! Our communication is imperfect at best but we feel that there is good understanding even if there’s not perfect translation.

Our contact in Chyhyryn, Svitlana Pylypenko, took on the task of posing our questions to a wide range of her fellow citizens in Chyhyryn. Here are some of their responses.

First, we asked just how the current tension between Russia and Ukraine affected their daily life.

Julia Barvinok, who is a junior research fellow in the Chigirin (Chyhyryn) National Historical and Cultural Reserve said:

“My family is worried about the introduction of mandatory military service for women. This means that I must undergo appropriate training and, in the event of an escalation in the military conflict, go to war to defend my homeland.”

Dina Verbova, another Chyhyryn resident expressed it a little differently: “Sometimes you can kill not only with a bullet. The hardest thing is to live with uncertainty, fear and panic.”

Vitaliy Sinyakov, who serves as the Chair of Friends of Chigirin (Chyhyryn), their Sister City Association, echoed those feelings: “The daily subconscious pressure of danger affects how you build your life. Constant conversations about (the Ukraine/Russian tension) do not allow you to remain calm.”

Both Yura Hulivatiy and Diana Babii, Ukrainian friends from Kalush, near the far western border about 750 miles away from the Russian military build-up in the East but only 270 miles from the northern border with Belarus where troops are also stationed, acknowledged that the current tensions have crept into their daily conversations and caused them to think seriously about how they will need to respond and react if a military conflict erupts.

Everyone we interviewed from Chyhyryn had friends or acquaintances who had been involved in the actual fighting since the Russian incursion in Donbass in 2014.

With regard to what they expect to happen with current tensions, there was a strong general hope that it would be resolved diplomatically but cautious pessimism about whether that was possible.

Yura Hulivatiy expressed a strong belief that the economic and practical consequences for Russia would be so negative if they acted militarily that that would cause them not to act. Others simply echoed their hope that everything will be resolved peacefully.

Dina Verbova said: “At no time did war resolve conflicts, it only brought death and destruction. Therefore, we very much hope for the wisdom of diplomacy.”

Julia Barvinok added a quote from an ancient Ukrainian tradition: “Achieve the goal not with a sword and a fist, but with a pen and humility.”

Despite that strong hope for a peaceful solution to these current tensions, there was a strong common thread in almost every response expressing a proud, forceful resolve both personally and nationally to stand up to aggression.

Julia Barvinok said: “The Ukrainian people have gone through a lot of suffering, persecution, and oppression for many years and we, the descendants of glorious men, must prove to the whole world that we are worthy to live with dignity, and not to forget at what cost the freedom and independence of Ukraine was won.”

Dina Verbova added: “Ukraine is ready to defend its independence, its territory, its people!”

So, the tension is real, and it’s affecting our friends in Ukraine in a very real way. What can we do? First, it’s important to hear and understand what our friends there wanted us to know about the current tension. Diana Babii likened what we hear and know about Ukraine to seeing only the tip of an iceberg.

The real story is so much bigger than what it seems right now. Both she and Yura emphasized a perspective about how long the struggle for freedom and independence from Russian influence has gone on. Ukraine, they said, has been at war with Russia “since the beginning of time.” Our friends from Chyhyryn echoed those sentiments and also emphasized the possible global consequences of any military conflict with Russia and the importance of widespread support.

Dina Verbova said: “We are a young country, so we really need the support and help of the international community and world institutions which can influence the aggressor country.”

And Vitaliy Sinyakov said simply: “Very little depends on Ukraine, it is more about NATO-Russia relations.”

There may be very little that we can “do” to influence this situation other than to understand it, let our elected officials know that we care and send our best thoughts. One tangible way that you can do that, if you are inclined, is at #StandWithUkraine. This site displays pictures of individuals and organizations from all over the world expressing unity with Ukraine. We have heard from our friends in Ukraine that seeing these expressions of unity is very meaningful to them. Soon, Sebastopol World Friends, together with the Sonoma County Library’s Sebastopol branch will be sponsoring a community activity to produce peace flags here that will fly in Chyhyryn to be exchanged with similar flags produced by our friends in Chyhyryn. Watch the Library and Sebastopol World Friends’ Facebook pages for more details soon. These efforts are all tangible manifestations of Sebastopol World Friends’ founding principle: “World Peace, One Friend at a Time.”

This article would not have been possible without the help of many friends. In Chyhyryn, Ukraine: Svitlana Pylypenko, Julia Barvinok, Dina Verbova, Vitaliy Sinyakov, Lyudmila Birko, and Ivan Birko. In Kalush, Ukraine: Yura Hulivatiy and Diana Babii, who provided translation for our contacts with Chyhyryn.

Here in Sebastopol, this would not have been possible without the help and support of Patricia Deignan, and everyone in Sebastopol World Friends, our Sister City organization.

This article was produced by SoCoNews. See more news at soconews.org