'Proud of our ancestors': Ukrainian-Americans in North Dakota concerned with Putin’s war plans
Four Ukrainian-Americans, living in the cultural enclave of western North Dakota, share their culture, history and perspective on the geopolitical news of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian crisis has been the center of international news for years, if not decades. Recently Ukraine has become the focal point of global headlines as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to amass troops on the Ukrainian border in a calculated cold provocation that could see the tides turn to full-scale war.
More than 5,000 miles across the globe, on the Western Edge of North Dakota, a small enclave of Ukrainian-Americans watch and wait in bated breath as the world's powers inch closer to a potential war in their motherland.
Emil Anheluk, Roy Basaraba, Lillia “Lily” Jessop and Lyubchuck Shkandriy spoke with The Dickinson Press and shared their culture, history and individual perspectives on the geopolitical news of a potential Russian invasion of the Ukraine.
A rugged life in the Badlands
Born in 1926, Basaraba is 95 years old. He has nine children, 27 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
“Don’t complain about getting old, not everyone does,” he said.
Basaraba grew up on a Badlands ranch near Fairfield, which is 15 miles north of Belfield. He was the youngest of nine children. He recounts how they had no running water, and their mother washed their jeans every night in a galvanized tub on top of a wooden stove. The droughts, heat, swarms of grasshoppers and locusts were tough in the 1930s, he said.
"Oh my gosh, it was tough," he said, expressing great admiration for the hard work of his and other families who lived that lifestyle. "If those mothers aren't saints, then I don't know who is."
There’s a cemetery near the Catholic church they used to attend containing a grotto, which Basaraba said he’s very proud of. He called it a monument to the bravery of those early settlers.
His Ukrainian ancestors came to America in the early 1900s. He marveled at their daring spirit for venturing halfway across the world to a place with a foreign language and no guarantees.
“I’m proud of our ancestors. They had the courage and the insight to come here and start a new life,” he said, adding that he admires the immigrants who are still coming here today.
In the 1970s, Agnes Pallanuk began laying the foundation to establish the Ukrainian Cultural Institute in Dickinson, which Basaraba described as an essential part of the community that has helped preserve the Ukrainian heritage on the Western Edge.
On a trip organized by members of the Ukrainian Cultural Institute in 1996, Basaraba fulfilled a lifelong dream of traveling to his ancestral homeland. His mother Pearl always talked about the mother country as, “heaven on earth.” He said he understood what she meant once he visited.
Despite Soviet communism hindering the improvement of living standards among his Ukrainian relatives, he explained that the family he visited had a small garden on three acres, a house and a barn. They also had livestock of two horses, one cow, chickens and a few pigs.
“They had electricity, but no facilities (indoor bathrooms). They didn’t have a car. I didn’t see any refrigeration in the house. It was still almost as bad as it was in the early part of the 1900s,” Basaraba said.
Different century, same old Vlad
Basaraba stays in the loop regarding international affairs.
“I listen every day and try to catch the news,” he said.
Ukraine has a long history of Russian oppression. Stalin forced two famines on eastern Ukraine in 1921 and 1932, known as the Holodomor, resulting in more than 8 million deaths. Basaraba saliently pointed out that approximately a century ago the Russian tyrant Vladimir Lenin seized eastern Ukraine and brutally oppressed its people. Now, Vladimir Putin seeks to do the same.
Basaraba believes communist dictator Xi Jinping is also paying close attention to events in the Ukraine, and may take similarly aggressive measures against their own vulnerable neighbors if the United States and her allies don't send a quick and decisive message that unfettered aggression, even in discourse, will not be permitted against sovereign nations.
“China is going to take Taiwan. They feel the same way about Taiwan as Russia does about Ukraine,” he said. “Taiwan is not a threat to China, nor anybody else. It’s another freedom-loving people, living there democratically in peace and no threat to anybody. We need to do something now to stop that system.”
Basaraba believes that President Joe Biden’s conduct has been one of appeasement, and as such invites provocations.
“He says something tough one day then backs off the next day. It doesn’t help the matter any that we show weakness like that… I’m afraid the Russians are going to take Ukraine because Putin will not back off. The West is not doing anything but sanctions. Those sanctions are junk,” he said. “I wish we had a stronger government right now. We’re all so divided, it’s not good.”
Basaraba, who served in the U.S. military during the Korean War, pointed to former President Ronald Reagan as an example of a strong leader who, despite some faults, was tough on dictators.
“Reagan stood up to Russia. He says, tear down that wall Gorbachev. He called it an evil empire,” he said.
Jessop, 29, is from Tseniv, a small Ukrainian village of 800 people in the Ternopil Oblast province of Ukraine. She said that although there has been some corruption in the Ukrainian government, living standards have continually improved.
“We had like one car, two pigs and some chickens — just enough for the family to take care of a few acres of land... enough wheat for the year… It was a different lifestyle,” Jessop said. “I think the economy is kind of prospering.”
Her father was a geography teacher and her mother was a nurse in the motherland.
“My classmates’ parents, not everybody had jobs, so they would have to go abroad like to Poland for seasonal jobs in the field picking strawberries, cherries and stuff like that,” she said.
She’s heard stories from her parents that after the Soviet Union fell, it was tough to get basic commodities like bananas, or fabrics to sew their clothing. Now, food markets are fully stocked with fruits and vegetables. She said she’s troubled by what’s going on in there today.
“Kyiv is one of the oldest cities in Europe and was founded in 482, while Moscow was founded in 1147,” she said.
She arrived in New York in 2011, before permanently moving to the U.S. in 2013. Today she lives in Dickinson with her three children and husband Charles, who works for Fisher Industries.
Baptized in secrecy
Shkandriy first came to the U.S. as a student in 2005. Born in 1985, he grew up in western Ukraine and recalled what life was like under Soviet rule.
They had four television channels, all of them in the Russian language. Every family was required by law to have a government issued flag in their house to put up on the wall for Soviet holidays. He found it in the garage one day as a young child.
“I started running around with it, pretending I was some kind of a soldier. I got into big trouble with my uncle and my grandma,” he said. “She saw me running with the red flag. They put it away and said, ‘We’ll never see that, only when we have to.’”
He said his parents took great risks to pass on their Christian faith.
“I was baptized in that house, kind of secretly and quietly because my parents would get in trouble and probably lose their jobs if neighbors found out… That was against (the law). Church and religion wasn’t something that was welcome in the Soviet Union,” he said.
Shkandriy doesn’t think highly of Russia or its leader, who has spent the past 22 years tightening his grip on power. He noted Putin’s corruption, human rights violations and kleptocratic policies. Putin’s net worth has been estimated to be more than $80 billion. He is notorious for having political opponents assassinated , sometimes with poison.
“War is convenient for Putin and for Russia, because that country has no future,” he said. “For him, having external enemies such as Ukraine, NATO and Western Civilization is very convenient because he can continue with his regime. He can (shift) blame for all the problems… That country has no roads, no infrastructure.”
Russia has experienced stagnant economic growth since the Soviet collapse. According to the most recent U.N. data, it ranks 11th in nominal GDP, below Canada and South Korea.
Shkandriy’s sisters, aunts, grandparents and other family members are still living in Ukraine. He communicates with them daily.
“A delicate political game is what’s happening right now. And just like with everything else, media is making things scarier than what they are.” he said. “I’m panicking here more than my family in Ukraine.”
Even if an invasion happens, he’s confident in Ukraine’s future.
“There is a high chance Russia will invade… but they’re not going to take over the entire country. They don’t have that capacity,” he said. “The consequences would be devastating for both us and them, probably worse for them.”
Since 2012, Shkandriy has lived in Medora, North Dakota, with his wife and children. He is the hospitality director for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation.
A dream of sovereignty
Anheluk described the dynamic between the Ukraine and Russia as an abusive relationship, marked by the latter taking repeated strategic steps to isolate the former since the fall of the Soviet Union.
He believes there’s only one way to secure sovereignty for Ukraine.
“I think NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) needs to stop tinkering around and accept Ukraine in. That will tick Russia off something fierce, but NATO is an organization of peace, an alliance of peace, and not of offense,” he said.
In 2008, President George W. Bush advocated for Georgia and Ukraine to become members of the alliance, but those efforts were dropped shortly after he left office.
Emil Anheluk’s ancestors reached America in the first decade of the 20th century, some via Ellis Island and others through Canada. Anheluk lives in Dickinson, North Dakota, and is active in the choir at St. Demetrius Catholic Church , where his great-grandfather was the cantor (lead singer).
“The Ukraine they left wasn’t even Ukraine, it was Austria-Hungary. Of course, things have changed quite a bit over the past 100 plus years,” he said. “The timing was actually amazing because they escaped right before World War I… After that trying to get out of Eastern Europe was very difficult.”
Like the other Ukrainian-Americans who shared their story with The Press, Anheluk is immensely proud of his Slavic heritage.
“Sometimes I wonder if people kind of question where your loyalties lie. I always say that I’m American, in a Ukrainian way,” Anheluk said.
During the Cold War, the Soviets kept much of their nuclear stockpiles in the soviet satellite countries of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus. According to Steve Pifer of the Brookings Institute, “In 1991, Ukraine had 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads — a larger arsenal than those of Britain, France and China combined.”
In 1994, the three aforementioned nations, along with the United States, United Kingdom and Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum. In it, the former Soviet republics agreed to give up the nuclear weapons in exchange for guarantees that their sovereignty and current borders would be respected. When pressed on this, American diplomats and policymakers have pointed out this was a political agreement, not a legally binding treaty ratified by the U.S. Senate.