People often ask me about my name. Sasha is a nickname for Alexandra.
“How do you get that?” people ask.
“It’s a Russian diminutive for Alexander or Alexandra, that’s my official name.”
I grew up during the Cold War, and the boys in elementary school made fun of me as a “commie.” I was seen as Russian because of my name, but in fact, I was named for my Ukrainian great-grandmother Alexandra (Sasha). She came to the U.S. from Zhytomir, a city in the north of the western half of Ukraine.
Zhytomir is a city which Russia recently bombed. The attacks destroyed a maternity hospital, a high school, and a residential neighborhood, and who knows how many people.
I visited Ukraine and Russia in 1989 as part of a delegation of three hundred American teenagers, organized by People to People, an immersive student travel program founded by Eisenhower in 1961.
In three weeks, we visited Moscow and five cities in Ukraine, including Kyiv. We spent a day at a Komsomol camp, the youth division of the Soviet Party, and hung out with families in their apartments. We danced in the disco at our Moscow hotel when we were supposed to be upstairs.
This was summer, just months before the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, when the USSR still existed. Next came the time of perestroika (restructuring of the economy), and glasnost (openness).
A funny thing happened in 2017, nearly 30 years after that trip. I got an email from Sergei. He attached scans of letters and photos I sent to him when I was a high school senior in 1991, just about to graduate, including my senior picture and a prom photo with friends.
I had forgotten entirely, but Sergei and I became pen pals after I came home from that trip to Russia. He found my address on a scrap of paper from someone I met during that trip, and wrote to me. I wrote back. It was an era when a Russian-American correspondence felt revolutionary after all the barriers between us.
We started to email back and forth in 2017. Sergei welcomed me to visit.
I asked what he thought about politics in his country.
He sounded extremely positive about Putin, calling him the incredibly smart, respected leader who had saved Russia from chaos after the fall of the Soviet Union. Everything he said about Putin contrasted with everything I had read about him as a dictator quashing dissent and sponsoring brutal anti-gay initiatives. Sergei was pleased with the election of Trump too and expected he would help Russian-American relations. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to visit, but a Turkish friend of mine and I thought it would make a good documentary to go and visit. I still think it would.
Since then I have spoken with other Russians I met in random ways, even one via an online dating app (we quickly found out our political views were not compatible). Often they expressed incredible admiration of Putin, to the point that I thought, these people are in a cult. I mean, I liked Obama, but I never talked about Obama as a savior the way they praised Putin.
It is hard to believe now that what is happening is happening.
Russia is bombing the hell out of Ukraine to take back this country, now, more than 30 years after that trip. In the intervening years, Ukraine, like the other former republics, of the USSR, became independent. The other nations are Georgia, Belorussia, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Those countries must all be watching and waiting, like all of Europe, like all of us.
Sergei and others living within Russia have their own views based on what they are hearing, and don’t get me wrong: Sergei seems like a lovely person. But to me, it seems impossible to not conclude that Putin wants to rebuild the Soviet Union, or at least start, within his lifetime (he is now almost seventy) and doesn’t care how many people he kills to grow his glory. I am not surprised by the extremely high level of support for Putin, based on my conversation with Sergei and others.
I feel an ancestral connection to my Ukrainian great-grandmother too as I watch in horror.
Many people have asked whether our focus on Ukraine is racist or white supremacist. Do we share the same level of concern for refugees who are not white and blonde with light eyes? This is an important question.
I care about the “human family,” and I am also deeply concerned for refugees of Afghanistan, Syria, and many other countries.
I do my best to live by a principle that I learned from Katie and Gay Hendricks, which is called “sorting the files.” In essence, “sorting the files” is a process of continually distinguishing what you can control, and what you cannot. I can share my story, but I can’t change anyone else’s mind. I can’t solve all the world’s problems (of course no one can). I feel called to share my personal glimpses of this complex situation because I have connections to Ukraine and Russia. I hope this situation in Ukraine can expand our hearts to consider the plights of all war refugees.
Finally, I want to share these two interviews with journalists who shed light on this crisis. Women, as my friend Sheryl pointed out, seem to be providing the best analysis. I found it helpful to watch these interviews to better understand what is happening right now, and I encourage anyone to spend the time watching them.