Disillusion in Ukrainian Village

In Chicago's Ukrainian Village, both the U.S. and Ukrainian flags are proudly flown. Source: Spencer Kimball for Handelsblatt
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    As relations with Russia deteriorate, the next U.S. president will face pressure to increase sanctions against Moscow and send weapons to the Ukrainian military.

  • Facts


    • Chicago is home to 100,000 Ukrainians, one of the largest Ukrainian diaspora communities in the United States.
    • There is deep concern in the Ukrainian-American community that Republican candidate Donald Trump is too friendly to Russian President Vladimir Putin and will sacrifice Ukraine if elected president.
    • Many Ukrainian Americans are leaning toward Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, but they view the Obama administration’s current sanctions policy as too timid.
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The domes of St. Nicholas Catholic church tower above Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, its leafy streets and three-story, flat-top brick apartment buildings.

After the Sunday morning mass in Ukrainian, the congregation migrates downstairs for coffee and pastries. George Matwyshyn, a retired laboratory manager, serves as a parishioner at St. Nicholas.

Founded in 1915, St. Nicholas is both an architectural landmark and an anchor of the community, offering weekend classes that teach children about the Ukrainian language and culture.

Like many Ukrainian-Americans of his generation, Mr. Matwyshyn’s parents emigrated to the United States following the Second World War. His father was a partisan who fought against the Soviets.

Far from being a party ideologue, he voted for President Barack Obama in 2008, Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 and socialist Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton this year.

Now Mr. Matwyshyn, 65, is leaning toward picking Ms. Clinton on November 8, but only because he’s sure that Mr. Trump will be bad for Ukraine. The former secretary of state is harder for him to read.

“The situation is disgusting,” Mr. Matwyshyn said of the election. “Trump will sell Eastern Europe down the river, Clinton may or may not.”

The St. Nicholas parishioner is part of a community of some 100,000 Ukrainians in Chicago, which has one of the largest Ukrainian diaspora communities in the United States.

“People are sick and tired of war in Ukraine. Everybody is waiting for the end. ”

Maria Iwanec, Manager, Meest Karpaty Inc.

Many Ukrainian Americans are disillusioned not just with the ongoing war in Ukraine, but also with their political leaders in the United States, particularly their choices in the upcoming presidential election.

Over the course of the campaign, Mr. Trump has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader and has advocated for improved relations with Moscow, suggesting that he might recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine.

According to the New York Times, Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, acted as an important consultant to ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted by the mass protests in 2014 and fled to Russia.

But Mr. Obama has been disappointing too. Mr. Matwyshyn said the West hasn’t met its obligations to defend Ukraine, citing the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, and believes the least the United States can do is send weapons to support the military.

“Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are dying because they’re ill equipped,” he said.

St. Nicholas Catholic church offers mass in Ukrainian as well as Ukrainain culture and language classes
St. Nicholas offers mass in Ukrainian on Sunday and language classes on Saturday, Source: Spencer Kimball for Handelsblatt


Just down the street from St. Nicholas,  Maria Iwanec watched the 2014 revolution unfold on Facebook and television, from the confines of the shipping business that she manages in the heart of the Ukrainian Village.

The images of protesters gathering at the central square in Ukraine’s capital of Kiev moved Maria and her small staff at Meest Karpaty. They hoped Ukraine would find a better future in the European Union and wanted to show their support for the demonstrators.

“We were thinking about how to help, but we couldn’t do it by ourselves,” said Ms. Iwanec, who came to the United States in 1988 from Poland, where she was raised by Ukrainian parents.

Still undecided about what to do, 53-year-old Ms. Iwanec left for a brief vacation. She returned to find the business in a state of chaos as people crowded into the front office to ship donations to Ukraine.

In their eagerness to help, members of Chicago’s Ukrainian community of 100,000 brought everything from underwear to cans of chicken noodle soup and bottles of mouth wash.

“It was a disaster,” she said with a smile. “You couldn’t see the door.”

Founded by her brother, Meest Karpaty has served as bridge between Chicago’s Ukrainian diaspora and their friends and loved ones back home since 1991.

“The situation is disgusting. Trump will sell Eastern Europe down the river, Clinton may or may not.”

George Matwyshyn, Parishioner, St. Nicholas

In that sense, the business is living up to its name. Meest Karpaty means bridge to the Carpathian Mountains, which span central and eastern Europe.

Inspired by the outpouring of support, Ms. Iwanec and the small staff used their years of shipping expertise to organize the initial chaos into a weekly donation drive.

At the height of the donation drive, Meest was sending 15 to 20 boxes – each with a maximum weight of up to 110 pounds – at the company’s expense every week to Ukraine.

The shipments included canned food, winter clothing and medical supplies such as bandages and gauze for protesters who were wounded in clashes with security forces.

But in the years since the initial excitement of the uprising, many people in Chicago’s Ukrainian community have become disillusioned as the revolution has descended into a protracted and bloody war with Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern provinces.

According to Ms. Iwanec, the donations have fallen off as customers hunker down and focus on sending packages to their friends and loved ones in Ukraine. These days, Meest Karpaty is shipping five boxes a week to the families of soldiers who have been wounded or killed in the fighting.

“People are sick and tired of war in Ukraine,” she said. “Everybody is waiting for the end. They’re waiting for a miracle.”

Maria Iwanec helps Svitlana Selska ship a smartphone to Ukraine
Maria Iwanec, right, helps Svitlana Selska ship a smartphone to Ukraine, Source: Spencer Kimball for Handelsblatt


A short walk from Meest, past storefronts displaying “United We Stand for Ukraine” signs, the restaurant Tryzub serves traditional Ukrainian food such as pierogi and stuffed cabbage rolls in a modern setting, which matches the neighborhood’s up-and-coming status in Chicago.

Daniel Oleksiuk sits at the bar in Tryzub – named after the trident emblazoned on Ukraine’s coat of arms – where he’s ordered a dinner and a glass of Ukrainian beer for himself.

Mr. Oleksiuk’s grandparents emigrated to the United States after spending time in a displaced persons camp in Austria following the Second World War. A Chicago native who works in event management, he grew up speaking Ukrainian in the home.

Mr. Oleksiuk is a conservative who voted for Donald Trump in the Republican primary, but he has grown concerned that the real-estate mogul doesn’t know enough about the issues, particularly world affairs.

“The best way is to support good politicians in the country and give them money and advice. I don’t want more deaths.”

Mila, Ukrainian asylum recipient

“I don’t think he has the right people around him,” he said of Mr. Trump. “I think he’s getting bad information.”

But that doesn’t mean Mr. Oleksiuk is supporting Hillary Clinton. He said she has a poor track record as secretary of state and would probably just continue the Obama administration’s policy of imposing financial sanctions against Russia, while shying away from sending lethal military aid to Ukraine.

“They need bullets and cash,” he said of the Ukrainian government and military.

But some Ukrainians who have recently fled war and corruption in their homeland for Chicago are wary of the United States sending arms.

Mila, who declined to give her last name, left her home of Ternopil in western Ukraine with her daughter and husband a year and a half ago after receiving asylum in the United States.

The 32-year-old owned a successful business with her husband that sold sawdust briquettes, which many Ukrainians use to heat their homes because gas is expensive.

Men whom Mila described as belonging to pro-Russian criminal groups assaulted her husband and burned their business down because they support Svoboda, a Ukrainian nationalist political party.

Mila’s parents have told her to stay in Chicago because the situation hasn’t improved in Ukraine. She’s concerned the situation would only deteriorate further if the United States sent weapons.

“The best way is to support good politicians in the country and give them money and advice,” Mila said. “I don’t want more deaths.”

Many recent Ukrainian immigrants in Chicago come from Mila’s hometown.

Yaroslav Barskyy, left, says the Ukrainian government plays down the number of deaths from the fighting in eastern Ukraine
Yaroslav Barskyy, left, says the Ukrainian government plays down the number of deaths from the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Source: Spencer Kimball for Handelsblatt


The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America has been lobbying U.S. elected officials in Washington to respond to the many concerns of Ukrainian Americans.

The Illinois chapter, headquartered on the same block as Tryzub, is one of the largest and most active branches in the nation, according to Pavlo Bandriwsky, the chapter vice president.

Mr. Bandriwsky said the Illinois division was instrumental in establishing the Ukraine caucus in the U.S. Senate in 2015, which advocates for closer political, economic and military ties between the two countries.

The Ukrainian Congress Committee wants the next president to tighten sanctions against Russia and send lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, positions that neither candidate has officially backed.

“The sanctions that have been put in place at this point are extremely paltry,” Mr. Bandriwsky said. “There has been some training for the military, but it’s not the same as providing lethal defense weapons necessary to protect the country.”

“It's not just Russia, it's our own government's fault also. They earn money from it. ”

Svitlana Selska, human resources specialist

Back at the shipping company Meest Karpaty, Svitlana Selska is packing a smartphone for her family in Ternopil.

A 26-year-old dance instructor, Uber driver and human resources specialist, Ms. Selska tries to support her loved ones by sending packages throughout the year. The average monthly wage in Ternopil is $150, she said.

Ms. Selska originally didn’t want to come to the United States. A friend talked her into applying for the green card lottery and when she won, her parents encouraged her to try life in America.

Four years later, she is considering applying for U.S. citizenship. She’s worried about Ukraine’s future and wants a U.S. passport so her parents can apply for green cards if the situation gets worse.

Ms. Selska doesn’t believe sending weapons would improve the situation in Ukraine. She views the Ukrainian government as corrupt and believes it profits from the war.

“It’s not just Russia, it’s our own government’s fault also,” she said. “They earn money from it.”

Yaroslav Barskyy, 20, is visiting his aunt in Chicago during a break from his university studies in Ternopil. As a student, Yaroslav doesn’t have to serve in the Ukrainian military, but he has lost several friends in the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Like Ms. Selska, he believes the Ukrainian government is corrupt. He said Kiev doesn’t provide its troops with the equipment they need and doesn’t tell the truth about the number of soldiers dying in the east.

Mr. Barskyy, who studies social work, volunteers to help provide soldiers with psychological assistance when they return from the front. While he supports the United States sending weapons so the soldiers can properly defend themselves, he also hopes Washington provides psychological expertise to treat the soldiers when they come home.

Mr. Barskyy can’t vote in the U.S. election, but he’s following the debate. He’s concerned that Mr. Trump has ambitions to become a leader similar in style to Vladimir Putin.

“I hope things are better next year,” Yaroslav said. “It depends on the U.S. election. This is the most important country in the world. The U.S. can solve a lot of problems.”


Spencer Kimball is an editor with Handelsblatt Global and is based in Chicago. To contact the author: s.kimball@extern.vhb.de

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