Protesters rallied outside San Francisco’s ferry building on Sunday opposing Russia’s moves toward invading Ukraine. Credit: Andriy Shegera

The Ukrainian diaspora passed a sleepless night Wednesday as Russian troops executed a full-scale invasion of their homeland in the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II. The invasion left the world in disbelief even as U.S. intelligence had reported for weeks the possibility of attack from the country’s north, east and south. 

Now, the entire country is under attack, with Russian troops pushing dangerously close to the capital, Kyiv. U.S. President Joe Biden said in a press conference Thursday that he fears Putin “has much larger ambitions than Ukraine. He wants to, in fact, re-establish the former Soviet Union.” 

“I am devastated,” Nataliia Goshylyk, who is visiting Berkeley on a Fulbright for the year from Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, wrote in a text message. “I’ve got hundreds / thousands of people in Ukraine. I can’t even contact them all.” 

Goshylyk has been exchanging messages with friends and family, who are hiding in bomb shelters after explosions shook their cities in the morning. She worries she could lose contact with loved ones. 

Two days ago, Goshylyk wondered whether she would come home to a changed country. Now, she’s worried if there will be a Ukraine at all.  

“I hope I’ll have a country to come back to,” Goshylyk wrote.

Igor Tregub, who was born in Kyiv and is active in local Berkeley politics, was glued to his phone for much of the night, reading about each step of the encroaching Russian army and awaiting messages from his cousin in Kyiv.

“Are you safe?” Tregub asked. “For now,” his cousin replied. He and his family temporarily retreated to a bomb shelter. “So very strange feeling,” his cousin wrote.

Like other Ukrainians in Berkeley and beyond, I am resigned to watching the culmination of an eight-years-long, slow-burning war through a computer screen more than 6,000 miles away.

I was born in Odesa, a multicultural city on the Black Sea, said to be the origin of an entire Soviet generation’s sense of humor, including my father’s. When I was 2 years old, my family immigrated to the United States and I have returned to Ukraine only three times, once to do research for my undergraduate thesis and work at an English language newspaper in the country’s capital. 

While I don’t have any relatives there — my dad’s side of the family immigrated to Cleveland in the ’90s — much of my identity is rooted in Ukraine, forged through my writing about the country and the relationships I’ve made with people there, from friends of my parents to former colleagues. I fell asleep Monday night afraid to wake up for fear of what I would read on the news. I’ve spent the past three days calling Ukrainians all around the East Bay in an attempt to do something. 

On Wednesday, I spoke with Yuriy Gorodnichenko, a professor of economics at UC Berkeley, who immigrated from Ukraine in 2001, an hour before Putin declared war on Ukraine, promising to “demilitarize” and “denazify” the country. I asked him how he was doing. He laughed.

When the missiles started falling, I sent Gorodnichenko an image of a Ukrainian flag. He responded with four words: “the day of infamy.” Later: “Ukraine will fight back.” Gorodnichenko’s parents, who live in Kyiv, had packed suitcases before going to sleep Wednesday night. But he said they didn’t have plans to flee the country. “Ukraine is their home,” Gorodnichenko said.

A month ago, Gorodnichenko wrote a blog post warning of the destabilizing consequences of Russian aggression in Ukraine.

“Indeed, what may happen in Ukraine is likely to determine the future of global security and order,” Gorodnichenko wrote in the post. “Even if one does not care about Ukraine per se, Ukraine happens to be a linchpin to so many fates. The stakes can’t be higher. This is the time for the free world to stand united in Ukraine’s support.” 

Like me, Jeneya Fertel, a UC Berkeley grad and North Oakland resident, was 2 years old when he immigrated from Ukraine. He still has relatives in Kharkiv, a city just 50 kilometers from the Russian border, which has been under attack since Wednesday night. 

For him, it is especially painful to watch Putin’s interference with the freedom of Ukrainian citizens. “There’s this nation of people united in wanting to be a democratic country,” he said. “And that desire is being thwarted by essentially one person clinging to this idea of Soviet empire.” Fertel said he is feeling mostly sad and helpless.

After feeling “immobilized” for several hours, Tregub rallied himself to do what he could from afar for the people of his home country. On Tuesday, Tregub helped get the City of Berkeley to pass a resolution condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine. Thursday morning, he organized a fundraiser for the Berkeley 10k this weekend — donations will go toward United Help Ukraine, a nonprofit distributing humanitarian aid to Ukrainians affected by war.

Nataliia Goshylyk provided a list of suggestions of what Americans can do to help: 

  • Use correct language. It’s not a crisis, it’s war. 
  • Speak up on social media and to anyone you can. Spread the word. Try to understand what the conflict is about. What does Russia want? What does Ukraine want?
  • Contact anyone you know from Ukraine. Ask if they need anything. Probably they don’t but attention is important. 
  • Donate to Ukrainian charities if you want and can. You can donate to Voices of Children, which helps children traumatized by the war receive mental health care, or NovaUkraine, a Bay Area-based nonprofit providing aid to Ukraine.

Ukrainian Americans have organized a protest outside San Francisco City Hall at 4 p.m. Thursday