Inna Mayorov doesn’t want to take sides.
The Ukrainian-American owner of Yummy Snamy European Food and Deli interacts with Spokane Slavs at her store every day, and lately that means hearing conversations about the escalating Ukraine-Russia conflict.
Just recently, a Ukrainian man came to the deli and aggressively voiced his pro-Russia views. Mayorov – who has a Ukrainian dad, a Russian mom and close friends and family in Ukraine – wasn’t going to argue with him.
“What do you do? OK, that’s your opinion. I still love you as a human being,” said Mayorov, who grew up in the Donetsk region that may soon be invaded by Russian troops. “It doesn’t mean that I will treat you differently.”
There are roughly 30,000 Ukrainian-Americans in Spokane County.
The vast majority of the county’s Slavic residents are Christian refugees who immigrated to the U.S. to escape religious persecution. Some fled the Soviet Union in the 1980s and early 1990s while others, like Mayorov, came in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Ukrainians and Russians often go to church together here, so the military action in Ukraine has made for difficult conversations.
Alex Kaprian, a pastor at Pilgrim Slavic Baptist Church who grew up in Mariupol, Ukraine and came to the U.S. in 1989, said many in Spokane’s Ukrainian and Russian communities don’t want to take sides.
“We’re not Ukrainians, we’re not Russians anymore, we’re Americans,” Kaprian said. “This is our country, of course we’re on the side of America.”
Petr Gaydarzhi, a minister at God’s Embassy church, spent much of his childhood in Izmail, a Ukrainian city on the Romanian border. Romania was under Soviet control at the time, and he remembers the barbed wire fence separating the two countries.
Gaydarzhi, who came to the U.S. in 1997, said the Ukraine-Russia conflict is causing division and confusion in Spokane.
“We have people that have actually defriended friends on Facebook just because they completely disagree on this issue,” Gaydarzhi said. “It has the potential to divide people for the rest of their life.”
In some instances, Spokane Ukrainians and Russians are simply trying to avoid discussing the conflict, Gaydarzhi said.
“Otherwise we’re going to go into hot debates that are not healthy,” he said. “We can’t see eye-to-eye on this issue.”
Many Ukrainians and Russians in Spokane are worried about their friends and family in Eastern Europe. Some in Spokane, more than 5,000 miles away, feel a sense of helplessness.
“It’s very emotional and hard, but you realize there’s nothing you can do,” Mayorov said. “I’m not in control. As a Christian, all I can do is pray for my people.”
There’s one issue people on either side of the conflict can agree on: Good information is hard to come by.
“The misinformation is beyond belief,” Gaydarzhi said. “People are watching different sources of news and everybody makes their own conclusion.”
Mayorov noted she doesn’t watch or read the news. She said she thinks both sides are spinning the story for their own ends, and that virtually no one has a comprehensive understanding of what’s going on. She’s getting most of her information secondhand from friends and family.
Kaprian and Mayorov both emphasized that Ukrainians and Russians shouldn’t start arguing with each other. There’s nothing to be gained, they said. Kaprian emphasized that he doesn’t want to see friendships strained.
“The conflict is there, we are here,” he said. “When people are arguing you don’t need to help them argue even more, you need to calm them down.”
Gaydarzhi said he’ll never trust Russia because the country has abused Ukraine for over a century. He said he doesn’t think Russian President Vladimir Putin has any interest in peace, and the U.S. should impose more aggressive economic sanctions to force him to back down.
“America should punch and then apologize later,” Gaydarzhi said.
Mayorov and Kaprian said they hope escalation can be avoided, and everyone should be working and praying to avoid bloodshed.
“We’re praying that God gives wisdom to those politicians to find a solution peacefully,” Kaprian said. “We don’t want people killing each other; we’re totally against war.”
“It’s up to each person individually whether you’re going to allow the division to come or you’re going to stand against it,” Mayorov said. “I’m one of those that’s going to fight for peace, no matter what.”