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Tampa Bay’s Russian expatriates reflect on Ukraine: ‘It’s like a tidal wave’

Just as the war in Ukraine has held the world’s attention for the past week, local Russian and other East European expatriates have been following along.
Vladimir Malkin emigrated to the United States after the Soviet Union collapsed. (Times 2019)
Vladimir Malkin emigrated to the United States after the Soviet Union collapsed. (Times 2019) [ Natasha Kondrashova ]
Published Mar. 2|Updated Mar. 3

Vladimir’s Collection in St. Petersburg has for two decades kept a Russian flag and coat of arms above the door. Thousands of handcrafted Russian souvenirs crowd its shelves.

While the artist and proprietor, Vladimir Malkin, hopes things stay that way, he said he has a gut feeling that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already affected his business. He said he’s recently received calls at the store from people telling him to go back to Russia.

“I understand, because people are angry with Russians,” said Malkin, who immigrated to the U.S. after his native Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. “But I hope they realize, we are not Russians, we are not the Russian government, we are American citizens, patriots of the United States.

“We stand with Ukraine right now, because Ukraine is suffering. They are our brothers and sisters.”

Just as the war in Ukraine has held the world’s attention for the past week, Russian and other Eastern European expatriates living in Tampa Bay have been following along, though with their own personal histories of the region.

Irina Lafferty moved to Pinellas County from Russia 12 years ago after marrying an American veteran.

Lafferty was not surprised, she said, when she spoke to family and friends in Russia over the WhatsApp messaging platform this week and learned that they did not know Russian ground troops had invaded Ukraine.

“They know there is bombing and air strikes, but they told me, ‘No, the army is outside Ukraine’,” Lafferty said. “There is strong propaganda, and the (Russian) government lies.”

Lafferty now runs the Russian School of Tampa Bay in Clearwater, where she teaches the Russian language to children. She said the war in Ukraine has been a near-constant topic among the teachers there and the parents of her students.

“They are Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians, Lithuanians, people from Kazakhstan, and they don’t believe they are enemies to each other,” Lafferty said. “I have young mothers with parents in Ukraine, even in Kyiv, and they’re afraid because of the bombing.”

Lafferty doesn’t think the war will affect her business much, “because people know it’s not the Russian people who are aggressive, it’s that wicked dictator and the people around him,” she said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At Euro Food on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa, the owner’s business card has a picture of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, and the shelves are stocked with products from Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. Much of the talk among customers these days, said owner Adrian Volovetski, is about the war.

“Of course everyone’s talking about it,” he said. “Everybody is against the war. Obviously, everyone wants peace, that’s all I hear.”

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Volovetski said Tuesday he’d been calling his own relatives in Ukraine, who live near the Polish border, every night recently.

He said he has a friend who lives in Riverview and who recently went back to Ukraine to visit relatives and got stuck there. He has tried, but has not been able to reach him for two days.

Russia’s invasion has disrupted relations in the Russian and Ukrainian communities, said Ana Sidorenko, a St. Pete Beach resident and a board member of the Russian American Club of St. Petersburg.

“At the Russian American club we all socialize,” said Sidorenko, 83. “We have Ukrainians, Polish, Americans, Russians, everyone is welcome and has always gotten along with no attitude, we are all friends.”

Yet when the club had its annual pancake party, Maslenitsa, which is held to usher in Lent, not everyone welcomed it, Sidorenko said.

“Some of the Ukrainians got offended and said, ‘How could you celebrate anything when there is war?’” Sidorenko said. “This situation is like a tidal wave that has swept the whole world, and now we have people in the club angry at each other. It was never that way before.”

For Sidorenko, who was born in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union and led by Joseph Stalin, the current climate at the club is at odds with its promise.

“We are not communists or socialists, we are just people, and we love this country, and we want to remain just people,” Sidorenko said. “We are very proud to be (Americans), but at the club we do not encourage political conversations, we are just simply people.”

Amid distant echoes of a past that they thought they had left behind, the worst is feared, said Ellie Roche, another board member of the club. Roche was born in the U.S., but her father was Russian and her mother was Ukrainian.

“I can’t speak for all the members because they all have different situations, but mostly people are shocked and surprised that Russia actually attacked,” Roche said. “The majority of our members are World War II generation, so for them, to see another war in Europe is just horrific.”

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