TAMPA — She first saw him with a group of Russian-speaking students who hung out together on the University of South Florida campus.
She noticed that the tall blond with the Coltrane and Sinatra tattoos seemed to know everything.
He was struck by her singing voice and the way her eyes seem to change color.
They were dating within two weeks and, in March 2019, moved together into an off-campus apartment.
The pair decided this year not to wait any longer. In a Tampa courthouse, Ivan Cherniavskyi from Kyiv, Ukraine, married Uliana from Moscow, Russia.
Their union was just weeks before Russian vehicles and tanks rolled into Ukraine, before airstrikes targeted civilian areas, before Moscow police began arresting thousands protesting the war.
The couple’s future in the United States is dependent on student visas. They have no idea when, or if, they ever can return home.
Watching from afar, they’re seeing war as no generation has before. The typical social media diet of fashion, music and influencers has given way to harrowing images of people standing in front of armored vehicles, a bombed-out university, a mother who gave birth in a bomb shelter.
They cope by staying busy. Ivan, 25, organizes pro-Ukraine rallies in Tampa, including one at the USF campus Wednesday that was a rallying point for about 50 Ukrainian and Russian students. Uliana, 22, posts anti-war messages and images on social media.
There’s no escaping the constant dread and fear for their families back home.
Ivan’s parents and 11-year-old brother live in central Kyiv, the capital city in the crosshairs of a 40-mile convoy of Russian military vehicles. While Uliana supports the economic sanctions against her country, she worries they’ll create hardships there.
“I’m staying safe. I’m warm in my house and I’m fed,” Ivan said. “But they’re not. … I want to hold them and embrace them. My mom especially.”
‘Their spirits are strong’
It feels to Ivan like the worst of the war unfolds while he should be sleeping.
Kyiv is seven hours ahead of Tampa. He awakens several times a night for news updates on his phone.
Fluent in Ukrainian, Russian and English, he scours Ukrainian and Russian news sites, as well as the BBC, the Associated Press and other western media.
A channel on the Telegram messaging app has become an information lifeline. Once used by the Ukrainian government to provide health information during the pandemic, its name recently changed from @COVID19_Ukraine to @UkraineNow.
It posts real-time information about imminent airstrikes, details about bomb shelters and messages debunking disinformation. The channel gets more than 8 million views per day, according to a Wired report.
Russians bombed a TV tower in Kiyv on Tuesday but, for now at least, Ivan’s parents still have communications and electricity. He calls and texts his family several times a day anxious for news, and reassurance.
There is no normal anymore. His father, a senior office manager, recently waited for five hours in a grocery store line for food. His mother, who has three dogs, took in two more from neighbors who decided to flee the country. His 11-year-old brother David’s school is closed.
“They’re scared, scared,” Ivan said. “It’s frightening and horrible, but they’re holding on. As any Ukrainians, their spirits are strong.”
Theirs is a typical middle-class family, Ivan said. His family lives in a two-bedroom apartment in central Kyiv. It’s not lost on him that it’s close to the Ministry of International Affairs building and a large police and firefighter station, all of which could be targets for airstrikes.
More than a million Ukrainians and other nationals already have fled, according to the United Nations.
Ivan’s family is staying put.
“What my mom said is, ‘If we are going to flee, who are our soldiers going to protect?’” he said. “I’m afraid. It’s hard, but I support it because our people are strong as well as our army.”
At USF, Ivan is a senior studying public relations and advertising. He has used those skills to make posters for pro-Ukraine rallies in Tampa and those being organized by Ukrainian friends in Las Vegas and California.
“Right now, you need to be organized and make yourself busy in order not only to help, but also to remain sane,” he said.
Ivan’s wife, Uliana, met her in-laws in Kyiv last year and bonded right away. It’s difficult to accept that it’s her country’s army that threatens their safety.
“It’s a bit easier when you hear their voices and they’re not panicking,” she said. “They’re really strong people.”
With relations between their two homelands fraught, marrying in Tampa seemed like the only option. It would have been impossible for both families to attend a wedding in either country.
‘She can’t see the future’
The conflict may be in Ukraine, but Uliana worries for her parents and 14-year-old brother in Moscow. She left home to study data analytics at USF and is now a senior.
She fears that the war will leave Russia isolated and strengthen Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime.
“My mom in Moscow is panicked,” she said.
She hopes the world understands that many Russians don’t support the invasion, but it’s dangerous for them to oppose it publicly. In addition to the police, she said, Russia has an internal army that cracks down on protests.
More than 8,200 Russians have been detained for anti-war actions since the start of the invasion, according to OVD-Info, a prominent Russian rights group that reports on incidents of police abuse.
The crackdown on protest and dissent hasn’t stopped Uliana from posting anti-war messages on Instagram, urging Russians to sign petitions and calling for Putin’s impeachment. She worries that her activity could endanger her family in Moscow.
In Russia, the invasion is officially being called a “special military operation.” Using the terms war or invasion could get you in trouble, Uliana said. Expressing opposition to the invasion or support for Ukraine is considered treason.
“Next time I want to go to Russia,” said Uliana. “I will really have to think if it’s safe to do so.”