Lower Valley couple worries about Ukrainian friends

Mar. 7—Jennifer Cahn and David Fisher are watching the news out of Ukraine closer than most since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a military invasion of its neighboring country on Feb. 23.

The couple has many friends there, and they’re worried about them.

Cahn and Fisher spent a year living in Kyiv, from 2012 to 2013, after she won a Fulbright grant to work at Ukraine’s national folk art museum and teach classes at the national university. Fisher, a Russian history professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Brownsville, taught his classes online during the year abroad and their two young daughters attended grade school in Kyiv.

“It was an amazing year,” Cahn said. “It’s hard to believe it was so long ago.”

The couple also lived in Russia, from 1992 to 1995, when Fisher worked in St. Petersburg as director of an educational advising center for Russians to study in the United States following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cahn, now a grant writer for the UTRGV School of Medicine, studied Russian art history as a graduate student. They both speak Russian.

Cahn said they’ve been checking in with friends in and around Kyiv as often as possible, communicating mainly via Facebook Messenger.

“This morning I got a message from a friend just saying, ‘We made it through the night. We’re OK,’ she said.

Fisher said one friend texted that the battle was really getting underway in Kyiv, and that her apartment block was along one of the defensive lines, writing, “I hope to write you tomorrow that we are well.”

“And she did,” Fisher said. “She wrote me the next day and she said they’re OK, but they’re running out of food. The grocery stores are all bought out and things have gotten expensive. They’re spending the nights in basements. Some have a sunny disposition but they’re really furious.”

Cahn said a Ukrainian friend who lives in Brownsville has family in Sumy, a key city en route to Kharkiv that’s been under attack since the start of the invasion.

“She is very worried about her family there and so kind of keeps me posted on what they’re going through also,” Cahn said.

Looking back, Fisher described his year in Kyiv as “a wonderful surprise.”

“I hadn’t been there before, even though I had spent a lot of time in Russia,” he said. “One of the most amazing things to me is just the culture on the street, the way people treat each other. There was a real live-and-let-live attitude.”

It even extended to the subway stations, Fisher said.

“People did not push and shove,” he said. “I’ve been in subways in Moscow and St. Petersburg and it’s like New York City or something, elbows out, everybody in a tussle. But the Ukrainian subway stations weren’t like that. … There’s a real kind of community in the air, even in a big city like Kyiv.”

Fisher said he was also stuck by the Ukrainian sense of identity evident in embrace of folk traditions and the many museums for folk culture and architecture.

“There’s commercial billboards on the streets too, but also ones about just the pleasure of living in a sunny land with sunflowers growing,” he said. “There was this kind of positive attitude in the air about life there, not that they didn’t have their own struggles with corruption and dissatisfaction with politicians and what not.”

Ukraine, with a multi-national population that includes many Russian-born citizens, is working hard to create a transparent Western-style democracy, having ousted Russia-leaning president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, Fisher said. Putin has been trying to undermine the fledgling democracy on his doorstep ever since, with the invasion a brutal last resort.

“For him I think it’s emotional in a way that we’ve never seen him act before,” Fisher said. “He thinks Ukraine should be part of Russia. Historically Russians have dominated Ukraine, but Ukrainians have always asserted their independence. They’ve just been really successful the past 30 years.”

Ukrainians also have a built-in talent for organizing, whether it’s around a dance troupe, a children’s art show or resisting military invasion, he said. The county’s military is now handing out rifles to anyone who wants them while leaving the citizens to organize themselves.

“That’s a really striking thing about their society, that they readily set aside little differences and put themselves together into groups for their mutual benefit,” Fisher said. “It’s kind of like Americans who put together volunteer organizations, especially to help out in times of need.”

Fisher noted that “Americans love an underdog,” and in a rare show of unity despite political affiliation, Ukraine’s cause has broad support in the United States. He said his heart bleeds for the Ukrainians who are suffering but also the Russian soldiers, many still teenagers, winding up dead and abandoned in the streets “where they had no business.”

“Ukraine and Russia, the brain power is extraordinary,” Fisher said. There’s so much opportunity to be entrepreneurial, get educated, do all kinds of things. The fact that they’re engaged in this, it’s insane. It’s off the rails.”

Cahn said she’s gratified by the international response to the invasion and that she hopes it will be maintained, even if it means higher gas prices at home.

“It’s important and the people are really in need of our support right now,” she said. “We see violence across the world and we don’t always come to a country’s defense, and sometimes I think it’s because the political system there is not one we feel comfortable supporting. But here’s a democracy.”

On the other hand, Cahn worries the current international effort won’t be enough, predicting that Putin won’t admit misjudgment and needs a way to save face in order to leave Ukraine. Rather than the United States and its allies just supplying Ukraine with weapons, she finds herself in the odd position of wishing for a more direct military response.

“I have a personal conflict, because I’m not a proponent of violence,” Cahn said. “I certainly don’t encourage countries to interfere militarily in other governments, but I find myself wanting a strong show of force, because I think that’s the only thing that is going to end this sooner with less damage. I never in my wildest dreams would have thought that I would feel that way.”

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