Olga Sagalovsky was born in Odesa on the Black Sea in Ukraine. About half the people there speak Russian, the other half Ukrainian.
At 14, Sagalovsky moved to Moscow, when her mother remarried.
“I’m just a person who spent most of her life in Russian culture,” Sagalovsky said. “We all speak the Russian language, and we all are immersed in Russian culture. That’s what we bring to the kids.”
Each Saturday, the children of immigrants from many republics of the former Soviet Union now living in the Twin Cities gather at the Russian Educational Center of Minnesota, where Sagalovsky is executive director.
They come to the non-profit Savage center to learn about the Russian language, culture and traditions of their parents and ancestors originally from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Uzbekistan. (The center’s administrative office had been in Eden Prairie until recently.)
“With the Soviet Union, we were all Russian,” explained Lola Sayfullaeva, originally from Uzbekistan. “It’s part of us, the Russian culture. We grew up in the Russian language. And it’s so hard that the Russian-speaking world is suffering now. It’s upsetting that our leaders can’t solve these issues.”
Since the war began in Ukraine on Feb. 24, educators, parents and volunteers at the center have watched the events unfold with anguish, dread and uncertainty.
“We are all against aggression but some people are hesitant (to say) because they have relatives in Russia and they are very concerned for them,” Sagolovsky said. “I do have relatives in both countries. I have friends in both countries. Right now my heart is for Ukraine.”
The war raging thousands of miles away has caused no rifts among the center’s diverse community.
“We’re good here,” said Odesa native Anzhela Linn, one of the center’s two principals. “We’re like a family here.”
Every person interviewed on a recent Saturday voiced their anger and opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We come from all different backgrounds,” said Russia-born Alexandra Shashkova, the center’s other principal. “It’s a very diverse community here. We’re strongly against the war. We strongly condemn everything that is going on right now. Our hearts really break.”
Maria Zelinsky, from Donetsk, Ukraine, who now lives in Eagan, is appalled by the invasion. “It’s absolutely terrible,” she said. “There is really no reason for Russia to do what Russia did.”
Kateryna Kent, originally from Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, blames Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Absolutely, 100 percent,” said Kent of St. Paul. “And we need more support from the European countries and the U.S. They are doing great; they are great allies. But we need more support, especially to close the sky over the country. To prevent destruction and to minimize casualties.”
Larissa Rudashevsky, from southwestern Belarus near the Ukraine border, agreed with Kent’s characterization of Putin as “total evil.”
“But I know it’s all coming from 400 years ago when Russia had a czar, who probably people didn’t like but they just had to deal with it,” Rudashevsky said. “The Russian people never knew how to protest, how to express something. He’s a descendent of what has been there.”
Kent agreed, adding Putin capitalizes on that history as well as citizen disengagement.
“But Belarus and Ukraine are different,” she said.
“I tell all my colleagues we should be celebrating President’s Day because we have (U.S.) presidents who come do their job and leave,” said Rudashevsky of Burnsville. “But in Belarus we’ve had the same president (Alexander Lukashenko) for 28 years.”
She paused and offered one more thought.
“We should get more women into politics,” she said. “They wouldn’t start the war.”
‘It affects all of us’
Shashkova said many people at the center have family and friends affected by the war.
“Moms, dads, sisters, brothers,” she said. “So, they don’t sleep at night because they are so worried. We’re just wishing it would stop as fast it can.”
Originally from northern Siberia, Shashkova’s immediate family is not in danger.
“But, we’re all affected because our friends are suffering, and it affects me,” Shashkova said. “My family is safe, but I still worry about their family, too. It affects all of us.”
Linn of Chaska left Ukraine in 1990 but still has family there. Her parents recently fled to Poland.
“You have to be careful what you say,” she said.
Sayfullaeva of Richfield thinks the war is unsettling on both sides. “Not only for Ukrainians, but for a lot of my Russian friends,” she said. “They’re also shocked. They don’t understand why it happened. They didn’t vote for it.”
Daria Dzhalalova, who lives in Savage, is originally from Moscow. She came to the U.S. eight years ago.
“We’re all the victims,” she said. “Even our kids.”
Before the invasion, Dzhalalova said many of the kids here didn’t know where Ukraine was on the map. Now, they’re scared, too, because they don’t understand the situation.
She noted a recent conversation with her 8-year-old son.
“A girl (told him) at school if you weren’t Russian I would play with you,” she recounted. “At first, he thought it’s nothing. Then he is telling me about it, and he realizes what it means.”
At the Russian Educational Center, Dzhalalova said if one person in their community suffers, they all suffer.
“It’s one body,” Dzhalalova said. “It’s just different parts. If someone cuts your arm, it will hurt whether it’s right or left. Right is the same thing. It doesn’t matter.”
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