JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Nelly Ostrovsky’s voice broke as she described her last conversation with Anton Moiseenko — the son of a childhood friend who lived in Ostrovsky’s late maternal grandmother’s home about 12 miles west of Kyiv.
“I asked him was he going to the shelter and he said everything was okay there,” Ostrovsky, who moved to Johnson City as a young woman in 1989, told News Channel 11 Wednesday.
Hours later, Moiseenko emerged from that home’s basement with his fiance after a brief Russian shelling. The shelling wasn’t quite over, though, and he was hit and wounded in the home’s kitchen. With hospitals at capacity and transportation compromised, Moiseenko died — unable to get emergency care that may or may not have saved him.
Moiseenko was 32 when the Russian shell ended his life on Feb. 28. He had proposed to his girlfriend and gotten engaged nine days earlier.
“I don’t have the heart to talk to his mother,” Ostrovsky said of her still-close friend Viktoria Moiseenko. “I’m waiting for right moment to call her.”
Anton Moiseenko’s death is emblematic of the situation throughout Ukraine, Ostrovsky said. Not far from where that happened, near Ostrovsky’s paternal grandmother’s home place, one of her cousins described this scene: “Just this morning I received a message from my cousin … she had window blown out of their house, first floor, and they also had a dead body laying on the street. They had a Russian soldier asking for food. All over this happening, right now, right this moment.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Ostrovsky discussed how the invasion is affecting her friends and loved ones. She spoke of a non-profit her sister-in-law works with that she believes gives regular Americans who want to help Ukraine one way to do that with some local connection. She described how she thinks Western governments can best help Ukraine, and what she thinks history both recent and not-so-recent suggests could happen in the coming weeks and months.
Yearning for freedom
Ostrovsky and her husband, who is also Ukrainian, immigrated to the U.S. in 1989, just before the fall of the Soviet Union. Her parents both grew up on the outskirts of Kyiv and she was born and grew up in the city.
She said she and her husband both longed for the opportunity to live in a democracy and experience freedom of speech and the chance for what she called self-realization. Those things were not available in Soviet-era Ukraine, but Ostrovsky said that has been changing for three decades — and that those halting steps in her view posed a threat to Russia.
“Ukraine, however imperfectly, was trying kind of a society (from) which people don’t have to flee. A society with no corruption, a society with freedom of choice, a society where people can live, be happy, be free. This did not sit well with the tyrannic regime next door.”
She said when Russian President Vladimir Putin “decided he could not buy or manipulate Ukraine into continue to be part of the former Soviet Union or Russian Empire, he just decided to take it by force.”
If he does desire to build a greater Russia, Ostrovsky said Putin could have been more successful in projecting influence by taking a different approach to relations with former Soviet republics like Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
“If Putin wanted so badly to re-establish Soviet Union, all he had to do is build a country to which others, the same-speaking (Slavic) countries would be happy to join,” she said. “I would be the first one to support that idea had he been able to build that country, but that type of country cannot be tyrannically built.”
She said she has no ill feelings toward the Russian people and that she has Russian friends who have donated large amounts of money to the Ukrainian cause.
“I appreciate all of those. I do think though, that Russians have not felt that the taste of true democracy in the past 30-plus years and I think they’re scared. I believe they are and from what we know if they try to go in demonstration to prevent the war, they are arrested by hundreds and thousands, they are put for 15 days in jail and they’re beaten. This is the accounts that I know personally.”
What can Americans do?
Ukraine seems never to be far from the hearts of Ostrovsky and other members of the millions-strong Ukrainian diaspora. That includes her sister-in-law Marina Bayuduyk, a Georgetown University professor who helped establish a 501(c)3 non-profit called United Help Ukraine following the 2014 outbreak of the war in the eastern Ukrainian states of Luhansk and Donetsk.
A group of family and friends began providing first aid kits to people on the front lines in what Ostrovsky referred to as “the so-called breakaway republics.” The conflict subsided to a lower-level boil, but United Help Ukraine continued growing and working, supporting orphanages and developing bulk-buying networks to make financial donations go further.
Ostrovsky encouraged Tri-Citians who would like to help to research before donating. She said United Help Ukraine, whose website is unitedhelpukraine.org, is volunteer-led and able to put 99% of donations directly to aid.
“I think this is a very effective way (to donate), there may be others and I encourage men and women that are in this area to perhaps talk to (local media) and provide information about that.”
Ostrovsky said she hoped a ceasefire would come and allow the Red Cross to move in “to try to relocate those people who are right now stranded, such as my cousin. She is right now in an occupied portion near Kyiv and she cannot get out of her house.”
In addition to personal aid, Ostrovsky urged people to contact their Congressional representatives and senators. She wrote First District Representative Diana Harshbarger asking her to support expedited visa status for Ukrainians fleeing the country.
“What I would like to do is everyone propose this,” she said. “Have the leadership of even Diana Harshbarger or any others saying, ‘yes, we need to get this program.'”
Ostrovsky said such a program wouldn’t burden taxpayers because of the many Ukrainian-Americans with the resources and willingness to support any incoming arrivals.
“I’m not proposing any kind of a refugee status for them at the moment but I am encouraging people to contact their representative to ask to expedite visa processing or to allow these people to board the planes in Poland, Germany, Slovakia, wherever these flights are going to United States.”
Lessons from history
Ostrovsky said she’s not “versed in geopolitics,” but she believes she has some valuable perspective on the current situation. She called the European Union and U.S.’s swift response following the invasion “probably in my lifetime, unprecedented.
“Could it have been done earlier? I think so. I think had those sanctions that are in place been implemented when the troops were collecting on the Ukrainian border, we might not see as many dead, including by the way Russian soldiers.”
She said she well understands the difficulty of rallying different countries and interests behind one cause. But she anticipates horrific consequences that will be magnified without the strongest response the West can agree on.
“I think NATO allies will miss the opportunity and will witness the slaughter, the just sheer slaughter of innocent human beings, including, of course, soldiers.”
Ostrovsky said she’d like to see the U.S. provide any type of military support to Ukraine, whether it be helmets for soldiers, bulletproof vests, first aid kits “or any other possible support for military.”
However much other countries get involved in the current conflict, she said she doesn’t think Ukraine will be an isolated case and the overall direction Russia is taking may pull the West in and the conflict could spread to places like the Baltic republics.
“Do not underestimate Putin. I think a lot of people had. If United States and the world put enough economic sanctions, hopefully, it will stop him. Would he write them off? Possibly. Would he fully, completely take Ukraine? Possibly.
“Would he stop period? Don’t think so. I cannot get in the head of a psychopath. I don’t know what’s ahead (for) Putin. I obviously don’t. I don’t think anyone does. But I do think he is not well.”
Ostrovsky used an expression that she said she translates kind of loosely in Russian as “you cannot force someone to love you.”
“You can force them to listen to you. You can force them to do what you want them to do. But love — but love, love for freedom, love for your country cannot be squashed.”
She said that’s become evident in everything from President Volodymyr Zelensky’s defiant video messages to the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian men flooding in from countries around the world to volunteer as fighters in the conflict to women working making Molotov cocktails, which she said are now being called “Ukrainian smoothies.”
“People are very resilient. People know their story, people know their culture. Stalin had tried to kill … to those who study history, over six million Ukrainians. It affected my family. My great-grandmother who I remember lost her husband during that time.
“So killing Ukrainians is nothing new for Ukraine. Nothing new, unfortunately. But they come back. And if Putin God forbid will win this war militarily, he will never, under no circumstances, he would have to live five lifetimes to see Ukrainian spirits crushed. That’s how I feel, this is how my family feels, this is how my friends feel.”
Ostrovsky said she’s proud to be Ukrainian and believes Putin has not achieved the swift victory he anticipated. But she’s also convinced the reports of death and suffering aren’t overblown, even though she realizes “it doesn’t seem real that in 2022 any country that shares value system with Americans can be savagely attacked and killed.
“These are just my relations,” she said of her own accounts. “I hear and see many many more. Children in hospitals, cancer patient children hiding in basements from the shelling of the city. Kyiv is a city of five million people. There are apartments that are shelled, there are people that are killed hourly.”