By Randy Arrington
HARRISONBURG, March 14 — The defiance of everyday Ukrainians against the unprovoked aggression of the Russian military over the past three weeks has been fueled by the “Kozak spirit”, an inspiration spreading among people who have managed to remain independent while existing on the edges of the Russian Empire.
“This is what our country is based on,” Alex Lagoda said on Monday. “We’ve always been at war.”
Not only has Ukraine been fighting battles with Russia along its eastern border for the past eight years, but the former Soviet block nation has known the realities of war since the times of Genghis Khan. The Mongol Empire scorched Eastern Europe and split the slavic people, with what is now Russia growing larger and Ukraine becoming smaller.
That split separated Russia from the birthplace of its empire in Ukraine. The capital city of Kyiv is one of the oldest cities in Europe dating back to 500 A.D. — more than twice as old as Moscow. Since Ukraine separated from communist control in 1991 after the break-up of the Soviet block and declared themselves an independent, sovereign nation, it has been a goal of Russian president Vladimir Putin to once again reunite the “Motherland” with its birthplace.
Going well beyond the skirmishes of the last eight years, Putin launched a full-scale military attack along Ukraine’s eastern border on Feb. 24. Despite being outmanned and outgunned, Ukrainians have repelled the invasion and recent reports indicate that the Russian invasion has stalled.
“Putin didn’t think Ukraine was that much set on joining the West,” Lagoda said during an interview with Page Valley News. “But they’ve always been that way. ‘Kozaks’ do not want to be part of Russia.”
Lagoda, a technology education teacher at Luray High School for the past four years, instructs students in the basics of construction, manufacturing, drafting and engineering. He also runs two clubs at LHS, the Technology Student Association (TSA) and the Guitar Club.
Alex was born in Ukraine, but he and his family fled the country in 1990 just before the “Iron Curtain” fell.
“Things were starting to get real bad…right before the break-up…people were jumping ship,” Lagoda said. “The Eastern Mennonite [University] community took us in.”
Sunday marks 32 years since Alex and 70 members of his extended family were brought to America as Ukrainian refugees through Mennonite sponsorships on March 20, 1990. He was 6 years old at the time, but he still remembers life inside the communist-controlled Soviet block.
“We had a small farm with a garden, which provided most of our sustenance,” Alex remembered. “During times of recession, like in the late ’80s, there were lines for milk and meat, but people like us didn’t feel that so bad because we grew our own food. We had to provide some to the ‘collective’ [state] farm, but we were better off than some in the cities.”
Once arriving in America, Alex would go on to attend Rockingham County Public Schools and earn undergraduate and graduate degrees from James Madison University.
In 2008, he returned to Ukraine for the first time in 18 years to visit friends and ended up meeting his future wife. He and Aliona Diakonova were involved in a relationship for a year before he proposed, got her a “fiance’ visa” and returned to the U.S., where they were married in 2009.
Aliona declined to sit in on Monday’s interview with her husband. She thought the process might be too upsetting as her thoughts remain with her family back in Ukraine, especially her sister Tanya, currently a refugee in Poland. A message that Aliona posted on a GoFundMe page she created for her sister states:
“…on Friday night, Feb. 25th, her region in Kyiv (Darnitskyi) was attacked with enemy’s missile. When her friends called her that morning and said they are going to Poland, she asked to go with them, however; they were already near her place and she did not have time to pack anything; she was also sick and scared at that moment and in that panic she ran out of her apartment leaving everything, including money.
“After three exhausting days on the road and a 30-mile long line, they finally reached the Polish border; at 10 a.m. this morning they were 2 km from Polish customs. I really hope I will be able to get her to the U.S. when it will start accepting Ukrainian refugees, but for now she will need money for food, clothes and shelter. Help her during this hard time if your heart is willing!”
An update posted on March 10 stated that: “Tanya just told me that the local government in Genk placed them in a retirement community for now while they look for a better place for them.”
Tanya is one of nearly 3 million refugees fleeing the war-torn country. One of the key pleas going out to the U.S. government is to begin accepting Ukrainian refugees and bypass (or at least shorten) the current six-month wait for a visa.
“Given the current situation, that’s just not acceptable,” Alex said.
Ukraine, literally means the “border land.” Alex says that has truly defined the nation’s status for many centuries. More than a millennia ago, he says, it was a border between settled civilization and a nomadic way of life; between 1500 to 1900, it served as a border between Christianity and Muslim religious factions; and now it serves as a border between democracy and autocracy.
“Putin never expected Ukraine to put up this much of a fight. He probably lost his opportunity to take over Ukraine…he may destroy it now, but he’ll never take over, even if he puts soldiers in the streets…even if he puts in his own government, there will still be gorilla resistance,” Alex said. “We’re being taken over by a terrorist. He could occupy Ukraine for 10 or 20 years, and it won’t do anything. Once it gets too costly, he’ll pull out and we’ll re-establish democracy. He simply wants to prolong the war — that’s how he stays in power.”
While Putin may feel Russia has an innate, historical right to bring Ukraine back into its ranks, according to Alex, the people of Ukraine see the Russian aggression the same as the rest of the world — an unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation that presented no military threat.
“The view of him there…it would be the same image that Hitler had in the U.S. during World War II,” Alex said. “They call him ‘Putler’.”
Each morning, the Lagodas speak with Aliona’s parents, Valintyn and Nelya Diakonova, to check in on things around their small village of Ozhenin, which has about 1,000 people in the northwestern region of Rivne near the border of Russian-friendly Belarus.
On Monday morning, Alex called Nelya and asked if she would participate in the interview by phone from the Ukraine. She agreed, and she was not afraid to share her feelings about the tragedies happening throughout her country.
“We’re thankful for [the support of] people around the world…because [our] people, they are fighting for their own land, their children, their freedom…so they are not going to give it up easily,” Nelya said through Alex’s translation. “Our soldiers are heavily outnumbered and they are fighting very fiercely, but we would benefit greatly from fighter jets…Biden hasn’t done it yet, but we wish he would because we are severely outnumbered and outgunned.”
“She says she’s very touched by the thoughts and prayers, but she would also like to see something to back up prayers also. If Biden would let Poland give fighter jets, if Israel would sell Iron Dome technology, we could repel everything for good…we’re not asking to close skies anymore because America is not willing to do that,” Alex continued in translation.
When asked how she thought life would change in Ukraine if Putin is successful, Nelya steered away from the question, noting that option is not really an option.
“We can’t afford to think about that…we will fight to the death,” the elderly Ukrainian woman said in a steady, determined tone. “Old ladies, old grandmas with axes and shovels have gotten in front of tanks…this is not to say anything against the soldiers…it’s an unreal feeling…as if some force is helping us. Putin has said if he decides to go into western Ukraine, he will annihilate the population because he says that population is Neo-Nazis.”
That’s a false claim, according to Alex, that shows the level of propaganda that Putin is using to justify the war to the Russian population.
“Putin is in a delirium…he says he wants to eliminate the Neo-Nazi fascists of Ukraine…this just shows how crazy and disconnected he is,” Alex said. “We have less Neo-Nazis [in Ukraine] than the U.S. and even Russia itself.”
Alex’s grandmother died in 2018, but he remembers stories she told of living through the famine of ’33 and being held in a German labor camp during World War II. The labor camp was located adjacent to a Nazi concentration camp, where she regularly saw the thick, black air rising from smokestacks as Nazis burned the bodies of Jews.
With a long history of war and tragedy, Alex, his family and other Ukrainians understand the rest of the world’s reluctance to get involved. No one wants to start World War III and even the Secretary General of the United Nations recently stated: “The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility.”
But when terror and tragedy strikes those closest, one’s perspective is immediately altered.
“I’m the wrong person to ask,” Alex said when asked if he worried that U.S. involvement could start another world war. “For the average American citizen, I understand why they don’t want to risk closing the skies and putting boots on the ground, but when it’s your friends being shot in the back by Russian troops…breaking the most humane rules of warfare…bombing hospitals and schools [and targeting civilians]…and I know soldiers who have fought and died…I respect that and I am proud of them…So, if you ask me, I’m going to say do anything you can to stop this…and hope that Putin doesn’t press the red button.”
He notes that the country’s standard of living “will go down even more than it has” if Putin succeeds and “it was already pretty low,” but he worries more now about the survival of friends and family. He readily touts the “battled-hardened individuals there” who have been defending the eastern border since February of 2014 when the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity began. That’s when Russia took back Crimea, which former president Nikita Khrushkev gave to Ukraine in 1959.
Russia still considers Ukraine a colony, that’s why they insist on saying “the” Ukraine — a subtle way of not recognizing the people as a sovereign nation.
In addition to his teaching duties, Alex has been driving a tractor-trailer to raise extra money for his family and the cause. While he doesn’t know what the future may hold, he fears, like many, that the only thing that Putin will respond to is brute force.
“If we could resolve this without bloodshed, we would have already,” Alex said, “but we’ve gone past the point of negotiation.”
While some believe that Putin wants to put the former U.S.S.R. back together, Alex believes that Ukraine has special meaning to Putin — much more so than invading Latvia, Estonia or Lithuania.
“Those are NATO countries, which brings more problems for Putin and there’s nothing much to gain there except bragging rights,” Alex said. “But Ukraine has many resources, huge nuclear power plants that we are all now familiar with [ie, Chernobyl], a river connecting to Europe, and it’s the ‘bread basket’ of Europe. That’s why Hitler wanted the Ukraine, to feed his army. He loaded up trucks and trains with Ukrainian soil to take back to Germany because it was so rich.”
Alex’s parents, who spent 22 years in Harrisonburg, have moved to the Midwest — Iowa, in America’s “bread basket,” because its rich agricultural terrain reminded them of their homeland.
The LHS teacher calls Congressman Ben Cline’s office nearly every day looking for help and answers.
“His office has been supportive,” Alex said. “They’ve been giving us updates, and they ask about our family.”
But nothing has been done so far to accept Ukrainian refugees, and the U.S. government continues to play a balancing act with its involvement in the conflict.
For the people of Ukraine, time is running out. A meeting held Monday between Russia and Ukraine failed to reach a cease fire as fighting enters a fourth week. Putin is believed to be broadening targets across Ukraine because of his frustration in how slowly his military is advancing. Russia is said to even be recruiting soldiers in Syria due to problems among their ranks with low morale, desertion and mutiny. In only three weeks of fighting, Russia has reportedly lost an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 troops to Ukrainian resistance — that’s more than the United States lost in 20 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And now, Russia is making pleas to China for financial and military support.
Nelya, and all Ukrainians, are hoping the U.S. and the world will step up before it’s too late for their country, and Putin decides to keep marching through Europe in a repeat of world events about 80 years ago.
“Take a day off work and gather in D.C. in overwhelming numbers and demand the government does something,” Nelya pleads, “because if not, Putin will annihilate us and move further into Europe, and I don’t want Europe to endure the same fate that has befallen us.”
3 WAYS TO HELP PEOPLE OF UKRAINE
#1 — Donate to the GoFundMe.com page for Tanya — https://www.gofundme.com/f/fleeing-from-ukraine-help-my-sister — or many other outlets that are providing humanitarian aid for refugees fleeing the war-torn country.
#2 — Donate to the Slavic Christian Church of Harrisonburg, who recently held a large fundraiser focused on housing for those displaced by the war. Donate at their website https://www.sccharrisonburg.com/ukraine
#3 — Write or call members of Congress and share your thoughts:
• Congressman Ben Cline (R) – 6th District
https://cline.house.gov/ — link / form to email on site
D.C. Office — 2443 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515 / (202) 225-5431
Harrisonburg Office — 70 N. Mason St., Harrisonburg, VA 22802 / (540) 432-2391
• Senator Mark R. Warner (D) – VA
https://www.warner.senate.gov/public/ — link / form to email on site
D.C. Office — 703 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510 / Toll Free: 1-877-676-2759
(VA residents only) Phone: 202-224-2023
• Senator Tim Kaine (D) – VA
D.C. Office — 231 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510 / (202) 224-4024