By Dennis Minich
Like virtually everyone else, I have been stunned as I watch pictures coming in from Ukraine. The images of Russian tanks and troops rumbling into its neighboring country seem surrealistic and evil. It is almost incomprehensible.
I personally know only one Ukrainian, Gennadiy Frimerman, the owner of the Main Street Sandwich Shop in Cleveland. I went to speak with him last week about the war in his native country, but I will admit his answers came as a surprise to me. In old-school journalism classes, we were taught not to presume what a story should be, just wait and hear and see what happens and report it, whether it was what you expected (or wanted) or not. That held true in my visit with Gennadiy.
There was no outrage or anger toward Russia. Instead, there was an attitude of acceptance and even inevitability that Russia would work to reclaim Ukraine, which was a former part of the Soviet Union.
“I am not defending (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, but I understand what he is doing. The United States wouldn’t like it if Russia was putting missiles in Mexico and he feels the same way about Ukraine. It could be a threat to Russia if Ukraine joined NATO and they could have missiles right up against their border,” he said.
Gennadiy said the love-hate relationship between Russia and Ukraine is much older than simply the Soviet Union. According to historical accounts, the two were joined as part of one country in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. What was once known as Kievan Rus’, was divided into three parts following the invasion by Genghis Khan’s Mongol army: Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Moscow finally gained its independence in 1480 which eventually led to the Tsardom of Russia.
Gennadiy said, “Ukraine looked to Russia for protection because they couldn’t defend themselves.”
At least 900 years of history makes the relationship complicated. He said during World War II, Ukrainians joined Russians in fighting Nazi Germany, however, more men from his hometown were killed by Russians than by Germans. He summarized the entire situation by saying, “It’s complicated.”
He left Ukraine in 1993, one year before the break up of the Soviet Union. He said there were two main reasons he and his family left. The first was the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the second was antisemitism. “We are Jewish and Jewish people in Ukraine were not treated like regular people. If you wanted to go to college, you couldn’t go in Ukraine, you had to go to Russia. We carried cards which told what country we were from. My wife would apply for jobs and they would look at her card and see she was Jewish and they would say “we don’t have any openings now.”
He said he is unsure how policies are different now. “The president (Volodymyr Zelensky) is Jewish, so maybe things have changed.”
When the Soviet Union broke up in 1994, Ukraine became its own country, but he said that didn’t mean the population’s life got better. “The politicians were so corrupt. Ukraine is a very poor country. But you had a few people at the top, maybe 10 percent, who had all of the money and the other 90 percent were starving and it was all because of corruption.”
He added that when people talk about communists, they miss a point. “What are communists? They are just people too. The battle isn’t about communism, it’s about money. I am from the Soviet Union, what is communism? The Russians are lying, but NATO is lying too. They are all lying to us.”
He added the war just reinforces why he and his family left the country. While he has no blood relatives still in Ukraine, his daughter-in-law has family there. “Last we heard they were OK.”
Gennadiy said he thinks the final result of the war will be predictable. “Russia will change the government, destroy all of the weapons and move out.”