Ten years ago, Galina left Moscow to build a new life in Southern California. Recently divorced from her husband, she would soon come out as a lesbian, a decision that strained her relationship with her family and friends back in Russia. A decade later, Galina had become a U.S. citizen, having found the peace and liberty she longed for.
That peace was shattered last week as Russian forces charged into Ukraine, upending the world order and endangering millions, including her friends and family.
WEHOville spoke to Galina to get a first-hand perspective of the places in crisis. We wanted to better understand the people on both sides of the conflict, what their lives are like, how they view each other, and what towering challenges they face as their worlds are thrust into chaos by forces beyond their control.
How do the Russian people feel about the invasion of Ukraine?
I really do think that Russian people, like any other nationality out there in the world, want to live their normal life. There’s so many issues that Russian people are dealing with: the economy, the politics, just day-to-day normal life, the lack of medicine, COVID for Christ’s sake. Russian people just want to have peace and the truth.
And just look at the protest that’s happening right now — even though people in Russian know that they probably face jail time, they’re facing sanctions, they’re facing losing their jobs, they’re even facing getting hurt — but they’re still gonna go in the streets, they still show up and protest. Because we are freaking tired of all the negative agenda. I understand that it’s really hard for people who don’t have the same information I have or who are not Russian, but I understand that it’s hard for those people to separate Russia from the government.
I mean we’ve had that person (Vladimir Putin) in charge for almost 20 years. He became the freaking tsar. Russian people did not vote for him and it’s hard, it’s painful to watch, especially right now. It’s scary. The repercussions are gonna be really bad. I have friends in Ukraine. I’m subscribed to all kinds of media, and I’m seeing Ukrainian people turning in Russians. I can’t blame them. No one can blame them. I just want it to be over.
What’s it like for your family back in Russia?
My family — I’m gonna speak very specifically to my situation — my parents are in their 70s and they went through freaking hell during their lives because of the post-War situation after World War II, then the Soviet Union, the revolution and the Soviet Union collapsing, and then losing pretty much everything twice in their lives. That’s a lot.
Imagine living in California and then you have your apartment or your savings in the state of New York, or you have your family in New York, and then you wake up the next day and it’s no longer your country. It’s a different independent country and everything you had in that state is gone. There is no police, there’s barely any government. Imagine how stressful and terrifying that is.
My parents — they don’t have access to Instagram, they don’t have Telegram. The only source of news they’re exposed to is what is on Russian national television which is completely the opposite of what the rest of the world has access to. So my parents are for peace. My parents just want to live their good life, they don’t want to talk about what’s going on right now in Ukraine, and in my humble opinion, I think it’s because of fear and being triggered.
They just want to live their lives peacefully.
How do Russians view Ukrainians? Do they see themselves as alike or different?
I’ve been to Ukraine so many times. I’ve been to Kyiv, I’ve been to Odessa, I’ve been to Alushta. So many places. My dad went to university in Ukraine, even though he’s a Russian citizen.
Yes, we speak different languages but we look alike, we eat the same food. We love our friends the same way, we love our families the same way, we just want to live in a free world, and we want to breathe the free air and we want to mind our own business and go visit each other whenever we want to without any negative attitudes towards each other.
It’s like if for some reason the United States started doing this to Canada. You guys share a border. You guys speak English, you share almost the same sense of humor, the same attitude, and the same values. That’s how I see Ukrainian people.
How are sanctions going to affect the day-to-day lives of ordinary Russians?
This question is very close to me because I am already affected by the sanctions and my family is affected by the sanctions. And I might get emotional. I mean, I am a proud American citizen, right? I worked hard to get to this point. I am also a Russian citizen and I’m proud to be one.
I love Russia, I love the United States.
I love both those countries. I just want to be very clear about that. As far as the sanctions, let me give you a very simple example: the Russian government created a law that no one can take any money abroad worth more than $10,00. All kinds of cards were canceled. There’s travel restrictions, the flying restrictions. But let me be very specific to me personally, to my family and my friends.
So a long time ago, the American embassy in Russia stopped taking visa appointments or citizen applications appointments. So it was pretty much impossible to make an appointment in the American embassy in Russia. So lots of lots of people who wanted to travel to America or who had families and friends here, they wanted to visit, they would get a European visa and then they would go to the nearest European country and make an appointment in the American embassy there.
I know personally someone who, right before this happened, they flew to Europe. She’s Russian but she lives here, and her family made an appointment in the American embassy to get the visas. So they flew to Europe.
She flew from here. The family flew from Russia. They met in Europe and two days later the Ukrainian crisis happened. They realized really fast that the appointment was not going to happen and before things got worse, they would just have to turn around. That’s what happened.
She came back home here, and then her family flew back to Russia. And now it’s unknown how, without being able to not only get a European visa but to fly to Europe — like, what airline are we supposed to fly if both Russia and Europe created those sanctions, where no airlines are allowed in the air on both sides? So if you cannot go to Europe and you cannot make an appointment in the American embassy to get a visa, you’re never coming here.
You’re never coming to see your friends. You’re never coming to visit your family — it’s just not gonna happen. And that’s freaking terrifying. It’s also terrifying what might happen if things get worse and worse and worse. What’s gonna happen to my family? Where are they gonna run? What countries are gonna accept Russian refugees? I just read this statement from — I’m not gonna say her name, but she’s a Russian journalist, she’s quite famous — but she just posted this, saying that it is scary, it’s terrifying, it’s nerve-racking, it’s stressful but we can’t let the panic set in. Because the unknown is unknown. We don’t know what’s going to happen.
I’m here, I am safe, I am in the United States of America with an American passport, but I still have family and friends there. The things that I see happening in Ukraine are terrifying. I did not expect to see this in my lifetime, especially in a country that is so close to home.
The sanctions are terrifying because — I understand why they were put in place, but regular Russian people are gonna suffer from it.
There’s Moscow, there’s Saint Petersburg, which are pretty much very well-developed cities, but there are other cities in Russia that are not quite as developed and some people don’t have savings. Some people live from paycheck to paycheck.
If I try to tell you what the low income salary in Russia is compared to the low income in America, it’s gonna blow your freaking mind, so I’m not gonna get into it, because it’s so sad and depressing. But what about those people that barely make ends meet, barely trying to survive? What are they supposed to do?