Medill Newsmakers: Professor, political activist describe how Russian Americans are dealing with Vladimir Putin’s war, their efforts and the backlash they are facing

More than one Ukrainian store in Chicago has cut off its supply of Russian products since the beginning of the war. (Ivy Fan/MEDILL)

By Ivy Fan
Medill Reports

Numerous people are suffering because of the conflict in Ukraine, including those who live far from the war zone and those who are not Ukrainians. Hear from Ekaterina Korsounskaia, clinical associate professor at NYU’s Russian and Slavic Studies Department, an immigrant since 1993, about the traumatic impact of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on the Russian American population. Hear also from Ksenia Vasinkovich, a juvenile political activist originally from Belarus, about a message that needs to be heard.

Video Transcript:

Fan: Hello and welcome to Medill Newsmakers. I’m Ivy Fan. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, there have been numerous protests in major cities like New York and Chicago, and President Biden keeps announcing new sanctions on Russia. The Ukrainians are doing all they can to support their country — in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, more than one store has stopped their supplies of Russian products. They are also asking for donations to help the refugees. However, the Ukrainians are not the only group of people who were hit hard by Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Today we are going to see how the Russians are dealing with the war in the U.S. With our guests from the Russian village in New York, the largest Russian community in the U.S. First, let’s hear from Ekaterina Korsounskaia, clinical associate professor from NYU, a Russian immigrant since 1993.

Fan: So, after Putin invaded Ukraine, has there been any changes in the Russian community in New York City?

Korsounskaia: Russian community is not uniform. There are very different people here, like in Russia itself. I would say people who are friends of mine are very uniform and adamant in that attitude, and I don’t know anybody who support the war out of people I know here. But, some other people that I thankfully only see online, somehow manage to be in New York City and support Putin. How is psychologically possible, I have no idea. Why they left, that’s a big enigma to me, because if you like Putin, why won’t you be close to your leader? You’ll be happy. But no, they don’t want to be close to the leader, at the same time they want to admire him from afar. That’s a big mystery of human psychology I would say, or probably of human brain or lack thereof. 

Fan: What’s the mindset of Russian people right now in New York City? Like, what they’re thinking and what they’re planning to do?

Korsounskaia: My friend from Moscow told me that, you know, it feels as if somebody from your family died, and you wake up in the morning, and you want this to be a dream, because you cannot do anything about it. And this, like psychological, that describes what I’m feeling rather well — as if something somebody close to me died, and the person who died is the country I belong to. There will be, of course, another person, but it’s just, we’re all devastated. There have been several protests organized by Ukrainians here, not by Russians. I attended a couple of them. And I felt that, again, I felt that I shouldn’t speak Russian to them, because it’s very hard psychologically. It feels for me even — I’m a kind of a native speaker of this language — but even for me, it feels like the language of an aggressor. A woman whom I know told me that she started speaking English with her kids, because Russian “doesn’t come out of my throat,” she said. I was a little bit stunned, but then it was the beginning of the war. I could understand this now. You know that? Because her husband is American, and she always spoke Russian to kids, just so they know the language. And when the war started, she told me, “I can’t speak Russian. It just feels terrible. I just cannot say it. I think I will speak English to them now. At least now, when the war is going on.” Again, the attitude is same like in Russia. But what people can do from here? People are collecting money. What else can we do? We’re doing something at the university, and we’re not the only one. Russian departments always have Russians. We have people from Russia teaching. They’re trying to get Ukrainian scholars get out of Ukraine, to organize something for a year at least, to open some position for a year and to help with visas, to get scholars and graduate students to help as much as they can. This is always about money. So we are asking the administration of NYU, trying to get them to give us money to bring somebody. The feeling is that even if we bring one person, it will help one. Let it help one person. If you can bring five, fine, but if you can bring one, that’s a huge difference in the life of this one person. So that’s what we’re trying to do. Here from the States, what else you can do? Writing about it, speaking about it. 

Fan: What do you think is the main reason of the war? What has led to today’s situation?

Korsounskaia: Putin is a KGB guy. He has a certain mentality. You know, they say that if you’re a KGB guy, that’s for life. That’s not something that you can change. Practical. I don’t know why, but it’s true. That something is burned into your so deeply. He has said many times that the collapse of the Soviet Union is the biggest tragedy of the 20th century. And I sincerely believe that he believes it. So he was deeply offended, kind of personally, as a member of the Secret Service, that the country that they been torturing for so many years, suddenly, somebody escaped. They were the dogs that guarded that structure, and suddenly, Yeltsin came and just let people go, you know, he let republics go if they wanted to, so they became independent countries. For Putin, it was kind of his personal trauma.

Fan: Because of this war, are there going to be any long-lasting impacts on the Russian people here in the U.S.?

Korsounskaia: On human level? Yes, I think there will be. I think there will be prejudice just on human level, just from people, probably. But I don’t believe that it’s going to be on the institutional level, that people won’t be getting jobs. But of course, institutions are composed of people, you know, people are working and deciding things and institutions. But I just look at my university, and I see that people are talking about — specifically focusing on this — that the Russian government are not really Russian people, although a lot of Russians support it over there, but there are also plenty of Russians who resist and who protest.

Fan: Professor Korsounskaia is not alone in experiencing the devastating pain of seeing her own country now being the aggressor. Ksenia Vasinkovich is originally from Belarus, a country that also has a dictator like Vladimir Putin. His name is Alexander Lukashenko. Two years ago, Vasinkovich was actively participating in protests against Lukashenko, a president they didn’t vote for, so much so that it was no longer safe for her to stay there. She fled to the U.S. and is now working in a hotel in Manhattan. After Lukashenko openly supported Putin’s invasion by sending troops to Ukraine border, Vasinkovich is having a hard time coping. But what’s even harder is seeing how her Russian-speaking friends are treated in the U.S.

Ivy: Are there already any protests in New York City about the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Vasinkovich: Yes, we do have protests. I think nowadays there are a lot of protests everywhere in European countries, like in Russia and Belarus, against the war and against Putin. Because old people, they understand that now it’s like a very serious problem. Now, it’s the war between Ukraine and Russia, which is already so terrible in 2022. But it can grow even bigger. Like, I think you also have heard that it can become like a third World War, which is so terrible. So all the people right now are just trying to stop it.

Fan: I know there are a lot of Russian people in New York City. Do they all participate? Do you know any Ukrainian people, or people from your country like Belarus, do they also participate or not?

Vasinkovich: Oh, OK. I know some situation. So I think now nowadays, it’s also a problem, because people all over the world start to hate Russians just because they’re Russian. It’s Putin who started this work, but a lot of people, they hate ordinary people, which didn’t make any sense. I don’t know. Maybe you have seen on my story today. You can check it later. Yeah, it was a Belarusian girl, and she just asked the other girls about something, and they told her very bad words just because she was speaking Russian. And I know another girl. She’s like an influencer. She has like one million and a half followers. She came to this protest in New York to support Ukrainians, and one man — I think he’s from Ukraine — asked her: “Do you speak Ukrainian?” She said: “No, I speak just Russian and English, because Russian is my native language, and I’m from Russia.” Then he said to her in very rude way, like, “What are you doing here? Go away from here. You Russians, you just broke our country and lives.” I have heard so many situations about how people now hate Russians, especially Ukrainians. They really hate them. Because if you open any chats or groups on Facebook, where we have, like, people from all post-Soviet Union countries, and if a person there is Russian and he has a problem or something, he will get a lot of hate towards him. That’s so bad. And also I have heard that in Germany, they don’t let people, if they have Russian passports, they don’t let them come in the restaurant, or in another country of Europe. I don’t remember exactly. Even at the school, children start beating Russian children. And somewhere here in America, people broke the windows in Russian restaurants. This hate is really everywhere. It really sucks because I think people need to understand that Putin is not all Russians, because I’m pretty sure that the biggest part of Russians don’t support Putin, and they don’t support what he’s doing right now.

Fan: Thank you, Professor Korsounskaia, and thank you, Vasinkovich, for speaking with us today. Their message is clear: Hate must stop. Thank you for watching Medill Newsmakers. I’m Ivy Fan. Have a nice day and stay safe.

Ivy Fan is a video/broadcast graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Instagram at @lumiere_ivyfan