When America Starts to Feel a Little More Soviet

As the impeachment inquiry lays out central allegations that President Trump abused his power, Ukrainians living in America recognize a familiar playbook.

Devin Yalkin

Walk down a barely marked stairway into a basement in New York’s East Village on a Sunday morning, and you may find yourself in a hub of Ukrainian American life. Members of the vast Ukrainian diaspora regularly gather here, at a church-run restaurant called Streecha, trading the latest on Ukrainian politics over plates of pierogi and bowls of borscht. As formal impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump were finally getting under way recently, several of the patrons here told me that America had lately been feeling more like home—and not in a good way.

The allegations involved in the impeachment inquiry embody a central tension of the Trump administration. Diplomats and officials as prominent as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have attempted to revive Ronald Reagan–style rhetoric about America’s role as the world’s foremost defender of liberty and freedom, including signaling support for Ukrainian self-determination. Meanwhile, the president and his associates appear to be more invested in courting power and personal gain, from Trump’s cozy press conferences with Russian President Vladimir Putin to his attempt to get the Ukrainian government to investigate the family of former Vice President Joe Biden.

The Ukrainians I met here weren’t surprised by this Trumpian mode of politics, in part because it’s very similar to the status quo in the part of the world they come from. The impeachment inquiry is a test not just of Trump’s character, but of the country’s: Is a pitch for America’s exceptionalism still plausible, or is corruption the only true universal principle any government will ever embrace?

“I used to think that American politicians and politics is much more nice than Ukrainian,” Natalie, a short, chatty woman who gave her age as “in her 30s or 40s,” told me. “Come on. It’s even worse.” The little basement room where we stood could very well have been located in a different country: Almost no one appeared to be a tourist, and its light-pink-and-white walls were lined with portraits of golden-haloed saints and framed embroidered flowers. The United States government is just as corrupt as Ukraine’s, Natalie said, comparing political leaders here to squabbling seventh graders. This realization has been disappointing, she said, because she is an American by choice: She came to the U.S. a little less than a decade ago, after feeling pushed out of Ukraine by instability and lack of opportunity.

Churchgoers leave Mass at St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church in the East Village. (Devin Yalkin)

At least in the context of American politics, Ukraine has become something like the Forrest Gump of European nations over the past few years, popping up everywhere. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter joined the board of a corrupt Ukrainian gas company, with no prior experience in Ukraine or the gas industry. The former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was arrested and imprisoned for his work on behalf of a Russia-aligned Ukrainian oligarch. The president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his business associates have come under fire for trying to coordinate a Ukrainian investigation into the Bidens. And Trump, of course, is now the subject of an impeachment inquiry focused on his apparent attempt to pressure Ukrianian President Volodymyr Zelensky into a similar investigation.

As this unlikely series of events has unfolded, Trump and his allies have taken to casually demonizing Ukraine as suspicious and untrustworthy, calling back to Cold War–era stereotypes of Soviet spies and no-goodniks. Leaders ranging from Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana to the president himself have promoted the false claim that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Kennedy later walked back his statement.)

I wanted to know how all of this looks and sounds to Ukrainians in America. Until recently, they were just one of many diaspora groups in the U.S. Now their native country is at the center of the country’s biggest news story. But the Trump administration’s signals to the Ukrainian American community have not always been clear: Sometimes officials seem to be pushing for Ukraine’s right to sovereignty and self-determination, while at other times they have seemed indifferent to the country’s fate.

Take the example of recent realignments within the Orthodox Church. The Church is one of the major religious and institutional players in Ukraine. For centuries, it operated under the authority of the patriarchate of Moscow—one of many ways Russia has asserted control in Ukraine. But in 2018, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine declared its autonomy, an effort led in part by Ukrainian priests in America. The move was a clear repudiation of Russian influence in Ukraine—and it won the close attention and praise of Pompeo, who released a statement in January celebrating Ukrainian Orthodox independence as “a historic achievement as Ukraine seeks to chart its own future.” His message appeared to include subtle pushback against Russia, praising “the freedom for members of religious groups to govern their religion according to their beliefs, without external interference.” In late October, as news about Trump’s actions in relation to Ukraine broke, Pompeo met with the leader of the newly independent Church. The State Department said that the two “shared their concerns about abuses against religious freedom” in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory. Pompeo’s support for the Ukrainian Church gives the appearance “that America is a global defender of democracy and freedom and religious rights and self-determination,” says Nicholas Denysenko, a professor at Valparaiso University, in Indiana, who studies Orthodox Christianity. “America is trying to resume the role it once exercised during the Cold War period as this global defender of religious rights.”

As all of this was happening, however, Trump was promoting a very different vision of American values and power. The portrait of his behavior that has emerged in news reports and congressional testimony is one of using his office for personal gain: He sought to leverage military aid to a vulnerable ally in order to damage a major political opponent. This move had real consequences for Ukraine, where millions of people are currently living under Russian occupation in the eastern part of the country and soldiers fighting Russian troops are underarmed and strapped for resources. The message of his actions was clear, said Natalie, the woman I met at Streecha: “Trump has no idea where is Ukraine, what is Ukraine, and what’s going on in Ukraine.”

People dine at Streecha, a restaurant in the East Village that is a hub of Ukrainian American life in New York City. (Devin Yalkin)

The people I spoke with said Trump’s actions have been disappointing, but they also follow a familiar playbook. “I was not surprised, because I come from Ukraine, and it’s a corruptive system,” said Nataliya Dudko, a 42-year-old who came to America in 2006. “It’s everywhere, even here [in America]. Now it’s more open.” Taras Kushsz, a 49-year-old recent immigrant, told me through a translator that he doesn’t believe anything written in the American press—most of the information that makes its way to the U.S. is twisted to make Ukrainians look “ignorant or dumb.” Iwan Kinal, a 35-year-old who grew up in New Jersey and wore a furry black Cossack hat as we stood outside St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church in the cold, told me he’s a lifelong Republican and even likes some of Trump’s policies. But he’s been disturbed to hear the president echo what he described as Russian propaganda about Crimea, Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014. “I’m disappointed in his treatment and his opinion of Ukraine from the start,” Kinal said of Trump.

Ukrainians in North America are a fairly diverse group. They might be first-generation immigrants or have parents and grandparents who were born in America. Their families might have been prewar Jewish refugees or devout parishioners of Catholic or Orthodox churches. And they’re all over the political spectrum, from lefty Millennials in Chicago to blue-collar Trump supporters in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. “Despite Trump’s obvious … disdain for Ukraine, and willingness to use Ukraine as a tool for his objectives,” says Denysenko, the Valparaiso professor, he still has “a chorus of supporters among the Ukrainian community,” in part because Christian Ukrainians tend to be more socially conservative. Like virtually all immigrant communities, Ukrainians in America have absorbed the best and the worst parts of being American. Several of the people I spoke with were enamored with America’s lofty values of liberty and freedom. But they also said arguments on Facebook and WhatsApp about Trump and impeachment have become vicious in recent weeks. People of Ukrainian background, it turns out, are just as partisan and divided as the rest of America.

The one thing that unites Ukrainians, said Andrij Dobriansky, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, is their intense support for Ukraine. “My wife says that I’m married to Ukraine, and she’s my mistress,” he told me over coffee at Streecha. Earlier that day, during a Mass at St. George, a soldier who had been injured on the Ukrainian front line got a standing ovation. Fighters regularly visit the local community, Dobriansky said, to talk about what they’ve seen.

Andrij Dobriansky at Streecha (Devin Yalkin)

In a sense, Dobriansky said, the impeachment proceedings have been a huge boon for the Ukrainian cause: They’ve brought attention to a conflict that usually garners little interest in America. “Bill Taylor and George Kent talking about the war in Ukraine on all networks—phenomenal,” he said, referring to the two diplomats who testified on the first day of public hearings last month. “We couldn’t gather enough money in our community to pay all the networks to put on an hour-long special about how important Ukraine is.” Ukrainians abroad see this kind of information campaign as crucial, because “there’s this notion that Russia excels at the weaponization of information,” Denysenko told me. “Ukrainians, in migration, try very hard to coordinate their efforts to respond to Russian disinformation.”

As the impeachment inquiry and other investigations have revealed, Russian propaganda has in fact infiltrated American political discourse, sometimes at the very highest levels of government. Fiona Hill, who served for two years on Trump’s National Security Council, said during November’s impeachment hearings that members of the House Intelligence Committee itself were perpetrating “a fictional narrative” created by Russian security services that Russia did not, in fact, interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and that Ukraine may have done so instead. The truth has become subservient to political expediency, and the American government has become a little more similar to any other strongman regime.

Just as Ukraine has long been a football in Russia’s regional schemes, it has now become a Rorschach test in America’s partisan feuds, consequences be damned. “Ukrainian people have been dying for five years in that territory, and they still do,” said Natalie, referring to the Donbas region, where Ukraine is attempting to fight off a Russian incursion. But in America, all that seems to matter are politicians’ personal fortunes and the next domestic elections, reminiscent of so many strongman regimes. As people die in her home country, Natalie said, all of this “is just a game, unfortunately.”