Features & Columns

Disquiet on the Western Front

From afar, local Ukrainians watch an unfolding invasion
BEARING WITNESS Los Gatan Natasha Lyukevich and son Colin Kennedy (also shown on the cover) get news from two music teachers based in Ukraine. -Photo Credit: Greg Ramar

An older woman with blond hair clutches grocery bags and scurries out of the Slavic Shop, the Saratoga Avenue store where South Bay residents come to buy Dworek Ukrainian Borsch, marinated herring filets, and potato and cheddar pierogi.

The woman, who identifies herself as Ukrainian but declines to give her name, is visibly shaken. Just hours earlier, Russia invaded her country.

"It's terrible what's happening," she says in dismay, pausing for a moment in the San Jose strip mall parking lot. "I hate Russia."

She quickly gets into her red Toyota Prius, backs up, and drives away. Inside the store, the owner appears from the back, looking stressed.

"We're still processing it," he says. "I have friends that are under fire right now." He doesn't want to say anything more, just yet. Things are developing in rapid-fire succession on the other side of the globe, the ripples slamming into our shores.

Discord in Eastern Europe

On Feb. 24, Los Gatos resident Natasha Lyukevich was looking forward to her usual ukulele lesson with 35-year-old Sergio Peshko, who’d been quite successful at teaching her 11-year-old son Colin Kennedy the Hawaiian instrument.

Like everything else during the pandemic, it would happen virtually. But this music tutor wasn’t down the road in Saratoga or Willow Glen: Peshko was in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.

"I can't teach you today, because I have a war," he says, recalling the message he sent to Lyukevich, a Belarusian-American woman. "I was worried about the situation, because I don't know what to do."

In a Skype interview, Peshko explains that he should be living in China, where he’d been working as a guitarist. It’s where his girlfriend lives, as well. But after the coronavirus broke out while he was back in Europe, he couldn’t return.

Instead, Peshko has been working as a sound engineer for a Crimean broadcaster. But he also enjoys guiding learners all over the world toward musical proficiency—including Lyukevich’s older son, who studied electric guitar with him.

Peshko knew conflict might be imminent. But when it actually arrived, he was still shocked.

"At the morning, I just heard big boom!," he says, recalling the moment he realized the invasion had begun. "The sound of explosion was not so close to me; it was, I don't know, maybe 20 kilometers or 10 kilometers [away]."

Peshko, who’s been living with his parents and cousin in the Troieshchyna neighborhood, says he was so worried he couldn’t eat.

"The whole day, we just stay home," he says. "We started to collect our documents, to collect some important things-some essential clothes-and just monitored the situation inside the country."

That night Peshko and his family were summoned to the bomb shelter. “The city outside was silent,” he says. “I heard just a few times the [Ukrainian] air forces was flying near our district.”

Eventually, they were told they could return home. He tried to sleep, but sleep was hard to come by.

They made the decision to flee to the countryside, where Peshko’s grandmother lives. They wanted to get out of Kyiv before the trip became impossible. At that point, traffic wasn’t even that bad, he remembers.

"We went to the village because, who knows? Maybe the Russians will attack the roads or something like that," he says. "I was just praying to God that we won’t have any troubles on the road."

They passed Ukrainian army soldiers and tanks, and made it to their destination without incident. Peshko was struck by the long line of his fellow countrymen in the neighboring town, who were trying to sign up to defend Ukraine.

He now wonders if he’ll have to shoulder a weapon.

"I'm not an army man; I don't have any experience with weapons," he says. "I hope I won't do this. I hope. But I can't say. Will I? Or not? I hope I won't."

At this point, he still has access to the internet—and was able to bring his instruments with him—but says his Los Gatos student will just have to wait to reschedule.

"Technically, I can do my teaching," he says. "But, you know, the mood and the emotion, it's, like, not so well to do this. And the situation is so quick-changeable."

Still, Peshko sees a silver lining.

"The US, and all European countries, they understood who is Putin, what is the Russian fascist propaganda machine," he says. "They finally realized. This is good part."

Teachers in the Crossfire

In addition to ukulele, Kennedy also plays the accordion (he’s even been recognized at the famed Cotati Accordion Festival) and is studying double bass. He’s been learning how to play Queen’s “We Will Rock You” on his youth-sized string instrument from another instructor, who is also in Ukraine. Their last lesson was on the Sunday before the invasion.

"He's learning complex work," says Igor Levchuk, 23, from his home in Dnipro, about seven hours southeast of Kyiv. Levchuk was assisting Kennedy with his Daves Avenue Elementary music class homework, but on Feb. 24, his life was turned upside-down.

"We have one military building and airport that was bombed in this day," Levchuk says. "My first reaction was to calm down. I was really scared."

Unlike Peshko, who’d been analyzing online reports in recent weeks, Levchuk says he mostly stays away from political news.

"I'm in music," he says. "So, I don't watch news about this conflict."

After all, he’s had his mind on another upcoming event—tying the knot with his fiancé. “I hope that we [can still get] married in August this year,” he says. “We just started to plan our wedding day.”

It’s what he thinks about when he hears of people joining the army or territorial defense force.

"I’d like to go to the military, but I can't do this," he says, explaining his fiancé's parents don't live in the area and he feels the need to protect her. "I just can't leave my girlfriend alone."

Every day he asks himself if they should’ve attempted to escape the country earlier. Now, he couldn’t get out even if he wanted to, since the government is preventing most men from crossing the border.

They’ve been living by curfews and race to the subway bomb shelter at a moment’s notice, he relates.

After getting back from one such excursion, just after his interview with Metro is scheduled to begin, he shows the go-bags he and his girlfriend take with them. They include blankets to sit on, since it’s the middle of winter—hovering around 32 degrees. He says his plan for the day was to call a friend who works as a volunteer for an organization that distributes food.

"We just protect our country from Russia's military," he says. "A lot of people in Ukraine, they need help-and no one wants this war."

Levchuk is clearly touched—far above and beyond the financial aspect—by Lyukevich’s prepayment for 10 lessons to ensure he can receive the order while it is still possible to use the banking system.

Fretting Over Family

Aleks Rombakh, 15, is in her first year at Los Gatos High School. She was born here in the South Bay, but her Ukrainian citizenship means the world to her. She explains proudly that when her ancestors were forced to leave Bulgaria back in the day, Ukraine came to their aid.

"They escaped to Ukraine," she says. "They gave them shelter."

She’s close with a distant relative, who remains in Odessa. He is Rombakh’s fourth cousin, but their parents grew up in the same house during WWII, so the families have always been close.

He told her, “Everything’s fine.” But later, she found out he was putting on a brave face. “I’m really scared for him,” she says. “He means so much to me.”

His mom has been reporting food shortages—even at the more expensive grocery stores.

"shelves were all empty," Rombakh says. "All she could get was a loaf of bread."

Just days ago, her mother, Olga Mavrody, who owns a Los Gatos accounting business, was planning a trip to Ukraine—envisioning restaurants, beaches and nightlife. Now that’s out the window.

"We're completely stunned," Mavrody says of the invasion. "What has happened with Russia-it's just unheard of."

A few hours earlier, at breakfast, Mavrody’s mother shared how much the situation reminds her of living through the Nazi invasion.

Mavrody confirms that their friends and family already have been through the wringer in the current invasion. While her aunt in Odessa—who’s in her 70s—seemed to be taking everything in stride, another friend there isn’t quite so even-keeled.

"They're shooting at my building," read a Feb. 27 text from her. "Can you get me out of here?"

So Mavrody started researching how her friend could seek asylum. The same day, she spoke with another extended family member who reported her adult son had successfully left the country—passing through Moldova and into Romania right before the border closed.

Now, Mavrody is urging her friends to call their congressional representatives to push for a no-fly zone.

The war isn’t just affecting local Ukrainians, Rombakh notes. In fact, one of her classmates—whose family emigrated from a former Soviet state—wonders how it might affect their loved ones, too, if war continues.

Three days into the invasion, a couple of Azerbaijani women, who asked to remain anonymous, were at the Slavic Shop, picking up some Eastern European-style cookies. “We stand with Ukraine,” one told Metro. Here in the Silicon Valley, economic impacts of the invasion are beginning to manifest. Gas prices that had dropped to just above $4 a gallon in recent weeks were nearing $5, with some pumps beyond $6 a gallon.

Los Gatos-based Netflix said it was suspending its streaming service inside Russia, after learning it would have to carry Russian state-owned channels, under a new law. Since Ukraine was providing about 50% of the world’s neon gas, a key component in semiconductor manufacturing, the chip sector braced for impact. However, in a statement to Metro, the Semiconductor Industry Association said it didn’t expect current delays would get worse because of the invasion.

"The semiconductor industry has a diverse set of suppliers of key materials and gases, so we do not believe there are immediate supply disruption risks related to Russia and Ukraine," said John Neuffer, the organization's president and CEO, adding it was adapting to new export sanctions leveled against the Kremlin.

Back at her high school in Los Gatos, Rombakh says she understands that people often cope with tough situations by using humor, but says she wants her peers to understand now’s not the time for crass remarks.

"They should know that it isn't something to joke about," she says. "It feels so weird seeing people make jokes like, 'Oh, World War III is starting.'"

Rombakh hopes to do some outreach at her school, noting she’s looking into contributing an article to the student newspaper.

But while she knows Ukrainian refugees—and those amid the shelling—will need financial support, she reports she’s already identified one scam fundraiser in her online feed.

At least people are starting to learn about Ukraine, she reflects.

"Most people didn't even know it existed," she says. "At least my homeland is not brushed off as, 'Oh, that's just Russian.'"

'Ukrainian People Are Free People'

Anna Usatenko, 31, a resident in the Santa Cruz Mountains community of Bonny Doon, faced temporary evacuation to Los Gatos during the CZU Lightning Complex fires in 2020. Now her thoughts are consumed by a new disaster. When Putin’s “special operation” commenced, the Ukrainian learned the news before her friends over there did. She frantically reached out to her contacts in Ukraine to make sure they were up to speed about what was going on. It wasn’t long before they saw evidence, firsthand.

"My sister lives in Kyiv," she says. "It was explosion there, as well."

Usatenko couldn't sleep all night. The following morning, she decided to take the day off from her job as a quality engineer for a software company.

"I was texting with my friends and my relatives," she says. "I wasn't able to work."

She started to post on social media, including encouraging her Russian friends to disseminate truthful updates to their followers, to combat the narrative coming out of the Kremlin.

"It's difficult for me," she says. "I'm always thinking about this situation and how I can help. I am helping [by] sharing information, sharing petitions."

She has a friend who lives in Irpin, a northwest suburb of Kyiv, for example.

"We are hoping that Russian people who live in Russia, they can stop Putin," Usatenko says. "They don't believe that there is war in Ukraine."

If Russia decides to press on with its invasion, it will get more than it bargained for, Usatenko predicts, recalling the Ukrainian spirit evident during the Euromaidan protest movement of 2013-2014.

"Ukrainian people are free people," she says. "They don't like when someone's ruling their lives."

Thankfully, her sister was able to get out of Kyiv on Feb. 25. But she still has friends hiding in basements there, as Russians fight their way toward the city that used to be home to almost 3 million people.

The Bombs Don't Discriminate'

Ilya Frank has been in San Jose for about 14 years. Of Jewish descent, he grew up in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second biggest city, under Soviet rule.

He has fond memories of taking computer classes at National University of Kharkiv as a teenager, learning how to program video games in BASIC. Because he didn't have a computer at home, he'd hop on the rapid transit line to visit his parents at work and use the computer there.

This set him up for more than a decade of employment as a software engineer at Google before he moved on to fintech company Highnote.

A few days ago, he was finally able to take a well-deserved vacation to New York. But he says he couldn't really enjoy it, because of the tragic images beamed in from his hometown. He spent most days glued to his phone, sharing updates he sourced from around the web with friends in Ukraine.

The university where he got his programming feet wet was struck by a missile. And the school he'd attended each day was hit, too.

"School #17 has a big hole in it now," he says. "I'm feeling very stressed. I was thankful I didn't have to work this week."

It's strange for him to consider the turn things have taken, since both of his grandfathers fought in the Soviet army in World War II. And some of his friends under fire are ethnically Russian.

"The Russians in Ukraine are suffering just as much," he says. "The bombs don't discriminate."

One friend sent a photo of their son's bedroom with a window blown off its hinges and glass littering the floor. Luckily the boy wasn't there during the blast.

Another friend said he watched two people close to him die before his eyes.

"The Russians have bombed the shit out of apartment buildings around the county," Frank says. "These are normal people who lived lives just like ours a couple weeks ago."

War in Ukraine has touched plenty of families in the area, he says, pointing to the large number of Eastern Europeans-Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans-ho live and work in Silicon Valley.

"We have a lot in common," he says. "The community has mobilized a lot to help Ukraine."

One storyline that has impressed him is Cash for Refugees, an emergent, not-yet-official charity. News about it has passed from node to node along his digital social network.

Semyon Dukach-a managing partner at One Way Ventures, which invests in immigrant-run tech companies-and epidemiologist Natasha Dukach started the program to distribute money directly to people fleeing the conflict

So direct, in fact, that Alex Furman, the founder of genetic-data company Invitae, flew overseas to hand cash out himself at the Romanian border.

"I just spent most of the day right on the border with the rest of the volunteers," Furman said in a video posted to Facebook over the weekend. "And let me tell you, what we've been seeing is pretty heartbreaking."

They encountered a young woman with severe hypothermia who just miscarried, and a bus evacuating people with severe mental disabilities that had lost a couple people on the journey, he said.

"The situation's pretty dire," he reported. "At the same time, what we're doing, it's working. A little bit of cash in the right place at the right time-right in the hands of the people who need it-actually gives them a whole lot of freedom."

Frank says it's great the tech community is rallying to support people in Ukraine.

"But I wish they didn't have to do that," he said, adding the situation in the whole country is tenuous at the moment. "Most of them want to get out and get somewhere safe."

Seeking Safe Passage

On Sunday night in Dnipro, Levchuk is in his Soviet-style apartment, alone. The music teacher hears no more bombs falling on his city. So when the sirens go off, he just shelters in the hallway.

A few days earlier, he and his father agreed that, although they might not be allowed to leave, the women of the family should get out while they can.

"It was hard," he says, remembering the sad goodbye with his fiancé. "I think it's most right. This is the best we could do."

She headed to Zaporizhzhia, where Levchuk's family lives, for a rendezvous before embarking on the long-distance trek to Poland.

We just have a nuclear power plant being bombed here," Levchuk messaged Metro on March 3, referring to what has been described as a near-calamity at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station. "Thank God the firefighters are already there."

Fortunately, Levchuk's fiancè had exited the area a few hours earlier. Plus, a friend in the military ("He's really the best drummer I've ever played with") told him the situation was under control.

Then, this weekend, he got the welcome news that his soon-to-be bride, along with his mom and his sister, had made it across the border into Poland, and were now safely checked into a hotel in Prudnik.

After getting off the phone with her, Levchuk was smiling. He recalled how much fun it was to perform at a jazz festival in that country. And he was relieved that the phone service was pretty good over there, too.

But soon he was back to rubbing his weary eyes, because whatever peace this update affords him is tempered by the next herculean task in front of him.

"I have one problem," he says. "Parents of my girlfriend, they live in Mariupol-and this is most dangerous place in Ukraine right now. For eight days we have just one call. It was just 10 seconds."

His future in-laws told him they were safe, but he's not so sure. He's heard the southeastern city has no water, electricity or heating. "It's a humanitarian catastrophe," he says.

It is already the second day since the agreed-upon safe-passage corridor was suspended.

"Maybe I can find people who have a car and travel to Mariupol with humanitarian help," he says. "Maybe this is my plan."

But the next day, the International Committee of the Red Cross tells the BBC the evacuation route had been covered with mines.

So, for now, Levchuk occupies his time by seeking out volunteer opportunities in Dnipro. He's desperate to hear from his future family. He'll do almost anything to save them. "Every day I check the news," he says. "Every time, waiting for a call."