Fear, dread, anger, unity and hope are just a few of the emotions roiling the lives of Charleston’s Ukrainian community as Russian President Vladimar Putin has waged a brutal and unprovoked war against their homeland. Over the last few days City Paper has spoken with area Ukrainians to try and get an idea of how they — and friends and family back home — are dealing with the crisis.
‘We have a big Ukrainian community’
Aleksandr Pavlichenko and his wife Maka Aptsiaur own West Ashley’s popular European grocery store, Eurofoods. Pavlichenko, a Ukrainian immigrant who moved to Charleston from New York in 2006, has kept in touch with family throughout the conflict in his home country. “Every morning we wake up, and the first thing we do is call his family in Ukraine,” Aptsiaur said.
Aptsiaur is originally from the Republic of Georgia, a country invaded by Russian forces in 2008, she said. She visited Charleston in 1999, with no intention of staying until she saw the opportunity for a better life, leaving many loved ones behind. “It was a long time ago,” Aptsiaur said. “But when I saw how life is different from my country where we were just trying to survive, I decided to make everything possible and grow my roots here.
“I know exactly how it feels, especially for those who are here but have loved ones overseas,” she added of her memories of the Georgia invasion. “I was scared; I was terrified. I didn’t know what was going to happen. My husband’s relatives are all there in Ukraine — his cousins on the front lines fighting to protect their country.”
The couple organized a small rally last Friday outside their grocery store. It sparked the idea for a larger, more planned rally to be held Tuesday night at City Hall.
“We just decided to get the community together to show our support and have all of our people who are here express their feelings,” she said. “We have a big Ukrainian community here.”
Beyond the rally, she is also tentatively planning a volunteer event this weekend to pack supplies to be donated to Ukraine. “As soon as I get OK from the city, we will post the location and time on Facebook and list the items we’re going to need — mostly nonperishable food, first aid, bedding, warm clothes.”
Aptsiaur said the support she has seen from Americans, both native and immigrant, has been inspiring. But the couple continue to worry about what could come next in the Ukrainian conflict.
“If you compare Ukraine to Russia, it’s just a little dot,” Aptsiaur said. “Ukrainians were always for peace, always minding their own business. I didn’t believe this was going to happen — just watching this beautiful country be destroyed by the war and all these innocent people dying. It’s hard to take in. And if they’re going to invade Ukraine, we don’t know who is going to be next. Putin is a bully. It just breaks my heart.”
‘A hero if he wins — and a hero if he dies’
Like a great many Ukrainians, the lives of Mount Pleasant psychologist Viktoriya Magid, 41, and Charleston musician and IT professional Roman Pekar, 49, have been intertwined with Russia. When she was 12, Magid moved from Odesa to Moscow after her mother married a Russian. At 18, she moved to New York to be with her father, a Ukrainian Jew who had fled to the U.S. to avoid persecution. Pekar grew up playing violin in a small Ukrainian town before eventually settling in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he met his wife Katya and played for the symphony orchestra. In 2001, cooperative music gigs led him to the Hilton Head and Charleston symphony orchestras and a new home.
“Charleston reminds me of Odesa,” Magid said. “It being a port city, and this international city, a melting pot. You have people from all over living in Charleston, the hospitality and so many beaches — that’s very much an Odesa thing too. People live on the beach. They’re happy people. And I remember saying to my husband (an American psychologist), ‘I think this is as close as I can get to feeling like home. Let’s stay.’ ”
Magid and Pekar both have friends and family holed up with their own families in bunkers, or fighting on the front lines. They stay glued to their phones and social media for updates.
“My people are putting up such a defense,” Magid said. “One of my really, really close friends has some military experience, having been defending eastern Ukraine since 2014. But he just re-enlisted as a volunteer as of yesterday. He was texting me. I said, ‘Where are you going?’ He said,’ I don’t know, wherever I’m needed.’ He’s been suited up and given ammo, and he’s ready to be deployed somewhere this morning.”
Both Magid and Pekar say they dont blame the Russian people, but rather Putin.
“It’s all propaganda there,” said Pekar. “There’s no independent media. It’s all fear to express your opinion. My wife calls some of her friends in St. Petersburg and she gets, like, coded answers. It gets me back to the days of the Soviet Union when people weren’t talking straight. You’re saying one thing, but the meaning is something else your conversation partner will understand.”
Ultimately, everyone we spoke with said they’re optimistic that despite the horror and destruction, Ukraine will eventually prevail because the Ukrainians simply want to be free. They have been doubly inspired by the unlikely heroics of actor, comedian, lawyer and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Pekar said he actually sees some parallels between Zelensky and fellow actor Ronald Reagan.
“Zelensky’s quick and he’s sharp and he’s delivering the message. The fact is that he’s fighting. The world wants to see a leader like this. Putin’s in his bunker with those long tables. Zelensky’s shining like a bright star. The world will make him a hero if he wins — and a hero if he dies.”
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.