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Utah County couple reflects on lives growing up in Russia, Ukraine as war rages

By Harrison Epstein - Daily Herald | Apr 16, 2022

Harrison Epstein, Daily Herald

Alex Evstratov and Sasha Rudenko pose for a photo with their daughter, Stella, inside their Orem home on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

"It started."

Alex Evstratov was woken in the middle of the night with a phone call from his mother that Russia had begun invading Ukraine and bombing the neighboring nation.

Asleep next to him was his wife, Sasha Rudenko, their 2-year-old daughter, Stella, asleep too. For a brief time, Evstratov was the only one in the home who knew war had begun.

Evstratov was born and raised in Russia and Rudenko grew up in Ukraine. Now living in Orem, the two came to Utah individually and met while attending Brigham Young University. They became acquainted after seeing one another at the temple in 2014, became friends, dated and are now married.

While the call in the middle of the night was a surprise, it's something the couple has known was a possibility.

Harrison Epstein, Daily Herald

Sasha Rudenko and Alex Evstratov pose for a photo outside their Orem home on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

"He was telling me all the time, like, nothing's going to happen. My family called me the day before and they were really worried, they were trying to decide if they should go to Poland right then, that day," Rudenko told the Daily Herald in late March. "Alex was like, 'No, nothing's going to happen. I'm sure nothing's going to happen.'"

They both followed the news in the days prior of Russian President Vladimir Putin, posturing his country closer to an invasion. They both remember Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea -- an incident called illegal by the Brookings Institute and a "masterclass in political manipulation" by the Al Jazeera news network.

Back in the middle of the night, Evstratov was trying to get in touch with Rudenko's family and friends, to no avail. It was then he woke up his wife and repeated his mother's words. It started.

Eventually making contact with her family, Rudenko learned they were now in a village outside of Kyiv.

"I called my friend whose family is also there and she said she feels the same. We just kind of cried to each other. So that was the first night," Rudenko said.

Harrison Epstein, Daily Herald

Alex Evstratov and Sasha Rudenko pose for a photo inside their Orem home on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

Despite her reassurances, Rudenko's family was prepared for the eventual attack. When everything started, they grabbed their bags and left. They drove nonstop for two days, heading west to find safety. Eventually, they ended up in the country's west, providing aid and supplies for soldiers there.

That was more than 50 days ago now, on Feb. 24. Every day since has been an onslaught of information. According to a live tracker on Al Jazeera, over 6.4 million people have fled Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion, most ending up in Poland and other neighboring nations, with some attempting to reach the United States. The United Nations has already verified 1,964 civilian deaths as of Thursday, with a caveat that the numbers could be higher.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has become an international icon for his resolve, speaking before the European Union, United Nations and U.S. Congress in the previous weeks while Putin and sympathizers, like Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, have received scorn from a majority of the world's leaders.

Communicating as much as she can with family and friends, it was plain and simple for Rudenko what the Russians are doing. "It's genocide against Ukrainians," she said.

Just this week, on Tuesday, President Joe Biden made a leap in American foreign policy by calling the war genocide, agreeing with a statement from weeks prior made in an Orem living room. Biden told reporters, "It's become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being a Ukrainian."

Dispatches from Russia

In talking to his friends and family, Evstratov was getting the Russian version of events. They were told it was all a routine training exercise, leaving out that part of the army had been sent to Belarus to surround Ukraine on another front.

Evstratov was focused on businesses leaving Russia and stopping work in the country, that ordinary citizens were being cut off from the rest of the world.

"They're going to live in the Stone Age," he said. "My family is afraid because my sister, she is 12, she has diabetes. She needs insulin and they're afraid that that might be a problem."

It also brought back memories of Russian disinformation, of coordinated propaganda efforts. Evstratov discussed the March 4 legislation in the country banning independent war reporting and anti-war protests.

People who speak out against the war in Ukraine can be imprisoned, fined and face losing their children to the state.

"Everything they hear on the news is twisted. Like, 'it's not a war, it's a special operation' and 'we didn't bomb the city, they bombed themselves,'" he said.

Rudenko compares it to Ukraine in the 1930s, when the country was faced with Holdomor, also called artificial hunger and the terror-famine. Starving millions of Ukrainians, the Russian government imposed an iron fist and wouldn't allow citizens to call it what it was.

Rudenko's grandmother was a child during the famine and, to this day, lowers her voice out of fear when discussing politics and controversial topics.

By calling what's happening a war, sitting on his couch in Orem, over 5,500 miles from his family in Moscow, Evstratov is now a traitor to his home country. Still, it wasn't the most difficult revelation for him.

"Being a member of the church, we've been treated like that for a while in Russia," he said with a small laugh. He added that the country views The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which he and Rudenko are members, as American and that it has been established practice for missionaries to not call themselves missionaries. Members can't gather together or preach on the streets.

"I'm pretty sure my family is going to be treated this way right now because they're connected to America through the church and seen with me -- me being a member of the church, being here," he said.

Due to military conscription laws, Evstratov is also considered a soldier in Russia, meaning he has two options if he were to go back. He could either be imprisoned as a traitor or sent to the war front -- which Rodenko said was to "fight, pretty much, against my family."

Remnants of the USSR

It's long been a push of Putin to recreate the Soviet Union, officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which existed from 1922 until 1991. In his 2005 state of the nation address, he called the collapse a "genuine tragedy." The longtime Russian leader was born in the USSR and it stays at the forefront of his modern actions.

For current residents of Russia and Ukraine, experiences from the Soviet Union still linger as well. Rudenko was born in Ukraine toward the end of the USSR's existence, with her family remembering it as an "awful organization."

Discussing Putin and his personal motivations evokes emotions for Rudenko. "I can't talk about Putin. There's so many memes and jokes about him, but even jokes ... I can't watch them. It's just so hard to see his face," she said.

While Rudenko was surrounded with people who experienced the brutalities of the Soviet Union, for Evstratov, only his mother remembered the time as a negative.

"The older people ... they were saying, 'it's a great time. We were working together, we were equal. All of us had (a) place to live," he said.

While Evstratov's grandmother, he said, supports a reunification of the USSR, the couple chalks it up to her age and TV news viewing habits. Across the age spectrum, though, are the kids taught false narratives -- taught not of the struggles, hunger and strife of the USSR but of glory.

These young people, who Evstratov adds idolize former leader Joseph Stalin, also yearn for a new USSR to restore an idea of historic greatness.

Rudenko said it's her husband's love of history that led him to seek out the true history, not just accept what they were taught as clear fact.

While the information could be available to Russian people online, it's been decades of indoctrination that invalidate anything that goes against what they believe.

"Back home, American websites? Come on, it's propaganda. They're not going to read anything that's not Russia saying it," Evstratov said.

Because of this deeply ingrained sense of distrust, the couple knows that telling their stories and relaying their experiences will fall on deaf ears in Russia -- even with Evstratov's grandmother.

"My family's there, we know it, we see it, we are there and she does not believe that it's true because she believes the TV," Rudenko said.

Support for this past is one place where the two disagree. Evstratov believes that people have fallen for an idea that the country can be a self-sustaining nation, despite still trading with China. Rudenko thinks it is more human -- that people "remember their young years. Older people remember when they were young, when nothing hurt in their bodies."

What comes next

As much as the family is ingrained in America, living here for almost a decade, going to school, getting married and having a child -- they are still tied to their home countries.

While Ukrainians were asked to come back to their country to fight, it was a far more direct situation for Evstratov when the military, before invading, came to his family home looking for him.

If he went back, the country would try to send him to the artillery unit, or he would be imprisoned for avoiding military service.

While Evstratov has no inclination to go back, it may not fully be up to him. In January 2023, his student visa will expire and the United States may ask him to leave the country. Rudenko and their daughter, an American citizen by birth, rely on his status.

However, according to Sean Carpenter of Wilner & O'Reilly, the couple may stand a chance of staying. Carpenter is a managing attorney for the Salt Lake City office of the firm, which specializes in immigration law.

"On a general basis, people from Russia claiming they're opposed to the Putin regime, or obviously Ukrainian citizens right now, assuming the conditions continue ... they would have a very high chance of success," Carpenter said of potential applications for asylum.

If they were sent out of the United States next year, though, Evstratov and Rudenko have nowhere to go. If they went to Ukraine, he would be in danger because of his ties to Russia. If they went to Russia, they would both be unsafe.

In a world where they are forced to Ukraine, Evstratov knows the best-case scenario is being treated poorly -- just not sent to prison.

Carpenter added that the two could each file applications for asylum detailing reasons they can't return to their home countries, including instability or past persecution. The two can file individually while claiming each other, he said, and if either one is approved for asylum they would all be able to stay.

In any event, they had been receiving money from Evstratov's family in Russia to support his family in America. To maintain his status, Evstratov will have to go back to school with a different major to get a different degree.

While they have accepted the possibility of going back to eastern Europe, it is still not the future either of them wants. Evstratov worries about his daughter growing up in Russia, in a culture obsessed with war that taught "everything about survival, everything about bunkers, about weapons and military history."

"Bringing (Stella) there is definitely not the life I would want for her. Truly not a life I would want for anybody, but especially not my child," Rudenko said.

Views from America

Watching from a world away, Rudenko and Evstratov have been reassured by people's reactions to the war -- and have a few nits to pick.

Drawing back to the history between the two nations, Rudenko has been irritated by how many people they meet who think Ukraine is a part of Russia. While both were under the banner of the Soviet Union, they are independent nations.

They've been asked why Russia is bombing Kyiv (Ukriane's capitol city) because they're the same country. People have been surprised to learn in conversations that Moscow is not a separate nation involved in the region.

One linguistic sticking point is the use of the article "the" in describing Ukraine.

"It's just Ukraine, not 'the' Ukraine," Rudenko said. Adding "the" before the country's name implies that it part of something else instead of a standalone nation.

They have had positive interactions, and enjoy driving through streets and seeing Ukrainian flags for the first time hanging in businesses and in front of people's homes. They also appreciate the awareness and hope people educate themselves more on Ukraine's fight and history while appreciating what America has to offer.

"It's actually really fascinating to me, even considering how difficult it is to immigrate, that there is a place that is safe," Rudenko said. "I'm grateful that there is a place like this that is ready to accept people. It's just a blessing."

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