“The first day of the war, they bombed the outskirts of my town,” says Oleksandr Klymyuk. He grew up in Uman, a city of about 100,000 halfway between Kyiv to the north and Odesa on the Black Sea coast. “Two days ago, four rockets hit my hometown again. But this time it was two dead and I think four or six injured.”
Oleksandr and his wife Nataliya own the northeast Minneapolis liquor store Urban Spirits, 5,000 miles away from the Ukrainian war zone, where we don’t go to sleep with the rumble of rockets and artillery in our neighborhoods or gather at our many breweries to hand-make Molotov cocktails. Twitter posts about weak points to aim for on tanks are academic for us, rather than practical advice for our daily routines.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin started building up a massive military force at the border with Ukraine, the Klymyuks thought it was a bluff to score economic and geo-strategic concessions from the West. News of the invasion was a shock.
First came the messages from friends in Ukraine. Then came international news confirmation. “It’s not a shock anymore,” Nataliya says.
Adds Oleksandr, “They have their new normal now.”
The Klymyuks’ new normal is wearing out their phones. They get updates via text and Telegram, pictures and video from friends and loved ones living through the war in real time. They read every news update and statement from world leaders.
“We are just having sleepless nights. Definitely, we sleep less,” Nataliya says. “All the time, on the social media, on the phone, trying to encourage and uplift our friends there in Ukraine. But it’s hard, because every day is a little bit different message coming. We’re getting a message, everything is okay, Ukrainians can do everything themselves. And then the next day, they are bombing Kharkiv and Kyiv.”
Nataliya’s roots are in the town of Izmail, the southernmost region of Ukraine, bordering Romania and landlocking the country of Moldova from the Black Sea. The now world-famous Snake Island defenders—the soldiers who authored the instant slogan “Russian Warship, go fuck yourself”—are part of a detachment based out of nearby Izmail.
Nataliya and Oleksandr didn’t know each other in Ukraine. Both moved here separately in 2004 and then met, by coincidence, in 2005. Nataliya had been in a car accident in Anoka; Oleksandr was driving by and stopped to help. Kismet.
On this Wednesday in early March, Nataliya shows up to the Northeast liquor store with a neckerchief colored Ukrainian blue and yellow. She had been to a support rally on February 26, where several hundred people gathered on the Lowry Avenue Bridge with signs and flags to demonstrate solidarity.
Talking about a war that touches your life is a rough conversation to have, but the two of them light up when asked about the community response in Minneapolis.
“We were just… wow,” Nataliya says. “Pretty much every customer who comes. So much empathy, so much support.”
“My goodness, yes,” Oleksander chimes in. “Since the war started, we have every day, tons of people stopping by. You can see those flower pots.” He gestures to the flowers decorating the countertop near the door. I had assumed they were decorations they set up themselves, to brighten the space up. “Very random person brought that. I’m not even sure she’s my customer. And there’s a card that says, ‘Glory to Ukraine.’”
Liquor distributor reps have stopped by and left them money or bottles of product. Oleksandr said one dropped off $100, telling them to help Ukrainians however they can. (If anyone wants to donate locally, he recommends the Ukrainian American Community Center on the riverfront in St. Anthony West, which is supporting wounded soldiers as well as displaced and wounded civilians.)
As for direct international help to the war effort, the Klymyuks are grateful for the attention, supply lines, and economic sanctions, but the situation is desperate enough that until the Russians back out, Ukraine is always going to need more.
“They never asked for international troops to step in,” Oleksandr says. “We needed the weapons and weapons have been provided. Sanctions, they don’t take immediate action. It’s a matter of time, but you know, Ukrainians are dying right now.”
There isn’t a hint of bellicose nationalism to the Klymyuks, no boasting about how much ass the Ukrainian military and people are gonna kick, as many Americans have boasted during assorted international skirmishes. Their reaction is softer: anger, of course, and grief and anxiety, the blend of gratitude for and frustration with international response.
And bravery, too. A cousin of Oleksandr’s owns a flat in Poland, and he offered it up to any friends or family who are trying to flee the country. No one took them up on it. One friend in Ukraine responded to the offer: “The truth is on our side, so we will stay.”