It’s been one year since Russia invaded Ukraine, and no end in sight anytime soon. With deaths already in the tens of thousands, Vladimir Putin’s bloody campaign has caused Europe’s greatest refugee crisis since WWII, having displaced roughly 10 million citizens to date. According to the latest census data, Westchester County is home to more than 8,000 Ukrainian Americans, approximately 1,800 of whom were born there. Based mainly in Yonkers and Greenburgh, the Ukrainian community in Westchester is tight-knit and actively working in support of the Ukrainian war effort. Recently, Westchester Magazine sat down with some of then, to get their unique perspectives on this historic atrocity.
Nataliya Kisseleva of Rye Brook owns a Massage Envy franchise in Scarsdale and The Lash Lounge in Dobbs Ferry. She grew up in Chernihiv, Ukraine, but emigrated to the States at age 27. Though she has lived in America for more than 20 years, Kisseleva says she has always kept a “close eye” on what was happening in Ukraine. She was devastated to witness what has befallen her hometown and native country.
“At the end of March or April, [Chernihiv] was on the front cover of The New York Times, and it was [depicting] a residential building that was hit with one of the Russian rockets,” says Kisseleva, who often was in touch with friends in Ukraine several times a day despite the seven-hour time difference.
“The town was surrounded for about a month, with limited means to deliver any type of supplies,” Kisseleva says. “The infrastructure was destroyed. People had no heat. Mind you, it was March, and in that part of Ukraine, it’s pretty cold. There was no electricity or plumbing. People were cooking outside on an open fire, getting water from the river.”
Kisseleva goes on to say that she never planned to settle in the U.S. She only decided to remain in the U.S. after meeting her husband and business partner, a Russian émigré who is also against the war.
Kisseleva says she sees her husband experiencing confusion for what Russians are doing to Ukrainians and pain because Putin’s actions have destroyed Russia’s standing in the world.
“Anytime something is happening to your home country,” says Kisseleva, whose husband preferred not to be quoted directly but permitted his wife to represent his feelings, “it hurts your national pride. People can cut off ties with former jobs, bosses, friends. But separating yourself from your background and where you came from is one of the hardest things to do.”
Like Kisseleva’s husband, Russian-born Dmitri Ostashkin of Port Chester is also vehemently against Putin’s war.
A former competitive dancer and owner of New York Dance Center in Ardsley, Ostashkin says he led a comfortable life in Russia. He left his homeland in 2000 (the same year Putin was first elected president) because he “didn’t like the way the country was trending. … Every country has [a level of corruption], but in Russia, it’s on steroids, so I made a change.”
As far as Ostashkin is concerned, the war is “nothing but madness. I mean, what other opinion can you have?” He says he was surprised when Putin initiated the attack.
“I thought it was just posturing, because it was so counterproductive, not just for Ukraine but for Russia as well,” says Ostashkin, who keeps close tabs on what Russians have to say about the situation. “Unfortunately, a lot of people do support [the war] until it comes to their house, until they get drafted, until they get killed,” he says. “People want to think they are winning in something. They want to feel good about themselves and they want someone to blame. Now, when the war goes totally against the predictions, do they have second thoughts?”
Oksana Kulynych of Yonkers is the daughter of two Ukrainian refugees who came to the U.S. after World War II. For her, overcoming the Russian aggression is a global imperative from several standpoints.
“We hope that people will realize that this is the largest war in Europe since World War II. We have to win this war,” she says.
Since the war began, the retired educator has been using her skills as a teacher to raise awareness about the war and the history of her ancestral homeland by speaking to students around Westchester County. She wants them to know that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s tactics are not without precedent.
“It goes back to Stalin in the 1930s,” says Kulynych. “Stalin instituted a policy — a genocide called the Holodomor, meaning ‘murder by starvation’ — where he closed the borders of Ukraine and exported the grain out. Millions of Ukrainians starved to death. Now, Putin is using food as a weapon again. He’s using energy; he’s destroying the infrastructure and the civilian lives there. So, it’s happening again with Russia, this genocide, this cruelty.”
Though they were driven out of Ukraine, Kulynych’s parents were determined to raise their six children with strong Ukrainian identities. “Even though I was born here, [Ukrainian] was my first language, the first language of all my siblings. We kept that culture. We went on demonstrations. I remember in the 1970s when the political prisoners were sent to the gulags. It was very important to keep that culture alive,” she says.
Jaroslaw “Jay” Palylyk, a retired pharmacist and president of the Westchester branch of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, has been at the center of the local movement to support Ukraine since the war began on February 24, 2022.
Palylyk, who grew up in Yonkers and now lives in Rye, is the child of Ukrainian-born immigrants. He believes Putin is targeting Ukraine because of a wish to “put back part of the Soviet Union.” Palylyk says restoring the Soviet Union has been Putin’s goal since he was first elected in 2000. “Putin has a twisted sense of how that should be done: The attacks, the terrorist nature of his army, the rapes of women; [his efforts to] terrorize women and children to make them scared of what might come next, are just unbelievable. Sure, I understand there are wars for certain reasons, but here Russia is the aggressor and just wants to take land that is not theirs.”
Palylyk is well-informed about happenings in Ukraine and has friends and family in the country. He even knows people who have lost their lives because of the war.
“It’s very sad. Some [deaths] are military, of course, but there are many casualties who are just civilians. Many women, many children,” says Palylyk, who is also aware of several accounts by credible news agencies and statements by Ukrainian officials claiming that many Ukrainian women — some as young as 10 years old — have been beaten, tortured, and raped before being murdered and deposited in mass graves.
Despite the massive trauma Ukrainians have experienced, however, Palylyk says Ukrainian morale is high.
“The attitude of Ukrainians I’ve spoken to, including my family and really good friends, some of whom are on the front lines, is over-the-top positive. They know that they are in the right, that this is a war that is imposed upon them by the terrorist state of Russia. They’re sure that because Ukrainians are in an uproar about what’s going on and how innocent civilians are being killed that they will accomplish the inevitable freedom they deserve and expel any Russian activity on their lands.”
Palylyk says he is “thrilled” with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s leadership and also “pleasantly surprised” by the Biden administration’s efforts to help Ukraine. As for the Ukrainian community in Westchester, Palylyk says it has great resolve. “When the war first started, we were able to collect and distribute not only a monetary fund, but there was a tremendous outpouring from the community for volunteers who would come to the Ukrainian Youth Center on Palisade Avenue [in Yonkers] or St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church on Shonnard Place [also in Yonkers]. For weeks,” he says, “we were packing clothing, diapers, and medical supplies so that we could get them over there.”
He adds that while he’s been grateful for the efforts of the broader Westchester community, he worries that aid has slowed down since the onset of the war.
“When the war first started, it was the first item on the news,” says Palylyk. “We were getting a lot of inquiries, a lot of monetary donations. All the local police departments in Westchester were donating supplies, [such as] bulletproof vests. All this was unbelievable, and we were so happy to hear and see that this was coming our way. [But] once Ukraine wasn’t the top story anymore, things changed. The donations stopped coming or trickled down to a very small amount. We hope that the people of Westchester still are able to support us. We’re going into a winter war, so you need winter supplies, clothing, medicine, stuff for the troops.”
As director and CEO of the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, Masha Turchinsky, whose paternal grandfather was born in Ukraine, shares Kulynych’s concerns about sustaining Ukrainian culture.
“Given what I do professionally and my personal interests, I often think about what’s happening in Ukraine from the vantage point of cultural heritage,” says Turchinsky, who grew up in Yonkers and lives there currently with her husband and children.
“I have been deeply disturbed that Russia has gone beyond a strictly military war to a place where they are attacking civilians. They are also attacking centers of cultural heritage that are frequented and/or supported by the citizens of Ukraine,” says Turchinsky. “Numerous museums have been attacked, shelled, bombed; artwork has been destroyed. Churches, which contain artwork within them, have been demolished.”
Turchinsky also fears not only for the lives of family members who live in Ukraine but also for their livelihoods.
“For example, I have two cousins who are classically trained musicians, and [their careers are] not really flourishing during this time,” says Turchinsky. “Another cousin, who lives and works in Kharkiv, reported to me that a missile destroyed a portion of the laboratory where she works. That felt very close to home. The other thing that they’re reporting is an incredible level of stress in terms of alarm sirens going off at all times of day. The things that we hear in the news are very real. They have had to prepare basement shelters in which to hide or escape during the time when the sirens go off.
“This is clearly a war with the intent to annihilate Ukrainian heritage, identity, and autonomy,” Turchinsky continues, “and this country is a democracy that has been illegally invaded. I’m sure that for Putin, the most unanticipated and unwanted outcome of this war is that Ukraine has never been this united. There’s a tremendous pride now in one’s Ukrainian identity, and there is a determination to preserve and perpetuate Ukrainian cultural heritage, whether that is through art or writing or language or music.”
Like Palylyk, Turchinsky believes in the indomitable spirit of the Ukrainian people as they seek to win the war.
“I’m instilled with pride at their perseverance,” Turchinsky says. “They are fully determined to win. I don’t think they know exactly when the end will be, but there is a genuine belief that because they are fighting for something so strongly, they will ultimately prevail.”
Dr. Augustine Moscatello has experienced the ravages of this war firsthand. Moscatello is a surgeon who is also the director of the otolaryngology department at Westchester Medical Center and the department chair of otolaryngology at New York Medical College. In September of 2022, he and colleague Dr. Manoj Abraham (also of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network) mounted a 10-day medical relief mission to Ukraine. After landing in Kraków, Poland, and hopping a bus for an eight-hour ride to Ivano-Frankivsk Regional Hospital, Moscatello says the first image that greeted him upon his arrival at the facility would prove emblematic of the entire mission and even the conflict overall. “I walked into the lobby of the hospital with the group,” says Moscatello, who evaluated and treated dozens of patients suffering from a variety of war-inflicted wounds, including gunshots and shrapnel from artillery blasts, “and we were standing at the elevator, waiting to go up to the floor where the otolaryngology clinic and operating rooms were. When the doors opened, there was a man in his 20s being wheeled out on a stretcher, and he had a black patch over his right eye, and his left foot was missing. That scene really epitomized the type of experience we would have from that point on.”
Yet despite all of the horror and tragedy he witnessed during those 10 grim days in Ukraine, Moscatello, who has gone on several medical missions during his career, came away from the experience with something of a renewed faith in people — especially the Ukrainian people. “Everyone there had this same attitude of bravery, dedication, patriotism, and what they were willing to sacrifice to prevail. We operated on one young woman who was a medic in the armed forces. She was wounded; she lost an eye. She was there to have her orbit reconstructed so that she could get an implant placed for a prosthetic eye. The day after her surgery, we were making rounds, and when we got to her, the first thing she asked us was, ‘When can I go back to my unit?’” says the surgeon, marveling at the resiliency of a people determined to charge their attackers, even as pieces of them are being blown off.
Moscatello says he intends to return to Ukraine in the spring of 2023.
For 10 days beginning September 14, WMCHealth otolaryngologists Drs. Augustine Moscatello and Manoj Abraham traveled to Ukraine’s Ivano-Frankivsk Regional Hospital to render elite surgical care to the war-torn citizens of the region. Having evaluated and treated more than 30 patients during their mission, treating wounds inflicted mostly by artillery blasts and gunshots, Dr. Moscatello — who is the director of the otolaryngology department at Westchester Medical Center — said the indefatigable bravery of the Ukrainian people has inspired him to return to the country in 2023 to continue the humanitarian work he began last year.
Throughout the county, the people of Westchester wasted no time in demonstrating their support for the embattled citizens of Ukraine. Even the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge was lit in the colors of the Ukrainian flag.