By Layla Younis
Galina Martynyuk grew up hearing her Ukrainian grandmother talk disparagingly about Russians.
Her grandmother would say things like “Russians stole this or that from us,” and “If a Russian and Ukraine got married, then the dominant language will be Russian.”
“Growing up, I always thought, never would I ever marry a Russian man; never in my life,” said Martynyuk, who was born in the U.S.
Yet last year, Martynyuk married a Russian-speaking man from Belarus.
She exemplifies what often happens to second-generation immigrants who aren’t as concerned about the ethnic or political conflicts that first-generation immigrants are so worried about.
Growing up, Martynyuk said, her grandmother was close to her family.
“She would take care of us,” she said. “She would babysit us and she would always be at family dinners.”
At a family dinner in October 2013, Martynyuk invited Bill Popov, her Russian-speaking boyfriend. This was the first time that Martynyuk and Popov had appeared as a couple in front of Martynyuk’s family.
“He brought pumpkin pie and my sister was making fun of him because no one in our family eats pie,” she said.
While everyone was eating dinner, Martynyuk said, her grandmother made a pointed reference about Russians, saying that if Ukrainians have to learn Russian, then Russians should learn Ukrainian.
Popov’s reaction? He simply smiled.
“I don’t have any animosity,” he said. “You have to understand the age difference and opinion. The older generation, like Galina’s grandmother, they went through a lot with the Soviet Union. They hold that bitterness rightly so.”
To understand the hostility, it’s helpful to review the region’s history.
Martynyuk’s grandmother, Maria Levitsky, and the rest of her family, lived in western Ukraine, which has historically aligned more closely with Europe.
“(My grandmother) is all about Ukraine being part of Europe and its own country,” Martynyuk said.
Western Ukraine became independent in 1918, according to Gerald Steinacher, a history professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
But before 1918, western Ukraine, along with Eastern Belarus, was part of the Austria-Hungary Empire, while the eastern part of Ukraine was part of Russia.
After World War II, Ukraine then became part of the Soviet Union. Levitsky, like many Ukrainians, felt persecuted. It was illegal to practice religion, Levitsky said in her native Ukrainian as her granddaughter translated. The government opened schools on Sunday so people wouldn’t attend church and it fined anyone caught practicing religion, she said.
Levitsky said she wanted to read the Bible and worship with fellow Pentecostals. But she could only do so once a month, when she would travel 25 miles from her rural small farming town to meet up with fellow worshipers.
In 1991, Levitsky’s two sons immigrated to the U.S. Levitsky followed in 1992, and her married daughter, Olga Martynyuk, arrived a year later. Seven months after moving to the U.S., Olga Martynyuk gave birth to Galina Martynyuk.
Now, 20 years later, Galina was dating Popov, a Russian-speaking man from Belarus, which also was part of the former Soviet Union. Belarus is a country where the Polish live in the west, the Ukrainians live in the southwestern region and Russians live in the east, Popov said.
“The country is different to the people that live there,” Popov said. “To the outside world it is the same (as Russia).”
Like Galina’s grandmother, Popov came to the U.S. as a refugee in 1994 because of religious persecution.
The Soviet Union fell in 1991, but Popov said it was still prevalent to be against organized religions even after 1991.
Levitsky’s resentment about speaking Russian comes from the Soviet Union’s insistence that countries like Ukraine only speak Russian.
“You have to understand people there were all controlled by the same government,” Popov said. “They were taught the same language because language was thought to be the unifier.”
And although her grandmother made comments about the Russian language in front of Popov, Galina said her grandmother didn’t criticize him.
“I don’t think my grandmother ever disapproved of Bill,” Galina said.
There was also no disapproval of Galina from Popov’s side of the family, Popov said.
“My sisters are all married to Ukrainian men,” Popov said. “My parents are very understanding and open. So it was not even an issue. They always wanted the best for us regardless of race, nationality and ethnicity.”
Galina’s parents were similar.
“My parents were always so good about it, to make (Popov) feel comfortable,” Galina said. “They would be like, ‘There is nothing wrong with Russians.”
When Galina and Popov got engaged, she asked her grandmother if she liked him.
“She said, ‘If he treats you good, that’s all that matters.’ She said, ‘You have to like him and you have to live with him.’”