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‘It’s like having your hands and legs tied and your eyes wide open’: a Russian Jew in L.A.

Anastasia Shostak always expected to celebrate on the day she became a United States citizen. But on the day it happened — yesterday — the Russian-born Los Angeles resident’s thoughts were thousands of miles away— 6,337, to be exact— in Sumy, the northeastern Ukrainian city where her family is hiding in a neighbor’s basement.

“If I could be there, if I could hug every single one of them, if I could help them out in any feasible way I would, but I just can’t,” Shostak said. “It’s like having your hands and legs tied and your eyes wide open — I can see and hear and feel everything, but I can’t do anything about it.”

As she took the oath of allegiance Friday morning, Russian troops moved closer to Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, where explosions lit up the sky and videos posted on social media showed Russian tanks driving through the city’s streets. Following Vladimir Putin’s recognition of the independence of the eastern Ukraine territories of Luhansk and Donetsk, troops advancing from the East on Thursday took Sumy as part of their initial invasion.

Anastasia Shostak

Anastasia Shostak

Like many Jews of the post-Soviet bloc, Shostak, 27, is grappling with deep connections to both Russia and Ukraine, with family in Drohobych in the western Lviv Oblast region of Ukraine, and in Moscow, St. Petersburg and the central Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, where she was born.

In Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s live streamed pleas to avoid war, he pulled on Ukraine and Russia’s shared heritage, speaking mainly in Russian.

“Many of you have been in Ukraine,” Zelensky said. “Many of you have relatives in Ukraine. Some people studied in Ukrainian universities. You know Ukraine. You know our character, our principles, what matters to us.”

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For Shostak, this shared heritage is a reason to come together in support of democratic ideals –– not to succumb to the divisive narratives she’s seen in the days surrounding the invasion. She called Putin’s excuses for Russia’s invasion — claiming Ukraine’s government is run by Nazis and is committing genocide on ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking citizens — “a complete lie.”

Attending a Feb. 24 protest in front of the Federal Building in Westwood, Shostak noted that there were Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians in attendance. Speaking about the diaspora community in Los Angeles, she said, “Everybody is so ashamed of what our government is doing right now.”

“There’s so much solidarity and unity between the two peoples and I want everybody to know that,” Shostak said. “Normal Russian people don’t approve of what’s going on in Ukraine right now, and Russia doesn’t equal Putin.”

More than 50,000 Ukrainians have fled the country primarily to Poland, Moldova and Romania. Shostak’s family in Sumy considered traveling to relatives in Drohobych near the Polish border, purchasing food in advance and filling their cars with gas, but are now unable to leave their town because of blocked roads.

Regarding her Russian side, Shostak said censorship poses a larger obstacle to keeping in touch, as Russia has restricted access to media like Facebook. Her grandparents planned to make aliyah prior to this week’s events, but the escalation of attacks put a new sense of urgency on their move. Shostak spent all of Wednesday night working on paperwork to help her grandparents in Russia evacuate but has not been able to get in touch with the Israeli Embassy in Moscow, which has been inundated with requests.

Shostak, program coordinator for the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, also expressed concern over the effectiveness of sanctions placed on Russia that caused her family to lose “their lifetime’s savings in a matter of hours.”

“My Russian family’s worst concern is that there’s going to be a new Iron Curtain and they’re not going to be able to get out of there, they’re not going to be able to get in touch with me,” Shostak said.

Shostak has continued communicating with her family in Ukraine primarily via WhatsApp and social media. She described her limited ability to help either side of her family as “paralyzing,” and said she wakes up multiple times during the night to check her phone due to fear of missing updates.

Asked what she expects the future weeks will hold, Shostak knew only one thing for certain: many more sleepless nights.

“My country’s unfortunately the aggressor here. But my people, my family, my friends, they never wanted this war and all these months leading up to this invasion,” Shostak said. “I want the whole world to know that Ukraine needs their help right now. They don’t need the words of ‘we condemn Putin.’ They don’t want any formalities. They need actual help.”

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