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Vermonter Roman Kokodyniak reflects on his Ukranian-American roots as Russian invasion continues

A group of people holding an oversize blue and yellow flag of Ukraine on a sidewalk outside a post office
Peter Hirschfeld
At a vigil outside the Montpelier post office on Tuesday, March 1, 2022, Vermonters urged their neighbors to support Ukraine and its people.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, many across the world are watching the conflict closely.

That includes Cabot resident Roman Kokodyniak. Kokodyniak and his family immigrated to the United States after WWII. He grew up in a Ukrainian community in Cleveland, Ohio, and his parents were born in eastern Ukraine, which was Polish territory at the time. Kokodyniak has also served as an international election observer under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Kokodyniak to learn more about the history of Ukraine. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: As I understand it, Roman, you have family and friends and even some former colleagues in Ukraine now. Have you been able to stay in contact with them? And how are they doing if you've been able to reach them?

Roman Kokodyniak: Yes, I've had many phone calls. In fact, every day I'm in contact with friends who have been in Kyiv and are now moving west. Although one friend, Mykhailo, Michael, has remained in Kyiv in a high rise on the left bank and continues to go to work at his job at the Parliament, where he's head of facilities.

My last call with him yesterday morning. You know, this is classic Ukrainian humor; he was sharing anecdotes with me that probably the tipping point for Putin was when Ukraine applied to UNESCO to have borsch as their heritage food. And that probably really ticked off Putin — he just couldn't stand it anymore. It gives you an idea as to how people are managing, but clearly, there is more and more concern.

More from VPR News: A Bennington College student on being home in Ukraine during Russia's invasion

I have family that are mostly in central and western Ukraine, and they're just hunkering down and actually trying to go out and help with the refugee migrant movement. I have a couple of friends that have piled their families into small vehicles, small Toyotas with whatever possessions they can get, have left their apartments and are gradually moving to various places in the West, but leaving behind elders. For example, my friend, Victor, his wife has a sister in Kiev and her mother, a 91-year-old mother who can't go, so the sister has stayed behind with the elder. You know, and very, very painful, trying to figure out how to get them out safely.

One of the things that strikes me, Roman, is that for a lot of Americans, Ukraine was just not something they knew a lot about — a country that maybe they used to associate it with the USSR when it was part of the Soviet Union. Can you give us a —and I know this is hard to do — but kind of a thumbnail sketch of the history of this land, the people of this land and what has changed about it and why they are valuing their independence so much now since the fall of the Soviet Union?

Ukraine is a very resource rich, very arable land, and it's an area that's easily passed through between Eurasia and Europe. The Mongol hordes came through there when they were attacking Europe. Stalin's armies controled that area. Hitler came to that area not only in terms of assuring the final solution, but because of its rich resources. You could bring an army in and at the same time, feed that army. It was the breadbasket of Europe.

So, this is a country that experienced tremendous loss, constant occupation and warfare. And in its independence is finally saying enough.
Roman Kokodyniak

Originally, it was colonized by the Vikings who came through in the seventh and eighth, ninth century. And the princes of Kyiv and [sic] were from Scandinavia. You look at the Swedish flag and the Ukrainian flag, you'll get a sense of where those colors came from. Blue sky and yellow soil.

During the period in the 15th-16th century, when nation states started forming throughout Europe, Ukraine had a popular uprising of Cossack, Ukrainian Cossacks who, by the way, were democratically elected leaders.

So, there's a strong strain of democratic elements within the Ukrainian nation, comparable in some way to the relationship between, let's say, Spain and Portugal. It is a distinct nation with its own language, its own cultural history.

One of the things to remember is that Ukraine, very similar to Vermont, is a rural population, its small villages. And in some way that has been a saving grace to its being able to hold on to its culture.

The period during World War II, Ukraine was one of the countries in Europe that had the largest number of people who died either of warfare or as a result of the Holocaust. Prior to that, in 1931-32 during Stalin's forced collectivization, 4 to 7 million people died of a forced famine, which is in Ukrainian, known as the Holodomor.

So, this is a country that experienced tremendous loss, constant occupation and warfare. And in its independence is finally saying enough.

You know, Roman, I imagine you speaking with us from Cabot, Vermont, and it must be frustrating and scary, difficult for you knowing that you've got so many people that you care about over in Ukraine.

I'm wondering, for Vermonters who are listening to this, is there anything they can do to help? There are refugees fleeing the country. Anything that you can recommend people do if they really want to reach out and help?

Many Ukrainians have come through Vermont, on a variety of different study tours. And so, there are a lot of people in Vermont and in Ukraine who have a familiarity with the state.

My one recommendation that I have is communication. We all have this little device in our hands now. It's obviously played an important part in our justice process here in the U.S. Consider sending a message of support to the president of Ukraine, to a variety of nongovernmental organizations, to individuals through various social media and provide financial support.

More from PBS NewsHour: How to help people in Ukraine and refugees fleeing the conflict with Russia

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Karen is Vermont Public's Director of Radio Programming, serving Vermonters by overseeing the sound of Vermont Public's radio broadcast service. Karen has a long history with public radio, beginning in the early 2000's with the launch of the weekly classical music program, Sunday Bach. Karen's undergraduate degree is in Broadcast Journalism, and she has worked for public radio in Vermont and St. Louis, MO, in areas of production, programming, traffic, operations and news. She has produced many projects for broadcast over the years, including the Vermont Public Choral Hour, with host Linda Radtke, and interviews with local newsmakers with Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb. In 2021 Karen worked with co-producer Betty Smith on a national collaboration with StoryCorps One Small Step, connecting Vermonters one conversation at a time.
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