Editor’s note: The Russian invasion of Ukraine has presented emotional challenges for young people of Russian heritage in U.S. schools. In this account, Sasha Jones, a former Education Week intern whose mother was born in Russia, describes the conflicting emotions and experiences of students from families like hers as the war unfolds.
Growing up, having a Russian heritage was an intrinsic part of my identity. I visited the country every summer, living with my grandmother in the city of Kaluga—a time that defines nearly a quarter of my childhood.
My mother is also defined by this heritage. She was raised at a Russian ballet academy and spent years touring the Soviet Union with her dance troupe. She immigrated to the United States after meeting my American father and now runs a Maryland dance company where she performs folk dances.
To her, the war in Ukraine is confusing. She believes Slavic people are all one and the same. Older generations of Russians view Ukrainians as Russians, as was such under the Soviet Union, while younger generations recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty. My mother now watches in horror as she attempts to decipher current events from American and Russian news outlets and stories from friends and family in Russia.
Students with Russian backgrounds in U.S. schools, some of whom still have family in Russia and Ukraine, have been forced to reckon with their identities and navigate the bitter politics caused by the war in Ukraine and the conversations and confrontations that come with it.
For the past month, these students have watched from the sidelines as the war in Ukraine rages on, following the news and, at times, trying to find a way to assist Ukrainians.
On the third day of the invasion, Alina Dzantiev, a freshman at Glenelg High School in Glenelg, Md., spent most of her day in the counselor’s office. As the daughter of a Russian father and Ukrainian mother, she was called a “bomber” and encountered other mean comments and questions from classmates.
“Now those comments are still there, but I’ve been getting used to it, too,” Dzantiev said. She’s instead been focusing on fundraising for her mother’s GoFundMe in support of Ukrainian refugees, which raised over $20,000 in five days.
Why are ‘you people doing this’?
Mark Checknik, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md., is the son of Russian immigrants. He called the Russian invasion of Ukraine a “human tragedy.” That didn’t stop a classmate from confronting Checknik, asking him why “you people are doing this to Ukraine.”
“I don’t think he meant it like that. He was just uninformed,” Checknik said.
Sofia Donets, a sophomore at The Potomac School, a private school in McLean, Va., is ingrained in the Slavic community around her. She was born in Russia and participates in Zerkalo Musical Theater. (Zerkalo is Russian for mirror.) She volunteers at the Education League, a nonprofit that assists immigrant families who are adjusting to the American education system.
“It’s important to understand also that [the community is] not just Russians, it’s Ukrainians, it’s Belarusians, Georgian people. It’s all kinds of people,” said Donets.“And we’re trying to help each other through this crisis.”
Her school hosted an optional lunchtime conversation on the war, but she said not all students follow the news closely.
Meanwhile, Donets is tuned in, watching both American and Russian news. Her extended family back in Russia is only able to consume what she calls propaganda.
“I’ve been looking at Ukrainian, Russian, and American news sources. And the difference between what they’re saying is just baffling,” Donets said.
Checknik, who also relies on a variety of news sources, recalls watching one of President Vladimir Putin’s speeches where he called opponents “traitors.”
“The Russian people will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths—spit them out on the pavement,” Putin said during a call with top officials.
“That kind of hurt,” Checknik said. “I consider myself more Russian than American.”
Checknik said it’s also difficult to speak with family in Russia as they fear “Big Brother” watching over and listening in on their conversations.
Social media’s evolving role
Teens across the United States have turned to social media to share news, in what has been called the first TikTok war.
“I’m really saddened by the situation,” said Alana Charny, a sophomore at Altholton High School in Columbia, Md., whose family is Belarusian. She follows the war on social media. “It’s pretty frustrating.”
Every summer, Checknik, who has dual citizenship, visits family in Astrakhan, a city on the Volga River in southern Russia. This year, he won’t make the trip.
“I’m currently afraid to go there in fear of getting drafted into the army,” Checknik said. “These times, they’re very unpredictable”
U.S.-imposed sanctions also mean flights to Russia have been cancelled. My mother, who also visits annually, does not know when she’ll see our family next.
In the meantime, she talks to friends and family via WhatsApp and scrambles to find other platforms, like Telegram—an encrypted messaging service—as rumors circulate that WhatsApp might be banned by the Russian government, as Facebook and Instagram are now.
My cousin in Russia raised fears that last summer was the last time my mother may ever see them. We pray that’s not so. Meanwhile, we wait in limbo.
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2022 edition of Education Week as Students With Family Ties to Russia Face Hostility