Ukrainian, now living in Utah reflects on 2 years of war

Mar 25, 2024, 5:00 AM | Updated: Apr 1, 2024, 1:35 pm

Ukrainian family in Utah...

Anton Piddubnyi , Valentyna Piddubna and their daughter Evgenia moved to Utah from Ukraine to flee the war. (Anton Piddubnyi)

(Anton Piddubnyi)

SALT LAKE CITY — A Ukrainian man now living in Utah is sharing his thoughts on the war taking place in his country.

In February 2022, Anton Piddubnyi and his wife Valentyna Piddubna were living in Bila Tserkva, Ukraine awaiting the arrival of their daughter. However, on Feb. 24, 2022, the couple – Ukrainian nationals who met while attending Utah Valley University – awoke to the sound of bombs as Russia began their attack.

The war is now two years in, and their lives look much different than what they had pictured before the invasion.

A change in plans

The couple planned to give birth at a hospital in the capital city, Kyiv, about 50 miles from where they lived. Fearing that the hospital would become a target, they abandoned their plan. According to Piddubnyi, his wife went into labor on March 1, and they went to a makeshift hospital in a bomb shelter in Bila Tserkva.

“The delivery room was assembled in front of us,” he recalled in a 2022 interview. On March 2, their daughter Evgenia was born.

Leaving Ukraine

The Piddubnyi family fled about 800 kilometers west to Mukachevo shortly after their daughter’s birth, where they stayed for two months. But, in the fall of 2023, they decided it was time to leave their home country.

“The electricity shutdowns had been pretty violent during October when the day gets shorter and nights get longer…I use internet for my work and when there’s no electricity, there was no internet,” he said.  

“And I’m the only source of income for my family. So, okay. If I’m gonna lose this — there are no jobs in Ukraine that you know satisfy my comfort of life…”

Piddubnyi noted that at times their daughter who was eight months old, was in complete darkness.

“It’s hard with children, you know, if you’re an adult you can find some ways to entertain yourself. If you have a child…it’s very hard.”

Then, one night in October, six drones exploded about 500 meters away from their home, Piddubnyi said.

“We woke up at like 2:30 a.m. and we hear the sound. And you know, one by one [the drones] come… with 10-minute intervals. And… you cannot sleep your entire night. It gets on your nerves. I was like okay; I mean I have to protect my family. We have to get out.”

Anton holds Evgenia at the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport on Nov 30, 2022. 

Returning to Utah

The couple, their daughter and Valentyna’s grandmother first traveled to Poland while they waited for immigration clearance. Currently, men aged 18-60 are required to stay in Ukraine unless they meet an exception.

“There are some certain categories of men who can go out; if it’s for volunteering purposes, if it’s a medical emergency. In my case, it was due to the work with the government which I cannot disclose. But it was a project that I did in collaboration with one of the companies here…it was a humanitarian help.”

The caveat of his leave; he would be unable to leave Ukraine again if he returned.

A fractured community

In Bila Tserkva, the Piddubnyi family had a tight-knit community of family and friends and were closely connected with their fellow ward members in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Now, much of that community is split between countries and continents.

“Well, there [are] a lot of people, the big chunk of people is in Poland. I mean, there’s all sorts of people from our ward and church in Germany,” he said.

‘We have a pretty big Community here in Utah’

Both Piddubnyi and his wife volunteer at the Ukrainian Center Utah, Dzherelo.

“In the organization, my wife actually does some social media for them and other projects. But basically, what we do and what I do, [is] we teach them English,” said Piddubnyi explaining many immigrants do not know enough English to get a job.

“People have to feed their families. So, we try to teach them English, and we try to do some fundraising [and] we try to hang out…”

Additionally, church has played a vital role for the Piddubnyi family. They found a ward in Salt Lake City that has Ukrainian members.

“They have all these traditional gatherings and food. So, we try to go there as often as possible and kids are playing and you know, they’re singing songs. So that’s one of the ways we still celebrate.”

The cost of war and the Ukrainian morale

In the two years since the war began, upwards of 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced with another 10,000 civilians killed, according to the International Rescue Committee. Additionally, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently said 31,000 troops have died.

“The morale is definitely lower right now with everything that the Western media is saying about Ukraine,” Piddubnyi said.

“There are some points that are valid…like this blood shedding has to stop, like there should be some kind of negotiations. But these negotiations should put Ukraine in preference, not Russia.”

Piddubnyi said the false narratives have demoralized the Ukrainian people.

“People are turning away from us. People are speaking so many lies about us, and you know, the aid to Ukraine has halted… there’s not enough ammunition… there’s more and more deaths of people and it is hard.”

One narrative says Piddubnyi, is that Russia simply reacted to the threat of aggression by Ukraine.

“There was like fear mongering amongst Russians that you know, NATO was going to put military bases and nukes in Ukraine…Ukraine would be against Russia. I know our people…We would never go against Russia because we have so many brothers and sisters there.”

As the war drags on, U.S. support has waned, and aid to the country has continued to stall.

“I want people to know that it’s important to fight in this war because you don’t even know how it is like to live under autocracy. under communism, under a dictatorship. I mean, look what happened to [Alexey] Navalny…”

Navalny a prominent Russian activist who opposed President Vladamir Putin, died last month in a Russian prison.

Stripping Ukraine’s identity

According to Piddubnyi, Russia is working to strip Ukraine of its culture and history.

“The first thing that Russia does when they come into a city that they capture is strip away all the statues, strip away all the streets that were named after Ukrainian historical figures or Ukrainian poets… and they change it to Russian literature names,” Piddubnyi said.

Ukraine’s muddled future

The war has had an enormous impact on the Ukrainian psyche. Not being able to return, Piddubnyi said he has nightmares that something will happen to his family still living there.

He also does not know what kind of Ukraine will be waiting for him.

“I do see that it might not come back to that state because you know, what happened in Ukraine is for tens of years in the future. Like, you will see those problems, you know with people with disabilities, people with trauma and it’s hard to think about that.”

Ukraine’s leader, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was widely supported during the first months of the war. However, Piddubnyi thinks that support is on the decline. Zelenskyy’s term is technically up on March 31, but martial law dictates no elections are to be held during wartime. Currently, 18% of the country is under Russian occupation.

Piddubnyi would like to see the next president boost the militarization of Ukraine making them more self-sufficient.

“The world is not going to think about Ukraine all the time, you know, the aid is not going to flow into Ukraine all the time. Let’s use resources and engineering minds that we have in Ukraine right now to build networks and facilities that will make us self-reliant because Russia is not going to end.  They’re building and building and building drones and artillery and things like that. They are getting prepared for even more conflict. So, we should do the same,” he said.

Keeping an eye on the U.S. election

“We’re definitely watching elections,” Piddubnyi said noting current political division. 

“People just need to agree on something if they want to preserve this country. They need to agree on something because there is nothing worse to the country than internal conflicts. Like Russia would have been doing so good for so many years. They had not been attacking Ukraine, you know directly…And there’s nothing worse than you know, to start stirring that conflict inside of the country. And then you don’t have to do anything. The country will just fall apart by itself.”


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Ukrainian, now living in Utah reflects on 2 years of war