The Long Way Home
Earlier this year, Land Park journalist Martin Kuz spent five weeks in Ukraine, both as a reporter covering Russia’s invasion of his late father’s homeland and as a son hoping to better understand the forces that shaped his father’s life. He returned to Sacramento—home to the largest concentration of Ukrainian immigrants in the United States—with a profound new understanding of his complex heritage forged by war and loss. In this essay, Kuz chronicles his journey at the intersection of global history and personal identity.
The headlines that began appearing last fall each delivered a small dose of dread as I knew then that war would come. For the second time in six months, Russian President Vladimir Putin had commenced a massive buildup of military forces along the border with Ukraine. As autumn retreated and the calendar flipped to 2022, he pushed forward once more, moving almost 200,000 troops to Ukraine’s edge.
Their presence cast the shadow of invasion from Kyiv in the north to Odesa in the south, from Lviv in the west to Kharkiv in the east. I monitored the news from my home in Land Park, and while military and political analysts debated Putin’s intentions, I saw little cause for doubt. Why would a dictator stage another dress rehearsal?
The idea that the Kremlin would attempt to crush Ukrainian independence with the weapons of genocide and mass suffering struck me as a brutal truth about to explode into view. My unease arose from personal family history as much as the troop buildup 6,000 miles away. Nearly a century ago, my father survived and escaped the last Russian crusade to erase Ukraine’s national identity.
Eugene Kuz was born in Lviv in 1923 to Basil and Anna Kuz, the youngest of their four sons. The couple nurtured a loyalty to Ukraine in the boys even as their hometown belonged to Poland in the aftermath of the Polish-Ukrainian War that followed World War I. In 1922, Vladimir Lenin formed the Soviet Union and seized control of Ukraine, suppressing its fight for sovereignty with the Red Army. Joseph Stalin rose to power in 1924, and by the time Eugene turned 10, the Soviet leader’s state-imposed famine—the Holodomor, or “death by starvation”—had killed between 4 and 10 million Ukrainians. An estimated 200,000 more died during Stalin’s Great Purge in the late 1930s.
The Soviet Union annexed a swath of eastern Poland that included Lviv in 1939. German troops invaded Ukraine two years later, and Eugene dropped his medical studies in 1943 to join the country’s independent army that sought a Ukraine free of Soviet rule. The Ukrainian forces, assembled under German command but with explicit allegiance to their own country, fought against the Red Army for the next two years before most surrendered to the Western Allies in 1945. His unit wound up in a British prisoner of war camp in Italy, and when World War II ended that year, he understood that he could return to his country only in memory. For taking up arms against Russia, he faced certain execution if he set foot in Ukraine, now trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
Eugene landed in America in 1955 after a decade split between Ireland and England during which he resumed his studies. He resettled in a town south of Minneapolis to pursue his interrupted future, and in time he became Dr. Kuz and then a husband, dad and naturalized citizen. He embodied the immigrant dream and loved his adopted country without reservation. But his ardor for Ukraine and bitterness toward Russia never receded, and later in life, as I began to discern the man behind the father, I realized his evident pride in his Ukrainian roots masked a silent, unresolved anguish. He longed to cross back over the border to the homeland that Russia stole from him.
The highest concentration of Ukrainian immigrants in the United States lives in the Sacramento region. Many arrived after the Soviet Union’s implosion in 1991 liberated them from Russian tyranny and allowed them, at long last, to journey beyond the Iron Curtain in search of opportunity in the West. The onset of health problems kept my father from visiting Ukraine after the country gained independence the same year, and he recognized the fragility of its freedom. His ceaseless warnings about Russian imperialism proved prophetic a year before his death in 2015, when Putin annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and pro-Russian separatists laid claim to a slice of the country’s southeast.
A wider Russian invasion of Ukraine appeared inevitable as I departed Sacramento for Kyiv in early February. I traveled there as a reporter and, in equal measure, as the son of a Ukrainian refugee with my own sense of yearning. I wanted to draw closer to the unhealed sorrow that war inflicted on my father, the sorrow essential to his character and that in my ignorance I failed to perceive until his final years. It is the sorrow born from loss of country, the sorrow shared by millions of Ukrainians. It is the sorrow that shapes their nation’s history, the sorrow that anneals their collective identity.
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Three blue and yellow Ukrainian flags rippled in the wind above a border checkpoint 10 miles from the country’s true boundary with Russia. Alexandra Ivanivna, a 60-year-old grandmother wearing a red parka and pulling a suitcase on wheels, approached a Ukrainian soldier and showed her passport. He waved her forward, automatic rifle dangling from his shoulder, and stepping past him, she re-entered the country she had never left.
The need for a crossing station that deep inside Ukraine attested to its disfigured landscape long before Russia’s invasion earlier this year—evidence of the war before the war. In 2014, Russian-backed militants seized portions of Luhansk and Donetsk, adjacent regions in southeastern Ukraine known together as Donbas. The insurgency and Putin’s land grab of Crimea occurred soon after protests in Kyiv and across Ukraine forced then-President Viktor Yanukovych out of office. Regarded by the West as a Kremlin puppet, Yanukovych incited public fury for rejecting a pact to strengthen Ukraine’s economic and political ties with the European Union, opting instead for a closer alliance with Russia.
The uprising in Donbas ignited fighting between separatist and Ukrainian military forces that persisted over the ensuing eight years and through more than two dozen ceasefires. A 260-mile front line severed southern Luhansk and Donetsk from the rest of the country as the separatists, aided by Russia’s tacit yet obvious military and political support, declared independence from Ukraine and established self-rule. No country recognized the governing authority of the breakaway states until Putin signed a decree to that effect this past February. He ordered Russian troops into the territories the same day to perform “peacekeeping functions” in a prelude to the large-scale assault he launched later that week.
The insurrection that erupted in 2014 forced 1.5 million people to flee and tore families apart. Generations that had lived under one roof ended up on opposite sides of a border that formed a stitched wound across Luhansk and Donetsk. A handful of checkpoints with metal fencing and guard shacks divided government-controlled land from the occupied areas. Residents carried passports and other identifying documents to visit loved ones inside their own country.
After the fighting broke out, Alexandra evacuated with her daughter and young grandson from the city of Luhansk in the separatist territories. They resettled in a Ukrainian-held town a two-hour drive away while her mother stayed behind, reluctant to move from the only place she had ever called home. “It’s like she is a hostage,” Alexandra said, sunglasses concealing her eyes on a bright cold day less than two weeks before Putin’s invasion.
She returned from visiting her mother through the checkpoint in Stanytsia Luhanska, one of the de facto border towns on the Ukrainian side wrought by the conflict. Two days earlier, she had crossed over via a pedestrian bridge and taken a taxi to Luhansk, where she grew up. Like the breakaway states as a whole, the city existed in a frozen netherworld of destroyed homes, closed shops, meager jobs and erratic public services. Doctors and banks were scarce, and a bureaucratic maze awaited residents who requested to “enter” Ukraine to obtain medications or collect pensions. In a voice lilting with sarcasm, she said, “This is how Russia has liberated Donbas.”
The burdens of traveling to Luhansk—and the sporadic enemy shelling of Stanytsia Luhanska and other front-line towns— limited Alexandra to two or three trips a year. The war had cleaved her past and present. Then she owned a two-bedroom home that she paid off working as a teacher after her husband died. Now she rented a small apartment with money she earned as a hotel housekeeper. Then daughter and mother hugged almost every day. Now months passed before their next embrace.
The vast majority of people in Donbas speak Russian and attend Russian Orthodox churches. The same held true for Alexandra, and like most everyone she knew, she had considered Russia and Ukraine kindred nations with common interests. The checkpoint represented a darker truth. Russia had exiled her within the borders of her native land.
“In my heart, I am always Ukrainian,” she said. Tears slipped down from beneath her sunglasses. “But I have this feeling that I cannot go home.”
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Putin gave a speech on Feb. 21 that at once offered a false narrative about Ukraine and belittled its existence as an independent state. He described the nation of 44 million people as “entirely created by Russia” and “an inalienable part of our own history,” and his decision to order tanks and troops over the border days later laid bare a stark symmetry. One hundred years earlier, Lenin, flexing the might of the Red Army, absorbed Ukraine into his new Soviet empire.
A short time before missiles started falling, I met Olexiy Trykun, a Ukrainian soldier deployed outside Niu-York, a mining town in Donetsk. We stood beside the abandoned farmhouse that his army unit had converted into a command outpost and near the hand-dug, mud-walled trench that the troops occupied. The 6-foot-deep scar in the earth marked Ukraine’s border in the area and snaked beside a murmuring river. The trenches of separatist fighters lined the opposite bank less than a quarter-mile away.
Olexiy enlisted three years ago, and at 25, his face retained a cherubic roundness. He cradled an automatic rifle with gloved hands clasped to his chest and elbows pointed out, and I imagined him in a similar pose holding his newborn son back home in Kyiv. I asked him what he would say to Putin if given the chance.
“You have your country. This is our country,” he replied. His father and grandfather served as unwilling conscripts in the Soviet army, and in Olexiy’s telling, they resented having to wear the uniform of a regime that treated Ukraine as a vassal state. He had been born in the first decade after his nation reclaimed its independence in 1991, and he chose to uphold the family’s military tradition with the dual purpose to defend his homeland and repudiate what he regarded as Russian hubris. “Putin lives in a past that is dead,” he said. “We will fight to keep each inch of Ukraine’s freedom.”
My father remains the smartest and strongest person I have known. He spoke seven languages, and with his knowledge across varied topics—history and geography, politics and theology, medicine and mathematics, art and literature—he made Britannica look shallow. Still, if I could appreciate the breadth of his intellect, the force of his will mystified me. What explained the disposition that allowed him to fight, to survive, to press ever forward when Russia held captive everyone and everything he cherished?
The answer emerged during my five weeks in Ukraine as I observed the unity of its people in response to war. The ferocious resistance of Ukrainian troops and the mutual compassion of everyday citizens revealed an intense love of country that Putin and Western leaders alike misjudged. In the land “entirely created by Russia,” a profound national pride passed down through generations linked young Olexiy Trykun and young Eugene Kuz across 80 years in the fight for a sovereign Ukraine. The quiet resolve that I recognized in my father, it turns out, defines the Ukrainian character.
The praise for Ukraine’s solidarity in the West contained elements of envy and irony. The televised and tweeted displays of self-sacrifice provoked nostalgia in America and Western Europe, where national identity continues to fracture and the concept of banding together for the common good appears extinct. Meanwhile, if those same countries, as members of NATO and the European Union, had shown greater faith in Ukrainians over the past quarter-century, Putin’s invasion might have stayed in the realm of dystopian fantasy.
The troops I encountered in Donbas shrugged off such what-if scenarios with a lack of self-pity that I remember in my father, who divulged little about the torment he endured and witnessed. Their stoicism was not a symptom of myopia. They could see through trench periscopes that geopolitical winds had battered Ukraine.
Yuriy Sobolev commanded an army squad based at a military outpost in Syze, a farming village deserted by all but two of its 14 residents since 2014. He stood 6-foot-6, with a bald head and burnt-orange, chin-strap beard, and his affable demeanor diverged from his imposing bearing. “I’m good,” he said, tapping the sidearm holstered on his hip in answer to my question about the looming Russian assault. “Let them come.”
Yuriy exemplified his country’s dauntless spirit, and on the topic of Western officials, he flashed the cheerful defiance that has endeared Ukrainians to a global audience. “They said Ukraine isn’t ready to join NATO and the EU, that we don’t deserve to join,” he said. He took a short drag on a cigarette and smiled as he blew out the smoke. “But maybe they don’t deserve Ukraine.”
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Scenes from a destroyed life passed from right to left as Iryna Levkovets swiped through photos on her cell phone. One shot captured the aftermath of a rocket strike on the office where she worked as an accountant. Broken light fixtures dangled inches above a floor covered with loose bricks and shattered glass from a collapsed wall. Another image showed black scorch marks around a massive hole blown open in the façade of an apartment complex down the street from her sister’s building.
“This was Kharkiv,” Iryna said. The initial days of Putin’s invasion hollowed out the eastern Ukrainian city of 1.4 million people, 25 miles from Russia, as residents surged west in a mass exodus. Her finger flicked past gutted government offices, ruined homes, incinerated cars. The flatness of her voice conveyed finality. “It is gone.”
In the war’s first three months, some 14 million Ukrainians abandoned their homes and 6.7 million fled the country, spiraling into uncertainty amid Europe’s biggest forced migration since World War II. Iryna escaped Kharkiv with her two young sons and her mother in early March after living underground for a week. They had sought refuge in a bomb shelter with other families to wait and pray for the air raid sirens to fall quiet. When they climbed out, Ukraine’s second-largest city existed in a state beyond recognition, buried beneath its own rubble.
Iryna and her husband decided she should evacuate with the boys and their grandmother before the shelling intensified again. He stayed behind to comply with the country’s order of martial law requiring men ages 18 to 60 to remain in Ukraine to aid the military effort. He hugged them goodbye as they boarded a train headed west to Lviv and away from the place where the family’s roots reach back to the 1800s. The ride lasted 26 hours, and from there began the journey into a blurred future.
I met Iryna and her mother, Svitlana Shtanko, at a refugee center on a university campus the day after they arrived in Lviv. The converted gym facility housed 300 people who slept on cots and floor mats beside their suitcases and backpacks. Most had traveled hundreds of miles from cities whose names—Mariupol, Chernihiv, Kherson—now signified urban battlefields. Their familiar lives had perished, and under the shelter’s gray light, they inhabited a funereal silence.
I followed the two women outside to a playground across the street to watch Iryna’s sons, Taras and Tymofiy, play soccer with other refugee children. Iryna, 35, explained that the family would take another train in a day or two over the Polish border to the city of Krakow to stay with a host family. Her plans after that point dissipated as if a mirage.
“Everything is uncertain,” she said. The sky was overcast, and as her boys chased after the ball, their breath rose in small clouds in the chill air. Iryna worried that they had held their father for the last time. Her fear carried the echo of history. “Russia is trying to take away our country. They are trying to take away who we are.”
Millions of displaced Ukrainians transited through Lviv on their way to Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia as war gutted the status quo. The city of 720,000 people, dubbed “the soul of Ukraine” and known for its historical opposition to Russia, provided shelter for as many as 200,000 refugees a day in schools, churches, theaters, homes and other spaces. Once a gateway to opportunity in the West, Lviv transformed overnight into a portal to survival, the threshold between the terror behind and the confusion ahead.
I walked back to the campus refugee center as people eddied through its front doors and met Vera Sotnikova. She had fled Kharkiv two days earlier with a single suitcase and a fervent wish. “I am praying for peace,” she said. “I am praying for Putin to die.”
Vera was 23, close to my father’s age when he last touched Ukrainian soil, and her parents had urged her to evacuate. They chose to wait with her brother in Kharkiv. She wondered if her family and her homeland would outlive the war. Her eyes filled with tears. “If I don’t see them again and I can’t come back, what will happen then?” she asked. “Who will I be?” In her despair, I heard the unspoken mourning of a man separated from Ukraine for the final 70 years of his life.
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Lviv’s main cemetery lies a half-mile from the campus. During my first trip to Ukraine in 2014, I kneeled beside the headstones of my father’s parents and two of his brothers. I ran my hand over the faded names, and in that moment, his past, so abstract and elusive to me, burst through the haze of distance and time. The graves lent shape to the personal dimensions of what Russia ripped from his grasp. Here were the people from the black-and-white photos. Here were the people he lost long before they died.
In the United States, Eugene won revenge of a kind against the Soviet Union, applying his quiet resolve to reassemble his life. He opened a family medical practice and with my mother, Ingrid, a German immigrant who as a girl survived WWII, built a house and raised three children. He summited the domestic peaks of career, home and family without having to dread that the KGB would come knocking in the night, and when the Iron Curtain collapsed, he cheered from afar. He was free.
My overdue pilgrimage to his birthplace eight years ago offered a chance to meet his cousin, Iryna Shchuchak, and her husband Myhajlo. We reunited this year at a friend’s home in Lviv with the invasion less than a week old. The elderly couple planned to drive their nephew’s three children to safety in Poland within a day or two. The threat of Russia seizing some or all of his beloved country moved Myhajlo to declare his loyalty in a two-minute soliloquy that ended with him bumping a fist against his chest. “Ukraine is in my heart,” he said. “Ukraine is my heart.”
The patriotism of Ukrainians in the throes of Putin’s war—and their distress over dislocation from the homeland—illuminated the larger dimensions of what Russia stripped from my father 80 years ago. The Iron Curtain deprived him of experiencing the bond his people share with their own, an impassioned and unassailable solidarity that runs counter to American individualism. The only place Eugene could recover that vital piece of his identity remained forever out of reach. He was free in America but also alone.
I suspect that he submerged his grief as part of a lifelong refusal to surrender to Russia. In any case, he was not the type to talk about emotions. Yet in hindsight, my view has changed of his occasional black moods that descended with the swiftness of prairie thunderstorms. The shifts in temper that I found inexplicable and sometimes frightening in my youth now suggest a man bereft, berating fate as the arc of history defied his prodigious will. Beneath abiding devotion to country welled inconsolable sadness.
In my father’s eyes, Russian belligerence and Western neglect conspired to twice victimize Ukraine. He chafed when officials in centuries-old democracies wagged fingers at Kyiv for failing to root out political and economic corruption in the short decades since the country had established its independence. Their criticism had merit yet tended to downplay the extent to which Soviet rule deformed Ukraine’s public institutions and the impact of Russia’s unrelenting efforts in the Putin era to destabilize its much smaller neighbor.
Eugene liked to joke that he saw the future with the clarity of Moses. As he watched Western leaders appease Putin—from U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Angela Merkel—he repeated a dictum informed by personal and historical perspective: “Never trust Russia.” He considered Putin another Stalin, and he predicted that unless NATO and EU nations supplied more military, economic and diplomatic support to Ukraine, the Kremlin would attempt to demolish the country’s sovereignty and rebuild a Soviet-era empire.
Seven years after my father’s death, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered much the same message to the West. As he pleaded for help, Putin’s troops were turning Bucha, Irpin and other towns into mass graves, a horrific revival of the genocide that Stalin’s secret police perpetrated in the 1930s. When I departed Lviv for Poland in mid-March, I gave thanks that my father, who outlasted the Soviet Union, died before Russia again invaded Ukraine. His passing spared him more heartache. I wish the world, if not fate, had heeded his warnings.
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I walked through the door of Gastronom Kiev Market in early April soon after returning to Sacramento and stepped back in time. My first visit to the deli off Madison Avenue and Interstate 80, nestled beside a nail salon, transported me to my childhood in the 1970s. I looked down at the array of sausages in the display case and remembered gazing up as a boy at another display case in another Ukrainian deli.
Eugene resisted engaging with the large and active Ukrainian diaspora in Minneapolis after resettling in a rural town 20 miles south of the city in the late 1950s. The demands of work and family provided an obvious excuse, shyness a less apparent one. But the primary reason, I think, concerned a wariness of groups that the ravages of Soviet communism instilled in him. He came of age in a totalitarian state that banished personal liberty and individual identity, and he escaped with a visceral suspicion of groups as potential instruments of oppression and betrayal—another lasting, unseen wound inflicted by Russia.
Kramarczuk’s deli, on the other hand, aroused his appetite rather than his distrust. The market in downtown Minneapolis, opened in 1954 by a Ukrainian husband and wife, sold authentic Eastern European fare available almost nowhere else in the Twin Cities. I recall nothing of the customers who crowded the store except that their presence created a long wait. I imagine many were immigrants like my parents craving a taste of the Old Country. My memories involve inhaling the ambient aroma of meat and pressing against the display case, hypnotized by the rings of garlic sausage, strings of salami sticks and pyramids of cabbage rolls.
The deli trips and the food we brought home accounted for most of my exposure to Ukraine through my mid-teens. My mother told us in detail about Germany, describing the country’s culture and traditions and her family’s experiences during and after WWII. Her parents and sister visited us, and we traveled there. I knew more about Germany than about California.
In contrast, my father seldom broached Ukraine, perhaps worried that the darkness from the past would eclipse his new life in America. A family photo or two hung in the house, and he sent letters and care packages to his lone surviving brother in Lviv. Another brother had been killed in action near the end of the war in Austria and lay buried there, and a third died in early childhood, before Eugene’s birth. Beyond those biographical fragments, the trips to Kramarczuk’s and the Ukrainian Easter eggs my mother set out around the holiday, the country loomed as an illusion, remote and alien.
My father’s reticence fell away as I moved through high school and he approached retirement. Maybe he had tired of holding back, maybe enough years had elapsed to persuade him that at least one of his kids should learn about his homeland. My older sister and brother had left the house, so along with my mother, I made for a captive audience.
He expounded on Ukraine’s history and politics, Russia’s despotism and Lviv’s cultural significance, and now and then, without casting light on his inner depths, he offered glimpses of his past. One astounding story involved his escape from the British POW camp in Italy— and his sneaking back in when he received word that Ukrainian prisoners would be transferred to England after the war. Another member of his unit who resettled in America later verified what sounded like a lost episode of Hogan’s Heroes.
Eugene’s lessons—his lectures, his torrents of words—pulled into focus the outlines of Ukraine despite my frequent lapses in attention and interest. In petulant moments, beset by typical teenage narcissism and a desire to stake out my own identity, I disparaged his “obsession.” I grew up with a distinct sense of apartness as a first-generation American, and in the fog of youth, unsure of where or how I belonged, I struggled to appreciate that our immigrant parents bestowed on us an incalculable gift. They opened our curiosity to the world.
A perpetual effort since then to atone for that early ignorance explains, in part, why I traveled to Ukraine this year, drawn by the same malign forces that expelled Eugene some 80 years earlier. My mind grasped long ago that war and loss forged him. What I have been searching for—what I will always be searching for—is a deeper bond with the complex, difficult, stubborn, remarkable man who was my father. After witnessing the courage, generosity and resilience of Ukrainians, traits he possessed in abundance, I felt a closeness with him that evaded me in his lifetime. I saw his past not with my eyes but within my heart.
I came back to California wondering how to sustain the connection with his memory and Ukraine and its people. I found the answer when I entered Gastronom Kiev. An oasis of Ukraine in Sacramento, the deli inspired more than memories of Kramarczuk’s and a hankering for salami sticks. Hearing my father’s native tongue spoken in America reminded me of his avoidance of the Ukrainian diaspora in Minneapolis.
He stayed busy in retirement as a one-man advocacy group, educating anyone who drifted into his orbit about his birth country. He handed out news articles and books and wrote letters to the editor. He gave thousands of dollars to Ukrainian charities and causes, and he joined the board of a local nonprofit that shipped donated items there. Ingrid assisted him in every way, even more so as his health declined, and looking back, his insistent evangelizing seems a form of self-repatriation. He willed himself in spirit across a faraway border and returned to the land where his body could not take him.
But for all his laudable exertion, I fear that my father’s choice to trust only himself denied him a chance to heal, to set down his internal burdens among fellow Ukrainians who could understand the suffering he carried. Standing in Gastronom Kiev, my reflection staring back at me in the display case, I realized I have followed his path. I inherited his aversion to groups and his shyness in public, and I have kept my distance from the Ukrainian community in Sacramento and elsewhere.
So I resolve to change. Our region’s already sizable population of Ukrainian refugees will swell in the months and years ahead. In tribute to Eugene Kuz, and in solidarity with his homeland’s proud, valiant people, I will join volunteer groups to aid and support them. I will greet them with Slava Ukraini!, the national salutation that means “Glory to Ukraine!” I will seek to make sure they never feel alone in their new country as they forever yearn for the one left behind.
I will honor my father. I will embrace my identity.