As Russian invaders approach, former Mass. couple goes about life in native Kyiv

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Russian forces bombed a shopping mall in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Sunday. (Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images)
Russian forces bombed a shopping mall in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Sunday. (Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images)

A former Massachusetts couple is trying to make the best of life in their native Ukraine, despite the country being under attack by Russia.

Helen and Leon were born in Kyiv. As young adults, they faced anti-Semitism and a lack of opportunity there. So they emigrated to the United States with their baby daughter in the late 1980s.

They ended up in Massachusetts. They quickly found work, had a home in Swampscott and became American citizens. But Leon's work as an investment banker and venture capitalist led them back to the Ukrainian capital 10 years ago. The couple's daughter stayed in the Boston area. Helen says she was reluctant to go back to their native country.

"Leon went to Ukraine because he invested in Ukraine. I was dragged to Ukraine, because I'm married to Leon. And it's not like I wanted to, [or] it was my choice or desire or adventure," Helen said. "But then this time, Ukraine grew on me. So it's kind of [my] second home."

She built a life that includes working as a writer and independently teaching English.

Leon and Helen don't face religious persecution in Ukraine now. And they say the home they've made and community they've found there have been enough to keep them there in the middle of a war. Out of concern for their safety, we've agreed to use only their first names.

WBUR's All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins spoke with them this week.

Interview Highlights

On how they're holding up in the face of Russia's attempt to take control of their city and country:

Helen: "I am answering the truth. We are all right. For many reasons, people do adjust to circumstances, and our circumstances — with electricity on and running water, and we managed to get some groceries, which was the real hunting. The first weekend, when it was curfew for three days, we were actually out of food. So we were kind of panicking. But then we managed to get some. So we are kind of happy that it's livable conditions."

Leon: "We feel we are relatively safe, because even though Kyiv is the main target of the Russian forces, we feel [it's an] unreachable target of Russian forces ... And we got used to air raid sirens. So far, Kyiv is under some bombing, but not really active. ... So we are not panicking."

Helen: "I would not say 'not active', I would say not severe. It's active, but it's not severe, as in Kharkiv."

On whether they feel comfortable going out for food amid air raid sirens and bombings in the city:

Helen: "I [recently] met with my friend who came to Kyiv before the war. So we were, like, walking around the park. Actually, we saw children on the playground who were, like, bright and happy, despite the siren sounds which were on and off. So the siren sounds are something that is there, I would say, all the time."

Leon: "On the subject of risk assessment, what can I say? I can say that, for instance, [approximately 20,000 people] died from COVID [in Massachusetts], and only [about] 250 people out of 4 million population were victims of bombings of [the] civilian population in Kyiv. So, you know, judging by the numbers, it's relatively safe."

On whether there might come a time they deem Kyiv dangerous enough that they both want to leave:

Leon: "There might be a time. We hope it will not come to that, but there might be a time, yes."

Helen: "We are considering the options, but as of now, we are not planning to leave. ... When we immigrated from Ukraine, we had to wait half a year in Austria and Italy in the refugee camps — in the times of peace. I'm still in recovery from those refugee camps. So, I mean, this is something I'm not really looking forward to join.

"And we decided to stay because we just wanted to help the people who stayed. ... Yesterday I went and donated blood, and I carried groceries for the neighbors, as well, because they were scared ... to leave the apartment. ... So I have the elderly to help. I'm giving lessons to my students, free of charge, so the kids get distracted and parents have some peace. We are financially supporting our friends, because a lot of people [had their incomes cut off]. I don't think that we are doing anything courageous or heroic. I think that any human being in our position should and would be doing the same."

On the support their other homeland, the United States, has given to Ukraine:

Leon: "We are very grateful. God Bless America. ... [The assistance] has been good so far, but it could be better, because I think the stakes are high. ... For example, there is a question about a no-fly zone over Ukraine, or at least partial. There is a question about the fighter jets that America could help Ukraine to receive. And there are questions about some other painful sanctions for Putin to agree to some kind of truce with Ukraine."

On thinking about what life would be like if Kyiv or all of Ukraine were to fall to Russian forces:

Leon: "Well, I still think control is impossible, but [a] blockade of Kyiv could be possible. The chances of that are very low. [If Ukraine falls] under Russian control, in that case, nowhere in Europe will be safe. And I'm afraid to say, but I will anyway, that nowhere in America will be safe. Because Putin will not stop on just Ukraine. This is why sanctions and support are needed, because he has to be stopped here."

This segment aired on March 23, 2022.


Lisa Mullins Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.


Hannah Chanatry Producer, All Things Considered
Hannah Chanatry was a producer for WBUR's All Things Considered.


Fausto Menard Producer, All Things Considered
Fausto Menard is a producer for WBUR's All Things Considered.


Lynn Jolicoeur Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.



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