For many U.S. Virgin Islands residents, the Russian invasion of Ukraine may seem like a far-off war, but for Eugenia Merkoulov it is uncomfortably close to home.
She’s lived and worked on St. Croix since 2019, and she has spent most of her life in the United States, but her roots are deep in Ukraine and these days her thoughts are with family there.
Born in the small town of Striy in the Lviv Oblast of Ukraine, Merkoulov was not quite five when her family emigrated to the United States. Only her immediate family made the move.
“Everybody else is back in Ukraine,” she said Wednesday in an interview with the Source.
Merkoulov grew up in New Jersey which, she said, has a large Ukrainian community. “You retained the culture a lot,” she said. It wasn’t until she got to high school that she really became familiar with American life and even then, she spent her summers during her teen years back in Ukraine.
But it’s been about 15 years since she visited, and now, she isn’t sure when she will see her homeland again. Many of its sights have already been destroyed by Russian bombing and the war has intensified in the last few days.
News reports have focused on the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who are trying to leave the country, but there has also been a mass exodus from the more populated cities to the countryside, with the thinking that it is less likely to be targeted and so is safer.
Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 are not allowed to leave because they may be drafted to fight. Merkoulov said her relatives don’t want to separate, and so they have opted to get out of the city.
“There’s a huge gas shortage now,” she said, and that has made it difficult to travel. Besides that, the Ukrainian defense blew up many of the country’s main roads in an effort to slow the Russian advance.
Last week, some of her relatives and their friends – including an infant – formed a six-car caravan. They had to take back roads and at points were forced to drive across open fields. What is normally a 10-to-12 hour trip took them more than 30 hours, but they reached their destination. There was a second group, but she has heard nothing about whether they were successful.
There is a general concern that communications will deteriorate as the war escalates, but currently, they are pretty good. Merkoulov said her mother, who is in the U.S., talks almost daily via cell phone with relatives in Ukraine. And Merkoulov has been messaging with some of her cousins via Facebook.
She said watching the events in Ukraine has been “heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time.”
“Beautiful” because the people are standing together and standing up to the enemy. For instance, a hotel near the Polish border – where a relative works – opened its doors to Ukrainians trying to flee the country. First, it gave big discounts on accommodations, then it stopped charging altogether. Now it has set up beds in its hallways to deal with the overflow.
It’s a characteristic of Ukrainians to help one another, she said. Also “Ukrainians are very hopeful people … We’re artists … We’re a very creative culture.”
They are also patient and “psychologically resilient,” she said. They have endured over centuries.
“There have been invasions from the East and from the West for 1,000 years or more,” Merkoulov said.
She’s counting on what she sees as Ukrainian strengths to withstand the Russian assault.
Links between the two countries are old. “So many Russians have family in Ukraine,” Merkoulov said. “There were amicable associations” between the two cultures. “Previously they were kind of melded.” Many people spoke both languages.
Merkoulov said relations between Russians and Ukrainians were generally good after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, “until (Vladimir) Putin decided to take over the Crimean Peninsula.”
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Ukraine – and much of the United Nations – dispute Russia’s claim to Crimea.
Concerning the invasion of Ukraine, Merkoulov said she thinks the Russian president is motivated partly by a desire to reinstate what he sees as a Russian empire and partly by practical considerations involving resources.
“Ukraine is a very resource-rich place,” she said. It has oil, natural gas, iron, coal and titanium as well as other minerals. And there is fertile soil for a thriving agriculture industry. “We could be called the breadbasket of that region.”
How does Merkoulov see the current conflict ending?
“It’s hard for me to answer that,” she said after a pause. On the one hand, as a Ukrainian, she is and she wants to be optimistic. On the other, she said she has her degree in political science (as well as in environmental studies), and she is well aware of Russia’s military strength.
“With the proper support from the West,” she said Ukraine may be able to hold off the Russians. “We can stand it out longer … the Russians aren’t as patient as we are.” She envisions Ukraine wearing down the invaders. “I think we could make them hit that wall.”
However events play out, she is convinced of one thing: “There’s no way Ukrainians will surrender.”