Ukrainian American professor weighs in on tensions with Russia

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — The crisis unfolding in Ukraine is devastating for Rochester’s Ukrainian community, which is composed of about 20,000 Ukrainian Americans.

"The root of this conflict has more to do with human rights and freedom than anything else," said Dr. Katja Kolcio, director of the Allbritton Center at Wesleyan University, and a professor of dance, environmental studies, and Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian studies.

Kolcio grew up in the Rochester area after her father immigrated here from Ukraine. When he settled on Avenue D in the city, he was welcomed by a vibrant Ukrainian community dating back to the 1800s.

In Irondequoit alone, there are more than 10 Ukrainian churches, including Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, and Baptist denominations. The Ukrainian Federal Credit Union, which started on Joseph Avenue in Rochester in the 1950s and has since grown to include 22,000 members nationwide, has been instrumental in helping Rochester-based Ukrainian Americans preserve information and articles connected to their history.

"I think what sets Rochester apart might be that it has such a vibrant history of its own," Kolcio said. "It was a site of the underground railroad, Frederick Douglass published the North Star there, it’s always had this spirit of civic activism."

Through her work at Wesleyan, Kolcio is in frequent communication with citizens and organizations in Ukraine. She works regularly with Ukrainian civic leaders, health care workers, humanitarians, volunteers, and armed forces on "preserving psycho-social wellness and community health in the face of this crisis." Some of the people she works with are in immediate danger.

"They’re preparing for invasion, and we just don’t know what will happen," Kolcio said, "I’m very worried for everybody I work with across the country."

This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a "peacekeeping" effort.

Putnam: "What do you make of that?"

Kolcio: "Everybody I know who is living in Ukraine is in favor of Ukrainian independence and dreads occupation by Russia. That includes Russians living in Ukraine, and nobody is under the impression that this is in any way a peacekeeping mission. What would keep peace is if Putin would leave Ukraine."

Kolcio said many Ukrainians are refusing to leave as Russian forces advance into their country, not only to defend their freedom but to preserve their unique history and identity.

"Ukrainian people want to be recognized for their own vitality," Kolcio said, "for their own history, and for their own commitment to democracy, and civil liberties, and social justice."

To learn more about resources for Ukrainian Americans living in Rochester, click here.