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Lawyer organizes fellow Russian émigrés to condemn Putin's invasion in Ukraine

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine began, we've been focusing on how Ukrainians around the world have responded to the Russian assault on their country. And in recent days, we've also talked about the Russian oligarchs whose fortunes are believed to be tied to Putin. But now we want to consider the views of another group - Russian emigres who are not part of that group, many of whose ancestors left the country to escape the kind of authoritarianism that Putin has been reestablishing.

It's estimated that close to 3 million people in the U.S. identify as Russian American, about 900,000 of whom speak Russian at home. Lena Zezulin is one of them. She is an attorney and international legal specialist who's consulted with the World Bank and others. Born in the U.S. to Russian-speaking parents, she spent years traveling to and living in former East Bloc nations to advise them on pension reform. She's been organizing some of her fellow Russian Americans and emigres who are opposed to the Russian invasion, and she's with us now to tell us more.

Lena Zezulin, thanks so much for talking with us today.

LENA ZEZULIN: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

MARTIN: And, well, frankly, you were telling me earlier that you're just devastated by this, and you and other people are just devastated by this. Could you just talk a little bit about the feelings that you've been having in recent days as this has unfolded?

ZEZULIN: It's just total shock and grief. I was, sadly, not surprised because we've been hearing about the military buildup around Ukraine for months. So I was not surprised, but I was still in a total state of shock and devastation. And frankly, this has caused a paradigm shift for many Russian Americans. There were a number of Russian Americans who, historically, were Republican and conservative. It's a culturally conservative group of people, and they were historically Republicans, and they were courted, to a large extent, by the Putin government because it had been a pro-religious government, it seemed.

So there was reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church in the U.S. with the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia. And a number of the Russian American friends that I have, people I've known my whole life, sort of thought Putin was OK. OK, he's a little bit not as free as the United States, but, you know, the churches are open, and the economy is going well. And for people like that, this has caused - I know several people for whom it's a total upside-down paradigm shift. They've now realized that he's really, really evil.

MARTIN: Let me just jump in for a second. I just want to say that one thing that's been shocking to some people, frankly, is the emergence of pro-Putin defenders in the conservative media and even in the Republican Party and the former president being chief among them, right? And so I was wondering if you have been seeing that in your community. And are there people who think that what Putin is doing is acceptable or even right? And if so, why?

ZEZULIN: There are a few people who are vocal about thinking that what Putin is doing is acceptable. There are several reasons for that. Partly, they are Trump supporters. Partly, they are people who watch exclusively Russian news and have bought the suggestion from Russian news that Russian speakers in Ukraine are somehow persecuted. But also, this is part of an active campaign by the Russian government over the last, I would say, 10 years to become close to the American conservative religious fundamentalist groups. Their appeal is we're against gays, and we're pro-family. So we are more like you than these evil Democrats. And Russian Americans, along with other conservatives in the United States, have been very susceptible to that. Now, there are people who didn't buy into all that Putin-is-wonderful stuff. I talked recently to a woman who's 94. Her mother escaped from Russia during the revolution through the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. This woman is 94, born in China, and she is just crying. She's just watching the news, and she's just crying.

MARTIN: So you've been trying to organize other people with your views and your background to speak out against this. You helped draft a letter. It's called "An Appeal By Emigres From The Soviet And Post-Soviet Space About The Invasion By The Putin Regime Into Ukraine." I just want to read the top of it. You say, we, the descendants of immigrants from the Soviet, post-Soviet space living in North America and Europe, appeal to the leaders and citizens of the free world to condemn the invasion by Russian President Vladimir Putin into the sovereign and independent country of Ukraine as a gross violation of international law and moral norms.

You say there is and can be no justification for this crime. And then you go on to talk about, you know, how catastrophic this will be, how this will be - you know, provoke a refugee crisis. I mean, you lay it out in this letter. What are you - and it's in - and I want to mention that it's in both English and Russian. What are you hoping to accomplish with this? Are you hoping that it will somehow get to people in Russia who increasingly are being sort of choked off from and - are being choked off from independent sources of information? Like, what are you hoping for here?

ZEZULIN: Well, yes, the point of the letter was to get it onto some Russian websites, which I have, you know, sort of collaborators who are working on that. The other thing is that we also want Ukrainians, Ukrainian Americans, but Ukrainians to know that not all Russians support this. It's - there's really an unpleasant process happening with people disliking everything and everyone Russian, and I'm quite familiar with that because I was a child during the Cuban missile crisis.

And we want people to understand that just because you're Russian doesn't mean you support Putin or the invasion of Ukraine. I mean, I have a Russian American friend with a Russian last name whose son was recently questioned by a store in Kentucky as to why he has a Russian name, and did - does he support the invasion of Ukraine? So it's not - there's also that factor, but that was actually less important than simply expressing our moral outrage.

MARTIN: Lena Zezulin is an American lawyer who's organizing fellow Russian Americans to speak out against the invasion of Ukraine. Lena, thanks so much for joining us.

ZEZULIN: Michel, it was wonderful to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.