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IOWA CITY — Allegiances aside, peace is what University of Iowa associate professor Marina Zaloznaya wants for her home countries of Russia and Ukraine.
She claims them both because she’s a citizen of both — having been born on the Crimean Peninsula when it was part of the Soviet Union and then raised on that Black Sea-encased strip when it was considered Ukraine, until Russia annexed it in 2014.
“I consider myself Ukrainian and Russian,” Zaloznaya said. “I consider myself ethnically Russian. That means that my parents are Russian by blood, they identify as Russian … But the country that I grew up in, that I called my country, was Ukraine.”
So when Russia last week began an active and violent invasion of Ukraine, Zaloznaya heard from friends and family on both sides in both nations — some fleeing to bomb shelters and terrified for their lives, others defending the invasion as justified and necessary.
And she wanted to do something.
She helped organize a peace rally in Iowa City — her home for the last decade — alongside others here with ties to the Eastern European nations.
“But I was harassed for holding Russian citizenship, so I withdrew my leadership of the rally,” Zaloznaya said of social media attackers who accused her of supporting the killing. “I felt threatened enough to withdraw my participation.”
Zaloznaya — an expert on corruption and politics across Ukraine, Russia and other post-Soviet republics who currently is on sabbatical researching reasons people do or don’t support Russian President Vladimir Putin — said she understands emotions are strong.
“It's very hard on the personal level for me because there's a lot of hate coming out from both sides against the other side,” she said. “Tensions are running very high. And understandably so. People are dying.”
'No place to run’
Although her family members in Crimea are safe — as Russia overtook it years ago — many of Zaloznaya’s friends across Ukraine and in the capital of Kyiv are not.
“I have a lot of people I'm keeping in touch with right now who are in danger,” she said. “People in Kyiv are basically divided into two groups — people who managed to escape the city and people who had to stay.”
In the first few days of the invasion, Zaloznaya said, some of her friends and contacts managed a difficult journey out of the city by car.
“My friends who stayed in Kyiv … are working from the basements of their houses,” she said, noting others went to shelters, including a friend who Monday messaged Zaloznaya from one in Kyiv where she was hiding with her daughter.
“It’s terrifying,” the woman wrote. “Cause we have no place to run.”
Another friend over the weekend sent Zaloznaya a video from a bomb shelter lined with makeshift beds of blankets, some covering sleeping Ukranians, alongside stools and suitcases and plastic bags stuffed with hastily packed belongings.
As for her contacts in Russia, Zaloznaya said, they’re “not receiving the same kind of news as we are.”
“The government controls Russian media completely,” she said. “So there is no alternative narrative … What they get is a very carefully curated narrative.”
That narrative, essentially, says Ukraine is perpetrating genocide on Russians living within its borders — compelling Russia to come to its citizens’ defense, Zaloznaya said.
“I just want to make it clear that there is no verification of these reports,” she said. “But that's what they're presented with — a lot of images and footage that's fabricated to support the story.”
Although Zaloznaya said her family in Russia is against the war, many Russians are “absorbing uncritically” the limited information coming out of their government.
“They take every word to be true,” she said. “So right now we're seeing somewhere around half of the population support the military aggression.”
'Closer to our backyard’
Zaloznaya came to the United States for school in 2001 — first getting her undergraduate degree at Middlebury College in Vermont, followed by a master’s in sociology from the University of Wisconsin, and then a doctorate from Northwestern University in Chicago, where she met her husband.
They moved to Iowa City for Zaloznaya’s UI job in 2012 — with her family still back in Crimea. And since Russia’s escalation and invasion, Zaloznaya said she’s spoken with her father daily.
“I think nobody expected this,” she said. “The extent of the military action, and the amount of forces thrown at Ukraine, and the swiftness of the progression, it’s all a big surprise.”
Even with U.S. and European intelligence predicting the invasion, Zaloznaya said, few civilians believed it would actually happen.
“Because ultimately, for a lot of people from that area, this is tantamount to civil war,” she said. “The killing of brothers. Because, culturally, the people of Russia and the people of Ukraine are very close. And nobody believed until the very end that such an aggressive action would be undertaken.”
Although the Russian military action isn’t immediately impacting the United States to the extent it is Ukraine or Europe, Zaloznaya said, the European Union is among America’s closest allies.
“So it’s closer to our backyard than it may feel,” she said. “This is a world crisis. This is a crisis that's not out there without any consequences.”
Direct and looming impacts for Americans, according to Zaloznaya, include those affecting their pocketbooks and the U.S. economy.
“We are going to be for sure impacted economically, there's no question about that,” she said, noting Russia is among the largest exporters of natural gas. “We will see increases in the prices of the fuel base. That is a guarantee.”
Consumer good prices also are expected to rise, with disruptions in the supply chain.
“What is less clear right now is whether or not we are going to be active in terms of the actual military conflict,” Zaloznaya said. “Right now, the United States and its NATO allies are very determined to make it clear that there will be no military intervention from the NATO forces.”
They’re avoiding boots on the ground by backing Ukraine with weapons, food, and intelligence. That makes sense, Zaloznaya said, in that ground forces could trigger — essentially — “a third world war.”
Of course, she said, not directly intervening puts Ukraine’s allies in a tough spot too.
“You have people who are dying on the ground and the west seemingly standing and watching it happen without putting troops on the ground to protect people,” she said. “I can also understand why some people are calling for direct military intervention.”
Zaloznaya said she isn’t advocating for one course over another — understanding there are a multitude of nuances and complexities, including that Russia has the largest nuclear stockpile in the world and Putin has put his nuclear arsenal on high alert.
“Meaning, basically, he is threatening retaliation using nuclear weapons,” she said. “So it is an extremely difficult and scary predicament.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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