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Northland connections to Ukraine 'devastated,' by invasion

Sources describe horror, surprise with Russia's move into neighboring Ukraine

Ukrainian servicemen are seen next to a destroyed armoured vehicle, which they said belongs to the Russian army, outside Kharkiv
Ukrainian servicemen are seen next to a destroyed armored vehicle, which they said belongs to the Russian army, outside Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Thursday.
Maksin Levin / Reuters
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DULUTH — Igor Kolomitsyn woke well before sunrise Thursday to news of a Russian attack on his homeland Ukraine.

“Very, very hard,” said Kolomitsyn, a 49-year-old program manager for the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resource Research Institute in Duluth. “I couldn’t process my breakfast today.”

Kolomitsyn spent the morning and rest of the day speaking with his sister, Alla, 47, and friends and colleagues still living in Ukraine.

He described it as hard to focus on his work.

“News is coming very fast. Every minute I am receiving more,” Kolomitsyn said, citing a host of communication apps he’s using to connect with loved ones. “I received several videos instantly from my sister as the military was moving near her house. That was scary. All I can do is support my family.”

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man smiling
Igor Kolomitsyn, a program manager at the University of Minnesota Duluth Natural Resource Research Institute in Duluth.
Contributed / Derek Montgomery / University of Minnesota Duluth

The Russian army invaded the eastern border of Ukraine early Thursday morning following a video address by President Vladimir Putin. The news caused distress worldwide. Locally, researchers and higher education professors with close ties to both countries responded with worry.

"I thought he (Putin) was bluffing," said Tom Morgan, an associate professor in the department of global, cultural, and language studies at the College of St. Scholastica. "I remember saying last month that Putin would never invade; that would be too much."

As of Thursday afternoon, at least 40 people had been killed in bomb explosions in Ukraine, according to an adviser of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. President Joe Biden announced new sanctions on exports to Russia in a televised address Thursday.

After weeks of intense diplomacy and sanctions imposed by the United States, Putin initiated an attack using 150,000 troops amassed along the eastern Ukrainian border.

Ukraine for centuries was a part of the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union before declaring independence in 1991. Since then, Ukraine has continued to create stronger ties with the West — a threatening posture for the Russian dictator. NATO's "western creep," since the late 1990s, caused Putin to act on impulse, Morgan explained.

"All this geopolitical stuff is turning people into abstractions; it's dehumanizing," Morgan said.

Karen Rosenflanz, professor of Russian and German global studies at CSS, said the larger Russian population doesn't want a war. Rosenflanz’s friends and colleagues in Russia — a Ukrainian father-in-law and her Russian spouse — are all strongly opposed to Putin's actions, she said.

"From our perspective, we're just horrified and really devastated," Rosenflanz said. "I've been texting to my friends and colleagues in Russia all day. I don't think anyone expected that Putin would engage in an all-out assault on Ukraine.

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"We're just horribly upset because most of our colleagues and friends also have relatives and friends who live in Ukraine, and they're two nations that are really closely intertwined, people have spouses in Ukraine,” she said. “It's just a situation where they are essentially attacking people who are very, very closely related to them. From the perspective of the younger, former students who came to Duluth on exchange, she said they are going to have to pay for this with their lives. She said it is shameful, bitter, terrifying and that they feel helpless and desperate."

Rosenflanz emphasized the importance of Russian and Ukrainian voices during this time, stating the people of Russia and Putin have drastically different stances. A battle to be heard raging inside of another.

"The people of Russia are not in support of this war, and that's something that my colleagues and friends emphasized,” she said. “That if they go out into the streets, the anti-war protesters are immediately detained. You have to request for a protest to get approved, and of course, no anti-war protest is going to get approved. So, by default, any of the protests are illegal and they end up going to prison."

The Russian people are not to blame for one "megalomaniac" leader, Rosenflanz added. The Russian population sees him as having "lost his mind."

"It hurts everybody, I don't see an upside to this at all. It seems like everybody is losing and that's what makes this such a tragedy. A lot of innocent people are getting hurt," Morgan said. "It's especially difficult because I know so many Russians and I know some Ukrainians. In fact, I was on the phone with one this morning, so it's personal. And those that I know they're just regular people, they just want to come home and have their dinner. This is touching everybody."

The NRRI researcher, Kolomitsyn, has been living in America for 24 years. He and his spouse, Oksana, also an NRRI researcher, have an adult daughter. He spends his working days as a self-described “inventor” in Duluth, devising new ways to use organic chemistry to treat and develop water treatment systems. The university holds multiple patents for Kolomitsyn’s work.

“I love science,” he said. “I love organic chemistry.”

Kolomitsyn grew up in the capital city, Kyiv.

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“You need to spell in Ukrainian and not Russian,” he said of the disparate spellings of the city.

For now, Kolomitsyn is consumed with worry for a homeland he usually visits for months every year, but has been denied throughout the pandemic.

“Ukrainians want peace; Ukrainians are not aggressive,” Kolomitsyn said. “They like their living and style of living. They like to grow food and have a peaceful life. Unfortunately, when you have a very aggressive neighbor, that’s a bad message.”

READ MORE ABOUT UKRAINE
Russia said it had decided to withdraw from the outcrop off Ukraine's southwestern coast as a "gesture of goodwill" to show Moscow was not obstructing U.N. attempts to open a humanitarian corridor allowing grains to be shipped from Ukraine.

Abigael Smith graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth with a double major in journalism and English and a minor in Digital Writing, Literature, and Design.
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