PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA — Recent unrest in Ukraine has brought more attention to the different Ukrainian-American communities throughout the United States. One of the largest, in the western part of the state of Pennsylvania, is made up of both new immigrants and descendants of those who made a new life in America during the last century. Though the unrest in their home country is 8,000 kilometers away, the tension and turmoil are affecting their lives and relationships in their local communities.
The Ukrainian-American community in western Pennsylvania is steeped in tradition and closely connected to their home country.
The Reverend Timothy Thomson leads the congregation at St. Mary’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the Pittsburgh suburb of McKees Rocks. He said about 10,000 to 15,000 immigrants came to the area in the 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“They could probably trace about 100,000 people in western Pennsylvania who have some Ukrainian heritage, identity,” he said. “They came here for jobs, plus churches were sponsoring them when the Soviet Union first collapsed when Ukraine declared its independence.”
Ukrainian Orthodox Church
The Reverend Steve Repa is the leader of St. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. Repa, a second-generation Ukrainian-American, said old world resentments between Ukrainians and Russians are still present in some parts of their new communities. "You have the whole experience of what it is to be Ukrainian in America. We grew up as first generations with a lot of prejudice. They [Russians] brought in Communism. They brought in death. They killed a lot of people. They absorbed our history and made it their own.”
He said time has helped some of that prejudice fade. So has proximity - his Ukrainian Orthodox church stands right next to the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Church, and members of the two churches routinely interact.
“They’re not Russians like technically we’re not Ukrainians. We’re of Ukrainian extraction, but we’re Americans," said Repa. "They’re Americans of Russian descent. They have no connection to Putin or what he does or what they want him to do. And yet what he does will reflect on them.”
Father Timothy’s church in McKees Rocks stands in the shadow of the grey onion domes of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church a block away. He said the block that separates them is about as close as their two communities get.
“There’s not a lot of interaction between the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches simply because of the fact that when our grandparents founded these churches they knew they were Ukrainian and not Russian, and so they chose to not be part of those Russian Orthodox churches,” he said.
Father Timothy, whose wife is from Ukraine, said that regardless of when they left, most Ukrainian Americans have a close connection to their home country, and the Russian military intervention there has deepened the historic divide. “I wouldn’t walk across the street to say hello to them right now, I mean if I’m around them I’m going to be cordial and respectful, and I’m sure they will be the same,” he said.
VOA reached out to members of the Russian Orthodox community, but they declined to be interviewed. But Father Timothy pointed out their differences usually end at the church doors.
“It’s political. We all commune from the same chalice,” he said.
It’s that common ground the Ukrainian-American community looks for as they pray for peace, and continued independence, for all parts of their home country.