Florida Keys News
Sunday, May 25, 2014
Ukraine in Key West: A whole lot of hope for the future

Maksym "Max" Derevianko serves cocktails at Solo American Bistro on Greene Street, quietly filled with the hope that a new and brighter chapter in his country's history is about to be written.

"It's the day of truth, the day of beginnings," he said. "We need to make this election happen."

Derevianko, 34, is a native of Ukraine, the former Soviet republic that has been in the news so much in recent months. Today is election day in that country. Ukrainians around the world believe that electing a president will help stabilize the government, the economy and society.

Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire who made his fortunes in the chocolate industry, has been the odds-on favorite to win the election for weeks.

"Poroshenko is the one who seems the most intelligent and full of common sense," Derevianko said.

Mariia Kobysheva, 27, a server at Banana Café on Duval Street, said that Poroshenko's appeal to both the Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking populations in that country could help strengthen national identity, and advance Ukraine's rich cultural heritage.

"Hopefully, we will be able to hold our presidential election without Russia trying to subvert it," she said. "We need to get our president elected. Poroshenko is acceptable for both sides."

Derevianko and Kobysheva are just two of the many young men and women in the service industry whom locals and visitors to Key West encounter every day. Many of these workers have made their way to the United States from nations that continue to struggle with the political and economic challenges of new-found independence since the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. They smile politely as they keep the wheels of the tourism industry turning, serving meals, tending bar, cleaning hotel rooms, driving taxis and pedaling pedicabs.


Derevianko, who was born in Kiev into a "regular Soviet family" with long Ukrainian roots, told his parents at an early age that he wanted to move to Australia.

"I wanted to be near the ocean," he said. "All we have is the Black Sea, and now it's all taken by Russians."

Indeed, Ukrainian history cannot be told without mention of Russia.

Ukraine's powerful neighbor to the east pulled the political and economic strings of more than a dozen countries on its borders for more than 70 years, while they were collectively known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

In 1991, the USSR was dissolved.

Although Ukraine and the other countries regained their independence with the breakup, they still feel the strong influence of Russia -- especially on their economies -- almost 23 years later.

Derevianko, who first encountered the United States while working in the cruise ship industry more than 10 years ago, said that he has grown to appreciate his new home.

"People here are more open, simpler," he said. "Every little thing works in this life here in America. People care more about the little things that make life better."

Although he understands how history may give the impression that Ukraine and Russia are somehow one in the same, Derevianko said that it's important to understand that this is not the case.

"We were a country named a republic in the Soviet Union," he said. "We always had our culture. The culture was strong."

Derevianko said that Ukrainians and Russians have always gotten along. He squarely placed the blame for recent unrest on government-controlled media.

"I turn on the Russian news on purpose to see what the Russian people are learning," he said. "It's the biggest brainwash. Russians don't really know what's happening in Ukraine. They've been told that Ukrainians are wild people from the West, Highlanders with axes in hands cutting arms off. We never hated anyone."

Derevianko said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is behind it all, alleging that Putin has greater designs in mind.

"The plan was conceived and started right after the Soviet Union stopped existing in 1991," he said. "His biggest plan is to get the Soviet Union back to Russia, with control from Russia."

Although the limited economic sanctions against Russia that the United States and Europe have imposed is a good first step to easing the unrest, Derevianko said that a show of international military force is needed to end it more quickly and decisively.

"It sounds scary and no one wants war," he said, "but if we don't show him that we are not afraid and that we have help, he has no reason to stop."

Derevianko maintains high hopes for Ukraine, but is prepared to return to his homeland if the situation worsens.

"Hopefully, Ukraine will show the example of a real democracy and a new kind of European style of life further and further from Soviet times," he said. "We need to move on and start a new age and a new life. And the Russian people are ready to do it with us."


Kobysheva, who comes from the eastern state of Dnipropetrovsk, is direct in her views.

"Russia just needs to leave us alone," she said.

In 2007, Kobysheva, who counts her paternal grandfather as her only relative of Russian descent (everyone else is Ukrainian), came to the United States as part of a student exchange program.

"I liked it a lot," she said. "People are definitely much happier. Life is stable here."

She came to Key West to visit friends shortly thereafter and decided to stay.

"I met people here of all nationalities," she said. "Key West, especially for younger people, is a good starting point. Everything is smaller and nicer, and there's a lot of Europeans who can give you advice. It's always good to have someone who can help you."

Like Derevianko, Kobysheva blames Russia's government-controlled media and its president, in particular, for the unrest back home. She also believes that a show of military force from the outside will help resolve matters.

"In this case, especially since they keep an army on our border, close to our border, I would like other countries to help us militarily," she said. "There is no other way to keep him out."

Kobysheva said that in addition to greater access to warm-water ports in Crimea and the natural resources of eastern Ukraine, Putin wants to ensure that Russia maintains an upper hand in the region.

"Our government after the USSR's separation was bad," she said. "It was a government put there by Putin or the Russian president before him. We got our own country, but we were not really free."

Kobysheva said that stronger European ties can help bring Ukraine into the modern age.

"Europe is next to us. Russia is next to us," she said. "Which way do you want to live? Of course, like Europe lives, not 100 years ago like Russia."


Oleksandr "Alex" Okhnyevskyy, 31, works as a server at A&B Lobster House and the Marriott Beachside. He was born in Odesa, located on the Black Sea coast, to Ukrainian parents.

Like Derevianko, Okhnyevskyy's first encounters with the United States came through work in the cruise ship industry.

Okhnyevskyy said the conflict in Ukraine is all about geopolitics. Specifically, he said that Russian authorities are concerned that stronger Ukrainian ties with Europe could open the door to NATO setting up bases closer to the Russian border.

He said that Russian media reports that Ukrainians are committing human rights abuses against the Russian-speaking populations inside Ukraine are pure propaganda.

"They need some reason to start this mess," he said. "This is more about their politics. They don't care about Ukraine. They don't care about these people who speak Russian."

Okhnyevskyy said that Russian media is fueling patriotism among young Russians, including some of those he knows here in Key West.

"I tune into the Russian news online and 99 percent of it is about Ukraine," he said. "It's like nothing else is happening around the world. They just show what they want. And the young generation, they're like a sponge. They take in everything. They don't understand."

Okhnyevskyy said that Ukrainian media can be just as one-sided, so he relies on postings from friends on social media sites for updates.

"The main information is from the people, my friends who live inside the country," he said. "Facebook is not controlled like T.V. This is more a real story from there."

Although he's unhappy about what's going on back home and wants to help, Okhnyevskyy said that he has serious reservations about returning to Ukraine at this particular point.

"If something happens, I'm supposed to go into the military and fight," he said. "I don't like what's going on in Ukraine, but I'm still not ready to kill people for that."

Like Derevianko and Kobysheva, Okhnyevskyy believes that Ukraine's future hinges on today's presidential election.

"The presidential elections are the most important thing we have right now," he said. "We need, right now, any legal government that the whole world can approve of."

Okhnyevskyy said that he hopes that the new Ukrainian government will move closer to Europe, not just for the sake of Ukraine's economy but for its culture and history as well.

"He [Putin] wants to connect all these countries," he said. "I just know if we join Russia and a Russian union, we're going to lose our nation, our history. For these 23 years, we've been just starting to go up. When the conflict started, I went back to read my history. If I have kids, I'm going to teach them. They need to start in school. Make the kids the patriots."


Kateryna "Katya" Kartysheva, 29, a front desk clerk and accountant at the Marriott Beachside, is feeling the love of friends in both Ukraine and Russia.

"This is not our war," she said. "They're saying there's nothing to worry about. We still love you and you still love us. There's nothing bad that can happen between us."

Kartysheva was born in Kiev, with roots in Ukraine, Russia, Germany and Poland.

"It's very natural for me to be open-minded to everything new, new cultures, new people, new languages," she said.

She grew fond of the United States through repeated visits as a flight attendant.

Kartysheva came to Key West four years ago to be with her future husband, who was born in Kyrgyzstan but has lived in the United States for more than 25 years. They were married a year and a half ago.

She said the trouble between the Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking populations inside Ukraine is being provoked from the outside.

"We never had a conflict between Russian and Ukrainian people," she said. "I still have very good friends in Russia. We still communicate. We don't speak about politics. People should not follow tyrants. No. It's like you wake up one day and because your neighbor is Ukrainian or Russian, you stop talking to him? No. We never had that problem. I proudly speak both languages."

So, who's behind all the turmoil? Who are these so-called Russian separatists?

"Somebody decided: I want everything and I want it right now," she said. "It's all about politics. It's all about government. I guess they just played on the worst instincts of the people. It's like a game. These people are traitors. These people are without nationality. They follow their basic instincts to get what they need."

Kartysheva is vying for Poroshenko to win the election.

"He's very nice," she said. "In interviews, he smiles all the time. He knows more than two languages. He's a great businessman."

Although she feels the need to return home from time to time, Kartysheva said that she agreed with her husband when he told her that there's really not much that she could do if she did return.

"Anytime I need to go back," she said, "I'll buy a ticket and go."

She remained positive about the outcome of the situation and the will to make things work.

"This is not about the people," she said. "I love my friends. I love my country. Give it some time, and everything will be fine."

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