Vlad and Maryna Pustovit are asleep in their home in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday last week, when their American cousin messages to ask if they are okay.
Just at this moment, the couple’s 18-year-old daughter comes into the room to say she’s heard something odd.
As the communication continues, it is clear the explosions being witnessed on television by Crosby native Dan Olsen are the same as those that awakened his relatives in Ukraine.
“I’m watching live TV here and three more explosions happen,” Dan relates, so he messages Maryna again, “Did you hear that?”
“Yes,” she answers, technology connecting them, in real time, during a Russian invasion the whole world is now witnessing. “She’s like, ‘You’re all the way across the world and you message me we’re being attacked.”
North Dakota ties
The Pustovits and many others in their country — have ties to North Dakota, and particularly Crosby and Tioga, through a couple of waves of immigration dating back to the late 1800s.
Dan knows this because he’s been researching the genealogy for a couple of decades, learning how his grandmother’s Ukrainian family came to be in North Dakota.
Dan’s mother, Wanda (Semingson), was born in Crosby, but his grandmother, Lillian, was born in the Max area south of Minot, where her own parents were Postovits — in the American spelling — immigrating around 1898 with a group of people who were being persecuted for their Stundist religion.
Stundist, Dan explains, is an evangelical faith — think “Russian Baptist” — which was outlawed by the Czar.
“The first group included the Postovits from Tioga,” said Dan, including the ancestors of well-known Tioga veteran Arnold Postovit, who would be a cousin to Dan’s grandmother.
As in North Dakota, Olsen said, where you find common surnames and intermarriages of mostly German and Norwegian people living in communities around Crosby or Tioga, so, too, will you find groups of Ukrainian surnames in the Max-Kief-Butte area.
“All along there was all homesteaded by our people — my people,” said Dan.
Their Ukrainian surnames, likewise, are replicated in villages in the Tarashcha District, located about 60 miles south of Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine, now under attack.
Dan has twice traveled to Ukraine — in 2005 and 2011. In fact it was Vlad and Maryna’s family who hosted him on that first trip.
“A lot of the Ukrainians that settled in that area (Max) are from that area,” of the Tarashcha District, said Dan, which is now in the crosshairs of the Russian army.
Yelling at the television
Having personal connections to people actually being displaced in Ukraine today, Dan admits he’s done a fair amount of “yelling back at the TV,” but also, reaching out to people — some of whom, like Vlad and Maryna, he knows personally, others only through the Facebook page he set up for people who share the same Ukrainian-North Dakota heritage.
“With modern technology and Facebook, we actually have members all sharing the same surnames,” on both sides of the ocean.
“The messages have been flying back and forth across the pond,” he said, as the Russian onslaught continues.
“Genealogy is one thing,” Dan said, but putting the history in context is another. “I’ve really gotten into the broader picture of it.”
That includes learning about a couple of centuries of subjugation of the Ukrainian people by Russia.
According to Dan’s research, Russia began swallowing up more and more of Ukraine a couple of hundred years ago, outlawing the language, culture and religion of the Ukrainian people.
His own relatives came to North Dakota, he said, for much the same reason as the Pilgrims — to escape.
“They’re modern day Pilgrims,” he said.
Ukraine became an independent state with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but has been plagued with corruption and a succession of pro- Russian leaders, finally making moves toward a more western-style democracy in 2014.
Both different and the same
Dan relates how he and his sister, Kim (Smithberg) were talking about why this distant war hits so hard. Robin Swanson, Crosby, is another sibling.
“I suppose it’s just the connection,” said Dan, who now lives in Oregon, but it’s a connection many Americans of European descent feel sympathy for.
Sympathetic, too, because their form of government is one Americans believe in.
“It’s a fledgling democracy. They’re just trying to figure things out and to see it go backwards, it’s just heartbreaking,” said Dan.
He understands why the nation’s young President Volodymyr Zelensky, is so popular.
“His determination, that’s what you’re seeing. They’re just bound and determined the Russians are not going to overtake Kyiv.”
At the same time, in such a David and Goliath conflict, Dan worries.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s going to end well,” he said.
As Zelensky answered the U.S. Friday when they offered to evacuate him, “I don’t need a ride. I need ammunition.”
Moving towards Poland
In a call Friday with Maryna, Dan learned she and Vlad, their daughter and baby son, had made it to near Lviv, which is on the western side of the country, closer to Poland.
They holed up there while Vlad’s brother and parents remain hunkered down in their neighborhood south of Kyiv.
It’s just too dangerous, they said, to be moving about right now.
“I get so angry,” said Dan, thinking of his Ukrainian friends and relatives being displaced, and for what?
“In 2022, how can we be at a place like this?” he asks. “For power?”
Meanwhile, people’s lives are uprooted.
It’s not unlike the Holodomor, also called the “Terror Famine” in the 1930s, said Dan, when Soviet policies led to the deaths of millions of Ukrainian people. Some called it a genocide.
Back then, Dan says his grandmother told him, the ladies in Max gathered supplies to send to their relatives in Ukraine, sewing money into the hems of clothing.
Today assistance is coming in many other forms from the U.S., including economic sanctions, weapons and promises of food and other supplies.