SF’s Russia-Ukraine Connection

By Jonathan Farrell

The two horizontal bands of yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag have been popping up in many places since the invasion of Ukraine in February by Russian forces under the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This expression of solidarity with Ukraine and acts of support seem most heartfelt in San Francisco; especially in the Richmond and Sunset Districts. 

Geary Boulevard in particular is an epicenter and the spirit of Russia and Eastern Europe in microcosm. Russians and Eastern Europeans can trace their roots and influence as a part of San Francisco since its earliest days, even before the Gold Rush of 1849.  

Greater Geary Boulevard Merchants Association President David Heller acknowledged how delicate the topic is. 

“It’s a very difficult situation right now and most are very sensitive when speaking about Ukraine,” Heller said

Various dialects of Russian, Slavic and Baltic languages can be heard along Geary Boulevard as well as Russian/Eastern European music. 

Russian/Eastern European food, dance and culture have been part of the neighborhood for decades. Although, Heller noted that in recent years things have changed. Thousands fled or defected from the former Soviet Union (USSR) for a better life in the United States. 

Estimates of the number of Russian-speaking residents in San Francisco range between 25,000 and 32,000 people. 

Rabbi Shimon Margolin, who has been working to establish a Russian-Jewish Community Center on Geary at 20th Avenue, pointed out that Russian culture is eclectic, vast and diverse. Ukraine, while now an independent nation, still shares part of Russian culture. 

A community assessment report done in 2002 by the Newcomers Health Program and the SF Department of Health, reported that the Russian-speaking newcomer community was one of the fastest-growing communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, not just in the Richmond and Sunset districts. 

Margolin said as many as 10,000 or more people in the Richmond and Sunset districts are from Ukraine or adjacent Belarus. 

“Almost everyone here in the Richmond/Sunset is emotionally affected,” he said. Many in the extensive and often interconnected community have been frantic.

“Even I have family members living in Ukraine,” Margolin said. “And, like everyone else, I am on the phone reaching out to loved ones there every day.” He said that use of social media and platforms like WhatsApp has been helpful. 

While there has been much speculation and study of Putin’s motives and goals by the media, people everywhere want the invasion and its violence to stop. 

Russian/Eastern European family-owned businesses in neighborhood, like Cinderella Russian Bakery, are collecting funds to help. 

“We condemn Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. This is a humanitarian crisis, and it is horrific. It deeply saddens us that this is happening.” Cinderella Russian Bakery said in a statement.

One of the local nonprofit organizations that the bakery has supported in its relief efforts is Nova Ukraine. 

Ostap Korkuna is the director of Nova Ukraine. He told KQED news about receiving word of the first bomb blasts, 

“I’ve been frantically attempting to check in with family and friends in Ukraine,” Korkuna told KQED. “The bomb shelling is happening all over the territory of Ukraine, I don’t think anyone can feel safe at this point.”

Sunset Youth Orchestra director Tatiana Ganenko noted that many of the Russians of the Richmond District gather for festivities and events at churches and synagogues. It is in those settings where the Russian community expresses its thoughts and concerns, she noted. 

With the blessing of His Eminence Reverend Kirill Sokolov, Holy Trinity and Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Cathedrals are working to raise relief funds. 

Sokolov is Archbishop of San Francisco and of the Russian Orthodox Church in Western America. The churches and diocese are organizing collections to benefit the refugees suffering from the present military conflict in Ukraine. 

 “We urge our parishioners to be zealous in their support of those suffering. Their need in Ukraine is great, as is our opportunity to help them,” noted a staff member at Holy Virgin Cathedral on Geary.

“All funds gathered will be forwarded to Metropolitan Onufry of Kiev and All Ukraine and Metropolitan Arseny of the Svyatogorsk Monastery so that they may use the funds to benefit those in the greatest need,” the Cathedral’s office noted. 

Similarly, synagogues and Jewish organizations are working to respond to the crisis in Ukraine. 

“The Jewish Community Federation (JCF) and Endowment Fund is raising and sending funds,” said Kerry Philp, managing director of JCF. 

“Thanks to the generosity of our Bay Area Jewish community, we’ve mobilized over $4 million to date.” Philp said. “$2.6 million of that are donations to our Ukraine Emergency Fund, and $1.4 million is from donor-advised funds supporting a variety of organizations’ relief efforts.”  The JCF and their affiliates have also been addressing the flood of refugees fleeing and the work at the border with Poland to house them. 

As refugees continue to flee Ukraine, finding places for them to stay may soon reach a breaking point. According to CNN and other news sources, nearly 4.7 million refugees have left Ukraine (as of April 2022) as a result of the Russian invasion. It is estimated 7.1 million people have been displaced within the country.

Seeing the blue and yellow expressing solidarity for the independence of the Ukraine, is reassuring to many. The blue represents the wide blue skies and the yellow represents the wheat fields. As a breadbasket for the region, Ukraine provides many resources, goods and services. 

Margolin said he is praying daily that the turmoil will end soon. 

“Even if it were to be stopped tomorrow, the restoration of the Ukraine will take considerable time and effort,” he said.  

“A tremendous amount of aid is being sent, but what’s most important now is sending medicine,” Margolin said. “That’s most critical right now as the people need medicine for the wounded and injured.” 

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