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Local resident worries for family, friends in Ukraine
Ukrainians carry groceries and try to go about their daily lives among the devastation in a community called Irpen in the Kiev region. These photos were taken by family members of Warren County resident Anatoliy Smyrnov.

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Anatoliy Smyrnov can do little more than watch the destruction of his homeland and pray for the safety of family and friends living under the threat of death at the hands of Russian soldiers.

Born in 1977 in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, Smyrnov immigrated to the United States at the age of 28.

“I speak with my brother every day,” he said. “My brother and his family live in Kyiv. I call them and they update me. I can’t imagine what they are going through. I’m so mad. There is nothing I can do but pray and hope for the best. That’s it. Pray that they are safe and alive. I am really mad and speechless. What can I do? How can I help?”

Kyiv is one of several cities in Ukraine under continuous attack since the Russia invasion began Feb. 24. 

“I look at the pictures and see the devastation. So many people there have lost their jobs. Apartments and houses are gone. Just gone. Leveled,” said Smyrnov. “Kyiv is bad. They are bombing. Saturday or Sunday they had to go to the bomb shelter because there was bombing in the middle of the night. When they hear the sirens, they have to go to the shelter for the night. Some people go to the subway station. It’s underground.” 

Russian president Vladimir Putin has threatened the use of nuclear weapons and has even attacked a Ukrainian nuclear plant that could have threatened the well-being of greater Europe.

“I can’t even imagine what they are going through. The country is really suffering. So many lives gone. For what? For the ambition of one man? It’s sad. It shouldn’t be like that. It’s politics. It’s power. Nuclear weapons. Other countries are afraid to make a first step. Nobody wants to World War III. There will be no winners in a nuclear war. No winners. That’s a huge responsibility.”

After the invasion started, military support was offered by more than a dozen counties. Experts have referred to those offers as “too little, too late” and Smyrnov agrees. 

“That’s true. Over Ukraine is a no-fly zone. You cannot deliver immediately the necessary equipment. Anything they want to deliver has to be flown to neighboring countries, like Poland, and then delivered from Poland by trucks to Ukraine. That takes time. It takes days. That’s why it’s too little, too late.” 

To justify the invasion, Putin has made numerous claims of “genocide” and stated the Russian military is fighting “neo-Nazis” in Ukraine. 

“What neo-Nazis? That’s crazy. Ukraine doesn’t have nuclear weapons. We aren’t expanding or trying to get territory that belongs to other countries. That’s how his media works. It’s propaganda. People who don’t have critical thinking will just listen to what he says. He doesn’t want Ukraine to be part of NATO. He doesn’t want NATO bases in the Ukraine. It means they’ll be close to the Russian borders, to Moscow. The flight time would be like 10 minutes. He wants to prevent that.” 

Not all Russian citizens support Putin’s decision to invade, but those who speak out are quickly imprisoned. 

“Some people in Russia want to speak out. They want to protest. Some have gone onto the streets to start protesting the invasion. A couple hours into the protests they are taken from the streets and thrown into prison. They are charged with treason. People don’t understand how blessed they are here. They have those freedoms. People here are really blessed.”

Smyrnov says the Russian-Ukraine war is pitting brother against brother and family members against one another. 

“It’s like a civil war. There are families in Ukraine and families in Russia that have families in both countries. It’s intermingled. My friend, I spoke with her a couple days ago, has a son in the Ukrainian army and a son-in-law in the Russian army. They fight. They kill each other. How can you explain that? It’s unbelievable.”

Pride, that’s Smyrnov’s feeling as Ukrainians fight against the Russian invasion. 

“I’m proud of the resistance that Ukrainian people have shown. Their spirit. They are outnumbered. They can’t compare the military power of Russian to that of Ukraine, but still they fight. They are fighting for their country. Their president has given speeches to boost the morale of soldiers. Not only soldiers, but regular civilians. They have taken part of the movement. Regular people are helping however they can. It makes me proud to see that.”

Smyrnov holds out hope for the resistance to prevail. 

“My hope is my people can somehow miraculously win. I pray and I hope this madness will stop. Ukraine will be free, like a democratic country. I understand, in politics, no country is a perfect example. People have standards here in America. They have freedom of speech, religion. That would be great in Ukraine. That’s my hope.”

Life in the Ukraine has never been easy, says Smyrnov. 

“I was 9 years old when Chernobyl blew up. That was 1986. At that time, the Ukraine used to be a Soviet Union Republic. My mom sent me to family in Russia to get me away from the blast of radiation. My mom and her sister had to stay to work.”

His mother later died of cancer.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine declared its independence. 

“The transition to democracy was not a smooth transition,” said Smyrnov. “There were rough times, but we made it. We made it.”

After high school and graduating from college with a master’s degree in physical education, Smyrnov studied abroad in England for a year at a Bible college. He met a humanitarian couple from Franklin, Tenn. They urged him to apply for a U.S. Visa. It was approved. 

At the age of 28, he immigrated to the United States and lived with the couple while furthering his studies. After graduation, he found employment at Ascension Saint Thomas River Park as a physical therapist. 

Smyrnov shared pictures and videos with the Southern Standard. Those were taken by friends and family members as they document the daily devastation being endured in Ukraine. Some photos were too graphic to be publicized.