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Ukrainians in Pittsburgh fear for relatives' fate

| Saturday, March 1, 2014, 10:40 p.m.

Russians are overestimating the divide within Ukraine, members of Pittsburgh's Ukrainian community said on Saturday as they watched footage of Russian troops streaming through the nation's Crimean region.

They are concerned that the world might be too accepting of Russia's claims, and they worry about friends and relatives back in the Eastern European nation.

Mariya Zayats of Carnegie, who came here with husband Ihor and their children in 2000, promotes her Ukrainian heritage as president of the Ukrainian Community of Western Pennsylvania. But much of her family remains in Ukraine. And a tearful Zayats said she was too overcome with emotion to talk about events unfolding.

Her son Yuriy, 20, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, said his parents were devastated when snipers shot at protesters in Kiev last month and outraged with Russian reports that called the protesters fascists.

The Zayatses said the protesters were merely young Ukrainians working to peacefully win independence from a corrupt government.

They are even more concerned by Russian troops massing in Crimea, claiming they are there to protect ethnic Russians.

“My mom can't really believe it, and my dad is angry, saying: ‘How can the world stand by and not do anything?' ” Yuriy Zayats said.

Bohdan Konecky, 73, of Green Tree immigrated to Pittsburgh in 1962 when he was 22 after his family, which had been exiled from Ukraine to Siberia in 1949, escaped first to Poland and then to the United States.

He became a metallurgical engineer who worked extensively in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, but he never forgot his Ukrainian heritage.

“I have a lot of friends and relations there. My sister is there, and my cousin and I visit Ukraine every year. I am very, very close to what is happening there and very worried about the situation,” he said.

Like the Zayatses, Konecky fears the international community might be too accepting of Russia's claims.

“I traveled throughout the Ukraine. I spent a lot of time in eastern Ukraine and met with regular people,” he said.

Konecky said he had to speak with a lot of them in Russian simply because their Ukrainian is poor.

“But a lot of them are even greater Ukrainian patriots than people in the West who speak perfect Ukrainian,” Konecky said.

“I just pray when I am looking at the president of the Ukrainian government that they will not let themselves be provoked ... that the world will see who the real instigators are,” he said.

Paul Filenko, 29, a Ukrainian-American from Forest Hills, said he is concerned about the safety of family and friends in Ukraine.

“It's obviously very deeply upsetting,” Filenko said of Russia's military actions. “My grandmother is there, my cousin is there — I have many friends there.”

Filenko said his mother, who is visiting Pittsburgh, owns property in Kiev and in the Crimean region.

“I'm very happy she's in the U.S.,” he said. “It's much safer for her.”

Staff writer Alex Nixon contributed to this report. Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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