Not long after Russia invaded Ukraine, Elena Doronina ran into a fellow Russian-speaking neighbour in the coastal city of Sunny Isles Beach, Florida, eager to relay her view of the situation.
Doronina is from Kherson, Ukraine — a town that was brutally attacked early on in the war and has since fallen under Russian occupation. Her Sunny Isles neighbour is from Russia.
Instantly, Doronina said, it became clear that despite residing in the same Florida community, they were living in two different realities. Doronina was horrified by Vladimir Putin’s increasingly gruesome tactics in his invasion of Ukraine, while her neighbour supported Russia’s war.
“She says: ‘So what, you have Nazis over there?’” Doronina recalled the other woman saying, apparently referring to the president of Russia’s debunked claim that he is trying to “denazify” Ukraine.
Doronina replied angrily: “Have you ever even been there? . . . Go, have a look. Why don’t the Russian mothers whose sons were killed in Ukraine go there and get their bodies and see what their army has done?”
As Moscow continues its bombardment of Ukraine, dividing friends and family on either side of the border, tensions are fraying in the traditionally close-knit post-Soviet émigré communities beyond Russia.
As of 2019, about 1.2mn immigrants from the Soviet Union lived in the US, according to a Migration Policy Institute’s analysis of US census data. 392,000 of these originated from Russia, while 355,000 are from Ukraine.
These immigrants have populated largely Russian-speaking enclaves such as Brighton Beach in New York and Sunny Isles in Miami. Yet while both are thought of predominately Russian — Sunny Isles is nicknamed “Little Moscow” — they are home to a range of interwoven former Soviet communities where many residents have equal ties to Moscow and Kyiv.
“For me personally it’s a personal tragedy,” said Dmitry, the 35-year-old owner of a hair extension company based in Miami who asked that his last name not be used. His father is Russian, his mother Ukrainian, and he split his childhood between the two countries, he said.
His hair extension brand, founded long before the war, is called “Hair by Russians”. Yet they sell not only Russian hair, but Ukrainian too. On the brand’s website, he has overlaid the logo with a blue-and-yellow banner and the words “We Stand with Ukraine”.
Sergei Isakov, the general manager of Kalinka, a Russian deli in Sunny Isles, said: “People are only suffering from this. No one is winning. Ukraine and Russia, you can say, are one Slavic people.”
Beyond the emotional strain caused by the conflict, there are the economic costs too. The deli relies on Russia for its goods, but because of new restrictions on imports from the country to the US, suppliers are telling him they won’t be able to deliver any more orders.
“We have no idea what happens next . . . We ourselves don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” he said.
Many businesses have begun openly displaying their support for Ukraine. Marky’s, Miami’s premier caviar store, has elected to send Ukraine shipments of “diapers, baby food and everything else we could get our hands on”, said Mark Zaslavsky, the store’s Ukrainian-born co-owner.
Recent events have raised questions about Sunny Isles’ “Little Moscow” nickname, which Jennifer Levin, a former Sunny Isles Beach commissioner, said she would prefer to do away with altogether.
“What are you going to do, put all in Russians in one basket and say they are all the same?” said Levin, whose grandparents were Russian. “If you’re on the outside, it has a lot of negative connotations.”
Ilona Nesterova, a Miami realtor who moved to Florida from Kyiv and who has been helping organise local relief efforts, said most of her Russian friends disagreed with the war and had been supportive of her work with Ukraine — but not all of them.
“People have opinions. They block each other [on social media]. They say things . . . So right now the whole community is a little bit shaky,” said Nesterova, a former model who was Mrs Miami and Mrs Sunny Isles, and represented Ukraine in the 2021 Mrs Universe pageant.
Nesterova said that the morning the invasion began, she posted a message in a Facebook group for Russian-speaking realtors in Florida asking if members wanted to get involved in relief efforts. Not long afterwards, she received a call from a Russian friend who is the group’s administrator.
“My friend, she called me and she said: ‘Look, I understand whatever [reaction] is happening in your brain, but please, let’s keep it professional’,” Nesterova recalled. “This is what she asked me, and I said: ‘How can you stand silent when you’ve been seeing all of this? How wrong it all is?’”
Sergei Danilov, the owner of Russian America TV, a 24-hour Russian language internet TV station based in Florida, said it has been a challenge to navigate the divide without alienating any of its viewers, about 15 per cent of whom live in Russia.
Since the war began, the channel has had a huge spike in viewers — many of them Russians looking for a more independent view than the propaganda offered by their country’s state television.
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“Our goal is to give objective information but not scare away our Russian viewers,” said Danilov, who moved to Miami from Moscow, where he was a metallurgical executive, but spent some of his childhood in Kazakhstan and Latvia.
“The Russian propaganda is so strong that those under the influence of it don’t believe that this a real military offensive, a real war. The audience here rightly believes it is a real fight for the freedom of Ukraine,” he said.
Not everyone is happy. On Russian America TV’s YouTube and Facebook comment sections, some viewers castigate the channel for reporting on a war they do not believe exists. Meanwhile, others attack it for presenting too sanitised a view of the war’s atrocities, and not doing more to show the kinds of destruction seen on Ukrainian TV.
“If we showed what the Ukrainian TV channels were showing, those people [in Russia] wouldn’t believe us,” Danilov said.