Sergii Fesenko, Sr. swims at least 2.5 miles every day. Lately he’s been swimming in one of the pools at Indiana University.
He mostly swims right now to help pass the time. He and his wife Iryna have been stranded in Bloomington for almost two months. What began as a long vacation to visit their sons has turned into an unimaginable situation.
“Yesterday we called our parents. I called my mom, [Iryna] called her mom. They all say they’re so worried. They both don’t know what will happen the next morning,” Fesenko says.
When the Fesenkos left Kiev in mid-January, the protests over former President Victor Yanukovych’s decision to create strong ties with Russia rather than the European Union were still peaceful.
Three days after they arrived in the U.S. though, things turned violent. Dozens of people were killed and Russian troops moved into the country.
The conflict in their home country is complicated for Fesenko and his son, Sergiy Jr. They identify as Ukrainians but have strong ties to Russia.
They have family there, and when Sergii Sr. won his gold medal he was representing the former Soviet Union.
Here’s a video of his winning race:
Twenty years later, when his son was in the Olympics, he swam for Ukraine.
Padraic Kenney, Indiana University Director of Russia and East European Institute, says the Fesenkos are representative of most Ukrainians today who have strong ties to both Russia and Ukraine.
“So you should actually think of it as a color spectrum,” Kenney says. “If we want to do it like an American electoral map and we’re going to paint one side blue and one side red – let’s make the red side the Russian side and the blue side the Western side. Well, we have a large region in the middle that’s purple, and which has been shifting over the last 20 years.”
Love For Their Country
Sergiy Jr. originally came to Bloomington to swim for IU. He loves the Ukraine and would like nothing more than to return there, but for now he’s decided to stay in Bloomington. He’s a small business owner and lives a life he says he couldn’t in Ukraine.
“Ukraine is a country that – especially before now – if you don’t have connections in the government or if you don’t know someone who is influential, you will not be able to succeed in business,” he says. “It’s going to be taken away from you by law enforcement that is corrupt or by organized crime.”
While visiting Kiev in December, Sergiy Jr. participated in the protests. To him, the revolution – as he calls it – and ousting of former President Yanukovych is creating a better Ukraine.
“I can’t feel fine, I can’t feel happy, until everything gets back to normal. And I think this is what they call being a patriot of your country and really loving your country. When your country is sick, you don’t feel good – it’s just like a child,” he says.
The Fesenkos monitor the situation closely through western media. Being in the U.S. actually gives them more information about what’s going on because they’re further away from the center of the conflict.
Sergii Sr. and his wife plan to return to Kiev March 15. But with the situation still uncertain, it’s not an easy decision. He says his sons are still concerned.
“They say, ‘Stay here. Why must you go to Ukraine now? Stay and wait and look for the next 10, 20 days what’s happening, and then you can change your air ticket.’”
Indiana Lawmakers Respond
Earlier this week U.S. Senator Dan Coats, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, proposed a list of sanctions to encourage Russia to withdraw from Crimea.
The sanctions include expelling Russia from the G-8, reducing U.S. presence in the country and suspending Russian work visas.
Senator Coats said in a statement Wednesday that:
“The proposals are designed to isolate Russia and would inflict real pain on Putin and Russian interests.”
Senator Joe Donnelly supports these measures and condemned Russia’s actions, saying:
“I support Ukraine’s sovereignty, and I believe we should continue working with our allies to address Russia’s recent acts of aggression while promoting political and economic stability for the people of Ukraine.”
Jashin Lin contributed to this report.