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In Kansas City, Russians face competing pressures to respond to conflict in Ukraine

A woman wearing a blue blazer leans gently on the back of a dining room chair inside a brightly lit room. Behind her is a wipe board with Russian-language poster and alphabet. Also behind her is a large, flat-screen television with more Russian-language teaching lessons displayed.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Jane Romanova-Hrenchir has arranged her teaching materials and tools in a dining room at her home in Shawnee where she teaches Russian.

Many fear backlash from Russia if they speak out against war — but silence could mean harassment here at home. 

When Jane Romanova-Hrenchir’s three kids were in elementary school three years ago, she was surprised by what they told her one day after class.

“They were coming home saying 'I don't wanna speak Russian.' And I said, ‘Why? It's, you know, it's your heritage.’”

That was in 2019, before the current invasion of Ukraine. Romanova-Hrenchir immigrated from Kazan, Russia in 2005 with her American husband. She still has family in Russia — some who don’t speak English.

Even back then, her kids said, “Our classmates don't like that we are Russian." The incident took Romanova-Hrenchir aback.

“You know, this is my heritage and I'm not ashamed of it, and I was born there, and I love my traditions, I love my culture, and my kids are not accepting it.”

Jane Romanova-Hrenchir is the founder and president of the Russian Heritage Society in Shawnee. She teaches Russian language classes and organizes cultural events, such as picnics and trips to concerts, for people of all Russian-speaking nations. After the 2019 incident in her kids’ school, she found a different school for her children because the administration didn’t take action.

Romanova-Hrenchir says harassment of kids of Russian origin has only intensified over the last few months. Through her work, she says she’s already heard of kids whose classmates “show them the videos of the war and they say, ‘You did it. Go back to Russia.’”

It’s part of a documented trend nationwide. Since Russia launched their invasion of Ukraine on February 24, many Americans have taken public stands against Russia. Stores have removed Russian vodka from their shelves, diners have stopped patronizing Russian restaurants, and venues have canceled concerts by Russian performers. The shift has some Russians in the Kansas City area living on edge.

Russians in Kansas City walk a fine line

Jane Romanova-Hrenchir says music, language, and sports tutors in Kansas City have lost students because of their Russian nationality. A decrease in flights to Russia makes it expensive to visit sick relatives. She says people are stressed and scared.

“They're even afraid sometimes to admit that they are from Russia, because they're not quite sure what's gonna bring to their life afterwards.”

Romanova-Hrenchir was shocked by an April 13 editorial in the Kansas City Star, which called for Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov to “denounce Russian behavior before his performance” or else the Harriman-Jewell Series cancel his April 24th concert. Trifonov, who was born in Russia and now lives in New York City, posted on Instagram “It has been truly heartbreaking to witness what has been happening in the last days. Every war is a tragedy.”

The concert went on as planned. The Harriman-Jewell Series released a statement: “We respect Daniil Trifonov as an artist and have no intention of canceling his performance on the basis he was born in Russia. We do not discriminate against any artist based on sex, religion, or national origin.”

“It doesn't look like it's America anymore,” says Romanova-Hrenchir, “because they claim that they don't discriminate against the nationality, but what is this? If they mention a Russian-born pianist?”

A pair of female hands flips through the pages of a textbook. Most of the text is written in Russian.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Jane Romanova-Hrenchir flips through a page of one of her Russian textbooks.

The Kremlin paints these actions against Russians abroad as evidence that Russia is an innocent victim of the West. This narrative justifies the invasion of Ukraine by recasting it as defense against western powers such as the United States.

Laura Gilman is the director of older adult services at Jewish Family Services, an agency that works with Russian-speaking individuals. She says many Russian-Americans can’t share their thoughts about the conflict because they want to be able to visit family members back home. Even thousands of miles from Russia, they don’t speak freely about the war for fear of repercussions.

“For people from Russia who have family there, there's a real anxiety about not being able to have access to Russia, to their Russian passports, if they say something. And then there's guilt for not saying something,” Gilman says.

On top of that stress, Gilman finds people are worried about their friendships in the Kansas City area, as Russia continues to escalate the war.

“There are Russian people who live here who have very close relationships with people from Ukraine, intimate, close friendships,” Gilman says. “Being on different sides of this conflict is causing stress in friendships.”

Support in Kansas City, despite anti-Russian sentiment nationwide

While Jane Romanova-Hrenchir says she hears stories of anti-Russian incidents, she personally hasn’t encountered any negativity in the last two months. In fact, she’s felt supported by her friends.

“I've been very, very fortunate and I'm surrounded by many smart and intelligent people and they don't hold anything against me.”

The same has been true for Mike, who lives in Overland Park. KCUR agreed to only use Mike's first name over concerns of retaliation. He moved from Russia to the Kansas City area when he was a teenager and has relatives in both Ukraine and Russia.

Mike says his American friends differentiate between the Russian government and Russian civilians.

“Some people have called me and they said, ‘How you doing? How is your family doing over there?’”

Even with all that support, Mike says he’s been sad. He’s sad to see two countries with linguistic, historical and cultural ties at war. He has a hard time seeing the tragic and depressing scenes on TV.

“I really don't like watching the news anymore.”

Jane Romanova-Hrenchir agrees. She just wants the war to be over.

“I just hope that we can come back to some peaceful time all together and can be a community of supporting people again.”

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