Mihalopoulos: Trump’s take on Putin worries Chicago Ukrainians

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Steve Macko (left); Peter Bencak, UAV National Commander; U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.; U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. and George Horbenko, Commander UAV Post 32 Chicago, appeared at a town hall forum on Sunday in Ukrainian Village, where they discussed their recent trip to Kiev. | Dan Mihalopoulos/Sun-Times

Follow @dmihalopoulosMexicans and Muslims aren’t the only ones in Chicago who’ve been shaken by President Donald Trump’s words and actions.

All the talk recently of ties between Trump and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is provoking deep anxiety in the big Ukrainian community in Chicago and the suburbs.

The situation presents a golden opportunity for local elected officials to appeal to a sizeable voting bloc — and to hit Trump on yet another issue.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Congressman Mike Quigley, D-Ill., visited Ukraine last month to meet with the eastern European country’s president, Petro Poroshenko.

And on Sunday afternoon, Durbin and Quigley appeared at a town hall meeting in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, where they spoke about their trip.

Quigley says worries about Putin extend far beyond Ukraine to many other former Soviet republics, including Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Georgia.


Follow @dmihalopoulos“Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union,” Quigley said. “This is extraordinarily concerning for all the folks here who are first- or second-generation Americans from these countries.”

During the last month’s congressional break, Durbin also visited Poland and Lithuania.

“We have a new president, and many questions are being asked in each of those countries,” Durbin said at Sunday’s forum at the Ukrainian Cultural Center.

After singing the U.S. and Ukrainian anthems — the American one first, the Ukrainian one more loudly — the crowd at the event listened as Quigley and Durbin vowed to support their homeland’s efforts to repel Putin. Durbin said Putin believes Ukraine is “not entitled to be a separate nation.”

Steve Macko; Peter Bencak, National Commander, Ukrainian American Veterans; U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.; U.S. Sen Richard Durbin; George Horbenko, Commander, Ukrainian American Veterans Post 32 Chicago; and George Diachenko at a town hall forum on Sund

Steve Macko; Peter Bencak, National Commander, Ukrainian American Veterans; U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.; U.S. Sen Richard Durbin; George Horbenko, Commander, Ukrainian American Veterans Post 32 Chicago; and George Diachenko at a town hall forum on Sunday in Ukrainian Village on Sunday. | Dan Mihalopoulos/Sun-Times

The Ukrainians, who won their independence in 1991, are especially concerned after Russia invaded Crimea and ethnic clashes erupted in the Donbas region.

Quigley had last visited Kiev, the Ukrainian capitol, in the spring of 2014, during the Maidan uprising, which prompted the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

In their meeting with Poroshenko in February, Quigley said he and Durbin told the Ukrainian leader that American legislators, Republicans as well as Democrats, favor continuing sanctions against Russia.

“It seems striking that President Trump, for reasons still unknown, remains unwilling to stand up to Russian aggression, at home or abroad,” Quigley wrote in an article published recently in Politico. “The new administration won’t rule out lifting Russian sanctions that were imposed in reaction to the invasion of Crimea and U.S. election interference.”

The Ukrainian community has a long history in Chicago.

St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral, at Cortez and Oakley, celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. A few blocks south, the copper onion domes of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral have loomed majestically over the quiet neighborhood just north and west of downtown since 1915.

Like many established ethnic groups in the city, some Ukrainians have gradually moved on to the bungalow belt and the northwest suburbs.

But in the old neighborhood, the taste of the motherland remains strong despite gentrification. Baby blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags wave from balconies of brick apartment buildings, and “United We Stand With Ukraine” signs are displayed in windows.

“We try to do what we can do help our homeland,” said Father Mykola Buryadnyk, who moved here from Ukraine in 2002 and is the pastor at St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukrainian Catholic Church on Cumberland Avenue.

Estimates of the Chicago area’s Ukrainian population range from 100,000 to as many as 250,000, said Pavlo Bandriwsky, vice president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America’s Illinois division, which organized Sunday’s forum with Durbin and Quigley.

“One thing that unites us is concern for our homeland,” Bandriwsky said. “We need to have leadership in this country that is not naïve when it comes to Russia.”

All politics may be local.

But when your constituents include many with roots and relatives far across the oceans, it’s probably best to stay on the right side of issues affecting the old country also.

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