Eastern European immigrants reflect on the Russo-Ukraine War

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When asked about their love story, Rudy Kler and Irina Kler passionately argue over dates and details. But without hesitation, Rudy Kler proclaims it was love at first sight.

Both Rudy Kler and Irina Kler are from the former Soviet Union: Rudy Kler from Ukraine, Irina Kler from the Russian capital of Moscow. They met in New Jersey, when Rudy Kler’s cousin set them up on a blind date. Within a year, they were engaged.

Rudy Kler enlisted in the U.S. Army, and was given orders to Germany. Faced with the prospect of separation, they hastily married like many other service members tend to do.

“We didn’t have a wedding,” Irina Kler said. “Let’s put it this way. We went to the-”

“Judge of Peace,” Rudy Kler finished.

Gino Kler, center, is a student at Webster University. His parents, Irina and Rudy Kler, are from the former Soviet Union. Photo by Caleb Sprous.

Rudy Kler immigrated to the U.S. in 1990. He could see the writing on the wall and knew the collapse of the former Soviet Union was imminent. In 1991, the hammer and sickle flag flew over Moscow for the last time.

Irina Kler was in Moscow as the flag was lowered and socialism officially came to an end. Millions were flung into economic turmoil as the Soviet Union’s assets were promptly sold off. Luckily, Irina Kler was insulated from the worst effects of the ensuing economic crisis. In 1993, she left post-Soviet Russia to begin a new life in the United States.

Upon first entry into the JFK airport, Rudy Kler was boggled. The culture shock was overwhelming. “How do you make a call from a public phone in the airport?” Rudy Kler asked. “How do you know you need quarters? You know nothing!”

Three decades later, they are the proud parents of Webster University student Gino Kler. Their son has a rocksteady, cool demeanor. He’s studying mathematics as part of a dual-degree program and is preparing to transfer to Washington University next fall.

Most days, Gino Kler is relentlessly focused on maintaining his 4.0 GPA. But everything has been different following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. Gino Kler recalls the incessant pacing of his mother, glued to her phone and TV in the wake of the invasion.

“The TV is on CNN,” Gino Kler said, “And [my mother] is screaming at the TV over the atrocities. Then dad comes home and she’s screaming at dad over what she just saw on the TV. It’s not fun for me because I don’t like hearing them scream, but that’s how it’s been for the last month.”

To alleviate the tension and show support, the Kler family attended a pro-Ukraine rally in St. Charles on March 5. Rudy Kler’s last visit to his home of Ukraine took place in 2018 and 2011 before that. He described the changes to his home as a “different world.”

“It will probably be the same effect as traveling from North Korea to South Korea,” Rudy Kler said.

Gino Kler is protective of his parents, lamenting the xenophobia they can sometimes experience due to their Eastern European accents.

“The moment they hear the accent, their attitude changes,” Gino Kler said of the xenophobia. “It’s kind of nasty.”

Gino’s mother has a joking reaction to inquisitions about her accent and its origin, saying “when people hear my accent they always ask me where I’m from and I usually tell them I’m from [an] evil country.”

Irina Kler still has friends in Moscow, but maintaining her friendships has been hard since the war has started. With differing media sources, Irina Kler and her friends from home have come to accept two polarizing worldviews of the war. She also feels uncomfortable speaking freely with her friends from home due to the crackdowns on anti-war sentiment in Russia.

Irina Kler and her family have lived under the Tsarist regime of Russia, Stalin, Kruschev and Gorbachev. Her home has a storied history, but the atrocities she has seen committed in Ukraine by Russia have brought her immense grief. She refers to Russia as a “great, but terrible country,” and even believes modern Russia has less freedoms than Soviet Russia did. She understood what her country is like, but the sight of atrocities during Russia’s invasion has made her feel ashamed. Luckily, in the U.S., Irina Kler says she has received more support than blame from her friends.

“My friends reached out to me and everybody said, ‘We support you,’” she said.

The Biden administration has vowed to welcome 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. Gino Kler has expressed frustration and worry with Americans conflating Russian and Ukrainian identities.

“So, imagine you’re coming from Ukraine which just got blown up by Russia,” Gino Kler began, “and now you have a bunch of people expounding American stereotypes of Russia.”

Gino Kler does believe that the Ukrainian refugees will find home here though, just as his parents have. Outside of their accents, he believes the Ukrainian refugees can acclimate fairly easily, especially with the assistance of cultural diversity training.

“There’s going to be a massive culture shock,” Gino Kler said. “But they’re going to have to learn that this is a more diverse country.”

When asked to comment on accepting refugees, the St. Louis Mayor’s Office released a statement saying:

“St. Louis will always welcome those who want to build a better future for themselves and their families. Refugees – whether from Bosnia, Afghanistan, Ukraine, or anywhere across the globe –  strengthen our city and make it a more vibrant place for everyone. The City will continue to work alongside the experts at the International Institute of St. Louis, and we look forward to supporting their efforts as much as we can.”

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Caleb Sprous
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Zoe DeYoung
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