STAMFORD – In the corner of a tiny strip mall at 801 Hope St., wedged between Village Bagels and Cozy Nail Spa, Bukovina Ukrainian & Russian Deli has been in business for 15 years.
But now tape covers “& Russian” on the sign over the door, and the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine flies above the deli.
At Bukovina – where you’ll find herring, farmer cheese, a sandwich meat called salo, rye bread, candies and drinks imported from Ukraine – history also is served.
Erasing “Russia” from the sign runs counter to culture, because Russians and Ukrainians are “Slavic brothers,” said customer Severyn Gumennyy, who grew up in the Carpathian Mountains that run through western Ukraine.
But now Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an unprovoked invasion, is bombing innocent Ukrainians from the air, destroying their cities.
It’s Putin who Ukrainians hate, and those like him who seek to destroy freedom, said Gumennyy, a New Canaan resident.
“This is something the mother tells the child. When I was young my grandmother told me how she was chased by the KGB,” Gumennyy said. “That’s how my family ended up in the Carpathian Mountains. They were hiding.”
The KGB was the ruthless security agency of the Soviet Union, as Russia was known at the time. Putin was a KGB agent.
Gumennyy said his grandmother, a library director at a university, saw free-thinking colleagues disappear.
“It happened in horrible ways … like throwing them from moving cars,” Gumennyy said. “When she told me the stories, she would whisper. I asked her, ‘Why whisper? Ukraine is a democracy now.’ She said, ‘Oh, no, believe me. The KGB is right around the corner.’ Now I understand.”
Ukrainians are raised to be wary, said Halyna Mykytey, a Fairfield resident who grew up in a town called Chernivtci in a region called Bukovina. The owner of the deli comes from the same place, said Mykytey, who was shopping Thursday for Ukrainian bread.
In Ukraine, one generation teaches the next: “Be ready,” Mykytey said. To understand why, look at the last century, she said, when invading countries targeted Ukraine for its farmland, charcoal mines, oil, natural gas, ports, and position near Europe.
The Soviets invaded in 1918, joined by forces from Germany and Austria-Hungary. In 1939 Hungary invaded on its own, annexing a piece of Ukraine. Nazi Germany, with help from Romania, invaded in 1941. In 2014 Putin invaded, annexing the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and occupying the Donbas region.
Still, Mykytey said, “we don’t hate Russians.”
“Nobody ever taught us to do that. We learned to speak Russian in school. In my town we lived with Russians, along with people from Georgia, Armenia, Bulgaria and other countries,” Mykytey said. “But people are supposed to have freedom. Life is supposed to be peaceful.”
And so she has joined the war effort at Bukovina Deli, where volunteers bring donations and supplies that are shipped to volunteers in countries near Ukraine to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Putin’s air raids.
Gumennyy, who was a doctor in Ukraine and now works as a registered nurse and operating room administrator at Greenwich Hospital, said he can’t bear to watch the suffering on TV news reports. He reads Ukrainian newspapers instead.
“Putin is all about propaganda,” said Gumennyy, who left Ukraine in 2003. “When Ukrainian soldiers capture the young Russian soldiers, they make them call their mothers in Russia to tell them they were invading Ukraine. They are trying to get the truth 0ut, because Putin is telling the Russians that Ukraine is attacking Russian people in Ukraine.”
The lies are designed to take attention off Putin as he advances his mission to take Ukraine, and Poland, and other nearby countries, said Mykytey, who was a physicist in her home country and now works at Norwalk Hospital.
The lies are an old Russian government tactic, Mykytey said. In the days before World War II, when the Soviets were making moves on Poland, “the Polish people got mad at Ukrainians because they thought Ukrainians were shooting at them. But it was the Soviet army wearing Ukrainian army uniforms,” she said.
It’s a bit of history to be learned in the aisles of Bukovina Deli, where Ukrainians shop and share news from their homeland.
The bravery seen in television news of the war – Ukrainians jumping on Russian tanks – comes from generations of experience with invasion, Mykytey said. Ukrainians “know in their blood” that freedom is worth the fight, Gumennyy said.
That’s why “Russia” was wiped from the sign above the door at Bukovina Deli, they said.
“We hate the politics of people like Putin,” Mykytey said. “We love freedom.”