Around F.C.

Ukrainians In Our Midst Keep their Eyes on the War

As the war in Ukraine nears its one-year anniversary, at least two Falls Churchians are following the tragedy with personal interest.

Olga Kosenko and Gennadii Zinchenko, a married couple who are both city employees, have friends and relatives who’ve been killed or have chosen to remain in the war zone. “Ukraine has reached the point where everyone has lost someone,” says Zinchenko, who is the City of Falls Church information technology manager. Her parents, age 76, are still in Kyiv and won’t leave “their land,” adds Kosenko, an archivist and assistant at the Mary Riley Styles Library.

They spoke to the News-Press at a time when the U.S. and NATO allies are pondering stepped-up delivery of heavy tanks to the battlefield in anticipation of a springtime offensive and new land grab by the stretched Russian forces. And Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has continued the bombing of civilians that has destroyed whole towns and prompted international probes of war crimes.

The couple, who commute from Fairfax, came for coffee on West Broad St. with another Ukrainian couple they had met the day before at St. Andrews Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Silver Spring, Md. At that fundraiser for refugees, they viewed the film “Carol of the Bells,” which tells of the Christmas song popular in the United States based on a 1919 Ukrainian work.

Olga Kosenko (left) and Gennadii Zinchenko (right) are a married couple who have lost family and friends due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. (Photo: Charlie Clark)

Computer specialist Zinchenko, whose English was the more advanced of the two, planned his emigration to the United States beginning in 2013, just before Putin’s provocative annexation of the Crimean peninsula. After an IT career in Ukraine, he came to Northern Virginia with a green card, leaving their sons at home to finish their academic year. Within a month he was hired by Falls Church in July 2014 as an engineer, later to supervise digital services in all city departments (except Schools).

Wife Olga, who was less fluent but was an experienced archivist, joined him and began at the library in 2016 as a volunteer processing donations. Eager for a job and hard-working, she flagged some donated first-edition books as valuable. So four months later when a job opened in the history room, Library Director Mary McMahon hired her. “I’ve always gravitated to preserving local history, with old books, maps and deeds,” she says.

Zinchenko stresses that Ukraine’s volunteer organizations were organized back in 2014 as a “people’s movement” to support the military with food, medicine and communications. Today, he has a stepmother still in Brovary and a cousin’s family in Kyiv. His wife has a friend who lost her husband in 2015 in the conflict, and a best friend whose boyfriend died after volunteering at the front lines. Olga’s father, retired but volunteering with the neighborhood patrols, helped expose a saboteur disguised as a homeless person. 

The fellow Ukrainians the couple brought to the interview are filmmaker Artem Kolubaev, producer of “Carol of the Bells,” and his wife Eka, a make-up artist and jewelry maker now raising their two daughters at a friend’s in Alexandria. She has temporary protected status while husband Kolubaev, who, as an industry-elected leader of Ukraine’s Council for State Support of Cinematography, continues to travel from Ukraine to the U.S. on a work visa.

One friend, Pavlo Li, a noted actor who was killed in March 2022, will have a Ukrainian street named for him. Eka has a friend who lost her father in the fighting, and Artem has said farewell to many film industry colleagues, notably one pyrotechnics specialist who had volunteered, and who died last summer.

Together, the Kolubaevs described the scene on February 23-24, 2022, in their apartment in Kyiv near the airport. They had heard rumors of an invasion, and embassies were closing. But they worried about “the boy who cried wolf” and thought the likely target of Donbas too far away. On the night when they were distracted by the premier of a comedy film, a friend called at 1:00 a.m. insisting “100 percent” the invasion was starting. Artem’s job gave him a duty to be ready, but “no one accepted that the Russians would bomb.” Then at 4:00 a.m. came the voice over a loudspeaker that war had begun.

With sleep out of the question, the couple rallied their daughters (ages 11 and 15), who could hardly understand the situation, to pack clothing. Knowing they might soon lose electricity and water, the family shopped at a grocery, but thousands had the same idea. After two hours, they emerged with protein bars and water. Next thing they noticed was that the parking lot of their 5,000-tenant building was emptying. Banks had stopped changing money.

Finally, when the noise and shaking of actual bomb drops removed all doubt, the husband and wife disagreed over whether to depart. (Though likely on a target list, he would stay.) They saw two Russian tanks destroyed. There was fear of checkpoints, where bandits might be operating. “It was unclear if Ukraine would exist the next day,” Artem recalled.

In the ensuing months, his nongovernmental organization helped supply the military with 248 cars and 11 ambulances. He personally drove to the dangerous “gray zone” to deliver cargo. “It was a mess, like a movie,” he recalls. Artem, who would film President Voldymor Zelensky broadcasting in a studio, said it is clear “Putin doesn’t want the Ukrainian people, he wants territory on a map—just look at the Dnieper River.”

Whether the Russians succeed “depends on many things. They must destroy the whole country,” he adds. “There will be partisan districts until the end.” Much depends on the European Union and the United States. “We have shown we can fight.”

Olga Kosenko says what ultimately happens with Putin “doesn’t matter.” But she is optimistic “Ukraine will win.” Though not all Ukrainians agree with everything Zelensky does, they acknowledge his leadership.

As for Falls Church, Olga Kosenko finds the people “open, honest, kind and willing to help.” Husband Gennadii Zinchenko calls them “beautiful, diverse, open, modern and thoughtful about the future.”