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Mecklenburg resident from Russia reflects on the violence in Ukraine

Russian-American Aleksandra Degernes is torn between two worlds as she watches her motherland invade Ukraine. The word "CENSORED" is written across the tape.
Aleksandra Degernes
Russian-American Aleksandra Degernes is torn between two worlds as she watches her motherland invade Ukraine. The word "CENSORED" is written across the tape.

On a recent day, Aleksandra Degernes propped open the door and motioned to walk inside her Matthews home. She was on the phone with a friend in Russia speaking Russian, but her tone did not need translating . It was serious and somber. After they hang up, Degernes said her friend is scared for what’s next.

This month , the country’s independent radio station, Ekho Moskvy, was shut down.

"As I talked to my friend two minutes ago, he said, 'I'm terrified , ' " Degernes said. "All of that little piece of freedom they had, it's all being shut down . It’s horrible . "

Degernes gets these calls from friends in Russia frequently . They ask her for advice and share their fears. All she can really do is listen.

"I can provide support, emotional support — just talking to him and saying that , 'I hear you, I don't feel good, too, '" she said. "We don't know what to do . T hat’s why we feel helpless. We don't know what to expect . There are laws for being a traitor for your motherland . You get 20 years. My friends would text me that they're afraid to go out and protest on the streets because they don't want to get those 20 years in prison for holding ( a ) Ukrainian flag or something."

Degernes grew up northeast of Moscow and moved to the U .S. about 10 years ago . She has dual citizenship. But her family is still in Russia. She’s tried to have conversations with her parents about the violence in Ukraine. Her mother is more understanding, she said , but she described her father as brainwashed.

"They have been watching government channels for so long and the conflict with Ukraine has started eight years ago , " she said. "For eight long years, those people have been force fed illegitimate lies constantly, and at some point, these people cannot filter the truth anymore . "

Some days , she goes back and forth with her dad. Each of them text s articles to the other trying to prove their point. Mostly, it just leaves them both frustrated. She loves her family but sees the flaws in her native country’s government. And because she’s critical of Russia, she knows her father views her differently.

"I just have to tell them over and over that I do love my motherland, I love my childhood, my babushka, summertime in the countryside," she said. "But, I think he still thinks that I'm a traitor a little bit. He just doesn’t want to say that . I feel that from some of my friends who are nationalists who have that kind of feeling — deep strong feeling of belonging to the land and that everything else is bad."

But as much as she can look back with fondness on her Russian upbringing, there’s a shame she feels watching the news day in and day out. It’s not her government, but it’s the one she knows — the one she grew up with. It’s not her fault, but it’s the feeling of shame that comes from watching the devastation her native country is causing — and the lies her father is believing.

"I feel embarrassed — embarrassed for what my government — not 'my ,' but, you know — has done , and I feel scared for my friends, for their future lives," she said. "I feel it could be different."

And she notices and feels the shift in the way people in America look at her. Just the other day while having blood work done , the nurse paused when she heard her accent and asked where she was from. She responded Russia and felt like she had to quickly denounce the invasion of Ukraine.

"There are going to be consequences, and they are right now in terms of how people will treat Russians ( in America ), " Degernes said. "I will pull my American passport out, I'll just tell them, ' Hey , I pay taxes, I volunteered for elections here, I’m just as American as you are. '

"I'm prepared. I belong here. This is my home."

She’s currently studying sociology at UNC Charlotte. She’s married to an American. She’s a part of the Slavic Business Association. Point being, she’s a part of this community — of this country.

After this interview , she gave a brief tour of her house. Beside s a few Russian nesting dolls, there were few traces of her motherland present. Degernes posed for photos to accompany this article. In some, she was smiling, in others , she's more serious. A few days later , as the violence worsened and more Ukrainian civilians were killed, she sent a text message asking WFAE not to use photos of her smiling.

She wrote: “I don’t feel like smiling these days.”
Copyright 2022 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

At this point in her life, Sarah considers home to be a state of mind—not one place. Before joining the WFAE news team, she was hosting and reporting in the deep south in Birmingham, Alabama. In past lives she was a northerner having worked and lived in Indiana, Maine, and New York City. She grew up in Virginia and attended James Madison University in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.