In this Fil-Am family, Russian invasion is staple of dinner talk
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has a Filipino American family in Queens, New York fearing the worst and hoping for the war’s quick end. “Putin is a jerk” can be heard reverberating around their brownstone apartment, but that is usually accompanied by a careful explanation of Cold War history and the Russian leader’s seething hatred for America.
Kimberly Mende from Pampanga and her husband, Alex Shaun Itskov, find themselves keeping up with news on the invasion and having to answer their daughter what the war is about, who is Vladimir Putin, and where is Ukraine.
“What I’ve attempted to do was to give a historical background of the Soviet Union, communism, NATO, Putin, nuclear weapons, the Cold War, etc. and allow my daughter to cast her own judgments,” said Alex, a hedge fund executive.
He stressed, “I want my daughter to understand it’s too easy to get sucked into prevailing media narratives. I want her to be able to think for herself.”
Alex, who works as Global Head of Operations for Two Sigma Securities, and Kim, an events organizer, met in 2007 and tied the knot a year later. They have a daughter Caroline who is now 12.
Alex was born in the U.S. to Russian immigrants who came to New York in the late 1970s.
“Both my father’s and mother’s families escaped the Soviet Union to seek a better life,” he said when reached by The FilAm. “My mom’s side of the family were from a small town in the southern Caucasus region of Russia known as Nalchik. It was an idyllic little place nestled between the Black and Caspian Seas, near the border of current-day Georgia. Back then, there was a fairly heavy population of what’s called ‘Juhuru’ or ‘Mountain Jews.’”
His parents divorced shortly after Alex was born, so he knew very little about his father who comes from a town called Unecha between Kyiv and Moscow. Unecha, which lies at the border with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, was heavily populated by Jews in the 1930s-40s. From his maternal grandfather’s stories, Alex learned how his Jewish family had to flee because of the “heavy antisemitism” they faced in the former USSR.
His grandfather, who had a PhD from a prestigious university in Moscow, bravely fled with his family and landed in New York. “It was a difficult journey for him, but he always handled it with a calm happiness, understanding that he made what he thought was the best decision for his immediate family and future generations,” he said.
Alex’s mother, a teen at that time, was so unhappy being taken away from the motherland. “When she arrived here, she felt super lost and didn’t quite know what to do with herself,” he shared. At 17, she got pregnant. Shortly after Alex was born, his parents divorced.
Alex was raised by his maternal grandparents. To this day, he has never visited Russia and holds a dim opinion of the country.
“I was the first generation in my family to be born in America, in 1981,” he said. “My first language was Russian, and my second language was actually a dialect of Farsi that was spoken by the Mountain Jews. I only learned English in school a few years later. There was very little connection to being Russian in my household; we were Jews first and foremost, and I was raised with Mountain Jew values.”
Today, the Mende-Itskov home in Queens is trying to keep in check some angry feelings about an unnecessary war that has left almost 1,300 Ukrainian soldiers and 40 civilians dead (as of this writing). On the Russian side, the toll is said to be anywhere from 2,000 to 12,000 fatalities, according to news reports. Propaganda from both sides is making it difficult to arrive at a near-accurate count.
“I’m against what Putin is doing now,” said Kim, echoing Alex. “I’m generally against any kind of war under any pretext.”
Alex does not hold back. He said “My general view is that Putin is a Soviet KGB agent at heart. He has an oligarchical mindset, ready to grease people for their loyalty. It’s corruption at the highest level. Human life has little value to him, except as a means to achieving an end. He has an antiquated Cold War disdain for America and the West, with a paranoid delusion about NATO expansion being an existential threat.” © The FilAm 2022