Two brothers, a costume designer and a teacher stand up against Russian attacks


As Russian forces continue to intensify their invasion, the Ukrainians of Stark County watch with heavy hearts their homeland’s response.

US officials believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to dismantle the Ukrainian government and replace it with a regime favorable to the Kremlin.

The Canton Repository interviewed brothers Oleksii and Yuri Vovk, costume designer Elizabeth Kaplan and teacher Pamm Ohlinger – all with ties to Ukraine – about the invasion.

Here is what they shared:

“It’s hard to predict what the end result will be.”

In 2010, the Vovk family came to the United States from Mukachevo in western Ukraine after “capitalizing on our life-changing opportunity through the Green Card Lottery,” Oleksii said, 26 years.

Parents Yuri and Ruslana and their three sons Yuri II, Oleksii and Zenovii call Stark County their home. All but their father later became US citizens.

The three brothers graduated from local high schools, started careers and got married. Two of them have children. Zenovii, 22, serves in the Marines.

Yuri, a former MP, is studying to be an accountant and Oleksii is an accountant.

“My parents left behind their settled lives to give us (the children) the opportunity for a better life,” Oleksii said. “Most of my family and friends still live (in Ukraine).”

And his prayers are with them.

“I am worried for my childhood friends who are conscripted to go to war against one of the most equipped and powerful military forces in the world. I am sad for all the lives lost,” Oleksii said.

His brother Yuri called the invasion a “tragedy”.

Both say they are proud of the Ukrainian resistance, “heroes”, against Russia. But they don’t know how this war will end because Putin is unpredictable.

“It’s hard to predict what the end result will be,” he added. “The war will eventually end but the destruction and human suffering will still be there.”

Oleksii Vovk with his brother Zenovii Vovk, a US Marine.  The Vovk family came to the United States from Ukraine in 2010 and settled in Stark County.

Yuri said he thinks most Russians don’t support the invasion and want their own democracy, but Putin wants to reestablish the Soviet Union – or some form of it.

The brothers believe that Russia, Ukraine and the rest of the world will never be the same after this war. The invasion has already united NATO and European Union countries against Putin.

“I don’t think it will be business as usual,” Yuri said. “But it would be difficult for me, whatever the outcome, for him not to be in power. Practically all my life he has been in power, in one position or another.”

“No one can stop this psychopath.”

Elizabeth Kaplan could only watch with anguish as Russia invaded her country last week.

“Nobody can stop this psychopath. He’s sick,” she said, referring to Putin.

Kaplan, 60, a costume designer for the Canton Ballet, and her husband Alex were born and raised in Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea in southern Ukraine. They have two daughters.

Marie Kaplan, a daughter of Elizabeth and Alex Kaplan, shown here while visiting Odessa, Ukraine in 2019. Her parents were born and raised in Odessa before coming to the United States in 1993.

Kaplan said they fled Odessa in 1993 after the collapse of the Soviet Union destabilized the region and came to the United States as refugees settling in the Canton area. They had family in Stark County.

She said the area, at that time, had become a dangerous place to raise children or be Jewish, their faith. Their eldest daughter Renata was born in Odessa. Their youngest Marie was born in the United States

Her husband owns a disaster restoration business.

Kaplan said the family visited Odessa in 2019 on vacation.

“It was beautiful,” she said, but now “to see military people in my hometown is heartbreaking.”

Kaplan found some solace in global support for Ukraine.

“It’s amazing,” she said.

Kaplan thought Putin had imperial ambitions and he started with Ukraine.

“My worst fear is that Ukraine will become part of Russia again,” she said.

A couple from Canton, teaching in Kiev, evacuated

Pamm Ohlinger and her husband Ray, both 51, have taught for a decade or more in Stark County. They raised four children, all of whom attended McKinley High School in Canton.

In 2020, Ohlinger said he followed a dream of teaching internationally and accepted positions nearly 5,000 miles away in Kyiv, Ukraine at Kyiv International School (KIS). She is a school counselor and her husband teaches fourth grade.

She said the school has over 800 students from around 50 different countries, including local residents. Most of the students were there because of their parents’ work in various sectors.

“Kiev is a great city with so many amazing restaurants, beautiful churches, and scenic cultural and government sites. There are parks within a few streets of Kiev,” Ohlinger said in an email.

She added: “The Ukrainian people have immense love for their country and are very proud of what they have sacrificed to get where they are. We learned to love living in Ukraine.

But they left the country before the invasion.

Ohlinger said the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine ordered the families to leave the country amid mounting tensions weeks ago, and they listened. The couple flew to Albania where there is a sister school.

She said they planned to stay there, work at school, until it was safe to return to Ukraine.

“We can stay for up to 90 days without needing to apply for a residence permit,” she said.

As for the invasion, Ohlinger said, “It’s horrifying. It represents the worst of humanity. No matter the outcome, there will be no winners in this war. This is Putin’s war, not the Russian people.

“Those (students) who are still in Kiev, tell stories of explosions across the street, explosions that wake them up from sleep and time spent in the basement. As an adult, it It’s heartbreaking to hear children talk about these things.”

Contact Benjamin Duer at 330-580-8567 or [email protected]

Follow on Twitter @bduerREP

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