Ashland violin teacher raises funds to help Ukrainian refugees

Faina Podolnaya with a map of Ukraine. Paul Huard photo
March 21, 2022

The country Faina Podolnaya grew up in is being bombed and its people are suffering. She’s working to help them.

By Paul R. Huard for Ashland.news

When Faina Podolnaya watches news coverage of refugees fleeing the destruction wrought by the Russian Army in Ukraine, she does not see strangers in a faraway land.

Her former students, her classmates from her childhood, or her late parents’ former neighbors could be there among the thousands crowding railway platforms or huddling in the cold outside of hastily constructed refugee centers.

Yet, like her countrymen, Podolnaya refuses to be beaten. The Ukrainian-born violinist and music teacher now living in Ashland fights back with the audacious goal of raising $100,000 through a GoFundMe site to channel funds to Ukrainian relief efforts in Germany and provide aid to residents in the besieged Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

Faina Podolnaya

Working with her sister Nadja Mazanov, who lives in Nuremberg, Germany, Podolnaya says the money raised will help provide cash grants to refugees for resettlement in local housing. In addition, the funds will be used to purchase clothing, infant supplies and groceries.

“I don’t care about politics. I just want to help people,” Podolnaya told Ashland.news during an interview on Sunday at her home. “It is a way to offer hope.”

On Feb. 24, Russian leader Vladimir Putin ordered an unprovoked three-pronged invasion of Ukraine by more than 190,000 Russian troops. The invasion was the latest and most hostile event in an eight-year war fought by Russia against Ukraine and is considered the largest assault on a European nation since World War II.

Claiming that the attack was a “special military operation” to protect the Russian minority in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, Putin’s war of aggression caused the worst refugee crisis since Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939 and started World War II. According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as many as 3.3 million Ukrainians have fled their country to seek refuge in neighboring nations.

The actual number is almost certainly higher, according to the UNHCR. With no end of the war in sight, some humanitarian relief experts estimate that as many as 10 million Ukrainians — nearly a quarter of the nation’s population — will eventually be displaced.

Podolnaya immigrated to the United States in 1999 to be with her daughter, who at the time was a university student. She quickly established herself as a violin teacher, working with dozens of students in her home studio and her medal-winning Siskiyou Strings ensemble. She also teaches violin and viola at Southern Oregon University, where her profile notes that she received the Excellence of Teaching Medal from the government of Kazakhstan and the Soviet Union Laureate Teacher of the Year award.

Though she came to America, Podolnaya never lost any love for the land of her birth. When she watches news coverage of the war, the places she sees are often part of her past.

Her hometown of Konotop where she lived until she was 15 was where hand-grenade-armed Russian soldiers were confronted March 3 by hundreds of Ukrainians and the town mayor who initially refused to surrender to the invaders. The townspeople and mayor eventually relented only when they were threatened with annihilation.

In years past, both her parents and her sister called Kharkiv home. Now, the besieged city — once the home of 1.4 million people — is under relentless Russian bombardment.

Faina Podolnaya points to her hometown of Konotop on a map of Ukraine. Paul Huard photo

Working with her sister Nadja, Podolnaya will transfer any money raised through the GoFundMe fundraising site to fund relief efforts for 60 people in Kharkiv they have identified. Nadja’s employer in Nuremberg, the owner of a grocery store, will help locate supplies needed by Ukrainian refugees there as well as offer the ingredients for Ukrainian “comfort food” made available for a psychological boost.

The GoFundMe site is at gofundme.com/f/5qne8-help-the-children-of-ukraine. Podolnaya said she and her sister will post updates at the site regarding the details about how the money is spent. As of Monday afternoon, 28 donations added up to $3,285.

In addition, anyone with questions about the fundraiser and how the money will be used can contact her through the GoFundMe site, Podolnaya said.

Among the casualties of the war are friendships with some ethnic Russians in Ukraine she has known for years.

“They say, ‘You have been brainwashed by American propaganda.’ I tell them, ‘Those bad Americans in one night donated $1,700.’ That’s how ‘bad’ Americans are,” she said.

As the war unfolds, Podolnaya is baffled by the reasons for the invasion as well as the response from many Russians.

“Russians and Ukrainians are brothers,” she said. “I grew up in Ukraine and I had no idea who was Ukrainian, who was Russian. We all spoke the same language and lived in the same country.”

Podolnaya compared Putin to Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union from 1922 until his death in 1953 who was known for his brutal repression of human rights. She said Russia currently offers its citizens few democratic freedoms, a fate that awaits Ukrainians if Russian prevails in the war against her country.

“Ukrainians do not want to live in that fashion, under police whose job it is to oppress people,” she said.

Podolnaya said that despite Putin’s claims to the Russian people that his “special military operation” is justified, all the war has done is unite Europe and the United States in solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

“If he invaded like he planned and (the Russian Army) conquered Ukraine in two or three days, that upheaval would not have happened,” she said. “But because there are so many casualties, and because the Russian Army has erased so many houses and towns, that is why people have so much compassion.”

Email freelance reporter Paul R. Huard at paulrhuard@gmail.com.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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