More than 70,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the U.S. since March. Peter Vins is one of many fleeing Ukraine since the war began. This is the second time in his life where he has come to the U.S. as a refugee. He recently arrived in Portland. We talk with Vins about his experiences and what it was like to leave his home a second time.
Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Peter Vins had to flee Ukraine after Russia’s all out assault in February, but it wasn’t the first time he’s had to leave his home, or even the second. In 1979, he was able to escape from the Soviet Union with his family. They were religious refugees. And in 2009, after making a new life for himself in post-Soviet Russia, he fled to Ukraine when he was once again being targeted by the state. Peter Vins is in Oregon now, and joins us to talk about his life. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Peter Vins: Thank you David. Thank you very much for having me on the show.
Miller: Thank you for joining us. You come from a family that was persecuted for religious reasons for generations. Your father and your grandfather were sent to prison camps because they were Baptist ministers. Did you think you would become a minister as well?
Vins: My father hoped for me to become a minister, but I didn’t.
Miller: Nevertheless, when you were 23 and your father was in prison in Siberia, you two were arrested by Soviet agents. What reasons did officials give?
Vins: I was a member of Ukrainian Helsinki Monitor Group. It was a human rights group in Ukraine. And we fought against the Soviet system. I was released from jail on February 15, 1979, and my father was exchanged for two Soviet spies on May 29. It means it took me only a few months before we came to the U.S.
Miller: What do you most remember from your year in prison. This was in a prison camp, if I’m not mistaken, in western Ukraine.
Vins: Well the most difficult is where you’re put in solitary confinement. Windows are broken, and it’s in the middle of the early spring, and you can’t sleep for 24 hours because it’s cold. You just have to walk all the time because you have no blankets, no mattress. You’re just sleeping on a wooden bed. This probably was the most difficult. But meanwhile, we learned to survive in any kind of conditions. I’m a third generation political prisoner. My grandfather, who was an American citizen and went to Russia as a missionary, was shot in 1937.
Miller: So as you noted, you were let out in February of 1979. And then just a couple months later, your whole family were allowed to leave because of a swap, because two Soviet spies were freed from U.S. captivity. So they were able to go to the Soviet Union, and your family and others were allowed to come to the U.S. Did you think that would ever happen?
Vins: No. For us, it was a miracle. It was like stepping on the moon. Completely unknown land. Completely unknown culture. We didn’t know how to cross the street, or go to the pharmacy, or write checks, because we didn’t have a banking system in the Soviet Union.
Miller: I’ve read that three days after you left the Soviet Union, your family was at a Sunday school class being taught by President Jimmy Carter. It must have been bewildering.
Vins: Absolutely. It was completely changed. And it probably took me a few years before I settled down psychologically, and felt myself, it’s my home, I belong here.
Miller: You ended up going to college in the U.S., and then about a decade later in 1993, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, you moved to Moscow. Why?
Vins: It’s like in the song, back to the USSR. I was so full of adrenaline. I couldn’t stay in the U.S. because Russia, Ukraine, and all the countries became free countries. And I wanted to go there and do some business, because I was a businessman at that time.
Miller: At that time in 1993, what did you imagine the future of these post-Soviet states was going to be like?
Vins: We were hopeful that democracy would prevail. And we’ve had a lot of changes. But unfortunately, the key positions in the government, in the businesses, were taken by former party bureaucrats or KGB people, because they were close to the state. And when the change started, they were the one who stole almost everything in Russia.
Miller: Nevertheless, you spent 16 years there building up a business. What were those years like from your return in 1993 all the way up until 2009?
Vins: 93-95 was the Wild West. No food and no services. Anybody could come to Russia and do business because nothing existed over there. And I remember how in 95, the first McDonald’s opened in Moscow, and the waiting line was between 6-8 hours. And rich Russians would send their drivers to stay in line and call them, and they will come and bring the whole family for the best meal in town in McDonald’s.
Miller: What happened in 2009 to you?
Vins: In 2009 I had police who came in 2008, and offered me protection, because my business at the time was thriving. I built the company from one employee in 1993 to 128 employees in 2009. I was doing logistics and freight forwarding for embassies and Western companies. And I was able to fight them the first time, the second time. But the third time they came, and I had to flee the country, but didn’t go to jail. I’m still in a search in Russia right now after so many years. If I ever go back, I’ll probably be given 7-8 years in prison.
Miller: You ended up going to Ukraine. Why did you choose Ukraine when you had to flee Russia that second time?
Vins: Only because it’s my hometown, and I wanted to stay close, and my family was there. And I decided to stay in Ukraine. Plus I owned an apartment in Kiev and I kind of lost everything. And it’s like I can start a new life here. And Kiev is a wonderful town. 3.5 million population, the greenest city in Europe, and 1,000 years old. It’s a beautiful city.
Miller: It does seem like a beautiful city, but the phrase you mentioned is that it seemed like a good place to start a new life. This was the second or maybe third time that you had done that. Arguably, going back to Moscow was one more reset even before that. What was it like to start over once again?
Vins: I always start something new. Because of so many years of prosecution, the harder it gets, the more adrenaline I get. I’m a fighter, and I came to Kiev and started a completely new project. I started to work in design and printing on textiles.
Miller: The more persecuted you get, the more adrenaline you get. It seems like a defensive mechanism that has really proved helpful for you.
Vins: Absolutely. When I was 14, 15 years old, I told myself when I grow up, I will go to jail too. Because all the good people I knew at the time, including my father and my grandmother and my grandfather, all went through jail. Like being from a military family, “one day I will go in the military”, I told myself when I was growing up, “one day I will go to jail.”
Miller: Because we are a family of religiously persecuted political prisoners, in your case, less so for religious reasons, and more for fighting for human rights or being a successful businessman, but still, jail was going to happen.
Miller: So let’s fast forward. In 2014, Russia invaded Crimea, and there was war between Ukraine and Russia all the way up to this past February when there was the full scale invasion by Russia. In the final lead up to the war, as we know it now when the U.S. Government and others were sounding alarms, did you think the Russians would actually carry through?
Vins: No we didn’t believe this.
Miller: Why not?
Vins: Because we live a peaceful life. My mom was Ukrainian, my father was Russian. My wife is Russian. I know that my brother who lives in Portland and my sister was calling me all the time, and saying in the last two weeks “get out, get out.” And I was like, “no, it will never happen.” And even when the war started, I told myself “you know, it maybe will be a problem with food.” And I went and bought enough food for one month. And since we’re staying here, we’re going to see what happened.
But a few days later, when the shelling started in the middle of the night and you have to go and hide in the basement, I decided we will go. And we left Kiev.
Miller: What do you most want Americans to know right now about what’s happening in Ukraine?
Vins: Ukraine is a peaceful nation. We’re the only nation in the world who entirely gave up its nuclear arsenal in 1992. One day, I hope Russia, America, Iran, and the rest of the country will follow Ukraine’s steps. In 100 years, we were in war only twice, during World War II defending ourselves against Nazi Germany, and now fighting fascist Russian state. Russia, in the last 100 years, has been in war 38 times.
And I also would like to remind that today is 259 days of the war. When invasion started, all Western intelligence and military experts were given us 3, 5 days to surrender. And even Russian soldiers were taking the parade uniform with them to do parade in Kiev in one week. But it didn’t happen.
And because of this war, I want to remind that we have seven million refugees who fled Ukraine and went to Europe and other countries, and we have eight million internally displaced people. 15 million people out of 44 million, its 36% of our population. It’s like if in U.S., 119 million people were forced to leave their home. When the war started, I was telling my wife and she was telling me in the first two weeks, it’s surreal.
Miller: After everything that you’ve been through for four or five decades now, do you think of any home as permanent?
Vins: I don’t know. This is my fifth life. Maybe like a cat, I will have seven lives.
But I’m very happy to be in Portland. My brother lives here. He got an apartment for us, and I already got my first job. I’m going to be a 66 year old waiter in an Italian restaurant, Gallo Nero in the Pearl.
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