My parents remember tasting metal in the air. It was days after they first heard rumors of an accident, maybe a fire, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. We lived in Kyiv — Ukraine’s capital, about 100 miles away — and like everyone we were kept in the dark. Two days later a vague announcement on television confirmed that a reactor was “damaged” and that it was being handled. The Soviet government, at the time in charge of Ukraine, concealed the details of the explosion and downplayed the gravity of the deadly accident. But then the wind carrying radioactive particles changed direction south toward Kyiv. My family sequestered inside, sealing all the windows and doors.
People frantically snapped up iodized salt, recommended to prevent thyroid problems caused by radiation. I was a year old, and my mom soon took me to Leningrad — now St. Petersburg, Russia — to wait out the danger at a relative’s home. The little government trust that remained eroded as Soviet officials put lives in danger to save face.
Over the years, I internalized mistrust toward government. When I left Ukraine in 2002 after finishing high school — and 11 years after the country gained its independence — a group of crooks and oligarchs held power in a system so steeped in corruption that it seemed immune to change. Bribing was how you advanced in every aspect of life — from getting a bed at the hospital to passing a college exam to securing a promotion. Everyone did it. I saw my dad slip a bill to a police officer a few times to get out of a speeding ticket. I remember awkwardly handing champagne or chocolates to teachers who administered my exams. Nothing was clear-cut in a nascent democracy. So when I moved to the United States, I felt skeptical about whether my vote really mattered. Civic engagement seemed like an appealing concept that never played out in real life.
My Ukrainian parents, who hoped I’d build a life in the United States, repeatedly asked me over FaceTime: “When are you going to become an American citizen?”
In a way, America had been in my life long before I ever got here. As a result of a midlife religious awakening, my father was introduced to a pair of Mormon missionaries, who were allowed into the newly independent Ukraine in 1991. We hosted them at our apartment, my mom cooking up a feast every time: borscht, mayonnaise-dressed salads, pickled cabbage. They ate eagerly, gracious for our hospitality. Mormon missionaries were the first Americans I knew. They introduced me to peanut butter and Vanilla Ice. I found their optimism and upbeat dispositions endearing. Unlike us, they weren’t burdened with the practicalities of life.
Whether those were Mormon attributes or American, we couldn’t discern. For us, who had never encountered either, they were the same thing. As a result of these meetings, my father joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and two years later baptized my mom and me in a chlorinated swimming pool, an act that cracked open an entirely new future. Our relatives were baffled, even suspicious when my parents stopped drinking at family gatherings. And they were even more perplexed when my parents announced that they were sending me, their only child, across the ocean to go to a Mormon college in Provo, Utah.
On the campus of Brigham Young University, America appeared exactly as I’d dreamed. The abundant food in the cafeteria replenished at record speed, everyone smiled, and I could pick a major (humanities, much to my parents’ endless curiosity) based on my interests rather than family pressures or practical reasons. Students spoke out in class, sometimes contradicting the professor. And you could do it all without bribes. As I’d been taught, with God and hard work, anything was possible. Seeing people in Ukraine scramble to find work, my parents felt convinced that with fluent English and an American degree, the doors would open up for me.
I had left Ukraine too young to be eligible to vote, and the result was that, at 36 years old, I had never voted in my life.
Like many immigrants in the United States, I straddled two cultures, belonging to both and neither. I welcomed the tension because each culture brought out my affinity for the other. Leaving Ukraine, I packed a notebook filled with my favorite Ukrainian poems. When homesick, I whispered them to myself like little prayers. The cadence of the soothing Ukrainian words reminded me of belonging. But when I visited Ukraine, I longed for the things I missed in America: the casual dress code, the openness, the root beer and pizza. “I love being here and there,” I wrote in my journal. In between felt like freedom.
For the past three decades, Ukraine itself has existed in between, torn between its Soviet past and forces pulling it forward. In 2004, from my university apartment in Provo, I watched hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians rise in peaceful protests against fraudulent elections engineered by the stewards of the pro-Russian regime, waving orange flags and setting up a tent city in Kyiv’s center. This watershed moment showed an expression of democracy I hadn’t seen before at home. I yearned to be in Ukraine, amid the crowds on Maidan, the square I used to frequent after school. But I had a semester to finish, an internship to secure. A decade later, Ukrainians rose again to demand European integration in a series of protests that turned violent with riot police beating and shooting protesters, killing over 100 people. I wanted to be there to mourn, but by then, I’d put down roots in America: a child, a husband and a mortgage.
As I saw it, U.S. citizenship status didn’t seem like it would change my life in a drastic way. I had shed my accent. I had learned to blend in. I hardly felt alien. Nobody even suspected I came from another country. Besides, I liked holding on to my Ukrainian culture — the melodic language, the folk songs, the homemade borscht. My Ukrainian citizenship provided an anchor to my heritage that was otherwise ebbing entirely away.
Applying for American citizenship involved a tedious and expensive process for which there never seemed to be a good time. But as last year unfolded, one disaster after another, my parents’ question — the one I had heard dozens of times — resounded with a new, urgent force.
On a cold January day in 2020, I cradled my newborn daughter — a carbon copy of her older sister, the same hospital beanie full of auburn hair. The day she was born, the first covid-19 case was confirmed in the United States. In the coming weeks, I watched Donald Trump claim that the pandemic was under control, that the country was prepared. This overconfidence sounded familiar. At the same time, Trump’s first impeachment trial was unfolding in the news, Ukraine at the heart of the investigation. By then, Ukraine had been making the headlines for months after a whistleblower filed a complaint about the infamous call between Trump and newly elected president Volodymyr Zelensky. The terms “bribe,” “abuse of power” and “quid pro quo” swirled around in the news. But in an unusual reversal of roles, it was the U.S. president, the leader of the free world, who was under fire for abusing his office, not the Ukrainian president. America felt very different from the place I had come to nearly 20 years ago. It reminded me of my home country when I left it, the chasm widening between the people and the government, notions of truth and integrity distorted by those supposed to model them.
I had left Ukraine too young to be eligible to vote, and the result was that, at 36 years old, I had never voted in my life. I’d seen people vote: Every election season, my social media flooded with photos of friends showing off their voting stickers. On an Election Day journalism assignment in November 2016, I came to a school in a gentrifying Boston neighborhood. Kids were hosting a bake sale along the walls of a dim hallway. I introduced myself to a mother in her 20s, her hair tinted green. Her toddler, wiggly in a stroller, eyed a cupcake. I asked why she had come to the polls that day. Her words gripped me: “I want my son to grow up somewhere, where no matter who you are, what you look like, or what’s in your pants, you have the same rights as everybody else.” In those words was a plea, a cry of desperation. I wanted those things too for my children.
But many people I encountered didn’t wait until elections to use their voices. As a local reporter in Winchester, a suburb of Boston, I marveled at the commitment of residents to issues that transcended their individual lives. In old-fashioned rooms with squeaky floors, residents sat through long meetings that ran late into the night, advocating for speed bumps at the school intersection, recycling programs and bridge repairs. In 2017, during the Women’s March on the Boston Common, which I attended with other mothers I knew, I found myself surrounded by women who did not sit around complaining about the president they ended up with, although they expressed plenty of rage and indignation. Instead, they wrote letters to their representatives, worked the phones, donated and protested. Often, returning home from those late-night meetings in Winchester, I felt the desire to shape my community, too.
In the spring of 2020, when we knew little and feared everything, the coronavirus pandemic raged on, cases and deaths mounting. As the despair deepened, the small things that I could do began to matter more. Calling a friend, making a meal for my kids or writing an email felt like victories. The thing that got me through the long days was a text thread with two other mothers in my neighborhood. We were an eclectic mix: a Ukrainian Mormon journalist, a Black early-childhood educator and a Jewish entrepreneur. Our exchanges became emotional threads about the challenges of home schooling, the 2020 elections and just being tired.
And then the nation rose in protest of police brutality after George Floyd’s death. My Black friend, outraged and blunt, texted: “If you’re not engaging, you’re part of the problem.” Her words hit me in the gut.
By no means did I need to be a U.S. citizen to fight for racial equality, or any form of social justice. But I’d realized that maybe my citizenship represented more than a tedious application that formed a legal bond between me and the American government. It was also a commitment to myself to try to do what’s within my control to heal this country — my country — not only at the polls but every day.
Unlike many other immigrants, I had a path to citizenship through my marriage to an American citizen. Yet it was a path I had neglected to pursue. Now, being passive no longer felt like a morally acceptable option. And so, after an exhausting day under quarantine last summer, when my husband and children were asleep, I opened the naturalization application.
I had escaped a corrupt, broken government that was unable to respond to disaster only to shockingly find myself in a similar situation in my new country.
The application included routine background information: previous employment, travels, children’s names and birth dates. I chuckled at what then seemed like a ludicrous set of questions: Did I have any ties to the Nazi government? Have I ever advocated to overthrow a government by violence? When I got to the oath, I paused. It asked if I would defend the Constitution and the law against foreign and domestic enemies, renounce my fidelity to other governments and serve in the military if needed. These questions demanded that I turn toward America fully. I was still a Ukrainian who loved folk songs and my grandmother’s varenyky — and in many ways, I always would be — but now I wanted to enact change in the country that had embraced me. Right then, answering “yes” felt like the truest way forward.
In the following weeks, passionate urges to vote and photos of friends clutching their mail-in ballots again overwhelmed my feed. On Election Day 2020, I opened an email to find that my civics test and naturalization interview were set up for December. The process was underway.
A month after I took my oath during a small ceremony in a sleek government building outside of Boston, a mob of extremists sieged the U.S. Capitol building in a violent riot, incited by Donald Trump himself. That afternoon, I blasted the local radio station in the kitchen, disrupting my son’s Pokémon show. On my computer I pulled up the horrifying footage of Trump supporters climbing the walls and breaking into offices. I wanted him to see these disturbing scenes, hoping he would remember this moment in American history. He nestled next to me. “That is crazy, mom,” he said. “Shouldn’t Trump do something?”
My mind immediately leaped to those once ridiculous application questions. They did not seem so outrageous anymore. The people attempting to overthrow the government and threatening American democracy were betraying their own duty as citizens. And it made me furious.
I had escaped a corrupt, broken government that was unable to respond to disaster only to shockingly find myself in a similar situation in my new country. After I became a citizen, a friend told me I’d picked the wrong year to tie myself to America. But for me, it couldn’t have been a better time to become a U.S. citizen. It was in a moment of crisis, amid widespread fear and despair, that for the first time I saw myself as part of the American people and ready to fight for our future.
Mariya Manzhos is a freelance journalist based in Boston.
Design by Clare Ramirez. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.