The Politics of Ukraine in an Ohio Town
Ohio sits in the middle of what food marketers refer to as the “Pierogi Pocket of America.” And smack dab in the middle of this pocket is the town of Parma.
Parma—population 80,000—is a suburb of Cleveland and has suddenly gotten a lot of attention because it has a large population of residents with Ukrainian heritage. It has a section of town called the “Ukrainian Village” and the Ukraine flag flies on the light poles on State Road.
The “Ukies” came to Cleveland in the early 1900s, but they continued coming after World War II, with their numbers increasing even more following the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were mainly religious dissidents and those seeking freedom. Many of these immigrants eventually ended up in boxy suburban houses in Parma.
George Salo runs a family meat market and deli in Parma. His father was born in Ukraine and he explained to me an odd reaction he’s gotten from his customers over the last week—at least the ones’ who weren’t Ukrainian. These folks come into his market to buy pierogies and sausage and then handing him extra cash and asking him to find a way to get it overseas into the hands of Ukrainian fighters.
“Some give me $10, one guy gave me a hundred, but it’s not a dollar here and a dollar there,” Salo told me. “It was really odd at first because I didn’t put up any signs asking for this. The public wanted to help and they were asking me to help them help. And now it is normal that I get $200 a day from customers.”
“I just get the feeling that everyone in America is starting to feel the same way we do in Parma,” he continued. “We’ll see, but I’m seeing that people are seeing this as a fight for freedom, and Americans usually get that.”
Salo takes the money to one of the Ukrainian Catholic churches nearby (there are about a half dozen Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox churches in the area, with gold-colored, gilded onion domes). Volunteers at these churches are buying and shipping essential relief items for the fighters and refugees daily.
The American public rallying to support people in trouble isn’t unusual. What is unusual about Parma is the domestic political ramifications.
Parma is a white-flight suburb that came of age after WWII. Its inhabitants were generally union-members, many employed at the automobile assembly lines that ringed Cleveland, and saw Parma as their place in the sun where they could have a bungalow on a small lot with a garage out back.
Like many such towns, Parma has been undergoing a political realignment. In 2012, Barack Obama won Parma by about 15 points. Four years later, Donald Trump won Parma by 5 points—and he held it in 2020 by roughly the same margin.
So local politics partly explains why Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine and Sen. Portman went to Parma Ukrainian churches after the Russian invasion started in order to show support for the Parma community. Representative Anthony Gonzalez, whose district contains Parma and who is not running for reelection (because of the pushback he got after voting for Trump’s impeachment) put out a statement saying, “Today we pray for the brave Ukrainians who have awoken to invasion led by a tyrant.”
But this is a tyrant whom Donald Trump referred to as a “genius” and “savvy” for his Ukraine invasion.
And some of the Republican candidates currently vying to replace Portman in the Senate seat—and angling for Trump’s endorsement—followed their leader.
On Steve Bannon’s podcast, J.D. Vance said, “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.” Josh Mandel told Fox News “This is all a crisis created by weakness out of the Biden White House.”
You can see the crosspressures at work. On the one hand, Parma is textbook Republican territory: 90 percent white with a median age above the national average, and education levels far below the national average. But these demographics are running headlong into “America First.”
Most of the the Parma voters I spoke with aren’t thinking about domestic politics right now. When I asked what they thought about Trump saying that Putin was a “genius and “savvy,” several blamed fake news/liberal journalists or insisted that Trump was just “joking around with the media.”
But when I spoke with the clergy of these Ukrainian churches in Parma, I got a very different viewpoint. They see the Ukrainian invasion as having long-term political consequences.
The Rev. Volodymyr Hrytsyuk, rector of the St. Josaphat Cathedral, said, “People here are now very scared, because they either have family in Ukraine or know people who do. Most American do not know much about eastern European politics and history, but the Ukrainian people here in the Cleveland area do, and they know very clearly that what Putin and Russia are doing is wrong. They get very frustrated when our political leaders can’t see that.”
The Rev. John Nakonachny, pastor of St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral, told me, “We are angry and devastated by this. We are feeling disbelief. Putin is a psychopath. And all this comes from the fact he wants to rewrite history and take things back to how they were with the Soviet Union.”
“If this continues, we will be seeing Orthodox and Catholic soldiers dying together and killing each other and their dead bodies will have crucifixes around their necks,” Rev. Nakonachny said.
“A lot of those people are changing their stripes as they are seeing the response of the world and the political response here in the United States,” Mitt Romney said during an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” last week.
“But how anybody—how anybody in this country, which loves freedom—can side with Vladimir Putin—who is an oppressor, a dictator, he kills people, he imprisons his political opponents, he has been an adversary of America at every chance he’s had—it’s unthinkable to me. It’s almost treasonous,” he continued. “And it just makes me ill to see some of these people do that.”
We’ll see if voters in Parma come to the same conclusion.