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A Ukrainian flag flies beside an American flag outside Tatiana Lukenbill's home in Helena. PHOTO COURTESY OF TATIANA LUKENBILL

Helena-based interpreter connects Montanans with the Ukrainian experience

By Bella Butler MANAGING EDITOR

“You don’t really see the world if you only look through your own window.”  – Ukrainian proverb

HELENA – Tatiana Lukenbill was visiting Montana in 1991 when an attempted coup d’état against the Soviet Union brought unrest in eastern Europe. Originally from Ukraine, Lukenbill was afraid and impossibly far from the world-shattering events happening near where her family still lived.

Sitting in front of the TV in Helena, she watched tanks and armored vehicles driving down the street near her house in Moscow, where she was working around that time as language interpreter.

“This can’t be true,” she thought.

Now Lukenbill is almost 70, and Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine is like déjà vu.

On Feb. 24, Lukenbill awoke to a text message from her niece, who was in Lviv, Ukraine with Lukenbill’s brother and sister-in-law.

“We are alive,” the text said. “We hear the air raid sirens,” Lukenbill’s niece told her when Lukenbill called her, “and we hear the explosions somewhere far away.”

Again, Lukenbill couldn’t believe what she was reading.

“The feeling was it can’t be true,” she recalled in a March 15 interview. “And then it turned out, yes, it is true. And it’s very sad.”

Lukenbill is at her home in Helena, where she’s lived with her husband, Ron, for 30 years. When she talks about family, she looks somberly out her window to gesture toward them. They are more than 5,000 miles away and looking out the window is merely symbolic. So, instead she starts to look at her phone, where she’s saved essays from her brother. Today, this is where she looks to see her family; in the stories they give her.  

L-R: Lukenbill with her brother, Oleksiy, and sister-in-law, Olena during one of Lukenbill’s previous visits to Ukraine.

Before her interview with EBS, Lukenbill, a Ukrainian-English and Russian-English since 1994, warned me that she’s “not a politician,” not an expert on sanctions, war strategies or international politics. Instead, she’s become a storyteller, sharing the Ukrainian experience with her Montana neighbors by giving interviews, organizing fundraising events, speaking to clubs and anyone else who wants to hear what she has to say.  

“I’ve decided those who are interested and those who care, they would hear my story because I talk to my family in Ukraine every day,” she said. “…I also feel it is only fair to share the information which is basically first hand.”

This is her service, and one she thinks can make an impact.

“It’s very important because it’s the life of the people that matters,” she said. “The women, the children, the elderly people, the babies that have not yet been born. They are important. And what is the other way of protecting them from this side other than giving people here [in the U.S.] information about what’s going on?”

Sharing these stories does a few things, Lukenbill suggests: It fosters connection and lends credibility.

L-R: Tykhonov with his daughter, Kateryna, son-in-law, Rick, and wife, Olena at Kateryna’s wedding in July 2020. PHOTO COURTESY OF TATIANA LUKENBILL

“Many people tell me they don’t trust mass media news for different reasons,” she said, adding that they don’t know when media is influenced by the people and platforms sharing it; they don’t trust news not to have an agenda.

“When I talk to the people, I tell them only what I know,” she said. “I tell them what I read every day, from my family, from my relatives.”

The other problem with watching a foreign conflict from afar, she says, is that distance tempts apathy. Unless we connect to the humanness of an issue, unless we feel the threat ourselves, we shrug it off.

The most recent message Lukenbill had received from her brother, Oleksiy Tykhonov, 60, was in the form of a long text message; an essay, she calls it. Tykhonov had written it while hunkered in his apartment in Lviv with his own family and a family of refugees he had taken in as air raid sirens blared across the city.

“To help us is to help yourself,” Lukenbill said, translating a line from the essay. “Do all you can to avoid tears and bleeding of your children.”

Tykhonov’s words, as an old Ukrainian proverb suggests, offer an opportunity to see the world through another’s window; to see women giving birth to babies in war zones, as he describes in his essay, and to hear air raid sirens from bomb shelters.

Below is Tykhonov’s essay, translated by Lukenbill.

To Tatiana Lukenbill

From Oleksiy Tykhonov

March 15, 2022, day 19 of war

As I am writing to you, I hear that air raid sirens are howling again. Russian army is trying to annihilate our country, get rid of its existence on the world map, killing everyone: children and adults. In the war zones women are giving birth to babies, they have to hide in bomb shelters to hide from missiles, bombs and shelling.

There were times in the past, when our life was not easy, but we knew we were free people. We were not afraid of being persecuted for expressing our own viewpoints or receiving any kind of information. If there were leaders we did not appreciate, we learned how to change them, elect new ones, and those who were particularly inadequate were just removed from their “thrones.” They moved to a neighbor country. Our neighbors to the north did not like it.

Lack of wisdom and reason led to this war. This is not war just with Ukraine. Other countries are taking part in it, both directly or indirectly. Countries are spending huge funds for military and humanitarian aid, providing for the refugees. In the future, the countries will face deficit in food produce. We should remember that Ukraine and Russia were the largest importers of grain and mineral fertilizers in the world. The war will make their export impossible. Developed countries of the world will have to support not only Ukraine, but also other countries for them to provide normal life for the population.

The most important thing for us today is lives of our people. We know that on the way to create the society where people would be more free and wealthier, we were making and correcting mistakes. We are not saying that someone else is to blame for our erroneous decisions. We are not looking forward to improve our life invading the territories and freedoms of other countries.

Why are we being bombarded? What wrong did our kids do? Why are they killed? Why are our cities, towns and villages destroyed? Just because one individual does not like the idea of a free neighbor?

We don’t want to be slaves! We are strong but we need help of other countries before these countries start suffering. Helping us you are helping your people. Do all you can to avoid tears and bleeding of your children.

We appreciate all kinds of help: psychological, financial, empathy and understanding of what our people are living through.


To reach out to Tatiana Lukenbill to learn more about how to support Ukrainian people, email trlukenbill@msn.com. 



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