From Lev to Leo

By in European Immigration, Immigrant NYC

By Sutton Bantle, Wagner College

Lev (Leo) Kukhar, now twenty-one years old, was only two when his family emigrated from Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine to Brooklyn, NY. His mother, father, and maternal grandparents left Ukraine less than two years after it became an independent country from the Soviet Union. Leo describes himself as a Russian immigrant versus Ukrainian because his family associates with the Soviet Union. Ukraine is located in Eastern Europe bordered by Russia to the East; Belarus to the North; Poland, Slovakia  Hungary, and Romania to the West; and the Black Sea to the South.

Map of Ukraine

Map of Ukraine and boarders

Leo’s immediate family that immigrated with him were not the first to arrive in Brooklyn. He had extended family members who had immigrated during the reign of the Soviet Union. The Kukhars are an example of chain-migration. Within six months of his family’s arrival Leo’s cousin, aunt and uncle immigrated as well. The extended family members lived in one apartment together for the first few years in Bay Parkway; adjacent to Brighton Beach.

The Kukhar family moved from Brooklyn to Staten Island in 2001. Staten Island is home to one of the largest Russian immigrant groups; the first being Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. The Kukhar family has assimilated into the American culture throughout the nineteen years they have lived here. Leo’s birth name is actually Lev, but he changed it to the very similar Leo in response to confusion from classmates, teachers, etc. who struggled with the pronouncing of Lev.

Today Leo works part time at a luxury car dealership in the special delivery department while he attends Hunter College in New York City where he is studying forensic psychology.

Russian immigrants (including those that associate as Russian like Leo’s family) are part of the fourth largest immigrant group; those coming from Europe.

Brief History of Ukraine:

The country Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in August of 1990, less than twenty-three years ago. Prior to leaving the Soviet Union, Ukraine had been thriving. It was considered the Soviet Union’s second largest economy, first being Russia, and was known for its mass production of various goods. The Soviet Union dissolved on December 25, 1991 with the resignation of Gorbachev the leader at the time. After this Ukraine’s production decreased immensely. The economy decreased just as it did in all of the countries that had been a part of the Soviet Union. These economic hardships and the freedoms that came with the new independence as a country led to high emigration numbers out of Ukraine in the years just following 1991.

Push Factors:

During the reign of the Soviet Union all citizens in the various republics had to carry with them an identification, e.g. a passport.. This passport contained personal infromation including a stamp from the individuals registered address known as the propiska. The propiska stamp greatly limited the movement of people within the Soviet Union and outside of it. Citizens were not able to work outside their propiska and to move propiskas they would have to prove employment; creating a viscous cycle. Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union the propiska system went away and people were able to move much more freely. In Leo’s case this aided in his family’s decision and plan for immigrating to the United States.

The majority of people left Ukraine due to new economic hardships that came as a result of the country’s new independence. The economic theory of migration states that people migrate because it is in their best interest to do so. This includes labor and standard of living. All of which were reasons for Leo’s family, specifically labor. His father was out of work and there was none to be found in its place. Money was becoming a shortage for many as well so the family decided to move in 1993.  Once in the United States the family settled in their relatives apartment in Bay Parkway, Brooklyn; just outside Brighton Beach. Leo’s father was able to work various menial jobs, e.g. cleaning offices, driving delivery trucks. Both his parents faced a language barrier once in the United States. His mother decided to stay home and take care of him until she was able to speak English better.

Pull Factors:

The family had relatives who had immigrated to the United States a few years prior. They encouraged the Kukhars to move as well since they themselves were finding success in America. The family is a link in chain migration. They lived with the family members who had previously immigrated and later encouraged others to join them. They settled in a comfort area Little Odessa or Little Russia as Brighton Beach has become known. In 2001 they moved to Staten Island like many other Russian immigrant families.


As a Ukrainian , there are many cultural traditions, which the Kukhar family has chosen not to practice, notably around the Roman Catholic and Jewish religions. They light the menorah, without actually having the ritual that goes along with it, and simply open up presents on Christmas day. However, Leo and his little brother are both baptized.

In the Ukraine , education is not held up to the same standards as it is in America . In America it is expected to receive not only a high school education, but a college degree as well. Whereas in the Ukraine, they see education in a different way. In the Ukraine , people are only expected to attend school for 15 years. Leo is currently attending Hunter College , where he will be apart of the graduating class of 2013, he will be graduating with a degree of psychology , this most likely would not have been possible if Leo and his family stayed in  the Ukraine.

Personal Connections to Interview and Research:

Some connections we found was an actual understanding of the differences between the Ukraine to other republics in the formerly Soviet Union. Another connection was that what we were studying , how people immigrated and the challenged they faced still occurred in later time periods like the 1990’s. Such things like, when families came over during the late 19th and early 20th century , families were living all together in a little apartment, like Leo and his family upon first arriving in America.

One of the most interesting things about the interview that truly stood out was the education aspect and military aspect of the Ukraine vs America. In America , we do have a draft, but other than that, we are not forced to do anything military wise, and its amazing how if Leo had stayed in the Ukraine , he would of been still serving his “volunteered ” military service for another 4 years . As for the education, people in the Ukraine are not pushed to reach the same academic standards as Americans are, they are only expected to attend school for at least 15 years . Leo will be graduating Hunter College in 2013 with a degree in psychology, this would most likely not be occurring had he stayed in the Ukraine.



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