A Ukraine-born congresswoman voted no on aid. Her hometown feels betrayed.

CHERNIHIV, Ukraine — In this small city north of Kyiv where Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) grew up, locals once lauded her as one of their own — proud of the studious girl with blonde pigtails who moved to America and became the first Ukrainian-born member of Congress.

But after Spartz voted against a $61 billion aid package for Ukraine last week, that pride for some turned to anger and a sense of betrayal — feelings made more raw because her “no” vote came days after Chernihiv was bombed during morning rush hour, killing 18 people.

“She is not Ukrainian anymore, and I see this,” said Natalia Khmelnytska, 50, a teacher at School Number 15, where Spartz studied, and who lives in the apartment block where the congresswoman grew up. “We are disappointed. We are frustrated.”

“At first we were very proud of her and we thought she wanted to support us,” Khmelnytska added. “But now we see that politics and careers are higher than our interests.”

Valentyna Rudenok, 65, a history teacher who was a librarian when Spartz studied at the school and remembers sneaking the teenager extra books, said she was proud to learn a former student was elected to Congress. But Rudenok said she is upset by Spartz’s vote.

“When we read about it, we just didn’t understand — it was like she became a different person,” she said. “It was shocking because this woman got so far in her life and is in a position where she could actually influence and help our one city or our one school in which she was educated.”

In the past two years, eight graduates of School 15 have been killed fighting on the front lines. Russian strikes have broken 88 of the building’s windows. Administrators set up a museum on the first floor to display evidence of the war collected by students: shell fragments, a piece of a Russian airplane, a dead Russian soldier’s uniform.

On Capitol Hill, even among Republicans, Spartz is known to be erratic.

First elected in 2020 as a supporter of President Donald Trump, she announced last year that she would not run again, only to reverse her decision a year later, citing her upbringing “under tyranny” as a motivation. She now faces a competitive primary; one challenger has aired television ads accusing her of putting “Ukraine first” over securing the U.S. border.

Spartz’s “no” vote was the latest twist in her transformation from a pro-Ukraine advocate who toured war wreckage in her hometown to a critic of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in line with the GOP’s most right-wing camp.

In an email, she defended her vote, saying she is proud of her heritage but it is “actually offensive and un-American to think that as an American my loyalty would not be to the people who elected me to represent them and to my family and children back home in Indiana, but to some foreign government in the country I left 24 years ago.”

Her history, however, is inseparable from Ukraine’s and she has used it repeatedly to her advantage.

After Russia invaded in February 2022, troops advanced quickly toward Chernihiv, just 50 miles from the Russian border. Spartz’s grandmother was among those trapped as the city came under constant shelling and aerial bombs. Many residents died. (Her grandmother survived the attacks but later died at age 95.)

Spartz visited in April 2022, just weeks after Russian forces failed to capture the city and retreated. Residents had slept underground and survived without electricity, cooking over fires outside. Hundreds slept in the basement of School Number 15, where she attended high school.

The city’s acting mayor, Oleksandr Lomako, who met her then, saw the trip as a brave sign of support. Spartz’s shift has stunned him. “I’m very disappointed,” he said.

“She’s been here,” Lomako added. The destruction she saw and people she met who lost loved ones, he said, “is not from the news, not from Fox News or conservative channels.”

After Russia’s invasion, House Republicans eagerly handed Spartz the microphone to share her story. She made passionate defenses of her homeland, wore blue and yellow, criticized President Biden for not imposing more sanctions on Russia before the invasion, and pledged to fight for aid.

When she returned from her April 2022 trip, she voted for bills sending $40 billion to Ukraine and stood by Biden’s side as he signed a law to rapidly ramp up military support.

Ukraine-born Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) called the Russian invasion of Ukraine a “genocide” and called on President Biden to do more. (Video: The Washington Post)

But by that summer, Spartz began criticizing Zelensky — widely seen in Congress as a war hero — urging him to “stop playing politics and theater.” Spartz said Congress should impose conditions on aid and more oversight of funds — a talking point Republicans have amplified.

Spartz’s rhetoric rankled Kyiv. Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, posted on Facebook that he had told Spartz “to stop trying to earn extra political capital on … the grief of Ukrainians.”

Spartz’s own family has been touched by that grief.

She was born Viktoria Kulheyko in 1978 in the town of Nosivka, then part of the Soviet Union. She moved to Chernihiv for kindergarten and in 1986, her father, an engineer, helped in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, exposing him to radiation that later caused cancer.

Spartz was 12 when Ukraine declared independence in 1991. Her father died that year.

His company helped pay for her college education in Kyiv and in 2000, she immigrated after meeting her husband, Jason. They settled in Indiana, his home state, and had two daughters. She worked in accounting and real estate before being elected to Indiana’s state senate.

Oleksandr Serdyuk, 70, a close friend of Spartz’s father who has known her since she was a child, met with her when she visited in 2022.

Serdyuk said he was disappointed by her vote. “I don’t really trust in words, I trust in actions,” he said. “The way she voted, the amendments, show me a lot more colorfully what her intentions are.”

Serdyuk said that like Spartz, Ukrainians worry about corruption, but that the U.S. aid is essential to Ukraine’s survival.

“I understand the fight against corruption,” he said as air raid sirens blared outside his office window. “But what you’re sacrificing is our state. … Any political motives or election motives don’t justify the deaths of so many people.”

Spartz not only joined in blocking the aid bill but pushed amendments to reduce the package and limit other help to Ukraine.

“President Biden and President Zelensky failed the Ukrainian people,” Spartz said on the House floor Saturday before the vote. In her email to The Washington Post, Spartz said she feels “bad for the Ukrainian people and fighters on the front lines who have been electing bad leaders and paying a very high price for it.”

In a hallway of School 15 this week, staff prepared their own aid: knitting camouflage nets for Ukrainian troops. When air raid sirens wail, students rush to the basement. This same building still houses bits of Spartz’s history, including her grades from the early 1990s, handwritten on a scale of 1 to 5 in yellowed notebooks the director keeps in her safe.

If she could speak to Spartz now, Rudenok, the history teacher, said she would note that the congresswoman’s children — safe in Indiana — “are not waking up at night from air raid sirens.”

“I would ask her how did this happen,” she said. “Who could have offended her so badly?”

On a bench outside Spartz’s childhood apartment building in Chernihiv, two elderly women speculated why she voted “no.” They spoke to The Post on the condition that they be identified only by first name to preserve relations with Spartz’s family.

One, Halyna, defended Spartz. “I don’t think she wants anything bad to happen to Ukraine,” Halyna said. “She’s with Trump so she’s forced to vote that way. She’s not an enemy of the state. … She didn’t have any other option.”

The other, Nelia, was not sure: “We don’t know what her options were or why she voted the way she did.”

In the village of Nosivka, a woman answered the door at a home that neighbors said belonged to Spartz’s relatives. “I will rip people’s tongues out,” she said when asked if she was related to the congresswoman. “No comment.”

Then she slammed the door.

Sotomayor reported from Washington.

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