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Organizing for Ukraine

A woman in a traditional Ukrainian scarf holding a Ukrainian flag and a bouquet containing a sunflower, a symbol of solidarity with the Ukrainian people, attends the rally against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the Statehouse last weekend. Photo by John Lazenby.
It was snowing that day, recalled Sofia Shatkivska. Passers-by offered hugs; truck drivers would “push the horn, (yelling) Putin so-and-so.” It was the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Shatkivska stood on Montpelier’s State Street, Ukrainian flag in hand.

“It’s not like I’m an organizer,” said Shatkivska, who was born in Ukraine. “I’m not.” But in time, the gatherings grew into twice-weekly demonstrations in front of the Montpelier Post Office, where, last Thursday afternoon, 19 people stood with signs and flags showing support for Ukraine.

Joanne Crowley of Montpelier had a simple reason for attending: “I’m here because it’s, at the moment, all I can do.”

Marasha Huber of Waterbury Center noted members of Vermont’s Ukrainian-American community have found each other in the crisis. “I used to think I was the only Ukrainian in the state of Vermont. For 50 years!” Huber said.

Rallies in support of Ukraine have taken place in several places in Vermont in recent weeks, including one at the Statehouse, hosted by the Peace and Justice Center, where Vermont Congressperson Peter Welch spoke of the “appalling and vicious” invasion of Ukraine by Russia. State Representative Tanya Vyhovsky, herself Ukrainian American with distant relatives there, helped organize Sunday’s event with Welch’s team, Yuliya Gulenko Rudick and Jeanette Bacevius. 

Vyhovsky said the event provided an opportunity to “hold space for one another … in the different ways that we’re struggling through this and with our different connections to Ukraine.” She added the rally “center(ed) the voices of Ukrainian Americans … most of our speakers were people who were directly connected.”

Rudick, who grew up in Ukraine, still has a father and grandparents living there. “Of course you can only imagine the kind of stuff I had to go through just talking to them about this,” she said, “because (my father) is seeing this huge explosion, and I don’t know if I’m going to hang up the phone, if he’s going to be alive.” Rudick recalled her father describing an explosion that Rudick herself saw an hour later on TV. She recounted the terror of hearing explosions in the background of a phone conversation with him — and the frightening experience of being unable to reach him for days.

“It’s important for me that I keep raising awareness and that people here in Vermont understand the impact it has, not just people over there but people here,” Rudick said, “and when they hear about these real cases of their neighbors, of their friends, I feel like it has a more impact if it rings closer to home.” 

Cabot resident Roman Kokodyniak, who helped spread the word about the demonstrations via email, arrived toting a loaf of kolach bread and walked along the line of demonstrators, handing out pieces. He stopped to exchange a few words in Ukrainian with Huber, then set his bread down and took up one end of a Ukrainian flag, Middlesex resident John Dillon holding the other. Asked what had brought him out on Thursday, Kokodyniak stood without speaking for a moment. “The war,” he said finally.

Up the sidewalk, a kid in standard mud-season attire — shorts and Bogs — jumped up and down. From somewhere came a shout of encouragement for “you hippie peaceniks!” Yet the dreadful events that had brought the group out remained at the forefront of their thoughts.

“I’m horrified by what’s happening in Ukraine,” said Rebecca Sheppard of Montpelier. “I’m worried about the Ukrainian people, I’m worried about the refugees, I’m worried about what it means for our democracy.” 

Dillon, too, saw a tie-in to U.S. affairs. “It just feels like they’re trying to defend what we have, which is a democracy, imperfect as it is,” he said. Dillon, who has traveled to Ukraine with Kokodyniak and has friends there, added, “I was welcomed into people’s homes and I just want to return that feeling of generosity somehow.”

And perhaps somehow, the demonstrators are doing that. Said Rudick, “When I talk about our rallies and what we do, I send pictures. It’s this amazing positive energy that gives them kind of this hope, that, hey, they’re not alone.” She added, “Yes, they are there, they’re under occupation, they’re being attacked, but the whole world stands with them.” 

Actions such as Sunday’s and Thursday’s demonstrations show a solidarity that stretches beyond borders. “(A)cross the globe, here in Vermont, people stand and rally for you, thinking about you; you can go on; just keep going; we’re with you,” Rudick said. “That’s why I think it’s important. It may be that people come and they don’t think it’s that important for them to stand, but when these pictures, when these videos go out there, it’s important to people that are fighting and defending themselves.”