When the Russian-Ukrainian War broke out, my mom and I knew that there are going to be rallies and protests in support of Ukraine and against the war – and we wanted to be a part of it. But my usual sources within the Russian-speaking communities, and the general activist chatter on Twitter, kept failing me. I kept finding out that event after event already happened from new stories and live-tweets covering them. So when, last Thursday, I found out there was going to be a rally on Sunday in front of Chicago’s Ukrainian Village’s iconic Saints Volodymyr & Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church, I figured I was going to try to make it, and encouraged my mom to do the same.
As the name suggests, Ukrainian Village is a neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side originally settled by Ukrainians from what was then the Russian Empire. While Ukrainian Village isn’t as Ukrainian as it used to be in its heyday, it still has a number of Ukrainian churches, cultural institutions and even some stores and restaurants.
The Sunday rally was supposed to start around 1:00 PM. While my mom said she wasn’t too worried about not making it on the dot, she still ordered a ride-share for the last leg of the trip.
Arriving near the church, it would be hard to miss the crowds.
Once we entered the crowd that gathered in front of the church along Oakley Avenue – to be honest, my journalism instinct and my habits of photographing protests took over, and I just started taking pictures left and right without really paying attention to where my mom was.
After my mom texted me to try to figure out where I went and we found each other, we agreed to go our separate ways. She would hang out there, where things were a bit roomier, while I would try to get closer to the church steps that served as a makeshift stage.
Naturally, there were quite a few protest signs.
Some were more obscene than others.
And some of them, come to think of it, required you to know Ukrainian (or know an Eastern Slavic language so you can make an educated guess about what the signs say)
I can’t be 100% sure of the ethnicity of a lot of people there, but this was organized by the Ukrainian-American community, and I heard plenty of Ukrainian and a mix of Ukrainian and Russian. I wouldn’t be surprised that a decent chunk of the ones that spoke English in a way that suggested they were natives had Ukrainian ancestry or some other connection to Ukraine somewhere in their family tree.
Ukrainian flags definitely dominated the rally
But there were also more than a few Polish flags.
And what I would later found out were Lithuanian flags (I couldn’t find any pictures, sadly), and some Belarus People’s Republic flags
Which was a nice display of solidarity among subjects of Russian imperialism.
At the same time, one of the first things I saw as I waded deeper into the rally was a Right Sector flag
And there were a few more of those I saw around the rally, including one that has been draped prominently patio-like structure in front of the church
And there are a couple signs that used the distinct Right Sector color scheme.
Since they first emerged during Euromaidan protests, United Russia propaganda apparatus has been using the Right Sector as evidence that the current Ukrainian government area Nazis, overstating both its influence and how far-right they are. But while they are not Nazis (that dishonor goes to the Azov Battalion), they are still a right-wing nationalist paramilitary and… Every time I saw one of their banners during the rally, I could help but feel it every bit of my Jewish blood.
I wondered how many people at the rally knew what Right Sector was, but I suspected that it was more than a few. I also wondered if they were worried about the optics, but reading the coverage in local media, I don’t think anyone noticed – and it’s not like not having those banners would stop Russian state media from trying to paint them as Nazis anyway.
Anyway, I tried to make it closer to the steps. Being a journalist – heck, being someone who rode St. Petersburg Subway back in the day – I had plenty of practice making my way through the crowds.. but I couldn’t manage to make it close enough to get any clear shot of the podium.
If I was there on assignment, I might have pushed my luck a bit further… but as it stands, I had to settle for taking pictures of the speakers while they were standing on the sidelines.
To be honest, since I wasn’t writing an article about it, I kind of gave myself permission not to pay attention to every word or try to catch every name and title. Plus, I think I was just so tired, physically and mentally, that I just don’t remember a lot of what was said.
I can tell you that Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, whose family emigrated to United States from Kiev, didn’t mince words in a way that surprised me, starting his speech with praising Ukraine and saying “screw Vladimir Putin” and describing the invasion as “bloodthirsty.” And, of course, he talked about his family history.
U.S. Representative Danny Davis, who could well be one of the most well-travelled congressmen in the current session and who has a long record of supporting the current Ukrainian government, gave a pretty standard (but his standard is pretty decent) speech reiterating his support and his opposition to the Russian aggression
U.S. Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, who has also been outspoken in his opposition to the Putin regime, recalled that Putin once described him as a “little Indian man” and said that one shouldn’t mistake meekness for weakness and that “I may be of Indian origin, but today we are all Ukrainians
Chicago mayor Lori LIghtfoot got what could be charitably described as a mixed reception. My mom said that people in the crowd cheered when they heard Pritzker was attending. Well, Lightfoot got quite a few audible boos. She got some cheers when she called what the Russian military was doing “murderous” and called for more sanctions, but saying that prayer will help get the country through the situation got her some boos, and saying that people should support Russians who are protesting barely got any reaction.
I know that U.S. Senator Mike Quigley spoke earlier. Some priests spoke, as did a few people from Chicago’s Polish-American community. A representative of the city’s Belarusian community, apologized for her home country’s role in the war and expressed solidarity with the Ukrainian people, saying that they were an inspiration to anyone under the authoritarian yoke.
Tanya Fedak, a second-generation Ukrainian-American, recalled how, when she was in high school, she asked her history teacher why Holocaust was taught but Holodomor wasn’t, and he said he didn’t have a good answer for that. Fedak recalled that the teacher gave her permission to do a presentation on Holdomor, but her classmates ended up not caring much, which was pretty demoralizing to her.
Her message boiled down to that she hopes that Americans will care about this war enough to prevent another disaster, calling for harsher sanctions, for NATO to establish a no-fly zone (which was also a recurring chant throughout the protest) and generally offer more direct military support. And Fedak decried people who made light of the war.
Immigration attorney Julia Bikbova, who is involved in kinds of events in Russian-Jewish community, said that she grew up in Ukraine but she wasn’t Ukrainian, and she wanted to express the solidarity from Russian-speaking Jewish community. She also urged Russians to get out on the streets and protest, saying that they would get the protesters legal help – which went over only a little better than Lightfoot asking them to pray for the Russian protesters.
At another point, the railly organizers brought out a Urkainian intellegence operative who happened to be attending a seminar in Chicago when the invasion started. I could hear the sheer sadness and desperation in her voice as she struggled to use her not-exactly-perfect English to get anybody who would hear to understand, and to help.
A Chicago area Polish-American choir (those name I didn’t quite catch, and I’m not going to mess with Polish spelling) performed
A Lithuanian musician performed a song inspired by Euromaidan protests
The rally did start to drag a bit toward the end. There were five “one last speakers,” including a German official, but I feel the interest was starting to drift as more and more people left.
The rally ended, fittingly, with the playing of the Ukrainian anthem – which, fittingly, is as defiant the Polish one.
Afterward, some people hung around to pose for pictures, but most people who haven’t already left headed out.
As I headed out, I saw police officers asking a priest to post with them for a picture, and I couldn’t help but what a relative of mine told me when I mentioned the rally. “Well, it’s not like it’s that big of a deal.” with “it’s not like they risk getting beaten and arrested just for showing a protest sign” implied.
After the rally, I walked around Ukrainian Village a bit. I had a vague notion of getting lunch at one of their restaurants, but that quickly proved to be a nonstarter, as every restaurant (and, for that matter, every local business) was filled with marchers.
I did end up doing some shopping at a local deli (since I was planning to get some groceries at Devon Market anyway, I figured I should support a Ukrainian business).
As I walked around… Ever since the Ukrainian Crisis, I keep getting questions from Russian relatives worried that I was a victim of “Russophobia.” The Russian state media has been telling audiences that Russians are increasingly persecuted abroad and frames every foreign criticism ever as a manifestation of anti-Russian bias. Up until now, I was able to honestly say that I never encouraged anything like that.
But walking around Ukrainian Village, for the first time ever, speaking Russian got me dirty looks. It’s not even speaking Russian – plenty of Ukrainians there spoke Russian – but I spoke it without even a hint of a Ukrainian accent.
For the first time since I came to United States, my Russianness felt like a lability. Like something that I had to hide. And I don’t have it in my heart to get too upset about it – their Motherland did get invaded my my people.
But, as I commented on Twitter, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t disquiet me.
Now, I can’t help but wonder if wer’re going to see more rallies, in Chicago and elsewhere. Ukraine held up admirably against the Russian army, better than I expected – and, as I expected, make them bleed for every centimeter – but Russian army has been making gains. And the sad certainly of the next couple of weeks is that buildings will continue to get leveled, people will continue to suffer and people will continue to die.
And I know first-hand, that hopeless feeling of watching across the ocean and feeling powerless to do a thing to help.