Local Ukrainians roll out awareness campaign on revolt

Ukrainian activists, rolling out their message with a double-decker bus, are hoping New Yorkers get onboard their cause.
Ukrainian activists, rolling out their message with a double-decker bus, are hoping New Yorkers get onboard their cause.

BY HEATHER DUBIN  |  Dozens of protesters waving blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags packed a double-decker bus in Union Square earlier this month to bring attention to civil unrest in the Ukraine.

New York Activists, a group started in November which fundraises for people in Ukraine and raises awareness about the current revolt there, chartered a bus that drove from Battery Park throughout the city.

Many Ukrainian locals have been following the developments overseas with great concern — Mykola Azarov resigned as Ukraine’s prime minister on Tuesday, and the government conceded to repeal most of the legislation that had been enacted Jan. 16 to suppress freedom of speech and assembly.

Five protesters have been killed in Kiev. As of Wednesday, there are reports of fighting between two antigovernment groups, which has resulted in five people wounded.

At the heart of the uprising is a burning desire among the Ukrainian people for greater national independence and also for the country to join the European Union. Like Ukraine, Russia — which wants to hold Ukraine firmly in its orbit — is not an E.U. member.

New York Activists has held weekly maidans (a Ukrainian word meaning a gathering of people), around Manhattan, to show solidarity with friends and family in Ukraine. The group chooses highly visible areas, such as Union Square, with hopes that the turbulent situation in the Eastern European nation will resonate with New Yorkers and tourists.

Anna Sawaryn’s parents emigrated from Ukraine, and she was born in the East Village, where there was a large Ukrainian population, and an area known as “Little Ukraine.”

According to Sawaryn, there has been an influx of Ukrainians into the neighborhood over the past 20 years.

“Everyone of Ukrainians — all of us who were born here, or anywhere who have Ukrainian roots or origin — are affected by this. Our whole lives we never knew of an independent Ukraine. This is very exciting for all of us. It’s really giving Ukraine an ability to be fully independent,” she said.

One of the seven organizers of New York Activists, Anna Shpook, originally from Bila Tzerkwa, near Kiev, lives in Brooklyn, but she is always in the East Village where she frequents the Ukrainian National Home, on Second Ave. near E. Ninth St., Veselka restaurant, right next door to that, or St. George’s Catholic Church, on E. Seventh St.

Shpook has relatives who work in Kiev that attended a recent protest there.

“My aunt, uncle and cousin went to a maidan to experience all this craziness, basically,” she said. “They said, ‘It’s different, you’ve never seen such a united nation ever before.’ In ’91, when the Soviet Union collapsed, we thought, this was it, we got our independence. But that was not a true freedom. The real independence is really now on the streets of Kiev — people are fighting for it, exactly now, not 23 years ago.”

For her efforts here, Shpook helps the group monitor news outlets for accuracy, organizes maidans, which have drawn from 200 up to 1,000 people, and focuses on fundraising.

“The New York chapter has collected $65,000 in donations since December when the beatings started in Ukraine,” she said. “People are in hospitals — they lost hands, they lost eyes, they need medical assistance.”

This Sunday, the weekly maidan will be replaced with a forum at the Ukrainian Scout Organization, Plast — located between the National Home and Veselka — at 2 p.m. to discuss further steps for providing assistance to Ukrainians.

“We’re standing until the end and not giving up,” Shpook said. “I have friends in Ukraine, and they’re not going to give up. They’re going to stand there until we get where we want to be, when the president resigns.”

Walter Zaryckyj is the executive director of the Center for U.S.-Ukrainian Relations, on E. Fourth St., and a former longtime professor of political science at New York University. He lives in the East Village, but his parents were born in the Ukraine, where Zaryckyj has lots of family and friends.

“People lost their lives in this thing,” he said. “I was praying it would stay peaceful. I wasn’t quite sure, and after January 16, and the sort of dictatorship he [Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president] was planning to put in on behalf of Putin [the Russian president], I knew it wasn’t going to be good. There was going to be bloodshed. We’re lucky there was not more bloodshed,” he said.

Zaryckyj is not sure how the situation will progress, but the U.S. and Europe will play a pivotal role.

“It depends on whether the West becomes proactive,” he said. “If Obama remains silent, then Putin will figure he’s O.K. with whatever happens — and that’s not good.”