“If I tell them to fight, they will be glad, and I who am not a very brave man will have made them a little braver.”
John Steinbeck, “The Moon is Down”
About 80 people gathered last Sunday in what was described as a spontaneous demonstration in front of the Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz to show support for the beleaguered country of Ukraine.
On the lawn of the library, the event’s like a church function, with children mingling with septuagenarians. Many in the crowd sing the songs of the old country together in the old tongue. A woman named Larysa translates the words.
“We are singing hymns. Or anthems. Ukraine is not dead. We give our soul and body for the freedom of Ukraine. Understand? These are patriotic songs. Three hundred years ago, we fought the Russians then. We survived. We stand up and fight them again. World War Two. Everybody stand up and fight. Like now.”
A speaker is set up attached to a microphone, though the voices of those singing need amplification only when the drivers of passing cars honk their horns.
The crowd holds up flags which luff in the freezing wind. Two horizontal stripes, blue above yellow. Easter colors.
A red SUV pulls up to the curb. A very serious-looking man with a grey hair stands inside the vehicle, his upper body through the sun roof, resting his elbows. He waves one of the flags from a wooden pole and convinces a babusia [grandmother] to climb inside the vehicle. She too stands up through the sun roof, and the crowd cheers. Waving a flag with the Easter colors, the couple smile. The flags belong to a country that Russian president Vladimir Putin says does not exist.
Why Putin asserts this falsehood is obvious. Moving tanks into existing countries without an invitation is a violation of international law.
Irrespective of the wishes of the invader, reports abound that inside the sovereign country an insurgency has begun
Lorna Tychostup, former news and politics editor for Chronogram, now an international communications consultant, has two cousins presently in the country.
She says that arms are being supplied from sympathetic allies to a growing resistance of Ukrainian citizens, and that Volodymyr Zelenski’s besieged government is giving advice via radio:
If one has access to an RPG, or rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and one sees a row of tanks coming down the street, hit the first one if you can, to block the road. If you can’t, let the row go by and destroy the street behind to prevent supplies from reaching the soldiers in front. If you’ve got a gun and can see vehicles with tires, aim your bullets at the tires.
The government has also broadcast instructions on how to make a Molotov cocktail, that is, gasoline in a bottle with a rag for a wick.
Very little is simple
A man who calls himself Grigoriy talked to me. The guy told me about Ukrainians in the Russian concentration camps during World War Two whose hero was Stephan Bandera, leader of an underground army. The Russians referred to those captured from the resistance as Banderas. Grigory tells me he was a poet.
Then Grigory walked off.
From behind a tree, a Bard professor had been waiting for Grigory to finish. Maria Sonevytsky reached out and grabbed my arm.
“Actually, what that guy was talking about is reallllly problematic,” Sonevytsky told me. “I would be verrrrrrry careful putting that in your article. If you want more information, email me …”
It turns out Stepan Bandera’s legacy is complicated. “Bandera is problematic,” she said. “He was a resistance fighter, yes, against the Russians, but he cooperated with the S.S. [the infamous Nazi Schutzstaffel]. So maybe [he was] not the hero. In fact, Russian propaganda has depicted all Ukranians as Banderitas. They put it together with the Nazis to elide the two.“
Problematic indeed. This explains why Putin keeps repeating the charge of Nazism to describe Ukranians.
It’s helpful when thinking of Ukraine, which is a country about the size of Texas, as being divided into three portions. Lviv is the largest city in the western part. The central portion contains the capital of the country, Kyev. The eastern part contains the two separatist regions very recently recognized and annexed by Russia, Luhansk and Donetsk,
The invading forces first came across the border to the east, while war-averse Ukrainians are fleeing to safety across the border to the west into Poland and Slovakia.
One of Tychostup’s cousins has already made it into Poland with his wife and children. The other male may have a more difficult time. While borders are open to women and children, men in the prime of their life, above the age of 16 and below 60, are encouraged to remain and take up arms.
Standing for democracy
The spontaneous rally had been organized the night before by New Paltz local Helena Shepko. Her husband, Richard Hamilton, represented her by proxy after she went down to Whippany, New Jersey to catch a bus bound to Washington, DC, with 200 other demonstrators. She intended to attend another rally in the capital. Here in America rallies in support of Ukraine have kicked off from New York City to San Francisco.
“Americans need to recognize a sovereign country has been invaded,” said Hamilton. He believes military action against Putin’s forces is called for. “You’ve kind of got to punch a bully in the face sometimes.”
One of the demonstrators out on the sidewalk in front of the library, Kristina Brama, speaks very good English, though she wasn’t born in America. “Most important,” she said, “is to close the skies.”
The international community has yet to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine. And Russian planes are dropping bombs.
“We need the world to know that people are dying,” said Brama. “Ukraine is fighting for democracy, not just for Ukraine but for the world. And we stand with the world. We need the world to stand with us.”