Little Ukraine Remembers
The neighborhood where I live in New York City, the East Village, is also known as Little Ukraine because it’s home to the largest Ukrainian community in the United States. Their presence is evident in the restaurants — most notably Veselka, which this year celebrates 69 years in business — retail stores, churches, and community organizations with signs in the Cyrillic alphabet. Since Russia’s full scale invasion a year ago (full scale because Russia used irregular forces to take over Crimea and the Eastern Donbass region in 2014), many of the windows in apartment buildings and tenements display the yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Last Saturday the Citizens Bank branch across the street from Veselka on the corner of Second Ave. and East Ninth St. hosted a community art project led by muralist Misha Tyutyunik, whose work adorns an exterior wall of the bank branch. Although the event took place during a school holiday, children came in groups, and the adults who joined them included their family members, other Ukrainian-American residents of the neighborhood, and non-Ukrainian supporters. We wrote postcards to families inside Ukraine as well as refugees living in other countries in Europe. We expressed our hope that they will be able to return to their homes in peace and freedom.
To commemorate Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, I posted a Lego photo to Instagram, a vignette of the photograph that sticks in my mind from the past year. It’s from February 23, 2022. A middle-aged man walks his small dog on the beach in Mariupol, the industrial landscape and the Azov Sea in the background. It’s the last day of peace before Russian bombs and artillery would turn Mariupol into a giant ruin, destroying a thriving city of 650,000 innocent people. According to some estimates, upwards of 100,000 residents died in the three months before Russia seized control of the city. Tens of thousands more were deported deep into Russia, among them children torn from their parents and given to Russian families. I don’t know what happened to that man and his beloved pet, or to the rest of his family. I think about how normal life can change in an instant due to the whims of a monster who has gained complete control over his country.
This could happen to any of us. In justifying his War on Terror, former president George W. Bush argued that “we’re fighting the terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them here.” Nowhere is this more justified that in Ukraine. Dictator Putin has made no secret of his ambition to take over other now-independent countries that were once part of the Soviet Union — Belarus (where he has already gained a foothold with his puppet dictator Lukashenko), Moldova, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. He has also threatened the former Soviet satellite states that threw off the shackles of communism in 1989 — Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Because of the Ukrainians’ willingness to fight their own battles, all the NATO countries need to do is make sure those brave soldiers are properly equipped to make it a more even match against a country three times Ukraine’s size, and to help the ordinary people of the country withstand the terror from above being rained down on them. It’s a cheap price for all of us to pay to keep Putin’s regime of terror from spreading throughout Europe and beyond.
Last year, I linked to organizations collecting aid for Ukrainian refugees and civilians within the country. These organizations continue to operate. It’s also important to let our elected officials know that we in the United States continue to support this courageous struggling democracy that’s fighting for all of us against the most brutal regime of this century, one on par with Hitler’s Germany and (no surprise) the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin.