Credit: John Dunlevy

Slava Ukraini! Heroyam slava!

The call-and-response salute proclaiming glory to Ukraine and its people echoed out through Ukranian Village on February 27, where nearly 5,000 people of all ages and walks of life gathered around the steps of the Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Catholic Church on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. About half of them would also march downtown, with more Chicagoans joining along the way. 

In another time, it might have been a purely joyful celebration of Chicago’s Ukrainian community, which began to form in the 1880s, when the first wave of migrants from the Eastern European country planted roots in the city.

But we’re not living in ordinary times. Just three days earlier on February 24, Russian president Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine after months of military buildup around its borders. The eyes of the world have remained on the two countries ever since. Led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, everyday Ukrainian citizens and the country’s military have worked tirelessly to defend their land; their acts of bravery and defiance have inspired a global support movement that has changed the shape of geopolitics and has prompted millions to act on an individual level. 

By March 1, the Kiev Independent reported that 80,000 Ukrainians living abroad had returned to their homeland to join the fight. A rising number of non-Ukrainians have also crossed the border into the country to lend their assistance—a phenomenon that hasn’t been seen on such a level in Europe since the Spanish Civil War. 

Chicagoans rallied on Sunday in solidarity with Ukraine. Credit: Jamie Ludwig

The Ukrainians are first and foremost fighting for their own sovereignty, but in an era where authoritarianism and fascism are on the rise, each and every strike against tyranny is a win for anyone who values freedom. With the prospect of the war spilling into other countries and Putin hinting that he will use nuclear weapons if NATO intervenes, it’s not hyperbolic to suggest that what happens in Ukraine in the days, weeks, and months to come will have consequences for civilization as we know it. As Pavlo Bandriwsky, vice president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, Illinois Division, which organized Sunday’s protest, said in his opening remarks: “The future of democracy and rule of law is being decided now in Ukraine.” 

That message wasn’t lost on the crowd. Amid a sea of blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags, there were homemade signs expressing messages of solidarity, prayers for peace, calls for action to Western leadership, and demands for an end to Russian aggression. One woman held up a sign warning “Today Ukraine, tomorrow you.” There was also plenty of anti-Putin protest art, including a papier-mâché head of the dictator mounted on a large pike with the crosshairs of a gun painted across its forehead. 

Opening with a prayer for peace from Bishop Venedykt of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of St. Nicholas, the event featured a broad mix of speakers that included leaders from the local Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Polish communities; students, intellectuals, and government officials including Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Governor J.B. Pritzker, whose own family immigrated to the United States from Kyiv in 1881

“Time and again throughout history we have seen tyrants like Putin use false propaganda to claim some righteous cause, in furtherance of their vicious agendas,” Pritzker said. “Instead, righteousness is in the cause of freedom and sovereignty and peace, and righteousness is with the people of Ukraine.”  

That sense of solidarity was echoed by other speakers as well. “I may be of Indian origin, but today we are all Ukrainian,” Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-8) said. 

Credit: Jamie Ludwig

Following the event, Bandriwsky described the global outpouring of support as “a testament to all that Ukraine has accomplished over the last thirty years,” pointing to Ukraine’s embrace of democratic values, including tolerance of religious, ethnic, and racial minorities. Over the past decade, the country has also seen a rise in acceptance and legal protections for LGBTQ Ukrainians, a sharp contrast to Putin’s grossly homophobic policies in the name of “traditional values.” 

“The world has come to the realization that today Ukrainians are spilling their blood to make the world safer for democracy,” Bandriwsky says.

No one has more on the line than the Ukrainian people. Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, who was born in Kyiv and is currently a professor of history and Jewish studies at Northwestern University, spoke of his mother, who survived the Nazis during World War II and now, at 87 years old, is spending her nights in bunkers while the Russians attack. “But she is not crying,” he told the crowd.

Many Americans are just waking up to the magnitude of Putin’s lust for power and capacity for cruelty, but for Ukrainians, it’s all too familiar. Lisa Korneichuk, a Fulbright scholar who came to Chicago from Kyiv with her husband in September 2021 to study arts journalism at the School of the Art Institute, was one of many young Ukrainians who attended the protest. 

She later pointed out that, while full-scale invasion may have just begun, the war between Russia and Ukraine started in 2014. That’s when Russia annexed Crimea, and Russian-backed separatists seized parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, including Lisa’s hometown Horlivka. The resulting violence led to thousands of deaths, and displaced 1.6 million people by 2016—including Lisa’s family, who relocated to Kyiv. 

Since the invasion started, Korneichuk’s friends back home have been working tirelessly to help people in their community and defend Kyiv, and her family has had to rush from their eighth-floor flat to bomb shelters up to seven times a day. Korneichuk may be physically safer abroad, but the stress has been unreal. 

“I have to constantly check on my family, my friends—I have to ask them every two hours, if it’s quiet, if they’re in the shelters, if it’s okay in Kyiv,” she said. “I beg them to leave, but it’s hard to leave the city now . . . I constantly feel the guilt of not being there. And I try spending every minute to contact anyone, to sign, to translate, to write to writers and the media—to do something.”

Just as Ukranians can’t afford to give up their fight, the rest of us have a role to play in supporting them, and there are plenty of ways to get involved. Korneichuk suggests donating to Ukrainian and international humanitarian organizations, such as the Red Cross. 

“I think it’s very important now to donate, not just to say ‘sorry’ and put the Ukraine flag on the avatar—which is also very important—but also to actually do something. Every dollar counts, every post counts, using hashtags like #StandWithUkraine, #CancelRussia, #BanPutin, #StopPutin. This is what we need now. And of course we need some political decisions from countries like the U.S.”

Bandriwsky suggests writing letters to political representatives demanding support for Ukraine and accountability for Russia, donating to reputable charities, avoiding and stopping the spread of disinformation, and preparing ahead to help provide humanitarian support to refugees who eventually relocate to Chicago and the surrounding area. 

The United States has yet to announce a timeline to accept refugees, but the United Nations Refugee Agency reports that 1 million people have already fled Ukraine for neighboring countries already, and the number could climb to 4 million by the summer. “We are collecting lists of people who want to provide temporary shelter, clothing, and other assistance,” Bandriwsky said. (Interested parties can contact UCCA directly with their name and what they would like to provide.)

In a metropolitan region that is home to one of the largest Ukrainian populations in the country, you can also help by supporting Ukrainian-owned businesses and attending solidarity events—UCCA is hosting three more events on March 6 alone—and in some cases, just by being a good neighbor.