In New York, Ukrainians hold regular rallies to keep war in American public's consciousness
This story was originally published in The Ukrainian Weekly. You can read it there at this link.
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NEW YORK – In Times Square, not far from the dark looming statue of Father Duffy and the red glowing steps of the TKTS ticket booth, a crowd of hundreds gathered on the evening of February 24.
They were bathed in the artificial light of the electric screens covering the surrounding buildings.
Standing in rows under dozens of blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, individuals held posters displaying a photograph and a date in front of them. Photographers rushed around snapping pictures, while curious passers-by looked on.
As was the case in cities all over the world that day, those in the heart of Manhattan came to publicly mark the one-year anniversary of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The demonstration was one of a series of events held in New York that week. A similar event was held the next day in Washington, D.C., where a rally featured Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova.
Collectively, the crowd held 365 posters, each one marking a day since the full-scale invasion began.
The first person to address the assembled throng in Times Square was a bespeckled young man in a grey flat cap, matching tie and dark winter jacket with a Ukraine pin on the lapel.
Standing on a ledge with a bullhorn in hand, Arthur Zgurov led the crowd in chants and asked that the international community continue to support Ukraine with aid and weapons.
He also introduced other speakers, among them Aleksandr Krapivkin, a Kharkiv-born American actor who gave a six-minute-long chronology and commemoration of the war, and a man from Georgia, who compared Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to what the Kremlin did to his country in 2008.
The rally wasn’t the first time that Messrs. Zgurov and Krapivkin spoke out publicly about the war. In fact, for the past year, they have been part of a small group of volunteers who have held more than 68 demonstrations all over New York City in the past year.
Created spontaneously shortly after the invasion, the group’s mission is to help ensure a Ukrainian victory through public advocacy and activism.
"If somebody told me on the 23rd of February of last year that I would be doing what I'm doing now, met all the people I've met in the last year, I wouldn't have believed you," Mr. Zgurov said. “But I feel a moral obligation to do this work.”
Mr. Zgurov, who speaks at nearly every event, is the most prominent member of the group. A native of Odesa, he trained as a doctor in Ukraine and worked there as a neurosurgeon before coming to the United States in 2019 to further his medical career.
In February 2022, he was living in New York and looking for a position as a physician while closely following the events in his home country. Upon hearing the news of the full-scale invasion, he “instantly” decided to put his career on hold and do everything that he could to ensure that Ukraine wins the war.
He later received Temporary Protected Status from the federal government, a program that has allowed Ukrainian nationals to stay in the United States during the war.
The day of the invasion, he went to a rally organized by the Ukrainian community in New York and found himself spontaneously leading the crowd in chants and then heading up the procession to the Permanent Mission of Russia to the United Nations on East 67th Street and then onto the United Nations. Gothamist featured a photo of Mr. Zgurov in an article published that day.
In the days and weeks that followed the invasion, he attended numerous demonstrations in the city along with his wife, Asya Tsiunchik, who is also a doctor. But he eventually had an idea of creating a more durable organization able to support Ukraine.
“The idea was to unite the Ukrainian community regardless of the organizations that people represent and bring people together just because we are Ukrainians,” he said.
Russia’s full-scale invasion wasn’t the first time that Mr. Zgurov was affected by political struggles in his native country.
When Ukrainian government forces led by then-President Viktor Yanukovych attacked and killed more than 100 participants during the Euro-Maidan protest movement in Kyiv in February of 2014, Mr. Zgurov was on the scene as a volunteer providing medical aid. Over the course of three days, he worked day and night in a hospital, treating injured protesters.
It wasn’t long after Russia’s full-scale invasion that Messrs. Zgurov and Krapivkin met at a demonstration.
An actor and singer born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Mr. Krapivkin had been under immense pressure in the wake of the invasion as he helped guide family members out of Ukraine, a situation he called “chaos.” After his relatives were out of immediate danger, he took stock of how else he could get involved.
“I was angry and looking for a way to express myself,” Mr. Krapivkin said.
Soon after meeting, Messrs. Zgurov and Krapivkin decided to team up and within days began helping to organize a rally in Times Square in early March 2022, which, in conjunction with other events nearby, brought out thousands.
One of the attendees of that event was Yaroslav Ponomarov, a 24-year-old real estate agent and trainee pilot who had come with his family to Brooklyn from central Ukraine in the early 2000s.
With family members in the Ukrainian military and others still in the country, he’d spent a sleepless night on February 23 communicating with friends and relatives as the news broke.
Just as Messrs Zgurov and Krapivkin did, Mr. Ponomarov had been going to rallies in the lead-up to the invasion and continued to do so after the war began. He has a Ukrainian flag that was given to him by his grandfather, who once brandished it at demonstrations in Ukraine in 1991 when the country regained its independence from Soviet rule.
Mr. Ponomarov came to the rallies carrying his own six-foot-long Ukrainian flag while wearing a blue-and-yellow face mask, making him a crowd favourite.
“I feel it’s important that we in the diaspora embrace our role as ambassadors of Ukraine,” he said.
After Mr. Ponomarov met Messrs. Zgurov and Krapivkin in March of 2022, he joined their team. Soon they developed a weekly schedule of events, which they held primarily in Manhattan.
Soon, other people found their way to the group. Among them was Karina Smyrnova, an artist and designer from Dnipro, Ukraine, who is now living in Philadelphia, and Anastasiia Nikishyna, a photographer and social media marketing specialist who immigrated from the west of Ukraine to New York in the 2010s.
The group wants the American public to understand the importance of Ukraine winning the war, and they see a Russian victory bringing grave consequences, which is why they want to ensure that U.S. aid to Ukraine continues until the war is won.
“Aid is not a donation, it’s an investment,” Mr. Zgurov said. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin would continue pushing further west if he won in Ukraine, which still needs a lot of help from the United States. We need weapons not to escalate but to deescalate.”
“This war is an opportunity to show the powers that are out to cause chaos and destabilize that they are no longer going to be tolerated by the free world,” Mr. Krapivkin said.
“Ukraine is not just protecting its own territories from the tyranny caused by Russia, but those of other countries as well,” Ms. Smyrnova said. “For Americans, it’s hard to imagine war in a foreign country. But like what it says on car side-view mirrors, the war may be closer than it appears in social media.”
As 2022 went on, the group scaled up their demonstrations. In late May of that year, they held a large march across the Brooklyn Bridge, while in August they unfurled what they claimed was the largest Ukrainian flag in the world in Central Park. In October they held a rally on Liberty Island in front of the Statue of Liberty and commemorated events in Ukrainian history, such as the Holodomor and Ukrainian Independence Day.
In the second half of 2022, Mr. Krapivkin began working with a group called Klych (Ukrainian for call) after meeting Vitaliy Deynega, the founder of Come Back Alive, a non-profit organization that provides aid to Ukrainian soldiers.
With Klych, he’s travelled around the country, facilitating connections between Ukrainian communities, and organizing cultural events and rallies. The posters displayed in the commemoration event in Times Square on February 24 were part of a Klych initiative and used in at least 65 other cities across the United States.
Attendance at demonstrations has varied, with a typical event averaging between 50-100 participants, and much more for the larger rallies. The group has spread the word about their events via their social media accounts.
The Manhattan-based non-profit Razom for Ukraine has also consistently promoted the group’s rallies to their social media followers.
Messrs. Zgurov and Ponomarov maintain that they act independently from the non-profit and receive no financial support from it or any other group, though they do communicate with staff there. When contacted for this article to comment on whether they had any ties to the group, Razom officials did not respond to a request from this correspondent.
The group is aware that the audience for their demonstrations reaches far beyond New York City thanks to digital communications. Mr. Ponomarov said he’s heard from people in the United States and around the world who said they’ve been inspired by seeing videos and images of the group’s events.
“We are showing Ukrainians that people in foreign countries are supporting them and boost the morale of the soldiers fighting,” Mr. Zgurov said.
While many attendees at the weekly demonstrations are part of the New York Ukrainian community, New Yorkers of all backgrounds also attend the events. One frequent attendee is Bob Brennan, a semi-retired American architect from Brooklyn who said that his goal is to remind Americans that the war in Ukraine is still raging.
“This invasion is barbaric, it’s the worst thing I’ve seen,” he said. “Putin wants to rebuild the USSR and he can’t be allowed to get away with it.”
Not everyone who speaks at the events is part of the core group of event organizers. Messrs. Zgurov and Ponomarov, who have taken lead lately in managing the crowd, have adopted a liberal policy when it comes to outside speakers. They often allow guests to address the crowd so long as they are pro-Ukraine, even if they don’t necessarily agree on every issue.
In January, Seth Galinsky, a member of the Socialist Workers Party and former candidate for New York City Public Advocate, said in a speech that he supported the right of Ukraine to defend itself but disagreed with the sanctions placed on Russia by Western powers.
Gokor Yegnukian, a New Yorker of Armenian descent who began coming to rallies on the first day of the invasion, began addressing the crowd in the fall of 2022 after getting to know the group. He frequently condemns the Russian government and Putin in florid language that goes well beyond what Messrs. Zgurov and Ponomarov would typically say.
“I feel like it’s my duty to show solidarity with Ukraine,” Mr. Yegnukian said. “This is a fight between tyranny and the civilized world.”
Mr. Ponomarov said that in the past year the group has held events with groups from the Iranian and Tigrayan communities and would be open to cooperating with Taiwanese groups. “Free people need to unite,” he said.
The group says they’re very grateful for the support given by the American government and public to Ukraine in the past year. And they believe their events are making a difference.
“I’ve never seen the level of support from people before this, including from businesses and politicians,” Mr. Zgurov said. “I think the demonstrations have influenced people’s views.”
“I’ve seen support for Ukraine in every single place that I’ve been to,” Mr. Krapivkin said. “It means a lot to Ukrainians to see their flag, because it makes them feel safe.”
Ms. Smyrnova added that, “I’ve met very great Americans and appreciate it when people show their support of Ukraine by saying something or donating.”
More than one year after the start of the war, the group has shown no signs of slowing down. After the one-year commemoration event in Times Square, they took a brief break in early March, then resumed their weekly schedule later in the month with events in Manhattan.
When asked for how long they planned to continue holding demonstrations, the group members were adamant: until Ukraine defeats Russia.
“Every single person on the planet is affected by this war and people need to understand that, if we want a future, then Ukraine winning is the only option,” Mr. Krapivkin said.
“People need to understand it's not a silly political game,” Ms. Nikishyna said. “It’s a real thing and Russia is a real threat to the civilized world. If we don't stop it, it could destroy all countries, not just Ukraine. We could continue even after victory, to help with the rebuilding.”
Victory can’t come soon enough for Mr. Ponomarov, who says he has rediscovered his Ukrainian identity by being part of the group. He worries about what a prolonged conflict could mean for Ukraine and the diaspora but has hope that it will end soon.
“We don’t want people to romanticize Ukrainians as tragic warriors,” Mr. Ponomarov said. “Ukraine should be known for progress and building towards a better society. We are a peaceful people who love our language, our music, our history and our barbeques. We want to live in peace, maintain our identity, and be part of the greater world.”
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