‘The world is watching’: the Boston community stands in solidarity with Ukraine

Blue and yellow speckled the Boston Public Garden Sunday afternoon as protestors held Ukrainian flags and signs high, showing their denunciation of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine.

Supporters held posters that read “We stand with Ukraine,” “Stop the war,” and other anti-war sentiments. Reverberating drumbeats punctuated their chants: “NATO close the skies,” “No war in Ukraine,” and “Ukraine will be free!” 

The protest provided Boston’s Ukrainian community, 75,000 strong,  a chance to stand with their home country and condemn Russia’s actions. Other allies, especially those from other Eastern European countries, also turned out in solidarity with the people affected by the conflict.

Protestors marched from the Boston Public Garden’s 9/11 Memorial to the steps of the Massachusetts State House, where the demonstration reached its climax. Northeastern University student Diana Zlotnikova, who is Ukrainian, sent the initial call to organize peacefully. Her initial expectations, she said, envisioned only a few hundred participants. 

“Around two to three thousand people [came] to support us,” she wrote in a statement to The Beacon. “When the idea for a peace march was born, I did not expect such a scale at all—attendance was the biggest worry. I tried to leverage all resources available to reach as many communities as possible.”

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Marching along with the protest, Zlotnikova said she felt incredible support from the Boston community as people from all different backgrounds—students, immigrants, families—showed up to protest the Russian invasion.

“I observed such a range of emotion among the people who attended—from tears to defiant laughter,” she wrote. “It is invaluable for the Ukrainian community, seeing so many people that weren’t necessarily directly impacted by the war chanting with us, carrying posters, and singing our hymn.”

The strong turnout, Zlotnikova said, was driven by ideals greater than that of a simple conflict between two neighboring nations.

“This war is not only about the territorial sovereignty of our country, but also about a geopolitical shift of power and protecting freedom to live, to vote and to choose democracy over dictatorship,” she said.

In the Garden, supporters marched on sidewalks, stood atop benches and even climbed piles of snow to wave flags and signs. Some tied their countries’ flags around their shoulders, painted the Ukrainian flag onto their cheeks, and others, like Areta Bojko, wore blue and yellow floral headbands and traditional Ukrainian outfits.

Bojko, a doctoral resident at Tufts University, donned an outfit that she used to wear as part of a Ukrainian dance group. She said she wore her traditional clothing to allow Bostonians to “appreciate the beauty of [Ukrainian] culture.”

While Bojko is safe in Boston, she said her family fled to hide from shooting and bombing.

“What’s going on there is criminal,” she said. “It’s a tragic atrocity that is completely unjust and unfair.” 

Many other demonstrators on Sunday had similar stories to Bojko’s; their family and friends back home were suffering the worst of the conflict, many of them fearing for their lives.

“My family is in the south in Mykolaiv which is not as hazardous as Kyiv or Kharkiv, which are in great danger,” said Stan Isleav, donning blue-gold face paint. “Our families are alive, safe, not harmed but still they are sleeping in the corridors.”

Many demonstrators hailed from other countries in eastern Europe. Sergey Zvonok immigrated to the United States from Belarus in the early 2000s, leaving his homeland due to the dangerous ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We consider Ukrainians our brothers,” Zvonok said. “We have shared history and values, so I feel like I need to be here.” 

Valda Grinbergs carried the Latvian flag with her two teenage daughters, wearing a blue and yellow ribbon alongside her Latvian broach.

“Latvia, if not for NATO, might be next,” she said. “We have to keep fighting and make it known that the world is watching and the world does not accept it.”

Grinbergs, who remembers when Latvia was part of the Soviet Union, said her family understands the struggle of living under Russian domination. 

The protests also drew some unlikely demonstrators. Angelica Chincaro, a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, attended the protest with her friends—including one from Russia. Because of this, she said she was wary of condemning the Russian people rather than their government.

“I don’t like that they’re going to be judged for who their leader is, [who is] making these horrible decisions,” she said. “I can see some signs saying ‘Russians killers,’ But no, it is a [leader] that makes this happen.”

Zlotnikova said the protest was meant to send a message not only to Russia, but also to the West, in hopes of spurring them into action against Putin’s regime.

“We expect more action taken by the most influential companies to [end] their operations in Russia and stop supplying their military or financial services, as well as to stop the spread of Russian propaganda and political lies,” she said.

Julian D’Andre, a speaker at the protest who lived in Ukraine for 19 years, pointed out that there were tangible things that the West could do to support the country against Russia.

“They need to continue to support Ukraine—and not just with words,” said D’Andre. “It’s one thing to light up the Eiffel Tower with blue and yellow, but it’s another to support Ukraine financially and with arms.”

Many protestors demanded that NATO “close the skies”—in other words, impose a “no fly zone” against Russia. This possibility has been rejected by U.S. officials—due to the danger of provoking a larger war between NATO and Russia—but has still been called for by Ukrainians, who watch as Russian air power targets Ukrainian cities.

“This has been an ask since the beginning of our protests,” said Bojko. “This would be tremendously helpful to Ukraine, given a lot of the attacks are coming from planes and helicopters.”

Aandrii Ivanchuk said the conflict had already led to further consequences—the rise of energy prices, a global market drop and a European refugee crisis, among others.

“That the world could be crushed at any second,” he said. “This one here it’s not [just] about Ukraine. It’s about the world.”

Tony Vuskaitis said the protest was helping bring awareness to the issue.

“I’m hoping that people here will see this, and this won’t go out of people’s attention,” he said. “[I hope] it doesn’t fade, because it could be going on for a while. I want to keep that in the forefront—we’re still here, we’re supporting Ukraine. I want to make sure that the people in Ukraine see we’re all here trying to do our best even though we’re not on the ground with them. We are in there in spirit.”