What Do Ukrainian-Americans Think About The Future of Their Homeland?

As the protests in Ukraine reached a dramatic climax this weekend, New York’s Ukrainian-American community came together for two large rallies in support of EuroMaidan.

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As the protests in Ukraine reached a dramatic climax this weekend, New York’s Ukrainian-American community came together for two large rallies in support of EuroMaidan. Taking place just hours after the sudden disappearance (or escape) of Ukraine's president Viktor Yanukovych, the marches became both a joyous celebration and a touching remembrance of those lost in the fighting.

On Saturday, hundreds gathered on the Brooklyn Bridge for a public memorial service as a priest read the names of those killed in Maidan over the last few weeks. Then on Sunday, more than a thousand people crowded the north side of 49th Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan, in front of the Ukrainian Consulate, following another service mourning the dead. The second rally became both a political gathering and a chance for the government's representatives in America to attempt to explain themselves in public.

While the gatherings were bittersweet, the rally on Sunday showed evidence of unity and legitimate change within the Ukrainian-American community; a community that, like the nation that it came from, can be divided by deep cultural differences.  

Clergy members from both the Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic Churches, as well as Ukrainian rabbis, attended. Ukrainian flags were flown alongside American, Lithuanian, Georgian, Polish, and Karachay-Cherkess ones. Although many native Ukrainians are primarily Russian speakers, almost all of the speeches delivered were in Ukrainian—a deliberate slap in the face to Russification policies of their homeland.

Sunday’s gathering also featured an odd moment of statecraft, as Igor Sybiga, the Ukrainian Consulate General in New York, issued a formal apology for his office's previous anti-Maidan sentiments. Speaking in Ukrainian, the consulate general said, “We remember those who died, giving their lives, health and strength to give Ukraine a chance to be a true democratic nation.”

During the speech, the crowd was shouting questions, particularly in regards to the loyalty of the consulate, demanding an explanation for the previous support of Yanukovych during Maidan. The answer? The consulate's staffers were under direct orders to misinform the American public:

Three months ago, when the SWAT team drove crowds out of the square, we [the Consulate] honestly received instruction from Kiev, from Minister Kozhara. We were given extremely specific instructions, and he [Kozhara] expressed that he trusted us to do as instructed. The instructions were to disinform the local government [in New York], local organizations, and mass media. Diplomats, including myself, decided absolutely to sabotage the instructions and did not follow through on the instructions. Second of all, during meetings—people will confirm—I always said that what they were asking was illegal and they will be held responsible for this. Third of all, we organized meetings with people and funeral services, including meeting with Ukrainian diplomats, including Olexander Motsyk [Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States], other states' consulates, and other diplomats. The Ukrainian diplomats in America were the first to acknowledge the people and acknowledge the illegal actions. 


Eventually, when I realized that the previous president had blood on his hands, I decided I could no longer participate in a resistant war and sabotage, we all together announced our honest opinions.

Sybiga then offered to organize relief efforts by promising that they alone could get medical supplies through red tape and into the country. He also addressed the coming elections to replace Yanukovych.

On 25th of May, there will be an election for the president of Ukraine. The voting will take place at the Ukrainian Consulate. I propose to make a committee of you, the people here, real people who want real change. We hope that this vote is clean, and that as many people as possible vote. The more people that vote, the more you can support Ukraine.”

At this time, many protestors began to scream “Go back to Ukraine!”, to which the consulate general replied, “But I am FOR Ukraine!” He then attempted to begin a  “For Ukraine” chant.  The rally attendees did not join in. (The Wire's calls to the consulate on Monday went unanswered.)

“We will not be taking any questions..." The microphone was then cut off, presumably by someone attending the rally.

The entire speech, delivered in an panicked tone, was peppered with shouted swearing from the rally attendees, as well as calls for resignations. The crowd, as a whole, did not seem to accept the public apology of the consulate general, nor did they believe that he is now genuinely supporting Maidan.

“Personally, I did not believe the apology,” said Jaroslaw Palylyk, president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of Westchester, “But as a group, we need to see where everyone stood before, and where they will stand later.” Another rally attendee, Alexandra Palylyk, agreed that while the apology may not have been legitimate, it was a sign of forward motion: “We need more unity instead of division, discussion will only fragment the country.”

Alexander Klyuy, who brought a painting he created entitled "Weeping Ukraine" as a response to the recent violence in country, also found the apology lacking. “I think Ukraine has a complicated and difficult road ahead. Regardless of what anyone says, it is not as simple as an apology,” he said.

After the formal apology, the crowd sang “Chevrona Calina,” a traditional Ukrainian song about resistance. Clergy members, local representatives, and Polish community leaders all gave speeches, each expressing their support for a new, democratized Ukraine.

While many thanked the current interim president Oleksander Tuchynov and other Maidan leaders for all they've done, but Yulia Tymnoshenko, who is often portrayed as triumphant returning hero, did not receive the same praise.

Her connections to the previous regime and very real accusations of corruption have left Ukrainian-Americans uneasy about her role in Maidan. Jaroslaw Palylyk believes that “With Yulia, it is hard to say. There needs to be a coalition that takes everything, her history, into account.”

Klyuy shrugged at the prospect of her taking the presidency. “She would at least be a better president than Yanukovych."

Beyond the uncomfortable apology, the rally was a celebration, with many hopeful chants, songs, and hymns.

Only one thing — or person, actually — managed to mar the event. On the south side of the street stood a lone anti-Maidan protester. He carried a sign that said “No Euro” on a Ukrainian flag, screaming that the press were “Fascists” and “anti-freedom." He refused to give a statement explaining his anti-Maidan position and nearly attacked an AP reporter who tried to interview him.

The man blew a whistle during the speeches and songs in Ukrainian, but was hardly heard over the applause and joyous singing of the pro-Maidan rally. Police, who cordoned the dissenter off into his own mini-protest zone, eventually took away the whistle.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.