Photos and text by Emma Delahanty
On Sept. 30, a group of about 30 protesters gathered outside the Russian Consulate on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Some people wrapped themselves in Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag, while others carried posters saying, “Free Azovstal Soldiers,” and “Stop Genocide in Ukraine.” Other demonstrators stood over a Russian flag that had the word “killers” painted in red.
This particular protest called attention to the captivity of Ukrainian soldiers for more than 500 days, according to the group that organized the demonstration, Svitanok, which translates to dawn, reflecting its mission to bring a brighter future for Ukraine.
“Freedom is a continuous struggle,” said Henry Hickle, one of the participants who had recently returned to New York after spending three months in the Ukrainian city of Odesa as a volunteer teaching teenagers English, helping with medical aid and providing entertainment.
The protest at the Russian Consulate is one of weekly protests that Svitanok has been holding since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The protests are held at different locations around New York. On past Saturdays, protesters have gathered in Times Square, next to the bull statue on Wall Street and the Statue of Liberty.
The protests have seen their numbers drop over time, especially since last April when a disagreement emerged between Russians who attended the protests and the Ukrainian organizers.
Yaroslav Ponmarov, a frequent attendant of the protest, said the split began after “Navalny,” a film about Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader now jailed in Moscow, won the Oscar for best documentary feature.
Navalny, Putin’s main political rival and survivor of a Kremlin backed assassination-by-poison attempt, advocates for a democratic Russia. However, his stance for nearly a decade has been at best ambiguous on Crimea, which an irredentist Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Despite a series of Twitter posts written in early 2023 wherein Navalny unequivocally called for the return of Crimea to Ukraine, his earlier position splintered the Ukrainian and Russian protestors. Defending the rupture between the two groups, Ponmarov described the Ukrainian protestors’ need to maintain “high standards.”
protestNY, a pro-Ukraine Russian organization, meets in Times Square to advocate for the release of political prisoners.Since the split last April, the Russian protesters created their own organization under the name protestNY and its members go to Times Square every Sunday with signs that say, “Free Political Prisoners of War.”
Nevertheless, they bring the same message to New Yorkers as Svitanok does, urging them to support continued aid to Ukraine and to vote for candidates who support Ukraine.
Without the continued protests, people might not know that the war is continuing, said Olga Kosolapova, who participated in a protestNY demonstration in Times Square on October 8, 2023.
At the Svitanok protest at the Russian Consulate, participants voiced similar ideas.
“It doesn’t matter if … two people or 20 people or 200 people (protest), we are still heard,” said Ivan Glova.
Bob Brenar, an Irish-American, said he attends these protests as a “matter of conscience.” He said that in the 1950s, he continuously heard the phrase “never again” in reference to the Holocaust and the mass murder of a population, and “look, it’s happening again.”
Hickey said he was surprised when arriving back to the States after his time in Odesa to find many Americans knew little to nothing about what was currently going on with the war in Ukraine.
Apart from spreading the message to New Yorkers, Andrii Vitryak, a Ukrainian citizen who came to New York to attend aviation school, said he comes to the protests for “honor.”
Being in the capital, Kyiv, when the war began, he said he felt the invasion was a betrayal by Ukraine’s brother nation. The war, he said, was a “fight against modern world vs. imperialistic world.”
When asking protesters from both Svitanok and protestNY if Ukraine should give up territory as a way to have peace, both agreed that the answer is no. Oleksandr Taran, the president of Svitanok, stated: “There are no negotiations with terrorists,” and Kosolapova of protestNY said: “Crimea is Ukraine, Kharkiv is Ukraine.”
Kristina Mina said she attends the protests so that the Ukrainian people “feel heard, they feel they are not alone.”
“Real change starts with a small group of people who have one goal and that’s change,” Mina said.