ST. PETERSBURG — In the days since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, Viacheslav Ronenko had not cried. Saturday, surrounded by people draped in blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, listening to speakers in his native language, his eyes welled for the first time.
Ronenko is from Ukraine, where his family and friends remain. He came to the United States to work as a contractor. He had planned to visit his family in March. Now, that will be impossible.
“My family has been sitting in a basement for two days,” Ronenko said. Saturday was the first day his family had ventured out to a grocery store, he said.
The sun was high over Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg on Saturday afternoon as hundreds gathered peacefully to show their support for Ukrainians after a Russian invasion began Thursday.
The event, created by Elona Krasavtseva, Nataliia Artemova and Yury Sozonov, was organized through Facebook and titled “Support Ukraine.” More than 500 people responded to the post. Speakers took to the microphone, talking in their native Ukrainian language.
Many of the speakers repeated a traditional Ukrainian rallying cry, “Glory to Ukraine,” to which the crowd would respond, “Glory to the heroes.”
Many of those who turned out Saturday were covered in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian national flag. Some wore the flag across their shoulders, others wore it painted on their face. People held yellow and blue balloons, and signs that said things like, “Stand with Ukraine,” or “Stop Putin, Stop War.”
For the past three days, Ronenko has been glued to newsfeeds in his free time, watching his home country. He’s still talking with family, but he’s lost contact with some friends after the invasion.
“We really need this event,” Ronenko said. “I feel the support.”
Mariia Afanasieva, 12, moved to the United States in the third grade. Much of her family, with whom she speaks every morning, including her aunt and uncle and grandparents, still lives in Ukraine. She says coming out to the event was the best way she could support Ukraine.
She has watched on the news as curfews are imposed in Ukraine, and those only a few years older than she is have taken up arms against Russian troops. She called the situation scary, especially the footage of bombs lighting up the night sky.
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As much as the event on Saturday showed support for Ukraine, there was also a clear sense of pride in the country.
“We’re very proud of our people,” Julia Vakulenko said. “There are so many volunteers.”
Nobody there wants to be under Vladimir Putin’s rule, she said. Vakulenko’s 70-year-old father tried to volunteer to fight, but he was turned away because of his age.
Ukraine is far from perfect, she said, but there are freedoms that Ukrainians are not willing to give up. Vakulenko’s family and friends remain in Ukraine.
Oksana Bomba, an international student studying at the University of South Florida, said she found the event on Facebook, and it has created an opportunity to connect with other Ukrainians. Her family, like so many others at the event, remains in Ukraine. She says her family is strong, and in a relatively safe spot. But that could change.
Bomba said she appreciates the sanctions that the United States has put on Russia. She’s hoping to see more protection of the Ukrainian skies in the coming days. She’s also hoping Ukraine will receive medical help and military weapons.
Darius Suziedelis is Lithuanian-American. He, along with other people from Lithuania, showed up Saturday in support of Ukraine. Suziedelis says he understands what Ukraine is experiencing because it echoes Lithuanian history.
He’s confident Ukraine will become a part of NATO, like Lithuania did. However, he worries about the bloodshed in the meantime.
Linda Khmelnytska has lived in the United States for about seven years. She moved away from her small town in Ukraine after Russia took Crimea, only a few hundred miles away from her home. Her friends and family who are still there have mainly decided to stay and protect Ukraine, she said.
Khmelnytska looked over the crowd of Ukrainians gathered in St. Petersburg on Saturday. “No matter how separated we are, we’re still together,” she said.