Anastasia Khromova watched the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine slide up the flagpole and catch the wind at the B.C. legislature Thursday.
Behind her, waving flags and holding signs, other members of Victoria’s Ukrainian community spontaneously began to sing Ukraine’s national anthem.
“It’s bittersweet. It actually means a lot and we appreciate it,” Khromova said at the hastily organized rally condemning Russia’s invasion of their homeland.
Nadiya Korduba was overcome when she heard the national anthem and turned away until her tears subsided. Through a translator, she said the anthem is precious to Ukrainians.
“It states that we are strong, that we survive against any enemies. … We were all crying and fighting the emotions and we really hope that we can help and be strong for our relatives and ourselves. Singing those songs helps us to root back to them and feel connected,” she said.
Although a Russian invasion had loomed for some time, Korduba said she never expected it would happen.
“We are very shocked and we want to offer moral support for Ukrainian Canadians and moral support for Ukraine.”
Like many in the crowd, she had spent a restless night worrying about relatives in the Ukraine. But she is thankful for Europe, the U.S. and “especially for Canada for the great support they give to all Ukrainians.”
Across town, the phone was ringing off the hook at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre as office administrator Victoria Grando tried to help people seeking information about the unfolding situation.
Local members of the Ukrainian community kept calling one another Wednesday night, exchanging information, she said. “What [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants is panic and fear, of course. That’s why everyone is saying: ‘Do not panic. Do not leave the cities. Do not go crazy. Go and work and try to be calm as much as you can.’ Putin wants people to stop working to paralyze the country.”
Ukrainian officials warned people to only trust information from official government sites. Schools and daycares in the country were closed for the day, but essential workers were asked to go to work, she said.
Grando, who is married to a man of Russian descent, said in Russia, people are organizing rallies against the war in Ukraine. “Finally, they are waking up, but it’s really hard there,” she said. “People are afraid that they will be imprisoned or killed. Anything that you say against Putin and you’re gone. That’s the scary part.”
Tamara Krawchenko, an assistant professor in the school of public administration at the University of Victoria, said her sister is fleeing Kyiv, the capital, and trying to find somewhere safe in western Ukraine.
“Bombs are falling and Russia wants to take the capital and murder the elite,” Krawchenko said. “It looks like they have lists of people they just want to come and kill.”
Krawchenko said Ukraine has a long history of fighting oppression. “My own family has had to fight the Russian chauvinist imperialist system for a very long time. My grandfather was shipped off to Siberia to die in a work camp. He lived somehow and made it back. Meanwhile, the rest of his family were starved to death during the man-made famine under Stalin.”
Ukrainians want nothing more than to have freedom, to be a normal functioning democracy, Krawchenko said.
“And it’s been doing well under incredible pressure from the Kremlin that wants it to fail. And Putin can’t handle this. So he launched a hybrid war, took a chunk of Ukraine, took Crimea and has been trying to make Ukraine fail. But yet it perseveres and has been doing incredible democratic reforms, decentralization reforms, anti-corruption efforts, innovation and energy efficiencies to get off Russian oil and gas.”
Putin’s language is the language of imperialism, colonialism and genocide, she said. “He’s talking about annihilating Ukrainians. It’s abhorrent and that’s what the international community has to understand.”
But don’t count Ukrainians out, said Krawchenko.
“They are fighting for their freedom, for their right to exist. Russians are fighting for imperialism and kleptocracy. Make no mistake — Putin is the biggest thief of them all stealing from the Russian people.”
She recommends people watch the documentary Winter on Fire on Netflix to learn Ukrainian history. They can also counter Kremlin disinformation by spreading information from respected websites, she said.
Another rally will be held Sunday at 12:30 at the legislature.
Volunteers at the cultural centre are making cabbage rolls that will be sold on Friday between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to raise money for humanitarian relief for Ukraine.