From sleepless nights worrying about loved ones caught in the crossfire to gratitude for the outpouring of support from neighbors, the East End’s Ukrainian community has been on an emotional roller coaster since Russian troops invaded their homeland on February 24.
The emotions boiled over as more than 150 protesters rallied on East Main Street in Riverhead four days after the invasion, calling for peace and condemning Russia’s onslaught that claimed hundreds of lives in less than a week. Protesters sang the Ukrainian national anthem — “Glory and Freedom of Ukraine has not yet Perished” — waved the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine, and held signs calling for an end to the conflict as passing cars honked in support.
“We wish that more people would understand that the war is not just happening on Ukrainian soil,” said Oleg Pozdniakov, 37, a small business owner who emigrated from Ukraine in 1998 and now calls Hampton Bays home. “It affects the whole world, starting with the European Union, with all the prices going up … now that he’s threatening with a nuclear bomb, that’s even worse. He’s not threatening just Ukraine, he’s threatening the whole world.”
The rally was among protests that broke out in cities around the world immediately following the biggest attack on a European nation since World War II, when Russian troops entered Ukraine under pretenses widely viewed as dubious — such as Russian President Vladimir Putin claiming the invasion was necessary to oppose the supposed rise of neo-Nazis under Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a Jewish descendant of Holocaust survivors. Days after the invasion, Putin put his nuclear forces on alert while world leaders worked to de-escalate the conflict.
In addition to East Enders rallying alongside Ukrainians, support has been pouring in, including on the Twin Forks, where local church leaders report a heartwarming amount of donated supplies such as clothing that will be shipped overseas.
“The response has been overwhelming,” said Bohdan Hedz, parish priest of St. John The Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church, which neighbors Polish Town in Riverhead. More bags of clothing, toiletries and other essentials to be sent to Ukraine piled up on the church steps while Hedz led the rally less than a mile away.
Meanwhile, the United States and other nations imposed sanctions on Russia’s central bank and other sources of wealth, dealing a crushing blow to the country’s economy and further punishing Moscow. Companies have also increasingly distanced themselves from Russia as a result. And days after U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who represents the East End, called on President Joe Biden to shutter the Russian-owned Killenworth Estate in Glen Cove that has housed the nation’s diplomats for 70 years, the U.S. mission to the United Nations expelled 12 Russian intelligence operatives, citing alleged espionage.
“The United States cannot let Putin’s people doing his bidding live in tax-free compounds on Long Island,” Zeldin said as hundreds of other protesters rallied outside the estate to call for an end to the war.
“This action has been in development for several months,” said U.S. mission spokesperson Olivia Dalton.
Upon issuing the expulsion order, the U.S. mission to the United Nations described the Russian diplomats as “intelligence operatives” who had been “engaging in espionage activities that are adverse to our national security.”
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told reporters the diplomats had been asked to leave by March 7. He said Russia would respond to the move “because it’s diplomatic practice.”
Nebenzia then raised the issue at the start of a U.N. Security Council meeting on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, describing the U.S. move as “hostile” and a violation of its commitments as host of the U.N. headquarters in New York.
U.S. Deputy U.N. Ambassador Richard Mills responded: “Those diplomats that have been asked to leave the United States were engaged in activities that were not in accordance with their responsibilities and obligations as diplomats.”
It was not the first time such action was taken locally. In 2016, then-President Barack Obama ordered a Russian-owned Brookville mansion described as a “recreational compound” to be closed, resulting in 35 Russian diplomats being expelled, because of Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Back at the Riverhead rally — which was attended by local officials such as Suffolk Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac), Suffolk County Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman and Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar — Hedz said one of the upshots is that some East End residents got a crash course in Eastern European geography.
“Originally, probably everybody mistook Ukraine and Russia as one country,” Hedz said. “I heard that a lot, ‘No, you’re Russian!’ But no, I’m Ukrainian, I’m not Russian. ‘But Ukraine was part of Russia.’ Yes, it was at one point. ‘So you’re Russian?’ No, I’m Ukrainian. I think by now, everybody knows that Ukraine is a different country.”
Not all issues surrounding this conflict are as easy to clarify. The most pressing question on everyone’s mind that is impossible to answer remains: How will this crisis end?
“Russians are the only ones who can stop this,” Ukrainian immigrant Vitaliy Zyulkovskyy said at the Riverhead rally. “But it’s not easy to convince them.”
~With Reuters and Long Island Press