Anyone who has watched the evening news over the last month has seen the dramatic images of the civil unrest sweeping through Ukraine.
Since the protests, known as Euromaidan, over now-ousted president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to stop Ukraine from entering on the path to potentially joining the European Union in the future began last November, over 100 protesters and a dozen law enforcement agents have been killed.
Halfway around the world, in Queens, several Ukrainian-American priests, like Vasile Tivadar of St. Mary’s Ukrainian Church in Woodhaven, are praying for a swift resolution to the violence tearing the nation apart.
“We are praying that the wisdom of the people in the Ukrainian government will lead the nation to peace,” Tivadar said. “My hope, as a person of the church, is for those people in Ukraine, if they want real freedom and peace, to live as brothers and sisters in the same country.”
Over the last four months, such hope has been endangered.
Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that became an independent nation after the breakup of the USSR in 1991, has been a nation of two mentalities over the last decade.
The western, more progressive half of the nation has supported strengthening ties with Europe and a possible inclusion into the European Union, while the eastern half of Ukraine supports a continued strong bond with Russia.
In December, the protesters rallied against Yanukovych’s $15 billion deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin involving the purchase of Ukrainian government bonds, a deal many demonstrators believed to be the reason why the potential agreement with the EU was suspended.
In Astoria, Holy Cross Ukrainian Church Associate Pastor Christopher Woytyna says his parish is praying for peace, but prayers only go so far while citizens defend themselves from sniper fire and a future of strong Russian influence over Ukraine.
“We pray every day, but what can we do? Thank God that some of the violence has stopped for now,” Woytyna said. “The protesters were peaceful, but they had to defend themselves somehow. Putin was the one who caused the problem because Yanukovych was going to sign the agreement with the European Union, but Putin gave him money and the next day, he changed his mind.”
Community Board 5 member Dmytro Fedkowskyj, whose father was born in Ukraine, agrees with Woytyna when it comes to Russia’s potentially shady dealings with the former Soviet republic, and says that, when boiled down to the basics, the protesters are fighting for Ukrainian freedom.
“We need all parties involved to take a step back and work though the difficulties of the situation with mediation,” Fedkowskyj said. “But if that doesn’t work, I do believe the Ukrainian people have a right to organize and fight for freedom and democracy. It’s important to understand that they aren’t just fighting for themselves, they are fighting for the freedom of generations to come.”
Queens College professor of political science Julie George believes, while the situation appears grim, that a full-blown civil war would be very unlikely, much like a potential Russian invasion to secure assets in the eastern half of Ukraine.
“The country has rejected corruption,” George said of the ouster of Yanukovych. “That is something most Ukrainians are united on, a country free of corruption.
“The Russians will not be silent, whether they will be visible is the question,” she continued. “The Russians will not permit themselves to lose control of Ukraine, but I think [military action] is very unlikely. They have very little reason to do so. With the president gone, there are very important pro-Russian people that remain in Ukraine.”
Sergey Kadinsky, a staffer for Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills) and a man of Ukrainian descent, also doubts a civil war will break out, as the protesters are a careful people, but that doesn’t mean the tension will be gone anytime soon.
“Even as the protests raged in Kyiv, the city’s subway kept running. When the president’s countryside home was overrun by protesters, they took care not to loot it,” Kadinsky said in an email. “I doubt there will be a civil war, let alone one with Russia, but if you’ve seen the fist fights in the country’s parliament, it’s a place where tempers can flare up quickly.”
Ukrainian-American tempers have already flared up as well, as a rally outside of the Ukrainian Consulate General’s building in Manhattan on Sunday saw around 1,000 people, including state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), attend.
According to reports, those at the rally sang patriotic songs, held signs, waved flags and heckled Ukrainian Consul General Igor Sybiga as he apologized to the crowd for previous anti-Euromaidan statements his office made.
St. Mary’s Ukrainian Church hosted a service of its own on Sunday, a somber vigil at the church to commemorate the victims of the violence.
Chabad of Rego Park Executive Director Eli Blokh says a prayer vigil of his congregation is in the planning stages, but an exact date and location have not been decided yet.
While Tivadar says his parish is hopeful for a peaceful resolution to the strife, the Ukrainian Jews in Blokh’s area are on edge.
“The general sense that I get is that people are apprehensive; they aren’t really sure how things are going to go,” Blokh said. “People are very anxious.”
Anxiety may be one emotion felt by Ukrainians regarding the future of the nation, but Tivadar is still holding out hope for peace.
“It is very sad, what is happening,” he said. “But I know God will help.”
Editor's note: The word "Euromaidan" was added to this article's headline on March 3 to make clear which protesters it is about, since other rallies of other kinds have broken out in Ukraine as the situation there develops.
At the core of the crisis in the Ukraine is a battle between the centuries-long influence Russia has had there and the country’s desire to develop closer ties with Western Europe.
Ukraine did not exist as a country before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Before that it was a republic within the USSR and before that, control over what is now the Ukraine varied. The eastern third of the country and the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea were a key part of the Russian Empire for centuries. The cities of Sevastopol and Odessa were Russia’s only warm water ports and allowed the country to be open to sea trade with Europe and Asia through the 19th century. Its population remains largely Russian. The western two-thirds of what is now Ukraine was part of the medieval nations of Lithuania and Poland and most of the population there descends from those countries.
Because of this history, modern Ukraine has more ties — economically and socially — with Russia. Much of the country’s infrastructure, including roads, rails and the power grid, is connected to Russia, and very little is connected to the rest of Europe across the rugged Carpathian Mountains.
Though airplanes, icebreaker ships and the development of Black Sea ports on Russian soil, such as Sochi, have made the Crimea less important to Russia, it is still psychologically important to Russian history. The country fought numerous wars over the land, including the Crimean War in the 1850s against the European powers. Millions of Russians died during World War II fighting Nazi Germany for control over what is now Ukraine.
The current strife began in 2004, when Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-Europe Ukrainian, ran against the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, the recently ousted president. Yanukovych declared victory as accusations flew that Russia had rigged the vote in his favor.
Yushchenko was declared the winner after several weeks of mass protests and an assassination attempt in which Yushchenko was poisoned and left disfigured. He appointed Yulia Tymoshenko prime minister and together they advocated closer ties to the European Union, but their government faltered.
In 2010, Yanukovych defeated Tymoshenko for the presidency and she later went to prison on corruption charges, which pro-European groups allege were trumped up.
Last November, Yanukovych decided to stop a trade agreement with the European Union, which angered the pro-European majority in the country and led to the protests which spiraled into the violence that was seen this month.