Volume 74, Number 32 | December 15 - 21, 2004

East Village goes orange, as Ukrainians show colors

By Justin Rocket Silverman

Villager photos by Anna Sawaryn

At Kurowycky butcher shop on First Ave., an orange ribbon hangs above a popular shopping bag, which reads: “I believe. I know. We can. Yes. Yushchenko.”

The line at the Self Reliance Federal Credit Union in the East Village has been a little longer than usual lately, as residents of all five boroughs come in to deposit money — in someone else’s account.

That someone is the Philadelphia-based United Ukrainian American Relief Committee, a 60-year-old organization that has lately focused its energy on supporting Ukraine’s opposition presidential candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, and his populist “Orange Revolution.” The ongoing political upheaval in the Ukraine that caused nearly a million people to surge through the streets of Kiev last month has stirred the hearts of first-, second- and even third-generation Ukrainian immigrants living in New York City.

“We’ve seen plenty of older people, seniors who live on a fixed pension, come in and make very generous donations,” said Genya Kuzmowycz Blahy, C.E.O. of the Self Reliance Federal Credit Union. “It’s like what’s going on now in Ukraine is the chance these older people have been waiting on for 50 years.”

Blahy said donations through the account at her credit union recently exceeded $100,000 — money that is used to help protesters living in a spontaneous tent city outside government offices in Ukraine.

The East Village is home to one of the largest and longest-standing Ukrainian populations in the United States. St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church on E. Seventh St. has been a neighborhood fixture since 1911, and its majestic cathedral still serves as the community’s unofficial capital. After demonstrations broke out in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities, orange ribbons went up in the neighborhood to show solidarity with protestors and condemn the widespread voter fraud that overshadowed Yushchenko’s defeat on Nov. 21.

“The community of immigrants that arrived recently is taking this very seriously, as their identity is at stake,” said Reverend Bernard Panczuk of St. George’s. “But it’s also an awakening for members of the community who were born here that they need to stand up for their country if they want it to be free.”

Panczuk called this a window of opportunity for Ukraine, a chance for the nation to assert itself after a long history of repression and control at the hands of Russia. Yushchenko is widely favored among the more liberal demographic in Ukraine that wants a closer relationship to the West instead of the traditional close ties with Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stated his support for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, Yushchenko’s opponent who was declared the winner in last month’s election by the current Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma.

“Kuchma does not even speak Ukrainian very well,” said Jerry Kurowyckyj of Kurowycky Meat Products on First Ave. in the East Village. “His wife does not speak Ukrainian at all, she only speaks Russian. Yushchenko and the Orange Revolution is our first and last chance for true democracy and independence from Russia.”

In addition to monetary donations, East Village Ukrainians are organizing petition drives and phone lists to lobby elected officials in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the Orange Revolution. Some New Yorkers are even planning to fly back to Ukraine in the coming weeks to volunteer as poll monitors on Dec. 26, the date of a new election after the previous vote was declared invalid by the nation’s Supreme Court. Considering the reports of violence and intimidation that marred the first election, the volunteer poll monitors may be putting themselves at risk. Training sessions for those planning to travel to Ukraine later in the month are scheduled at the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, also in the East Village.

One Ukrainian who has already returned home is Vitali Klitschko, who said he considered canceling a heavyweight title fight in Las Vegas last Saturday. Instead he used the fight, and his resounding victory, to promote the Orange Revolution by wearing an orange flag during the match. It is the same flag that now flies off bars, restaurants and homes throughout the Ukrainian community in the East Village.

“I support Klitschko because he supports Yushchenko,” said Nazar Stryhun, 32, outside the Ukrainian Sports Club on Second Ave. Saturday night. Stryhun was wearing an orange shirt with the word “Tak” emblazoned across the front. Tak is Ukrainian for “yes,” and is a rallying cry for Yushchenko supporters.

“Yushchenko won in the first and second round of voting. He will also win in the third round and then he will be champion, just like in boxing,” said Stryhun. (The first round included about 80 candidates.) An all-night vigil is planned at St. George’s Ukrainian Catholic Church on the night of Dec. 26, when the former Soviet republic of Ukraine makes another attempt at holding free and fair elections.

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