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Local Ukrainians decry Russian invasion of their homeland as attack on democracy

Artem Laptiev, an MIT student from Ukraine, chants and holds a sign during a rally to support Ukraine at the State House.
Jesse Costa
Artem Laptiev, an MIT student from Ukraine, chants and holds a sign during a rally to support Ukraine at the State House.

By Steve Brown, Simón Rios, Hannah Chanatry, Jack Mitchell

About a hundred people rallied at the State House in Boston Thursday in support of Ukraine as the Eastern European nation stares down a large-scale invasion by Russian military forces.

The show of solidarity, anger and grief was a public display of the emotions that many residents across Massachusetts are feeling privately as they watch the crisis unfold.

Demonstrators carrying blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags sang patriotic songs and chanted, "Putin go home" — referencing Russian President Vladimir Putin — and, "Stop the war."

Among them was MIT graduate student Artem Laptiev, who's from a Ukrainian town about 12 miles from the Russian border. He called the invasion an attack on freedom and the fundamentals of democracy.

"If this is not really stopped at this point, it has the potential to grow into something that cannot be stopped at all," Laptiev said.

The Beacon Hill demonstration came as the state's all-Democratic congressional delegation condemned the Russian invasion in public remarks online, and just hours before President Biden announced stiff new penalties targeting Russia's economy.

Slava Oleinik traveled to the rally from Framingham, where he lives with his family. Oleinik said he still has relatives in Ukraine. He grew up there when the country was still part of the Soviet Union.

He said he's angry about what Russia has done, and that he is willing and ready to fight in his homeland.

"They're attacking a sovereign country that has done nothing," Oleinik said.

Olha Shirpa was visibly upset as she and some friends wrapped themselves in a huge Ukrainian flag. She runs a local business, but her parents and other friends remain in Ukraine.

Shirpa said she fears for their safety — and that some loved ones are in the process of fleeing Ukraine's large cities because of the Russian threat.

Not everyone at the rally was from Ukraine.

Harvard student Jan Kryca stood with others holding a flag from his native Poland.

"I'm Polish, but what I am is Eastern European, and I stand with Ukraine," Kryca said. "This is our problem, and there is no two nations who are closer allied than Poland than Ukraine. We both want democracy, freedom to be part of the West, to be European. We don't want to be part of Russia's corrupt tyranny and oppression."

Ukrainians at the rally urged people to lobby Congress to support the Biden administration's sanctions. They also asked people to donate funds to help support the Ukrainian military as it tries to fight back Russian troops.

Some Americans with Massachusetts ties that remained in Ukraine amid the invasion expressed fear Thursday. Many said they were grappling with whether they should leave.

Writer Helen and her husband Leon spent years in the Bay State before moving to Kyiv. WBUR agreed to use only their first names because of their concerns about safety in the evolving situation in Ukraine. Helen spoke with WBUR from the city Thursday — describing subway tunnels used as bomb shelters and the distant sound of shelling.

"What a disaster that we have lived through — Sept. 11, and then COVID, a revolution in Ukraine and now the war," she said. "It's troublesome."

Helen said she and her husband want other countries to take stronger action against Russia, adding the invasion is a threat to all of Europe.

Leon, her husband, said Biden's sanctions, which primarily target Russian banks and the country's technology sector, do not go far enough.

"It is not a war of Russia against Ukraine. It is a war of Russia against the world order that we know," he said, adding it is not possible for him to leave Kyiv right now.

He said he and his wife will only start considering that option if the roads open and flights return.

Meanwhile, shoppers in a Russian grocery store, Bazaar Supermarket in Brookline, had an array of strong opinions on the Russian invasion.

"Monster Putin. Monster," said Tamara Lutova, who moved to Boston from Moscow 15 years ago.

With some translation help from a store clerk, Lutova added that she has great love for the people of Ukraine.

"So much Russian people have parents or family in Ukraine," Lutova said. "It's brothers national and we don't want to be a fight with each other."

Massachusetts is home to roughly 76,000 immigrants from Eastern Europe.

According to the Census, about a quarter of those are Russians. The next largest groups are Poles and, Ukrainians, But there are many other nations represented here.

Irina Kogan of Brookline belongs to the state’s small Belarusian community.

She’s a retired Russian language teacher, and says she understands why Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine.

"Putin doesn’t want American bases in the Ukraine," she said. "He’s defending his people. I don’t like him. He is too demanding. But but he’s clever. You can’t deny that."

One man at the deli counter in Brookline said he supports Putin. But when I asked to record him, he shook his head, and said he didn’t want to stir up any trouble.

A young Russian woman who didn’t want to be quoted told said she and almost every Russian she knows opposes Putin and his war — but she’s afraid local Ukrainians will still blame her for the war.

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