fb-pixel Skip to main content

War in Ukraine, an awakening at home

Grand gestures and smashing vodka bottles won’t stop Putin’s tanks.

Demonstrators in Boston march during a rally in support of Ukraine on Feb. 27.Steven Senne/Associated Press

On a sunny Sunday in Boston there was an awakening.

The blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag was everywhere it seemed. For more than an hour, thousands of demonstrators marched along Newbury Street, on to Boylston Street toward Boston Common — their numbers enough to command attention, their message enough to command respect.

It takes a lot to get the attention of Americans largely focused on their own problems these days — the coronavirus pandemic, inflation, racial injustice, and chart-topping political divisions.

Yet somehow the simple good-versus-evil, democracy-versus-autocracy battle seen in Ukraine’s brave defense of its homeland against the assault of President Vladimir Putin of Russia has finally penetrated the American psyche.


Perhaps it’s the old American fondness for underdogs, for those who fight bravely against overwhelming odds.

But when the thousands with signs and flags, balloons and sunflowers, can make shoppers bent on a February bargain stop for a moment, applaud, and give a thumbs-up, well, that’s something.

And the marchers told the story of this conflict in a CliffsNotes way that political pundits never could. Signs identified “Latvians for Ukraine,” “Lithuanians for Ukraine,” even “Russians for Ukraine,” who can demonstrate here without the fear of arrest that has been the fate of thousands in the Motherland.. “Taiwanese for Ukraine” tells us more than we need to know about the consequences for a world in which one global power is allowed to topple a thriving democracy.

Boston City Hall and the Zakim Bridge were lit by night in yellow and blue — as was the Eiffel Tower, Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, and Rome’s Coliseum. Even “Saturday Night Live,” faced with the impossible task of making people here laugh while people in Ukraine are huddled in subway tunnels, opened with the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York singing “A Prayer for Ukraine.” And in New Hampshire state liquor stores are removing Russian vodka from the shelves.


Ah, yes, we Americans are very good at gestures. Surely there is a hashtag or two already making the rounds because we so love hashtags too.

For Anna Ogrenchuk this war isn’t about lights or hashtags, it’s about saving her homeland.

When we met in 2016, she was a partner in a high-powered law firm in Kyiv, a wife, and a mother. At the time Crimea had already been captured by Russia, the Donbas was under siege by Russian-supported separatists, but there were also signs of hope for a Ukraine that could finally rid itself of its old corrupt ways.

Nothing told the story of those times better than the sculpture discovered when Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych was forced to depart his expansive palace and return to the safety of his Russian handlers. It was of a large loaf of bread crafted in solid gold. The bread quickly became a symbol of derision of the old regime, replicated in small gold-leafed loaves of real bread used as centerpieces at restaurants and wedding venues — a reason to remember and to laugh.

There was just such a bread on the table when Anna and I last had dinner in Kyiv.

Today she is president of the Ukrainian Bar Association and the fight isn’t simply against corruption, it’s for the survival of her country and those around her.

She shared the association’s plea with me — a statement released in the early morning hours of Feb. 24 as Russia launched its attack. It called for the international community to provide weapons and armor so that Ukraine can defend itself, to impose sanctions on Russia “in areas that are critical to the economy and military,” to disconnect Russia from the SWIFT banking system, to impose personal sanctions against Russia’s ruling and business elite, and to cancel the visas of all Russian citizens until the withdrawal of Russian forces.


Slowly — much too slowly — the United States and the international community are working their way through that checklist, awakening to the realities of a 21st-century war on European soil.

Anna has spent her career fighting to uphold the rule of law. She is as brave as she is brilliant, waging her war of words, raising awareness, and raising money where and when she can for the cause.

Because in the end, she knows words aren’t enough. And they are certainly no match for Putin’s tanks and bombs.

Neither are flags and sunflowers thousands of miles away. But what the flags, the sunflowers, and the marches can do is create awareness of a distant war and of a people in need of our help — not later, but now.

Rachelle G. Cohen is a Globe opinion writer. She can be reached at rachelle.cohen@globe.com.