‘These are human beings.’ How Pa.’s Ukrainian community is responding to Russian invasion

‘This invasion totally changes not only world order, but even relationships between countries,’ Bishop Andriy Rabiy said of Russian’s invasion of Ukraine

By: - February 24, 2022 4:35 pm

VILNIUS, LITHUANIA – FEBRUARY 24: People hold flags and posters during a protest against Russian attack on Ukraine near the Russian Embassy, on February 24, 2022 in Vilnius, Lithuania. Overnight, Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with explosions reported in multiple cities and far outside the restive eastern regions held by Russian-backed rebels. (Photo by Paulius Peleckis/Getty Images)

Shocked and in disbelief — but hopeful.

That’s what Andriy Rabiy, auxiliary bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, felt when Russia, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, invaded Ukraine by air and ground invasions in major cities early Thursday morning.

“Even though we heard about warnings of invasion, but when it actually started, it was so hard to imagine that it is possible — especially in our time,” Rabiy told the Capital-Star. “This invasion totally changes not only world order, but even relationships between countries.”

Philadelphia hosts a robust Ukrainian community, with more than 15,000 Ukrainian immigrants calling the city home. And groups such as the Ukrainian League of Philadelphia and the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center in neighboring Montgomery County have feared and advocated against a Russian invasion for months.

Now, they’re ramping up efforts to support Ukraine through rallies, marches, and religious services. Organizers have launched fundraisers for the Ukrainian military and called on the United States to support Ukraine and boycott Russian goods.

On Wednesday, Rabiy said a crowd of 50 to 60 people gathered on short notice for spiritual service to call for peace. And more events are planned now that Russia has invaded Ukraine. He thinks more people have realized Putin’s “real intentions,” which he described as wanting to expand, conquer, and subdue.

“They try to control everything,” he said. “And really, for Russia, they don’t have much regard for human beings as individuals.”

In a televised speech, Putin claimed the attack, which follows a long-term conflict between Ukraine and Russian separatists and months of troop and tank buildups, aims to disarm the Ukrainian military — not occupy Ukraine. He also threatened any foreign nation trying to interfere with “consequences you have never faced in your history.”

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania and historian of Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union, refuted statements made by Putin in his declaration of war. 

In an interview with the Capital-Star, she said the speech “plays on eight years of disinformation against the Ukrainian government, following Russia’s illegal occupation and annexation of Crimea and Russia’s support of occupied eastern Ukraine.”

“And they’ve used this disinformation as Ukraine being ruled by fascists, being ruled by Nazis,” she said, adding that Russia has “played up the presence” of far-right groups in Ukraine. “However, they aren’t ruling the government.”

Her initial reaction to the attack, which started to play out in the United States late Wednesday night, was to cry. 

But as a historian living in the United States, she’s trying to combat disinformation as the attack continues, she said — recommending The Kyiv Independent and The New Voice of Ukraine for reliable information.

Rabiy’s brother is in Ukraine. As of Thursday morning, after they exchanged messages, he said it was “pretty much quiet” in the western part of Ukraine, other than some who rushed to the grocery store or to make cash withdrawals, Rabiy said, recounting a conversation with his brother.

Some friends still in Ukraine are “bunkering down,” while her colleagues have left, with some in Poland, Julian-Varnon said.

This invasion totally changes not only world order, but even relationships between countries.

– Bishop Andriy Rabiy

Lines of cars have moved out of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital and most populous city. Others have taken shelter in subway stations and bomb shelters as air raid sirens rang. Some Ukrainians have started to flee to Poland, as a “difficult situation” developed in Kharkiv, the second-largest city, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said. 

“For all of these cities to be hit at once, it was shocking,” Julian-Varnon said. “Shocking.”

The Associated Press reported that Russian forces seized control of the area around the now-unused Chernobyl plant.

“It was surreal to see Kyiv and Odesa — two of my favorite cities, two the cities I worked in and researched in — being bombarded,” Julian-Varnon said. “I think the surprise came from the magnitude of the invasion. I really expected low-level fighting, an invasion from the east to occupied regions.”

As a Soviet historian, Julian-Varnon said people often ask: “Why would you have hope?”

Her response: “Because I’ve met Ukrainian people. They’re some of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and I know how much they love their country. And I really, I have to have hope that Ukraine will survive and that Putin will be punished.”

Rabiy’s hope comes from the Ukrainian people — describing them as having “desire and longing for freedom and liberty.”

And as the situation continues to develop, Julian-Varnon doesn’t want people to forget that Ukraine is home “to millions of people who want safety.”

“They want to be able to wake up in the morning, take their kids to school. They want to be able to go to college. They want to have a future. They want to have a democratic future, and that’s under attack,” she said. “And we have to remember that these are people. These are human beings.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.