After Ukraine’s bloodiest week in decades, members of Chicago’s Ukrainian community prayed Sunday and pondered the uncertain future of a country in turmoil.
They grieved in church and in the streets of Chicago for hundreds of protesters killed or injured in clashes overseas between Ukrainian protesters and police.
A group of solemn beer drinkers leaned against the bar at the Ukrainian American Club, a tavern on Chicago Avenue in Ukrainian Village, and watched a flat-screen TV that showed the caskets of slain countrymen being carried through thousands of mourners gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square.
The names of the dead should be put on street signs, said Nataly Koulbanska, a bartender who grew up in Ukraine before moving to Chicago.
For Koulbanska, their sacrifice was personal.
“That’s for my life, for my parents’ life, for all Ukrainian people . . . These people, you should take your hat off and say just thank you, is hero. Hero 100 percent.”
At the Ukrainian National Museum, 2249 W. Superior, curator Maria Klimchak pondered the future of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
“He should go to jail and every day should have to look into the eyes of the parents who lost a child,” Klimchak said Sunday. She said she wishes she could substitute her life for the life of a dead protester.
“If someone is going to die, it’s better that it would be me,” she said. “They are young. They are the future of Ukraine and will build a democratic society.”
Tears flowed among many Ukrainian Americans in the Chicago area who have been glued to 24-hour news coverage of the anti-government protests in Kiev that left at least 82 people dead and forced Yanukovych to flee his opulent presidential palace in Kiev. With nearly 50,000 Ukrainian Americans, the Chicago area has one of the largest Ukrainian communities in the United States, according to census data.
Anya Maziak said she sat at her desk and cried last week at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where she works as a fundraiser. Her computer screen was filled with images of chaos and bloody violence that lead to a revolution in Ukraine, where she has roots.
“My heart was breaking while all of this was happening,” said Maziak, 31, who grew up in Chicago with a strong Ukrainian identity imbued by her parents, who emigrated during World War II.
“It’s hard to have that moment of celebration, because so many people were killed and there’s so much work to be done, and it’s such a slippery slope,” Maziak said Sunday at the museum, where she is a volunteer.
Outside the offices of Ukraine’s consulate general on Huron Street on Sunday afternoon, a large crowd gathered around a black casket for a 90-minute vigil honoring the dead.
Among them was Oksana Leseiko, of Chicago, who said the casualties include her cousin’s husband. She said a sniper’s bullet tore through 32-year-old Vitaliy Katsiuba’s helmet and into his head Thursday in Kiev. He left behind two small children, she said.
“It’s horrific the way they slaughtered those people that day,” Leseiko said.
Svetlana Kovtun, 30, of Schaumburg, has been communicating via Skype with family members in the Ukrainian capital. She immigrated to the United States with her parents in 1994 to escape corruption and religious persecution.
“They’ve tried not to go outside,” she said. “They live in the heart of Kiev and were hiding inside their homes.”
Kovtun, whose mother sold coal for the Ukrainian Army, remembers teachers demanding bribes and doctors giving her incorrect medication when she was sick.
“That’s why I’m so grateful to the people who stood up and gave their lives fighting for freedom,” she said.
At St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, 835 N. Oakley, on Sunday, the Rev. Bohdan Nalysnyk told worshippers not to forget the sacrifice made last week by the protesters.
“We must pray for our fallen heroes in Ukraine, for everything they’ve given to our great country,” Nalysnyk said after a service Sunday.
The protests in Kiev began in November, when Yanukovych reneged on a deal to move the country closer to the European Union.
On Saturday, he reportedly fled to eastern Ukraine, his main base of support. Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison and spoke Saturday to a crowd of about 50,000 people on the Maidan, Kiev’s town square.
That news was welcomed by the Illinois division of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, which called on the Ukrainian government this weekend to end the violence and restore its people’s rights to free speech and assembly.
It also called for free and fair presidential elections as soon as possible.
“This event has vaccinated the upcoming Ukrainian youth so they understand the price of freedom,” said Alex Striltschuk, the group’s president. “So they will know what kind of value we put on freedom and what you have to do to achieve it.”
Striltschuk’s group led the vigil Sunday outside the offices of the Ukrainian consulate general. Participants there prayed, chanted and even sometimes clashed as emotions over the bloodshed ran high. When it was over, they left behind a small memorial of flowers, candles and signs.
One simply read, “Pray for Ukraine.”