'Sumy, Ukraina, I'm with you!'

Tuesday in northern Latvia was sunny, but still quite cold. The ice gave the impression it couldn't decide whether it should melt, and so would wait a bit longer before committing itself one way or the other.

I was driving from Cēsis to Valmiera on an errand of minor importance. Halfway between the two cities is the village of Liepa. No-one would pretend it is particularly picturesque. It has a large brickworks and a couple of years ago promoted itself as "Latvia's clay capital" on a large billboard beside the level crossing on the main Rīga-Valka train route. Evidently the marketing campaign did not attract fans of clay from far and wide. Now the billboard says 'Liepa invites!' and has a map of local tourist attractions.

On Tuesday, in the timid spring sunshine beneath that billboard stood a lone figure. She had a Ukrainian flag around her shoulders and a placard in each hand. She didn't move. She didn't shout. She just stood there, squinting slighty into the sun as cars, and occasionally a train, rolled past.

I pulled over and spoke to her. I won't quote her directly for two reasons. First, I didn't take very diligent notes. Half of my mind was on my annoying errand. Secondly, we spoke in a messy mixture of Latvian, Ukrainian, English and Russian. 

Natālija protests in Liepa

This much I was able to understand. The woman's name was Natālija. She was originally from the city of Sumy in north-east Ukraine. She turned on the TV on Tuesday morning and saw that 5 kilometres away from Sumy, there were bombs raining down. She was upset and felt powerless, so she decided to do something: to stand beneath the Liepa sign, where the cars and trains could see her, and hold up her placards saying 'No to war' and 'Sumy, Ukraina, I'm with you', in that typically neat, old-fashioned handwriting that always looks impressive to people who were never rapped across the knuckles and told to write the 'correct' way.

It is about 1,000 kilometers from Liepa to Sumy.

If I understood Natālija correctly, her neighbors were not particularly interested in her initiative. She named them all by their first names, as you do when speaking about people you have known for a long time. As she spoke, a car would occasionally pass. Some of them would honk their horns and wave. But not everyone had been friendly. Someone had called her a 'Banderist' and threatened to call the police.

Natālija protests in Liepa

What is the point of such a demonstration? There have been several demonstrations outside the Russian embassy in Rīga, a grand concert, similar actions across Europe, across the whole world. Even in Russia. These involved thousands of people. She was just one woman with two placards, even if she had doubled the value of both of them by writing on both sides and ocasionally turning them around to give the cars and trains a little bit of variety.

The cynical view would be that these public demonstrations have changed nothing. That they are 'virtue signalling', that adding a flag to your social media profile, saying how shocked you are, retweeting, sharing, singing, even praying does not make any difference at all. Yet still a sense of basic humanity drives people to speak, share, sing and pray. Perhaps even a hope that such things might make a difference in some mysterious and unknown manner that we cannot comprehend, and that they accumulate as drops of water form first a puddle, then a stream, a river, a lake, an ocean. If the last few years have shown us anything, it is that we are not as clever or as in control of the world as we like to think.

I wished Natālija luck and returned to my car. I ran my errand in Valmiera. An hour later I returned, and when I passed through Liepa she was still there, squinting into the sun, holding up her placards. The air temperature had edged up by about one degree. Very, very slowly the ice was starting to melt. 

Natālija protests in Liepa
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