Thirty thousand small acts of defiance

As the stars on Freedom Monument glittered in the spring sun, tens of thousands of people marched on from Milda, as the sculpted woman on the monument is affectionately called, to the Ukrainian Embassy in Rīga on Saturday in a show of solidarity with tens of millions facing senseless war in a peace-loving country.

To many, being together at the march served as relief from mediated horrors, scenes of carnage, news of children dying, official obscenities coming from the Kremlin, and a general feeling of helplessness since Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24. To many others with relatives and friends in Ukraine it served as a reminder that they are not alone.

While the march had many goals, the chief of which was evident in the countless Ukrainian flags and posters sporting its blue and yellow, the way it actually turned out, was first and foremost about reasserting the social bond between the diverse groups of people living in Latvia.

It was a relief for me because, for the first days of the war, like many others, I was unable to sleep, eat or work with any measure of success. I have cried most of the days, too, as have many others, to the point of it becoming a nuisance. I could only find relief as I walked around Rīga, observing how the city had changed to reflect its current mood.

An outdoor shop displayed blue and yellow sleeping bags in its window, for example. Mannequins in clothing store fronts would, more often than not, also sport these colors. There were small acts of defiance, like the Pauls Stradiņš Medicine History Museum next door to Russia’s embassy proudly displaying the Ukrainian flag of a clear sky and a good and fertile land.

These small gestures don’t do anything to help Ukraine directly, but make people stronger in their commitment. They certainly put my mind at ease, being physical, tangible testimony that almost everyone recognizes that this is not normal and that the center can hold, for now. We don’t want to help in order to feel good, but we have to be in reasonable spirits to be able to help. The trajectory of these gestures culminated with people getting together, in person, to support one another on Saturday.

 

As the march drew to a halt at the Ukrainian Embassy after passing Russia’s Embassy where some comic relief, albeit in pathetic form, was provided by employees peeking from the curtains, speeches were made in an area shaded by the trees of Kronvalda Park, a subtly solemn contrast to the sunny open air of the rest of the route. The crowd chanting “Freedom for Ukraine!” drowned out bits of the speeches, but for all of that there were some which stood out.

Sergejs Timofejevs, a Rigan poet writing in Russian, rose to the occasion by drawing from his experience of the August putsch of 1991. He recalled being right there at Kronvalda Park and seeing Soviet special forces about to storm the Interior Ministry. An officer let a young couple through but told them: “On the double. From now on, you will have to do everything on the double.” Later that same evening, as Sergejs recalled, Latvia’s people, including Russian speakers, stood their ground peacefully against armed patrols in the city.

“Putin and his generals hoped that they could just say, ‘On the double!’, and Ukraine would run. It did not come to pass. Ukrainians and Ukraine’s Russians are fighting together. For Kharkiv, for Kyiv,” Sergejs said.

“We, too, have to be united to endure this trial and to overcome the shock and fear over what’s happening in Ukraine. [..] We know that complicated times are ahead of us. But we don’t want, not one of us, to do anything ‘on the double’, on someone else’s orders,” he said, concluding with a plea to Latvia’s Russian speakers not to stay indifferent and to stand up for Latvia and Ukraine, as bombs do not discriminate by nationality.

Also among the speakers was Dana Isarova, a doctor whose father moved to Latvia from Ukraine at a young age. Isarova, who is also a popular socialite often weighing in on matters of public importance, has a Neptunian glow about her, a ‘something’ that some people have and which invariably puts those around them on their best behavior. It was therefore very saddening to see her upset.

Isarova underscored her family ties to Ukraine and the tragedy that is within arm’s reach of her relatives who are sheltering in Chernihiv, Eastern Ukraine. In a particularly emotional moment, she quoted her grandmother, or babushka, as Slavic grandmothers are properly called, who told her: “I have never had and will never have any weapons. All that I have left is praying, and praying for my enemy. So that he may stop and think.”

Isarova concluded by thanking those present. “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are already an ocean in yourself. And now you’re a tsunami, which will drown Putin and his regime. Slava Ukraine!”

It was an orderly but by no means cheerful event. It was full of determination. Some of the faces I had seen before in three different earlier protests, testifying to an understanding that we are in this for the long haul, if need be.

That is not to say there are no differences. Trying to grasp the situation on my walks around Rīga I also skimmed the Russian-language tabloids published here. One sported a headline, How the Sanctions will Impact Latvia. The issue had no other reference to the war. It is of course a tired mantra dating back to Russia's Skripal poisonings and the invasion of Crimea, and conveniently forgetting that Russia has little to offer economically except energy in a world that’s already accelerating the switch to green as a direct reaction to Putin’s aggression.

Then there was a poet acquaintance who had recently moved to St. Petersburg. He took to social media to air his grievances about Western sanctions. After being shown an official response that sanctions would be lifted if Russia withdraws, he retorted, “We’ll see what happens when Russia wins the war.”

Concurrently, a young and frail friend, also from St. Petersburg, told me that a girlfriend of hers had just been jailed for protesting the war. She herself had gotten away with a warning, for now. There is spiritedness in unexpected places and pusillanimity where you’d hope for better.

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