A field of Ukrainian flags — yellow for wheat, blue for the sky — bloomed outside Philadelphia City Hall on Friday as 200 people gathered to condemn the Russian invasion and demand greater American support for the embattled Black Sea nation.
Honking cars, bearing pro-Ukraine signs and banners, circled the building, adding a noisy soundtrack to a raw and emotional demonstration. It came as a military battle ensued for control of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
Some speakers wept. A Russian man apologized to the crowd. The chants were numerous, loud, and anti-Putin.
The sun came out — at least briefly, a break on a day when the cold and drizzle mirrored the news coming out of Ukraine.
“I can’t be back home shooting Russians, so this is the only thing I can do,” said Max Koshel, 33, who came to the rally with his wife, Samantha, 33, from their home in Elkins Park.
He was born and partly raised in the western Ukraine city of Lviv, and came to the United States at age 11. Both worry about the fate of family members now in harm’s way.
“All my in-laws are there,” she said. “To see them struggling and in pain, wondering if their country is even going to exist. ...”
Ukrainians at the rally drew the backing of speakers and attendees representing multiple communities here — Latvian, Georgian, Polish, Jewish, and African American.
“You are not standing by yourself,” the Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia, told the crowd. “We are all here together.”
People clapped as Alexander Kashapov stepped to the podium — and he waved away the applause.
“As a Russian, I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve your support,” he said. “I’m ashamed to be Russian. There’s nothing to be proud of.”
Kashapov, 42, immigrated to Philadelphia from Moscow five years ago, and on Thursday stood with a Ukrainian flag draped around his shoulders.
“My suit doesn’t fit the weather, because it’s cold. This flag keeps me warm,” he said, starting to choke up. “I’m sorry Ukraine. I’m sorry Ukrainian people.”
Two themes emerged: One, the United States and the world should have moved to contain Russian President Vladimir Putin eight years ago, when his forces annexed the Crimean Peninsula of Ukraine; that failure only emboldened the dictator. And two, people must call their elected officials and the White House to demand strong, immediate action against Russia.
“Don’t be silent! Speak for Ukraine!” urged Iryna Mazur, the Honorary Consul of Ukraine in Philadelphia, who organized the rally in less than a day. “Putin has to be stopped now. We don’t have a single moment to waste.”
Some people held up signs: “NATO, close the sky,” referencing a request for allied forces to establish military control of the airspace over Ukraine.
Ukraine’s defense minister has asked the U.S. to send anti-aircraft and antitank missiles. The imposition of a no-fly zone — a stronger, more risky step — could deny Russian aircraft the ability to attack from above, but also introduce NATO forces into a shooting war with Russia.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the western military alliance whose member countries in Europe and North America agree to consider an attack against one as an attack against all.
“War is a scary thing and as Americans we don’t want our country to get involved in another war,” said Oksana Yarychkivska, 31, who came to the U.S. at 13 and on Friday held a sign saying, “Shelter Our Sky.” “But if the cost is a little bit more pain at the pump then let’s do more. Let’s support freedom.”
She and others called on the United States not only to issue stronger sanctions but to provide weapons and equipment to Ukrainian fighters.
One sign said, “Arm Ukraine,” and another, “USA, Help Ukraine.”
Peppered in the sea of Ukrainian flags were red-and-black flags of the Ukrainian Insurgent Movement, which infuriated some commenters on social media.
The group fought both Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II, when it was accused of killing Jewish and Polish people. Some see the flag as fascist, a characterization opposed by Vita Lyga, a rally organizer, who said the flag has become a symbol of the fight against the Soviet Union and of Ukrainian independence.
Oleksandr Gendzeliuk, a native Ukrainian, said the U.S. did not need to send troops into Ukraine, which President Biden has ruled out.
“Just give us weapons that can help us to protect our sky,” Gendzeliuk said.
Natalie Yaworsky Lamley, 34, traveled to the rally from Southampton. She’s been writing to members of Congress every day, imploring them to do all they can for Ukraine.
“The Ukrainians are so brave in the fight to the death, but they need us,” she said. “They are fighting alone. So any support, military aid, more sanctions. They need our help.”