Protests against the war in Ukraine

Protests against the war in Ukraine

When the war started in in Ukraine in 2022, I covered a number of stories about Ukrainians and Russians in Australia. All were terrified for their countries and the conflict between them. Here’s a short essay of portraits and photos from protests these people held in Sydney.

Iryna Semenova is desperately worried for her parents.

Born and raised in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, she moved to Australia in 2019 with her partner for work, after spending time in Germany and Canada.

She stands at a protest in Sydney, holding a sign reading “I want to see my mom and dad again”.

Iryna worries for her father, who is sick with diabetes but has to stay behind and fight.

On the first day of the war, Anton Bogdanovych held a rally in Sydney. He then started holding one every day, in the same city centre, and every day the number of people attending grew.

Anton is holding rallies and protests in Sydney. His protests are for networking, for “organising, deciding what to do, allocating people to different directions,” but also for lifting one another’s spirits, Anton says.

“It’s just very difficult psychologically for people to … wake up every morning checking whether their parents are alive or not … you don’t want to call them and wake them up, so you send a message hoping for the best and it can take a long time until they reply.

“For some cities where there is no electricity any more, or internet connection, it’s even worse.”

Ilya Fomin is another Russian living in Australia. He regularly attends Anton’s anti-war rallies with a Russian flag that reads: “I am Russian, and I #StandWithUkraine.”

But he opposed his government well before this latest conflict.

“I got interested in politics … when I was 18 years old,” he says.

When, in 2011, then-President Dmitry Medvedev declared Putin his successor, Ilya was outraged. He protested over the years, and was arrested for his outspokenness.

Putin was elected in March 2012 and the rallies ended with violent crackdowns. The following year, Ilya applied for a new passport.

“That was the moment when I got a pretty bad conversation with Secret Service,” he says. “They said that either you go to jail or you basically stay silent.

“I realised there is still no ‘critical mass’ to start a large democratic shift in the society and I thought I can be more useful from abroad.”

Now, Ilya is based in Australia. But back home, his friends in Russia are protesting again, this time against Putin’s attack on Ukraine. He says some of them have been arrested and spent several days in jail.

When the war began, Anastasiia was living in a small town close to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, with Kyrylo, her little brother, and their mother and father.

For the first few days, they did not know what to do, she says. Eventually, she left with her mother, brother, grandparents and a car full of animals. Many of the people who had fled had had to leave their pets behind.

Everyone was crammed into the car without seatbelts, sitting on one another’s knees, the animals in the boot. “We feared for our lives … because around the road there were different posts (checkpoints) and people were shot dead … You could see a lot of cars with bodies,” says Anastasiia.

“We were just relying on luck,” she says. “There were a number of cars following each other and the first car got shot at but luckily no one was killed, so we changed our route,” she says.

“Our car was covered with white stripes [with writing] that it was carrying children.

“But when we were driving,” she says, “by the side of the road we saw a similar car with white stripes with a lot of blood.”

On February 23 at 11pm, Antonina was on a Google Meet call with her best friend.

“We were joking literally that nothing will happen,” says the native of the eastern city of Kharkiv. “We were also joking that we didn’t pack our anxiety backpacks … with all important documents, clothes, food and so on.”

Early the following morning, she woke up to a loud bang.

“My heart was beating so strong,” she says.

Antonina and her partner packed their bags.

But under Ukrainian law all men aged between 18 and 60 – with a few exceptions – face mandatory conscription, and Antonina’s partner had to stay behind and fight.

“I was so scared and frustrated that I didn’t realise what was happening,” she says.

The last time Marta Semkiw heard from her family in Ukraine, the bombings were just 100km (62 miles) from their home.

Now almost 79, Marta left western Ukraine when she was six months old and her parents fled the communist regime after World War II. She was raised in Australia, witnessing the Soviet era from afar.

Marta did not have contact with her family back in Ukraine at all growing up. “My dad deliberately severed contact because he [couldn’t] help them, or might harm them because he’s an ex-political activist,” she explains.

“When we finally met, they [said it’s] just as well you didn’t write … because your brother had to report every day and they kept asking ‘where’s your younger brother?’… And of course, he had no idea where [we were]. His wife just had this intuition that we were alive somewhere.

“It took 50 years before we found each other.”

Marta says Putin’s war reminds her a lot of what her parents told her about previous occupations of Ukraine: “About the oppression, about the cruelty, about the loss of freedom, [being] unable to speak what you wanted to speak.”

“Now you’ve got that plus all the new weapons that people are using, and I mean, there’s no such thing as any regard for ordinary civilians, they are bombed daily.

Olesia decided to leave Ukraine with her five-year-old daughter and her 16-year-old stepson when she heard that Moldova’s borders might close.

“There were lots of rumours saying that there were too many Ukrainian refugees in Moldova already,” the 34-year-old says, “and it was rumoured that Moldova might close the border.

“That’s when I realised if I don’t [leave] now, then we will be trapped.”

In Australia, there are also Russians making a stand against Putin’s war.

Petr Kuzmin is a Russian-Australian startup founder living in Melbourne and president of the Victoria branch of the pro-democracy movement the Svoboda Alliance.

Petr’s immediate reaction to Russia invading Ukraine was “visceral”. “It’s like attacking your own brother … I felt really angry, and really pained and outraged,” he says.

Kateryna Argyrou is co-chair of the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisations, a body for 22 community organisations across Australia. She has been “approaching the Australian government, asking them for help and aid.

“The Australian government has been fantastic in responding quickly and acting quickly,” she says.

Kateryna was born in a town of 9,000 people just outside Lviv, close to the Polish border. She studied abroad, met her Australian husband in London and moved to Australia 10 years ago.

“I have a little girl now, a two-year-old,” she says.

Kateryna is the only one in her family to have left Ukraine. Her relatives live in Kyiv and Lviv.

“I don’t know if I’m going to see my mum or dad again. I don’t know if I’m going to see my sisters. I have a little girl that hasn’t seen any of my family members … a little girl that hasn’t met her grandfather.”