Photographs by Joseph Geldman, Ellee Su, and Duarte Amaro.
This Sunday, several hundred people assembled in Radcliffe Square to protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many were Ukrainian, Russian, or Belarusian, but almost all wore or held Ukrainian flags, and pinned on their clothes were the blue and yellow ribbons the organisers passed around. They brought their banners and waved their flags. While some spoke, most stood and listened, chanting back “Heroiam Slava!” after the cries of “Slava Ukraini!” that marked the end of most speeches, or shouting “Stop Putin! Stop the War!” Many of the attendees, however, have tales of their own – stories that explain their presence before the Radcliffe Camera on a sunny February day.
Olena was born in Ukraine and moved to the UK 10 years ago. Holding the Ukrainian flag, she stood in Radcliffe Square, in blue and yellow face paint, with her five-year old daughter, Aurora. Blaming Russia for starting the war, she described her pride in the Ukrainian soldiers and airmen fighting back. Olena talked of civilian infrastructures being damaged; being in the UK, at Oxford, she was safe, but “a lot of [her] friends and family except for [her] mum are back there”. She described how friends of hers from medical school worked during the day and sought shelter in Kyiv’s metro stations at night.
Like many others at the demonstration, she felt the urge to act: “I have to do something”, she said. Fundraising was one thing she could do, “collecting money and sending it back to Ukraine,” but “solidarity is important” too. Olena sent pictures of the protests to her friends in Kyiv; “Thank you”, they responded.
“Now we are fighting and we have no other choice”, she said. It echoed something Roman, one of the organisers of the protest, had mentioned in his speech to the crowd earlier: “If Russia stops fighting there will be no war. If Ukraine stops fighting there will be no Ukraine”. Olena toldThe Oxford Blue how Ukrainians “need the West to support us, to carry on sending us weapons”.
When asked whether five-year old Aurora understood what was going on, Olena replied, “She definitely understands what’s going on in Ukraine […] she says that when you call someone and they don’t answer, it’s either because they’re on the toilet or because they’re dead”.
We asked a student from Kyiv whether he thought demonstrations like the Oxford protest were helpful. He enthusiastically said yes. He described how his university, Oxford Brookes University, had sent him an email, showing sympathy for the events in his home country and asking what they could do to support him and the Ukrainian people. When he replied with concrete measures of support they could put in place, there was no response; nothing was done and his concerns were not addressed, he said. “This meeting [demonstration] did,” he said.
An older artist, Linda McDonagh, brought a painting to the protest. She told The Blue she “had to do something powerful.” She thought the demonstration was excellent and “so moving”. “You feel like you’d like to do more”, she added. McDonagh was also representing an older generation, explaining that they “care just as much”.
Three Lithuanians, wrapped in their own flag as well as the blue and yellow Ukrainian colours, believed it was important, coming from a Baltic state, to show support. Lithuanians, they said, know what it is like to be under Russia’s thumb: “Russia says we joined the Soviet Union but they occupied us”, one of them told The Blue. They thought the turnout was amazing, and it was good to see so many people assembled together. Though “[they] don’t know what it’s like” to see their country ravaged by war, “[their] heart goes out” to the Ukrainian people. “I’ve never wanted to sing the anthem of another country. Now I feel like I’m singing my own”, one of them said.
Wearing an EU flag, Kai Pischke, a half German and half American second year studying Computer Science at Somerville, came to the demonstration to show his solidarity, having previously been at the Russian embassy protest. He told The Blue, “[It was] good to see people in Oxford taking it seriously… Russia is attacking democracy, [and this way we] can show support.” The EU flag he draped over his shoulders represented the need to work together.
“I don’t think war is a way to answer problems”, Becky, a student at Oxford Brookes University, told The Blue. It was “good that so many people have showed up”; she confessed to being “impressed by [the] numbers showing up.”
Holding a sign that read “Putin is a War Criminal”, Michal, another attendee, said that it was important to show solidarity with Ukraine. The West has generally not done so with those who have been “destroyed by anti-democratic processes”. He said that we are at a turning point where Western governments understand that dictatorship means war, and that the future of democracy depends on their understanding that our actions don’t occur in a vacuum; Ukrainians are dying, but they shouldn’t have to for us to remember the meaning of democracy. “We’ve failed”, Michal said. “Maybe now people will start to understand”.
Andrei-Claudiu and Tamio-Vesa are from Romania. Holding the flag of his country, Andrei-Claudiu told The Blue that support for Ukraine was a “question of unity regardless of national borders. In the face of aggression, we have to be united.” While admitting we can’t do much militarily, there’s still a lot Western countries can do to help. They talked of Facebook groups being established in Romania to share information about support for Ukrainian refugees: people would post about free rooms that could host Ukrainian asylum-seekers, for example. Tamio-Vesa talked of how painful it was to be here, and not over there, helping those in need. Andrei-Claudiu explained how his mother had been part of the revolution against Ceausescu. One thing he learnt from her, he told us, was the importance of getting to the streets and making themselves heard.
We talked to two attendees from Belarus. One of them, in white and red face paint, held a large white-red-white flag, the historical ensign of the 1918 Belarusian People’s Republic, now used by the opposition to Lukashenko’s regime. “We think we must stop Putin”, she said. It was a terrible war, the other added. They believed Putin wouldn’t stop, and saw parallels between Russia and Belarus. On the same day, Belarus was having a referendum. Among its provisions, it would allow President Lukashenko, currently in his fourth consecutive term, to run again, twice. “No punishment for his crimes”, they said.
They described how difficult it was for Belarusians to protest the war. Since “Belarus is de facto occupied by Russia”, those in Minsk who oppose the war cannot say so publicly. Many Russians also did not support the war. “Putin is holding Russia hostage, has occupied Belarus, and is now invading Ukraine”, they said.
A few Russians, holding banners with the Ukrainian flag, shared this outlook. When asked how they felt, they told us they were “sad” and “scared”. “From Russia, it looks like the end of everything”, one added. There was some difference of opinion between them as to the war’s outcome. Some seemed optimistic about regime change, others had no such expectations. Some wanted to see Putin dead; others wanted him prosecuted, “Nuremberg-style”; but others shook their heads in disbelief. They said they don’t know how many people support the war. It’s difficult to express dissent in Putin’s Russia. But they do know that many people are opposed to it. And those that did support the conflict, they said, don’t know what’s going on; they only know what the government wants them to. In truth, one of them said, “it’s only one person who wants it [war]” – Putin.
They were surprised at the attendance, and especially at the number of people not from Ukraine or Russia. They were surprised that, back in Russia, Russians risked jail to come out and protest. And they were confident of the impact, not a direct one, to be sure, but a strong one nevertheless. They talked of the importance of raising awareness. “We just want to have the war stopped”, they said.
In crises of global significance, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless. However, The Oxford Blue has compiled a list of suggestions of things that you can do to help.
1. Attend a protest
Protests are taking place around the UK denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and showing solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Protesters are calling for measures including the imposition of tougher sanctions against Russia and an increase in medical and asylum support for Ukrainians. Taking part in a protest is a way of visibly and publicly demonstrating dissent and increasing pressure on decision-makers in parliament.
2. Donate to charities
There are many charities working in Ukraine or to help Ukrainian refugees. You can offer support by donating and encouraging student societies and bodies to donate as well. Charities to donate to include:
British Red Cross – has launched an emergency appeal to help supply Ukrainians with food, water, first aid, medicines, warm clothes, and shelter.
Sunflower of Peace – provides medical backpacks to doctors and paramedics in Ukraine to provide primary care for those who become injured or ill.
United Help Ukraine – distribute donations, food, and medical supplies to Ukrainian refugees, people impacted by the conflict, and families of those who have been killed or wounded.
UNICEF – sustaining child health and protection services; providing families with clean water, food and emergency education supplies.
3. Write to your MP
Writing to your MP allows you to lobby the government to change their policies. You can write to your MP to encourage increased efforts at diplomacy, increased sanctions, and increased measures to aid Ukrainian Refugees. Britain has not set up a route for Ukrainians to reach the UK and has stopped accepting visa applications from Ukrainians stuck in the country. This means there is no safe and legal route for Ukrainians to seek asylum in the UK. Encouraging others to write, in person or via social media, also makes it harder for MPs to ignore what constituents are saying.
4. Offer support to Ukrainian friends, family, and fellow students
This is a stressful time for everyone but especially for Ukrainians and people with family or friends in Ukraine. Reach out to those you know to check if they’re ok. Don’t make insensitive jokes or comments about the conflict; these can be hurtful and show disrespect towards those suffering.
As reported by Duarte Amaro, Joseph Geldman, Aryan Goenka, Gloria Morey, and Ellee Su.