War and Borscht

As it has become known to the world–at least in counties with free press and diverse, unfettered media–on 24 February 2022, Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to launch a premeditated and unprovoked invasion into Ukraine…again (see 2014). Just when things could not have gone anymore arseways after two years of enduring a pandemic, we are once again faced with a global crisis.

In the days following since this tragedy began, the world has been watching and reacting. Though this conflict has been happening thousands of miles away from Chicago, Illinois, the ripples have impacted here in many ways. The most apparent have been with Ukrainian Americans, who not only have deep cultural ties to their heritage, but many have family and friends living in Ukraine who have since either have had to seek shelter underground in subway tunnels, flee westward to safety, or stay and fight for their very existence.

Since Putin’s invasion began, Ukrainian Chicagoan have come out in solidarity and strength, pleading for assistance from the United States, Europe, and NATO, praying for deliverance. On the evening of 25 February 2022, the first of what will become a series of demonstrations occurred at Millennium Park. Once again, I find myself picking up my lenses and documenting the ongoings here in Chicago.

When I arrived at the Bean, a handful of demonstrated had already gathered. Some waved the gold and blue Ukrainian flag, others with signs with signs ranging from a plea for peace to action and intervention by NATO.

It was not long before the crowd swelled, as more Ukrainians and supporters arrived. More gold and blue fluttered in the biting Chicago wind as flurries fell. As more signs calling for action and help emerged, it was quite clear who the true enemy was deemed to be–not Russia herself, but rather, PUTIN.

A chorus of chants echoed around the Bean in rounds.

“U.S.A. FOR UKRAINE! U.S.A. FOR UKRAINE! U.S.A. FOR UKRAINE!”

“NATO HELP UKRAINE! NATO HELP UKRAINE! NATO HELP UKRAINE!”

“STOP PUTIN! STOP PUTIN! STOP PUTIN!”

After a while, a magnificent banner of gold and blue was unfurled. As Ukrainians flank and surround the massive flag, the crowd sang the national anthem of Ukraine, proudly as to mask any sense of despair and worry they may be carrying. A new chant resonated through the crowd:

“SLAVA UKRAINI!” “HEROYAM SLAVA!”

[translation: “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!”]

The crowd then formed into columns and marched out of Millennium Park towards Michigan Avenue. As they forged ahead north on the sidewalk, chanting for help and condemning Putin, cars driving by honked in solidarity and support.

The crowd carried the large flag across the DuSable Bridge to the Wrigley Building where they paused to regroup. A man and a woman with shopping bags walking the opposite way stopped and pulled over to the side near me, as their path to the bridge became blocked. The man then expressed aloud to his companion his annoyance and disgust, complaining within earshot of me of how “ignorant” the marchers are, that “we” cannot get involved, and, “he is only doing what is best for Russia.” I suppose the only reason a confrontation did not occur was due to no one else hearing him as the crowd once again began singing the Ukrainian national anthem.

The crowd then continued on their way north on the sidewalk. As I got to Huron Street, I witnessed something that definitely lightened the somber and desperation of the whole situation. A man with a Ukrainian flag draped over his shoulders was handing out styrofoam bowls of hot borscht for the marchers. I have been photographing protests, demonstrations, rallies, marches for over half a decade now; I have seen people passing out markers to write on their own bodies legal aid and bail bond telephone numbers to call in the event of arrests, I have seen volunteers hand out bottles of water and granola bars, even hand sanitiser and masks in 2020, but never have I seen anyone hand out borscht.

Turning west at Huron Street, it eventually became clear to me the marchers’ destination–the Ukrainian consulate. Once again, the Ukrainian national anthem roared on the street in between the canyon of buildings, followed by a resounding round of chants of, “SLAVA UKRAINI! HEROYAM SLAVA!”

After some time at the consulate, the crowd regrouped and proceeded on State Street heading south. This time marching on the street itself as CPD had cleared them a path, they continued their chants pleading for NATO intervention and condemning Putin.

I followed the march down to the Chicago Theatre and began to plan my egress, surmising that with their turn onto Randolph Street that they were returning to Millennium Park. I had ran out of film in my Leica, and my batteries were running low, both in my digital camera and in myself physically.

As I shot the last few frames and watched the rear of the marching column go by, a man on a bicycle peddling not far behind and apparently talking to someone on phone said aloud as he passed me, “They need to do this everywhere in Africa!”

As I was eating a late dinner back home that night, a question kept going through my head: “What does borscht taste like?”

© Khoa Dao, K. Dao Photography, 80 Proof Photos

Author: Khoa A. Dao

Renaissance man with the temperament of a beagle; easily bored, needing to be active and explore, prone to picking fights with the Red Baron.

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