Father Bohdan Hedz, pastor at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church after a prayer service at the church this morning. Photo: Alek Lewis

The Ukrainian-American community in Riverhead is praying for peace in Ukraine, as the country and its allies brace for a possible invasion by neighboring superpower Russia.

Although the Russian government denies any intention to invade Ukraine, the Russian military last year began massing along Ukraine’s borders, building a presence currently estimated at more than 130,000 troops and prompting warnings from the U.S. of an impending invasion, which Russia denies.

The tensions in Ukraine are palpable in the local Ukrainian-American community, whose members gather to pray for peace at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Riverhead. Father Bohdan Hedz, pastor at the church, leads his parishioners in prayer, spoken in both Ukrainian and English. The church is one of the few Ukrainian churches on Long Island, and the prayer hits home for the Ukrainian immigrants worshipping there as the threat of invasion hangs over their home country.

“We want to live in peace. That’s the bottom line.” Hedz said. “We want everybody to get along, everybody to move into some common good direction for everybody on the planet.”

This isn’t the first time Russia has invaded Ukrainian territory. In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula — a southern province along the Black Sea which contained a majority Russian ethnic population. That invasion came in the aftermath of civil unrest that left the country without leadership. Since then, Ukrainians have been resisting Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas territory in the east, where Russian troops, military vehicles and equipment are now positioned along the border.

Alexandra Gachynska said the last time she visited her family in her native Ukraine, she could see and hear the troops training and moving armaments throughout the day and night. She said her family in Ukraine is sick of the conflict.

“They are so tired from this, it’s already been eight years,” she said. “We’ll see what is coming.” 

The threat of war is developing in real time, with recent news including Russia saying on Tuesday they started a partial withdrawal of troops from the border and Russian President Vladimir Putin signaling the country would be willing to de-escalate the conflict in exchange for compliance with certain demands. One of Putin’s key demands is that NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), the military alliance of primarily Western European countries and the U.S., roll back its expansion in Eastern Europe and guarantee Ukraine never joins, according to the New York Times.

NATO said Wednesday it has seen no signs of withdrawal of Russian troops.

Although they would prefer a peaceful solution to end the conflict, the inevitability of invasion is not lost on Ukrainian-born parishioners and Hedz. They said Ukrainians are ready to fight and defend their country from invasion.

“Ukrainian people are strong. And they know they must stay strong and stop the Russians,” said Roman Bodola, a Ukrainian-born parishioner.

Even civilians in Ukraine are being trained by military forces and private groups to defend their cities if Russia invades. Hedz said his parents, who are in their late 60s, rejected his offer for them to come to the United States. In the event Russia invades, his father will join the local militia to defend their hometown, while his mother will cook for the soldiers, they told him. “They’re ready to fight,” Hedz said.

The church is doing everything it can do from across the Atlantic to help those suffering in Ukraine. It is receiving donations from the community to send to people displaced from the conflict and for soldiers in Ukraine. They are accepting hygiene products, over-the-counter medicines for the flu and clothes of all sizes — especially those made for cold weather. They pay for shipping by raising money through yard sales organized by Bodola.

“We sift through it and we separate what we think would be useful for the soldiers on the front and what is useful for people who are displaced. Believe it or not, there are still people who live in train cars, because they lost their houses due to shelling or bombardment,” Hedz said.

“People have been very generous both within the community and outside of the community and we are very grateful for that,” he added.

President Joe Biden said during an address Tuesday afternoon the U.S. is prepared to impose sanctions on Russia in the event of invasion. He said the U.S. will not send service members to fight in Ukraine, but it has supplied Ukraine’s military to help defend themselves. NATO has positioned its defenses on Ukraine’s western border in Poland.

Hedz said Russia can mount a successful invasion because it has the manpower. “Are they gonna hold that territory? That’s a different story,” he added.

He drew a comparison between Russia and Ukraine’s David and Goliath-like war to the American war for independence. “Now it’s 1776 for us and we’re standing up to a bully. And with the help of people in the government, allied people, allied nations that are helping Ukraine, hopefully we can avoid the bloodshed on both sides,” he said.

“What we need is Western help, not only in the defense sector, but in the industrial sector as well to help us with the reforms and establishing new businesses,” Eugene Tverdyy, a Ukrainian-born parishioner and local leader in the Ukraine Congress Committee of America, said through an interpreter.

Hedz believes Russia is attempting to create its own version of the fallen Soviet Union, the Eurasian superpower that collapsed in 1991 and led to the Eastern European nation states of the 21st Century. 

“Russia is still laboring under this impression that Ukraine is kind of under their umbrella and they have the right to tell the people what to do. Well, they need to forget that narrative,” he said. “We can be partners in the political field, we can be partners in business, when there is mutual respect.”

Hedz said Ukraine should have the option to join NATO, a prospect outlined in their current constitution, in opposition to Russia’s terms to halt invasion. “I support what the European Union and the Western leaders are saying in response to those preposterous demands,” he said. “How can you tell a sovereign country what to do? I mean, it’s up to their people.”

American-born parishioners, some without direct familial ties to Ukraine, feel for their Ukrainian friends in the congregation.

Carolyn Smith, an American-born, lifelong member of the church, said she can’t imagine what it feels like for people in Ukraine to live with the threat of war in their homeland. “Living in this country we’re so fortunate, so blessed. I can’t even imagine what those people go through on a daily basis. It’s terrible,” she said. 

Hedz said Riverhead’s Ukrainian community is planning a rally at Town Hall to support those suffering in Ukraine and to inform the community. The rally is not yet scheduled, although he said the group has the full support of Riverhead’s local government. “People stand with us. And that’s very heartwarming to know that people support us,” he said.

“We basically have to make our voices heard, in a small manner, obviously. We’re not going to change the geopolitics. Mr. Putin is not going to listen to people in Riverhead,” he said. “But it’s our duty. It’s our duty for those people.”

Hedz said it’s important for everyone to be informed on the war, especially as a widespread propaganda campaign by Russia aims to muddy the waters of who the aggressors are within the conflict.

“We need to talk to people. We need to make our voices heard. We need for the general public to realize that it’s a grave situation,” said Hedz, who drew a comparison between the German’s invasion of Europe in World War II to Putin’s movements in Eastern Europe.

“It’s easy for us living in the United States to say, ‘Well, that’s Europe’s problem.’ Well, we heard that before, remember? 1939?” Hedz said. “Well it turned out in the end it was kind of [the United States’] problem too.”

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com