Reviews | Why I spend my Saturday mornings at the Russian Embassy

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John Rosiak is an educator working in the area of ​​violence prevention and mental health promotion.

I used to spend my Saturday mornings protesting outside the Russian Embassy on Wisconsin Avenue NW in Washington – not the kind of thing I usually do. I carry handwritten signs that say various things, including “STOP PUTLER” and “BEAR WITNESS”. Another says: “DEFAULT”. This one I make a special effort to show to embassy staff who come and go – my challenge and call to action for the Russians who work there.

Why am I doing this? Violence and injustice abound across the world, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine moves me like no other.

First, my ethnic origin motivates me. Both of my father’s parents were Polish. When my grandmother died in 1965, she left some money for her church in Poland. This church was in the south-east of the country, in the corner which adjoins the current border with Ukraine. My dad gave the money (an envelope containing $2,000 in cash) to a Catholic priest to smuggle into Poland on his next trip there, so the communist government wouldn’t confiscate it at the border.

This personal event happened during that decades-long period when Poland was under the dominating fist of the Soviet regime. Even when I was a 10-year-old child, this reality marked me. A great lesson in geopolitics. Now, witnessing from afar the open welcome of Ukrainians by the Poles – the country has taken in more than 3 million refugees – has awakened a sense of pride and determination.

A broader heritage also animates me. Regardless of my ethnicity, I, like everyone else, am first and foremost a human being. We do so much better when we cooperate, not when we wage war to destroy or subjugate. Such destructive aggression demands a response from all of humanity. The vast majority of people I have spoken to about this war are horrified by what is happening to our fellow human beings. Devoting my Saturdays to holding a sign is a small answer.

My actions are also motivated by the desire of nations to avoid the deadly mistakes of the past. I am particularly interested in stories of the wars in Europe, the rise of the Nazis and the fall of the Soviet Union. My travels have reinforced this interest, including a recent visit to Berlin – ground zero for the rise and fall of the Nazi and Soviet regimes. As I hold up my signs, I’m forced to think of the history we refuse to learn from and the saying, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”

A love of history mingles with my faith, which also drives me to protest. Faith has long been a motor of human action – it has moved people to promote peace, to work for justice, to defend the oppressed. Ukrainian, Russian, American and other protesters may or may not be religious. But all share a desire to act in the face of horror.

In the late 1970s, I was impressed by the leadership and courage of Pope John Paul II as he returned to Poland after his election. His faith-filled challenges in the name of religious freedom and liberation from communist rule contributed to the end of communism in his country and helped influence the collapse of the Soviet Union. This example of faith inspires me as a Catholic and a Polish American.

Finally, I am driven by the experience of life on the Embassy sidewalk. In the early 1990s, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I spent time in Kazakhstan, where I worked for the United Nations, setting up drug abuse prevention programs for the newly independent. We were there to support a fledgling country – like Ukraine today – that was still heavily influenced by Russian culture and Russian people.

In Kazakhstan, I worked closely with many Russians. It was sometimes a challenge. For example, my first interpreter told me that people didn’t trust me because I smiled. But the experience of getting to know Russian colleagues was ultimately rewarding. I don’t believe Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine represents the will of the Russian people.

On a recent Saturday, I met a family of Russian émigrés who had driven 11 hours from Michigan to Washington to protest outside the embassy. They carried their own protest signs, in Russian and English. They wanted to express in person their desire for peace, as well as their disgust at what the leaders of their homeland were doing in Ukraine. We talked about their experiences under Russian rule and the common motivations for protesting, namely the desire to expose the evil of war.

I was honored to stand by their side – and had to drive just 30 minutes from Maryland to do so. Opportunity calls me to action. So I take it, and lend my little voice to the choir protesting against Putin’s atrocities.


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