Natalka Panchenko is a volunteer who lives in Poland and has been supporting Ukraine in every way for many years. She is the leader of the Euromaidan-Warszawa Association which organises information campaigns and sends humanitarian aid and military equipment to Ukraine. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the activist blocked trade between the EU and Russia, and together with like-minded people, she managed to achieve systemic changes. Natalka is producing the joint film project Ukraїner and the Polish television channel TVP Dokument, which the team filmed in 2021. She plans to use the joint project to keep Ukraine in the news focus abroad.
Many Ukrainians living abroad actively help Ukraine: they organise activities against the Russian invasion, send cargoes of rubber or collect funds for the needs of the Armed Forces. There are such people in Poland as well — a country that tangibly supports Ukraine against the background of a full-scale war with the Russian Federation and has one of the largest Ukrainian diasporas. Natalka Panchenko, one of the most prominent Ukrainian activists in Poland, has been helping Ukrainians since 2013. She has also been holding activities condemning Russian aggression.
How Poles help Ukrainians
Poland actively supports Ukraine during the war with Russia: Polish are collecting aid, providing shelter to Ukrainian refugees, imposing sanctions against the Russian Federation and recognizing the actions of the occupiers as genocide of the Ukrainian people. Since February, and as of the end of September 2022, Poland has already received 3 million Ukrainians in need of asylum.
Natalka Panchenko talks about the relations between these two neighboring states:
“As it is said, ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed.’ When we had trouble, they showed up. And now it is very important to maintain this friendship between Poland and Ukraine for future generations.”
Natalka recalls how, as recently as 2014, Poles stood side by side with Ukrainians on the Euromaidan, and later, when Russia occupied Crimea and invaded the eastern regions of Ukraine, Poles also joined Ukrainian volunteer units.
“Even during the Revolution of Dignity, I told the Poles, you stood on the Maidan with us. Yes, there were a lot of Poles on the Maidan. And when we shout “Glory to Ukraine – Glory to the Heroes,” we shout it to you too. It was the same then and today.”
Citizens of Poland also participate in the information war. They spread information on the internet about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, attend events supporting Ukraine, and also condemn Russia’s crimes. After all, Poles do not know from books what the Russian occupation is – the Soviet Union invaded the territory of Poland back in 1939, and until 1989 the communist regime ruled here. The Poles obviously understand that the imperial ambitions of the Russians will not end with Ukraine, because you can often hear their encroachments on Moldova, the Baltic states, Poland, Georgia, etc. Therefore, the defense and victory of Ukraine is the security of at least the entire region.
“When we thank them, they say: you have nothing to thank us for, because this is also our war. And they have the following slogan: To jest nasza wspólna wojna – “This is our common war.” And it really is. From the way they support us, it is clear that many of them do not even consider it as a help. They consider it as their duty.
Such support is very inspiring, however, in order to have it further in the future, even more efforts must be made. Natalka Panchenko says: so that the world does not forget about the war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, it is necessary to create information occasions. This is best done through soft power and public diplomacy. For example, buying billboards and placing information about the Russian invasion on them or organizing meetings abroad with Ukrainian artists who will talk about the war.
The activist says that she is now giving interviews to various media about the war to talk about Russian crimes. Natalka explains that it is necessary to use any opportunity to remind the world about Russia’s war against Ukraine.
“When foreigners understand Ukraine, they support it. They also feel their complicity in this war, and then they in fact become our lawyers here in Europe.”
Since 2013, Euromaidan-Warszawa has united people in Poland to help Ukrainians. The organization has several directions — from information campaigns to sending humanitarian goods and military equipment. Natalka Panchenko is the leader of this association.
“This is simply an incredible power: people, regardless of their beliefs, skin color and life views, unite to do something together with us. We value it very much and try to nurture it.”
Representatives of the Ukrainian diaspora also belong to the Euromaidan-Warszawa. One of them is the sailor Ihor, who during the full-scale war used his break between flights, which is three months, for volunteering. He organized charity fairs, looked for volunteers and participated in the blockade of trucks on the border between Poland and the EU. Also, Euromaidan-Warszawa has many Poles who attend events supporting Ukraine and sort rubber aid and ammunition for the Ukrainian military.
The organization was created during the Revolution of Dignity to support protesters in Kyiv. Then Natalka Panchenko, together with other activists, achieved the dismissal of the ambassador of Ukraine in Warsaw for his support for the odious ex-president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych. When the policemen began to pour cold water on the protesters in the center of the capital and shoot them, Euromaidan-Warszawa volunteers took warm clothes, humanitarian aid, helmets, and bulletproof vests to the Maidan.
The organization’s activities did not stop there — with the beginning of the war between the Russian Federation and Ukraine in 2014, Euromaidan-Warszawa together with the organizations “Open Dialogue” and “Euromaidan” raised more than 1 million zloty for body armor, helmets, and tactical medicine for the military.
In 2016, when the processes of providing for the military stabilized, the organization concentrated on campaigns for the release of Ukrainian political prisoners, in particular, Oleg Sentsov and Gennadiy Afanasyev. After all, Russia kidnapped people in temporarily occupied territories (for example, in Crimea), illegally detained them, falsified cases, and accused them of crimes they did not commit.
After the full-scale invasion in 2022, in Euromaidan-Warszawa new areas of work were added, for example, assistance to civilians remaining in temporarily occupied territories in Ukraine. They are trying to give clothes and food to residents, because their shops are closed and there are problems with products. Volunteers also help the Ukrainian military and hand over things that are key to saving lives: bulletproof vests, helmets, drones and night vision devices.
Activists are also involved in an informative way. At the end of June 2022, they held an event during the NATO summit in Madrid with calls to provide weapons to Ukraine, release Ukrainian prisoners of war, remind people about the occupied territories, and stop the genocide of Ukrainians by Russia.
In May 2022, they organized an international event and collected several thousand signatures in favor of Ukraine’s candidacy for EU membership to demonstrate to the Council of Europe (meeting held in June 2022) that Europeans support it. For local politicians, public pressure and an agenda are always important, that’s why such actions are effective. On June 23, Ukraine did receive the status of a candidate for the EU membership.
Natalka Panchenko is sure that almost 9 years of active struggle for Ukraine’s accession to the EU were not in vain, so we must not give up and continue to fight. She says that it was very difficult to implement reforms in Ukraine, which are necessary for joining the European Union (decentralization, anti-corruption reforms, etc.). Natalka Panchenko felt the meaning of this only with time. Activists translated laws, looked for ways to convince Polish government officials to make decisions, explained the specifics of Ukrainian laws and why everything that works in Poland will not work the same way in Ukraine.
“And the fact that it seems to us today that it’s somehow difficult and not necessary at all, it will also give the result. We just have to believe that we will definitely see it someday.”
In Poland, Natalka Panchenko was awarded the ShEO Awards 2022 the “Wprost” edition for her help to Ukraine. Such awards are given to “leaders who change the world and inspire others.” The activist emphasizes that this award belongs not only to her, but also to all those who support Ukraine, because the organization was noticed thanks to the unity of many caring people.
“Euromaidan-Warszawa is not only Natalka Panchenko, it is a thousand people and Natalka Panchenko. It only works when everyone is together.”
During her speech at the award ceremony, the activist mentioned Ukrainians who are fighting, looking for relatives who disappeared during hostilities, and suffering from torture at the hands of the Russians. Natalka Panchenko explains that she would not forgive herself if she did not talk about all these people.
“Let me just come out and say: ‘I thank you very much for the way you support Ukraine, and I am very pleased that I received this award, because it is very notable and it means a lot. However, I must confess that I am not happy. I can’t be happy, because right now, while I’m speaking in front of you, someone is being raped, someone is being tortured in captivity, and someone right now somewhere has been blown up by a mine and is dying.’ And she asked the Poles not to forget that we are at war, not to stop helping, because the worst thing you can do is to forget and think that it is no longer there.”
Activists continue to work simultaneously on several campaigns: further isolation of Russia, strengthening of sanctions against the Russian Federation, gas embargo, and the end of trade between the EU and Russia.
“I am going to do even more so that Ukraine wins as soon as possible. In fact, how quickly Ukraine will win depends not only on those who stand at the front, but also on those who are at the back today and who support us today.”
Blocking EU trade with Russia and Belarus
Natalka Panchenko and other activists found out that goods imported from Europe to the Russian Federation after the start of the full-scale invasion are being transported there by trucks, because air and sea routes are closed. In March 2022, she and 14 other people went to the checkpoints on the borders of Poland and Belarus to check all goods that were being delivered to Russia. Natalka Panchenko registered a spontaneous open-ended event right there, and activists began to block trucks.
“I went out in front of the truck and stood, that’s all. And so the first truck stopped. Later Ira Zemlyana (journalist and media expert. — ed.) came out and stopped the second truck. People followed us and the trucks actually stopped. We became a wall. And it was not easy. If anyone thinks it was beautiful or something, no. It was really like this: the truck either drives over people or stands still. She stood only because there were people standing in front of her.”
Later, they were joined by those indifferent who came from other cities. Natalka called on social networks to go to the border and stop the trucks. Many Ukrainians came from different cities and took turns at the checkpoints.
For almost a month, activists blocked communication between the EU and the Russian Federation, as well as international communication between Germany and Poland at a certain period. They even went to the chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz. The volunteer says that it was thanks to the support of the people that the blockade was maintained and made official.
“Only thanks to these desperate people we managed to hold this, because if only two of us had stayed there, we would have been run over with a truck and no one would have known about us.”
The carriers asked the activists to let through at least five trucks per hour, they tried to persuade them to make concessions, but the people insisted on their way. The activist repeatedly received threats. She and other participants of the blockade were intimidated. Stun grenades were hurled at them, and people tried to beat them. Natalka Panchenko calls these moments the scariest from that period. In addition, she felt responsible for the safety of the people she gathered for the event. However, pressure and threats did not stop the activists, and thanks to their unbreakable spirit, in April, trucks from the Russian Federation and Belarus were banned from entering the European Union, and cars that were in the EU were forced to leave by April 16.
Two weeks after the blockade, the Russians and Belarusians found a way to circumvent the sanctions. For example, Kazakh trucks can bring goods not to Kazakhstan, as stated in the documents, but to the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus. They also load a German or Polish car, then unhook the trailer at the border with Belarus, and then take it to the Russian Federation. However, it is much longer and more expensive, and most of the goods are subject to sanctions, so the blockade turned out to be successful.
“In fact, we destroyed the Russian and Belarusian transport industry, which worked with Western Europe. They do not and will not go here, it is forbidden, there is a big cross on it and they can now go to Asia. Probably nowhere else.”
Boycott of brands that have not left the Russian market
Activists call for boycotts of companies with Russian capital in the EU and those that have not stopped doing business on the Russian market. These include, in particular, Leroy Merlin, Decathlon and Auchan store chains. In Poland, the All-Polish Boycott of Leroy Merlin initiative was created. Poles came to Leroy Merlin stores across the country with posters stating that this business is supporting the Russian war against Ukraine. The protesters urge people not to buy from them.
“We are working to isolate Russia from the entire civilized world — first of all, economically.”
At first, it seemed to the activists that the promotions were ineffective, but then they noticed that fewer and fewer people were coming to these stores. Leroy Merlin began to order advertising on television, but this did not help the store either. Natalka says she learned from insiders that in 2022 the Polish Leroy Merlin received a significantly lower profit than in 2021. And the majority of Poles do not buy from producers who support the war.
Natalka emphasizes that it is important to refuse producers and content that support the invasion of the Russian Federation into Ukraine. And so each person can make an important contribution and influence what is happening.
As an example, Natalka says that she herself likes the sweets of a brand that has not left the Russian market for a long time. This is the manufacturer of Haribo gummy candies – while the company continued to sell products in Russia, Natalka did not buy their products. Only when the brand left the Russian Federation, the volunteer returned to her favorite sweets.
The activist is considering a refusal not just of Russian products, but of content either.
“First, you have a clear mind and do not burden yourself with this shit. Second, you understand that you can use this place for others, much more interesting people, circumstances, and events. Third, if you want, you can decide for yourself.”
Natalka Panchenko explains that the same thing is with stores — you can always find an alternative brand that will be the same with quality and price, but will not support the war.
Ukraine after the victory
The activist is going to raise funds and will continue to develop the Euromaidan-Warszawa organization. She also plans to continue producing videos about Ukrainians who live abroad and help Ukraine.
Natalka believes that after a full-scale war, those who will talk about “good Russians”will decrease. People will realize that it is not Putin, but the Russians who bombed Ukrainian cities, raped children, and tortured residents of occupied cities.
“These are Russians. And they are all like that. Whether you want it or not. If they did not change the situation, then they gave permission for this.”
The activist hopes that the war will bounce Ukrainians back from Russian culture and all other things related to the Russian Federation, as much as possible, and that it will help Ukrainians to self-identify, understand and value themselves. Previously, over many years, Russians developed an inferiority complex in Ukrainians.
Natalka Panchenko gives an example of her acquaintances that were born in the Ukrainian evironment, were speaking Ukrainian, but after relocation to Russian-speaking cities they merged themselves into the Russian environment. After the full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation they realised the importance of speaking Ukrainian.
“That is why it is necessary to create institutions that will work on rebuilding and nurturing Ukrainian meanings in Ukraine, those ones that are not imposed, and without inferiority complexes. We have an incredible culture, a lot of talented people, we have everything.”
According to Natalka Panchenko, rebuilt Ukraine will have nothing to do with Russia and the Soviet legacy. She believes that Ukraine has gone through a difficult and long path of development, but without it the country could have not become fully independent, European-integrated and tolerant.
“I see very clearly where we are all going, and I really believe that we will get there: the same way we got to the EU candidacy status, the same way we will get to the EU membership, the same way we will defeat these cursed enemies and forget them like a bad dream. I really want to forget you, damned Russians.”
The activist says that contemporary Ukrainians have an opportunity to record the crimes of Russians and to pass them on to the future generations, so that they will know that there is nothing in common between Ukraine and Russia.
“The only thing that will save us both is a huge wall between us, that’s all. As my grandmother used to say, they should be washed down with cold water.”
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