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Maria Bodnar hasn’t lived in Ukraine for 71 years, but she still has very strong feelings about the cruelty that her family endured there.

Painful emotions surged through the 75-year-old Elma woman Sunday afternoon as she took part in a Buffalo rally in support of the people of Ukraine.

“When I was 11 months old, the Russian soldiers came to our house in the middle of the night,” she recalled. “They took my father away from us because he didn’t adhere to their politics.”

She said Russian officials took her father to a Siberian prison, where he died 17 years later, in 1959.

“I never saw my father again after that night,” she said. “I never got to know my father.”

Bodnar was one of about 150 people from Western New York and Southern Ontario who participated in a rally to support Ukrainians protesting what they view as the growing influence of Russia in their homeland, an Eastern European nation with about 45 million people.

In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians – many of them students – have been protesting in the city of Kiev against the Ukrainian government. The protesters are upset because the Ukrainian government recently rejected a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of closer economic ties with Russia. There has been some violence as Ukrainian police clashed with the protesters.

Many people of Ukrainian heritage despise Russia because of human rights atrocities that took place decades ago when Russia controlled Ukraine, said Michael Liwicki of Orchard Park, a retired FBI agent who took part in Sunday’s rally near the Peace Bridge.

“My mother’s three brothers were taken away and shot by Stalin’s troops,” said Liwicki, 59, a Ukrainian-American from Orchard Park. “The Russians knew that the Ukrainian people would rise up against them, and they figured the best way to stop that was by taking people out of their homes and killing them. Many of the people at this rally today have stories like mine in their families.”

Many Ukrainians in America have fear and distrust of the Russian government, said Erie County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw, who also attended Sunday’s rally. Mychajliw’s father is Ukrainian, and his late mother was Polish.

“My grandparents, my father and my uncle left the Ukraine and came to America in 1965,” Mychajliw said. “As a kid, their feelings toward Russia were so strong that I wasn’t able to say the ‘R-word’ in our house.”

About 10,000 people of Ukrainian descent live in Western New York, and about 100,000 more live in Southern Ontario, according to Andrew Diakun, a Buffalo lawyer who is the chairman of the Buffalo chapter of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.

“About half of those people have relatives of some kind in the Ukraine, and they are concerned about their welfare,” Diakun said. “People still remember that 7 to 10 million Ukrainians died in the famine of 1932, which was orchestrated by the Russians.”

Those who braved Sunday’s cold and soggy weather heard speakers denouncing the Russian and Ukrainian governments. They also sang the Ukrainian national anthem and other songs from their homeland. They carried Ukrainian flags and signs with messages like “Euro Integration for Ukraine,” “Europe Yes/Moscow No” and “I Am Ukrainian And I Cannot Keep Calm.”

Photographs and videos of the Buffalo protest will be sent to protesters in Kiev, organizers said.

One highly visible supporter of Sunday’s rally was Father Marian Procyk, pastor of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church in Buffalo. He also oversees four other Ukrainian Catholic churches in Kenmore, Lancaster, Lackawanna and Niagara Falls.

“We want the people of the Ukraine to know they have support here,” Procyk said. “We want peace in the Ukraine, and we want the Ukrainian people to be rulers of their own land.”

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com