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Former Ukrainian Prisoner Speaks in Montgomery County

Andriy Putilov is lucky to be alive.

Putilov, a Ukrainian politician, survived hardship and loss since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. After enduring 70 days of torture and abuse as a Russian political prisoner, he brought his story to the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Jenkintown recently.

Speaking to an audience with many fluent in Ukrainian and Russian, the former governor and member of Ukraine’s parliament detailed his April 9 capture and detainment for 70 days in a small, earthen cell. He had successfully moved his family out of the violence that engulfed the Kherson province in Eastern Ukraine. Still, he was captured when he returned to the family home after days of hiding in various safe apartments.

“They beat us with sticks,” Putilov said of his captors through translator Nadia Gordynksy. “Those people who watched us, they were like very elaborate Gestapo forces.”

Putilov claimed the Russians view Ukrainians as “subhumans” and marveled at their cruelty. He also claimed the invaders attempted to create and use biological weapons against the Ukrainians. Reports from the invasion, now in its eighth month, have cataloged numerous war crimes and other despicable acts.

“They hate us on a molecular level,” Putilov said of the Russians.

During his capture, Putilov underwent some profound changes. Despite serving in the national parliament, he was used to speaking a blend of Russian and Ukrainian, more familiar to Eastern Ukraine, as he did during the speech Saturday. Since the invasion, he has made an effort to improve his fluency in Ukrainian.

He also had a spiritual awakening. Eastern Ukraine is more multi-faith and less religious than the country’s western region. Putilov said he prayed for the first time on his knees while imprisoned, praying as much as 10 times a day. He credits his “faith in God” for helping him get through his captivity.

The Russians offered Putilov a position in the occupying government, based on his experience in administration, using what he described as KGB tactics to persuade him. He refused, saying he would prefer to die than aid his captors. After what Putilov called a “show trial” for actions against occupied areas of Ukraine and terrorism charges, he was finally freed as part of a prisoner exchange.

After his release, Putilov traveled to the United States, where he has family, and asked the state government for assistance. He met with Gov. Tom Wolf (D) to discuss an “agreement of friendship” and creating a sister-state relationship with Kherson. As of March, Pennsylvania has 122,000 residents of Ukrainian descent, the second highest in the U.S.

Toward the end of the talk, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Bucks/Montgomery) stopped by. The Ukraine and Ukrainian American Caucus co-chair acknowledged that “war fatigue” has set in as the invasion has gone on. The ranking member of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee that covers Europe admitted war fatigue is slowing further aid to the resistance.

“[The invasion] goes from the front page to the back page of the news,” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s the problem. We’re trying to keep it front and center, also to educate my colleagues and the people of America why it is so important to support the people of Ukraine and protect freedom against dictatorship.”

Cultural Center president Eugene A. Luciw also discussed the importance of backing the Ukrainians. Before the invasion, the country enjoyed progress toward more technology. Many residents who left Ukraine to live in Europe are now moving back.

“[Putilov gave us] a revitalized view of our mission,” Luciw said afterward. “It is not only to sustain, which is extremely important, the approximately 12 to 13 million displaced Ukrainians in Europe and even here in the United States, but sustain them in a way that creates the steps that Ukraine will win the war and ultimately restore itself so the people have hope and prayer that they can return to their homes and live a very fruitful life.”

The Ukrainian Cultural Center has helped refugees coming to the area since the invasion started in February. Those services have been offered in addition to their regular actions in the community, from dinners to operating a credit union. Members have also sent clothing, medical items, and other supplies to embattled Ukraine.

FLOWERS: Running Afoul of Arbitrary Facebook Formulas

I’m used to being suspended by social media. I have a fairly colorful way of expressing myself, which is attributable to my Irish-Italian pit bull lineage. But I’m also a lawyer, which means I have some passing understanding of how to carefully parse words and phrases so that I can insult you without actually insulting you, I can attack without visibly drawing blood, I can tread that filament of space between cheeky and defamatory.

But these days, we don’t deal in nuance. In fact, social media has become so obsessed with politically correct expression and sanitized thought that if there is even the suspicion of someone saying something that goes against conventional wisdom or accepted societal rules, they are virtually arrested, virtually charged, virtually tried and virtually convicted before you can upload a new profile picture.

This is what happened to me the other day when I posted something that I thought was funny and fairly innocuous in terms of its social impact. I’d been involved the night before in an unpleasant exchange with a woman in a pizza shop. She had a mask on and was choosing which slice of upscale designer focaccia she wanted to bring home to her Rittenhouse Square penthouse. At the end of the counter was a man, mask dangling from his ear, waiting for his own order to be warmed up and sipping on an espresso.  Here is how I described what happened next:

“From the right of me I hear, “Put on your mask.” I knew the comment wasn’t directed at me because I was already wearing the ineffective, butterfly-wing-thin piece of paper on my nose and mouth, something I call my Bocca Burqa, so that I could access the restaurant.

I looked around and realized that the woman was talking to the man who was waiting for his order, his own mask dangling from one ear as he sipped an espresso at the bar. He was more than 6 feet away from her.

The man said “Mind your own business, lady.” I would have been even less polite, so I gave him points. The woman, blessed with the flaming red hair her ancestors never had and struggling to mobilize cryogenically-frozen mouth muscles screamed (and I mean screamed) “Put your mask on you fat ass.”

The man was overweight, but I was always taught that you can only safely criticize the weight of blood relatives and Rosie O’Donnell, so I was shocked. The man replied in kind, saying “Shut up, bitch.”

And she gathered all of her powers of indignation and fury and launched the most scathing, deadly, hurtful thing she could come up with: “Fuc$ing Trump voter. I hope you die, but don’t you kill me!”

And then his order arrived and he went to a corner table to eat.

I was still in shock. I was debating whether to say anything when the woman told the cashier: “I live here and I’m not going to let that animal make me sick.”

And that did it. I said, “Ma’am, that was completely wrong. I’m wearing a mask. I’m vaccinated. But you are out of line. Did you have to be insulting? Calling him fat? And really? Trump? Last time I checked, Biden is president.”

She looked taken aback that someone who was superficially a fellow traveler (female, mask wearer, wearing animal print accessories) was criticizing her. But she rebounded quickly. “He’s a fat, ignorant anti-science Trumper.”

At that point the manager came to the register and looked at me and said, “Please, can you stop raising your voices and making a scene?”

And that’s when Joan of Arch Street emerged and said, pointing like Emile Zola in “J’accuse!”

“It was THAT woman. Her. She started it when she insulted that man (waving an accusatory finger at the embarrassed male diner). She called him fat. She called him a Trump voter. She is at fault.”

And then I looked at the manager and said, “I don’t need your pizza that badly. I need to be more than 6 feet away from HER.” (Accusatory finger shifts back to Redhead, who was as naturally Red as a California Redwood) and then I stormed out of the pizzeria.

As I trudged home, sans pizza and umbrella but with conviction, I realized that I do not want to be within 6 feet of anyone who makes masks and vaccines the hallmark of their humanity.”

That was the entire content of my post, give or take a few emojis.  It got a few thumbs up, lots of clicks, and I also shared it in a private Facebook group I belong to. Private groups are just that, private. Only those who have access to the group can see the posts, and I’m pretty sure that no one in this group objected to my post.

But lo and behold, I get a notice from Facebook that I was being suspended for three days because my post had “violated Community standards” by spreading “misinformation” about masks and vaccines.  That’s exactly what it said. I re-read my post, and while it did appear a bit cutting, particularly the comments about the lady’s flaming hair, I couldn’t find anything in it that disseminated false facts.  It was pure opinion, albeit snarky in tone (is there any other tone?)

Ironically, hours after I was told that I’d been put in Facebook Siberia, they took off my ankle bracelet and I was released. There was no warning nor explanation, I  just woke up the next morning and was able to post like a normal human being.  It wasn’t exactly Alexander Solzhenitsyn getting out of the Archipelago Zuckerberg, but it was rather momentous.  Apparently, my appeal to the Facebook gods had been reviewed and approved.

But I’m not celebrating. The fact that something I posted in a private social media group caught the attention of someone with Stasi propensities, and a knee-jerk decision was made based on partisan assumptions, is appalling.  The fact that an opinion was considered “dangerous” is Kafkaesque. The fact that making fun of a woman who was making fun of a man violates “Community standards” and we have no idea what those standards are really troubles me. It should trouble all of us.

Whatever your opinions on masks or vaccines or abortion or election fraud or Chris Cuomo or Larry Krasner, they’re your opinions. Opinions are not dangerous. You know what is, though?

Not being able to have them.



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