“It started with just one flag and me when the war started,” said Lazarenko, with a Ukrainian flag and an American flag slung in parallel over one shoulder. “I’ve been here ever since.” | Credit: Courtesy

At the onset of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, your average Joe may have hung a Ukrainian flag outside their home or business or posted, tweeted, or shared about it on social media. In the more than two years since, though, your average Joe has also probably let this conflict fall to the back burner of their mind, with international conflicts of more recent emergence and media coverage taking over the coveted front. 

Your average Joe has likely lost some morale, but your average Russ hasn’t.

“It started with just one flag and me when the war started,” Russ Lazarenko says. “I’ve been here ever since.”

Lazarenko — the flag-waving, honk-inducing, never-without-a-smile main character at the corner of San Roque and State Street — has made quite the name for himself as the creator and waver of Santa Barbara’s “Ukrainian Corner.”

Twenty or so flags stand with their backs straight and chins up. More often than not, Lazarenko wanders back and forth in the same fashion, with a Ukrainian flag and an American flag slung in parallel over one shoulder — flip sides of the same allied coin.

A New Wave

The corner has evolved since its start in 2022, when Lazarenko and the rest of the world first heard the news that Russia had invaded Ukraine. At the time, a shocked Lazarenko did all he could think of to garner support — wave the struggling country’s flag in a place where people would see it.

“There was a ton of support right away,” he reminisced. “It seemed like everyone wanted to wave with me.”

Enter Tom Moyer — a Montecito resident who has served as the behind-the-scenes financier and occasional flag-waver at the Ukrainian Corner. After spotting the lone Lazarenko, Moyer wanted not only to support him and his cause but also to create some sense of permanence for when the flag-wavers went home. Soon, an entire row of high-hoisted Ukrainian flags wrapped around the corner.

Now, Moyer replaces tattered flags and broken flag poles as necessary and is a sort of political driver behind the operation. He tasks himself with staying up-to-date on the ins and outs of the Russia-Ukraine war so that Lazarenko can put his energy toward what matters most to him.

“I try to stay out of the politics of things, but Tom knows more than I do,” Lazarenko said. “For me, it’s more about the people.” 

While this optimistic outlook is refreshing, the Venn diagram of people and politics is merely a sliver from being a one-circle show. With such a dense, nuanced circle of information at play, Lazarenko and Moyer stay in constant communication — Lazarenko reporting on the state of the corner and community, and Moyer reporting on the state of the war. 

On this note, community members often inquire about the possibility of including other countries’ flags in the lineup, which Lazarenko said he feels unequipped to decide upon himself. Therefore, he talks it over with Moyer, who makes a decision based on the country’s allyship with or support for Ukraine. This process has resulted in almost 20 additional flags — an American flag sitting slightly higher than the rest.

Corner Conflict

While most public sentiment has come in the form of honking, waving, and woo-hooing in support, Lazarenko also mentioned that “one percent of the time,” he and others have felt unsafe in their home corner.

“Sometimes I come here and see flag poles broken in half and flags ripped up,” Lazarenko said. “We lost seven Ukrainian flags last week.” 

He also described a “pro-Putin group” that stops by every month or so, “cursing and swearing and threatening to beat us up.”

Passersby used to stop at the corner more often to wave and chat, but personal threats of violence have caused the number of regulars to dwindle quickly. “We want people to know we’re weary, but we’re here,” he emphasized.

Finding ‘a Good Cause’

Before embarking on his retirement-fueled activism journey, Lazarenko was a cross-country truck driver, operating up and down the Pacific coast from Canada to Alaska. After exhausting that route, he spent 10 years driving Broadway trailers and hot-shot celebrities across the country from show to show. He eventually put his roots down in Santa Barbara in 1972 and has been here ever since.

Looking to get involved in the community, Lazarenko founded the Santa Barbara County Chess Club shortly after his move. They now boast a highly ranked competition team, and the club has maintained many of its traditions — still meeting every Monday from 7:30 p.m. “until the kids want to go home,” he said.

During the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Lazarenko had a brief bout as a mover, helping people move to new homes while the rest of his company was afraid to interact with clients. Years later during the COVID-19 pandemic, he assisted the elderly population, driving buses for senior home residents to and from medical appointments and the grocery store.

Lazarenko’s commitment to paying it forward at times when people were holding themselves back exemplifies an unsparing, openhanded spirit that few possess. So when Russia invaded Lazarenko’s place of origin, muscle memory took charge and got him involved.

“I’m always looking for a good cause, and I found it here,” he reasoned.

Ukrainian Woman of Santa Barbara

With a soaring civilian death toll, the war hasn’t failed to touch all corners of the world. Santa Barbara is no different.

“Every day, someone is dying — people you know,” said Tatyana Taruta, a Santa Barbara resident who was born in Ukraine. Taruta spent much of her life in Mariupol, one of the first Ukrainian cities targeted and taken over by Russian attacks. Her once bustling, joy-filled city has been reduced to rubble — only charred buildings and ghosts of her childhood memories remain.

Taruta travels back to her hometown every year for a few months and is set to embark on another journey back in just a few weeks. Upon returning from her most recent trip in January, she said, “People realized this winter that this is a long war, not a short one. Russia won’t quit, and people are depressed.”

The embodiment of strength and poise, Taruta has leveraged her unique position to build and support a cross-continental bridge between Santa Barbara and Ukraine. She works to raise awareness and money for her struggling country and has emerged as a powerhouse advocate and change-maker in our Santa Barbara bubble.

The Ukrainian Women of Santa Barbara — which Taruta is also involved with — helps lift some of the weight off her shoulders. Through bake sales, rallies, and other events, they raise money to purchase supplies for Ukrainians in need.

“We all know at least a person or two who are serving or working in hospitals over there,” Taruta explained. “So we ask for lists of what they want from America, buy it, and send it.” Hospitals are clamoring for basic medical supplies, she emphasized, and they most commonly plead for tourniquets, bandages, and medical kits.

More than two years since starting Santa Barbara’s “Ukrainian Corner” at State and San Roque, Russ Lazarenko has been joined by fellow Ukraine supporters, such as hula-hooper Jaimie Berg. | Credit: Courtesy

Foreign Aid and Hoop Dreams

The foreign aid bill passed in April was a crucial, albeit delayed, step in the right direction, Taruta said. The bill promised more than $60 billion in aid to the Ukrainian government and the United States’ activities in the region. Additionally, NATO announced on June 26 that it would spearhead coordination efforts to send additional aid to Ukraine and create a pathway toward Ukraine’s eventual NATO membership.

“It’s not only about the money, but also a signal that they sent to the Ukrainian people,” said Taruta. “The uncertainty meant to us that we didn’t know if America was still on our side.”

Taruta met Lazarenko in February, shortly after returning from her trip to a barely recognizable home. “I haven’t been involved at the corner for long, but Russ has been there every single day since the war started.” 

Other regular wavers include Father Larry of Old Mission Santa Barbara and Jaimie Berg — the more whimsical of the two — who doesn’t miss a hula-hooping beat when showing her support for Ukraine. “Every hoop spin is sending energy for the protection of Ukrainian people and everyone who’s helping them,” she said.

Ukraine needs all the protection it can get in light of Russian forces dropping 800 bombs on the country just last week, according to a statement from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Since 2022, 30,000 civilian casualties have been documented, with troop casualties on both sides exceeding half a million people. The spread of this war would wipe out the City of Santa Barbara nearly six times over.

Ukraine is in continuous defense mode, and Russia is getting dangerously close to taking control of the Pokrovsk–Kostyantynivka Highway — one of the most important Ukrainian supply routes. Without it, it would become incredibly difficult to funnel food, weapons, and other supplies to the Ukrainian army bases in the area.

While it could be easy to fall into complacency and lose hope, the folks on Santa Barbara’s Ukrainian Corner are still doing their part to keep morale up, one flag wave and hoop spin at a time.

This article was underwritten in part by the Mickey Flacks Journalism Fund for Social Justice, a proud, innovative supporter of local news. To make a contribution go to sbcan.org/journalism_fund.

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