Defying Russia, Ukrainians Celebrate Their Independence Day

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A display on Kyiv’s central square, the Maidan, on Ukraine’s Independence Day, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

KYIV, Ukraine — The expression “freedom isn’t free” might be considered a bit of a cliche in countries where citizens have the privilege of taking their freedom for granted. That’s not the case in Ukraine.

Today, Wednesday, Aug. 24, is Ukraine’s 31st Independence Day. In the capital city of Kyiv, seven separate air raid alerts had already sounded by the time of this article’s publication. Each siren warned of a possible Russian missile strike and served as a stark reminder of the price this country is still paying for its freedom.

“Six months ago, I, as well as a million other Ukrainians, took up arms so that we could celebrate the 31st anniversary of Ukraine’s independence today. We did it, all of us. Military and civilians stood together and held back the Russian horde,” Volodymyr Rybka, a volunteer Ukrainian soldier from Kyiv, told Coffee or Die Magazine.

It’s been 31 years since the end of Soviet rule, more than eight years after Russia first invaded, and exactly six months since Moscow’s full-scale war began in the early hours of Feb. 24. Yet Ukrainians still clearly believe their freedom is worth fighting for, no matter what Russia says or does to deny it.

“Six months ago, Russia declared war against us. On Feb. 24, the entire Ukraine heard explosions and gunshots,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a speech to mark the national holiday. “On Feb. 24, we were told, ‘You have no chance.’ On Aug. 24, we say: ‘Happy Independence Day, Ukraine!’”

There was much less traffic than usual on Kyiv’s streets today — a notable but not necessarily unusual observation for a national holiday. Ukrainian flags were ubiquitous around town. Even the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant on Khreshchatyk had a sign with the Ukrainian colors in its front window. In Ukrainian it read, “Together to victory!”

There was an anxious air after warnings from both Ukrainian officials and the US government that Russia would likely launch missile attacks to spoil Ukraine’s national day.

“The Department of State has information that Russia is stepping up efforts to launch strikes against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and government facilities in the coming days,” the US Embassy in Kyiv reported in a Tuesday email advisory.

Despite the missile threat, many people strolled along Kyiv’s main boulevard, Khreshchatyk, on Wednesday to observe a static display of destroyed Russian tanks and other vehicles. A military parade typically takes place on this street to celebrate Independence Day. This year, the capital city remains under martial law, and large gatherings are forbidden. Yet the display of destroyed Russian hardware on Khreshchatyk seemed to inspire defiance and pride among those who were there to observe it.

“I think the people who came up with this idea are geniuses, and Zelenskyy is a great showman,” Rybka, the Ukrainian soldier, said. “First, such a parade is a historical event for the whole world. I can’t remember such an event anywhere in the world before, can you? Second, this event shows exactly what Russia planned to do this winter. Shows it in reality, but twisted.”

There were lots of smiles and selfies amid the Russian wreckage on Wednesday. Many people shouldered Ukraine’s blue and yellow flags and wore traditional, embroidered blouses called vyshyvankas. Some wore hats and T-shirts emblazoned with the words, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!” The expression, which has become something of a national call to arms, was made famous by the Ukrainian defenders of Snake Island in the full-scale war’s opening hours.

In his Independence Day address, Zelenskyy said: “The occupier believed that in a few days he would be on parade in our capital’s downtown. Today, you can see this ‘parade’ on Khreshchatyk. The proof that enemy equipment can appear in the center of Kyiv only in such form. Burned, wrecked, and destroyed.”

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Kyiv’s Khreshchatyk boulevard with a display of destroyed Russian military vehicles behind him. Photo courtesy of the Office of the President of Ukraine.

Photo courtesy Office of the President of Ukraine.

He added, “It doesn’t matter to us what kind of army you have; what matters to us is our land. We will fight for it until the end.”

Ukraine’s victory in the Battle of Kyiv simply confirmed what was already obvious after eight years of war — Russian bombs, bullets, and acts of brutality cannot break Ukrainians’ will to fight.

It’s hard to explain to those who have known nothing but peace why so many Ukrainians volunteered to fight for their country these past eight and a half years. For many of the soldiers I’ve met, it was a clear-cut case of moral arithmetic. Their country was invaded, and they had a duty to fight. Simple as that.

“It’s impossible not to be motivated when the enemy has attacked the motherland,” 53-year-old Ukrainian volunteer soldier Vasiliy Ivaskiv explained as he cooked me breakfast in a frontline dugout in the summer of 2015.

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A Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant on Kyiv’s Khreshchatyk boulevard Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

A former coal miner from the western Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankivsk, Ivaskiv nicknamed me “America,” and he had a habit (despite my protests) of using his body to shield me from sniper fire. Compact and muscular, he exuded energy, leading daylong patrols with men less than half his age. A father figure, Ivaskiv always seemed to be fixing something and usually did the cooking for the younger troops.

“When I was working in the mines, we could tell who was a good worker by how much he ate,” he said, heaping an impossible amount of food onto my plate. “So eat up.”

Ivaskiv volunteered to serve in the Ukrainian army after making a few supply runs to front-line troops in the early days of the war. “I saw those young men fighting and dying for Ukraine, and I knew I had to fight, too,” he told me, proudly adding that his father had fought against the Nazis in World War II.

When he left for war, Ivaskiv said he’d had to step over his wife, who had collapsed in a sobbing heap in the doorway. She begged him not to go.

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Ukrainians walked through ruined Russian military hardware on display in central Kyiv on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

“There was nothing she could do to stop me,” he said. He scooped some more scrambled eggs onto my plate, then paused and stood before me with the pan in his hand for a moment. Then he said, “I had to go. It was my duty.”

A Ukrainian soldier named Konstantin Bernatovich told me something similar about duty: “This is my country, and we were attacked. There was never any question; I had to fight.”

In 2015, Bernatovich and I survived a particularly scary Russian artillery barrage. We huddled together in a dank basement while dust raised and things fell off the walls, the irregular pulse of Russian shells closing in on our position. The bass notes of the explosions punched through the earth. You felt the shock waves in your chest as much as in your eardrums. When Bernatovich and I reunited in Kyiv months later, his hands trembled as he lit a cigarette.

“You remind me of the war,” Bernatovich, then 33, said looking straight into my eyes. A sad smile curled his lips. “Too much adrenaline.”

On Ukraine’s fields of fire, I’ve met men and women of all ages who were willing to sacrifice everything for intangible ideas like freedom, justice, and democracy. They also fought to protect those they loved — both their families at home and their comrades in arms beside them.

I remember a 22-year-old soldier named Julia; she went by the nom de guerre “Black.”

“It was harder for me to live under the USSR than to be in the war. In the USSR I was always under pressure, and I was always in hiding. In war I can see my enemy and I can fight back. In war at least I know who my enemy is.”
— Borys Melnyk

During a gun battle on a scorching summer day, I scrambled for cover while Julia calmly raised her Kalashnikov to the ready and squared her shoulders toward the direction of fire. She stood, stone faced and in the open, with her cheek against the stock of her rifle, ready for battle as the bullets popped and zipped overhead.

You can’t train that kind of courage. It’s either there or it isn’t. And it’s not limited to soldiers.

I remember Oxana Chornaya, a 37-year-old university professor who decided to deliver supplies to frontline Ukrainian troops when the war began in 2014. She wore body armor over her floral sundresses as she weaved an old, fully loaded minivan through artillery fire.

“Sometimes, I’m so afraid, I can’t take my hands off the steering wheel,” she told me. “I get so scared. My knuckles are white and I can’t breathe.”

“But I have to do this,” she added.

And there was a 75-year-old soldier named Borys Melnyk. When I met him in 2016, Melnyk told me: “It was harder for me to live under the USSR than to be in the war. In the USSR, I was always under pressure, and I was always in hiding. In war, I can see my enemy, and I can fight back. In war, at least I know who my enemy is.”

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Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag was on display across the capital city of Kyiv on Independence Day, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

By invading Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, Moscow likely intended to reverse the outcome of Ukraine’s pro-democratic Revolution of Dignity and make the country a vassal state. That plan failed, and after eight years of entrenched and often unconventional warfare, Ukraine remained firmly set on the pro-democratic, pro-Western trajectory its citizens had chosen.

Even so, the Kremlin assumed its Feb. 24, full-scale assault would break Ukraine’s civil society and cause the country to unravel from within. Moscow planned to take over Kyiv in three days and install a pro-Russian puppet regime.

Ultimately, Ukrainians proved much more resilient than Moscow had anticipated, showing once again that it’s hard to turn back the clock once you’ve sowed the expectation of freedom within a nation’s mind.

“The Ukrainian people and their courage inspired the whole world,” Zelenskyy said in Wednesday’s Independence Day address.

“We finally became truly one,” he added. “A new nation that emerged on Feb. 24 at 4 a.m. Not born, but reborn. A nation that didn’t cry, didn’t scream, didn’t get scared. Didn’t run away. Didn’t give up. Didn’t forget.”

Read Next: Kyiv Readies for Ukrainian Independence Day With Display of Ruined Russian Tanks

Nolan Peterson is a senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine and the author of Why Soldiers Miss War. A former US Air Force special operations pilot and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nolan is now a conflict journalist and author whose adventures have taken him to all seven continents. In addition to his memoirs, Nolan has published two fiction collections. He lives in Kyiv, Ukraine, with his wife, Lilya.
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