A year ago today, I was sitting under the scorching sun at Kyiv’s central Maidan square, watching a massive celebration of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence. Tanks and other military equipment rolled past crowds on Khreshchatyk Street and the biggest cargo plane in the world, the Ukrainian-made Antonov AN-225 Mriya, roared above our heads. Fighter jets left a blue-and-yellow trail in the sky and military delegations from 14 countries marched next to Ukrainian soldiers in a show of solidarity. President Zelensky delivered a passionate speech: “We are a young country with 1,000 years of history,” he said. Ukraine will not let anyone “occupy its history” and “annex its heroes”.
The mood was festive. A young woman from the Luhansk area, whose family still lived under Russian occupation, told me that she had embraced her Ukrainian identity only recently. She proudly showed me her vyshyvanka, a traditional embroidered shirt that she had crafted for this occasion. A man with his wife and children said that he liked the idea of holding a military parade; Ukraine had to show that it had a strong army and could defend itself.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion, exactly six months ago today, at least 5,000 Ukrainian civilians and 9,000 soldiers have been killed; I dread to think that some people I saw at the parade last year might be among them. Ukraine now has 20 per cent of its territory under Russian occupation. The Mriya plane, which impressed adults and children so much, was destroyed in the first days of the invasion.
There are no public celebrations of Ukraine’s independence day this year because of the danger of Russian missile strikes. Instead there is an exhibition of burned and destroyed Russian tanks (pictured). People take photos, climb them to install blue-and-yellow flags, curse and ridicule Russia’s initial plans to take Kyiv in three days. Making a mockery of the enemy feels uplifting for many in these dark times. The war is not over yet and it’s too early to celebrate but Ukrainians remain adamant about defending the independence that has already cost them so dearly.
Olga Tokariuk is Monocle’s Ukraine correspondent.