Thirty-one years ago this week, lawmakers in Kyiv voted through a one-page document that put an end to centuries of rule from Moscow. “The territory of Ukraine is indivisible and inviolable,” reads the Declaration of Independence, written days after hardline communists attempted to take over the government.
Now, more than three decades on, the country’s sovereignty faces another existential threat, with Russian troops occupying close to a third of its soil. When President Vladimir Putin ordered his tanks to begin rolling across the border in February, it’s hard to believe he expected Ukraine’s forces would be able to hold them back long enough to celebrate the anniversary of its independence in August.
But with Moscow’s offensives bogged down and meeting fierce resistance in the East and South of the country, Kyiv is preparing to mark the event very differently this year. In an address on Monday, Ukrainian leader Volodymr Zelensky banned all public commemorations, warning that “we must all be aware that this week Russia could try to do something particularly ugly, something particularly vicious.”
“One of the key tasks of the enemy is to humiliate us, Ukrainians, to devalue our capabilities, our heroes, to spread despair, fear, to spread conflicts,” he cautioned. Kyiv itself is under curfew, and its citizens will be on edge after months of heavy bombardment over residential areas.
Instead, the millions of people who have fled abroad since the start of the war will be celebrating in absentia, and Lithuania, one of the main destinations for Ukrainians, has done a deal to host the festivities.
“Just being Ukrainian, just putting the colours blue and yellow together, is an act of defiance at the moment,” Mark Adam Harold, the Chair of Lithuania’s Night Economy Association and one of the event’s organizers tells Reaction. “It’s going to be a rave – a charity rave. When people are dying or being tortured, sometimes people ask well, why are you having a rave, but people dancing together, listening to music is powerful.”
Veronika Samborska is among those Ukrainians who will be marking the event from afar. “I have a lot of guilt and shame about not being there,” says the 28-year-old PhD student. Currently in Lisbon, Samborska is from the now-occupied city of Kherson, where Russian forces are preparing to hold a ‘referendum’ that many fear could lead to Moscow annexing the region. “For people my age, independent Ukraine is the only thing we’ve ever experienced. It might be hard to celebrate now, but those of us abroad are the only ones who can.”
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In the lead up to the start of the invasion, Putin published a series of lengthy rants in which he denied Ukraine was a real country, arguing instead that its past – and its future – were intrinsically tied to Russia. The idea that so many millions of ordinary Ukrainians would pick up arms and put their lives at risk to defend its independence clearly never crossed the minds of those hatching plans in the Kremlin.
According to Dr Ian Garner, an expert on Russian propaganda and the author of a forthcoming book, Z Generation: Into the Heart of Russia’s Fascist Youth, the idea of people coming together to honour Ukraine’s sovereignty is “anathema” to Putin and his inner circle.
“They say these people are diseased, and that this is part of the same “Russian world” which spans from Vladivostok to Central Europe, and so for them there’s nothing to be celebrated about Ukrainian independence,” he explains.
For Kyiv though, Dr Garner goes on, these signs of support are vital. “We’ve seen in real time the making of a nation that a few months ago did seem like it had rifts in it. Eurovision, boxing wins, slogans like ‘Russian warship, go f*** yourself,’ these are the things that build Ukraine up and give its people something to fight for.” Independence Day, he adds, is no different.
Zelensky and his military commanders are clearly convinced that Russia will use the anniversary to launch another assault on their country’s sovereignty. But while Kyiv braces for yet more rockets and cruise missiles, Ukrainians living abroad will be lighting fireworks and remembering those who have already died to keep their country independent.
“This is just a one-off,” says Harold, as preparations for the event get underway in Vilnius. “We’ve been saying the whole time, next year we’re going to be hosting a victory party in Kyiv.”