Kyiv, Ukraine – The Monument to the Motherland – a giant stainless steel 335 feet high above the Ukrainian capital Kiev – was designed to emphasize Soviet invincibility. On Wednesday, the sprawling blue and gold Ukrainian national flag was raised in a symbol of defiance.
Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev unveiled the monument in 1981: a portrait of a woman with a sword in her right hand and a shield in her left decorated with the Soviet hammer and sickle. Ten years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine became free.
Volunteers on the occasion of Ukraine’s Independence Day attached the national flag to a drone and raised it in the sky over a steel giant. Ukrainians used the celebration – exactly six months after the invasion of Russia – to express this President Vladimir Putin To Russia that his dreams of empire will not pass through Ukraine.
“The statue is part of our history, and we cannot deny it,” said Yury Shegul, head of Ukraine’s cybersecurity agency. “But 31 years ago, we became independent. Today we are struggling to maintain our independence.”
The challenge was the mood of the day, with President Volodymyr Zelensky Setting the tone for an unspoken speech in front of a line of destroyed Russian tanks and military vehicles in the city center.
But the mysterious moment of the country was confirmed by the quiet streets, the prohibition of mass events. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said peace later collapsed when a missile hit a train station in the small town of Chaplin near the city of Dnipro, killing at least 22 people.
Ukrainian and US officials have warned that Moscow may celebrate the holiday by firing an angry barrage of missiles. But in Kyiv, when the morning passed with alarms of air raids but no strikes, people began to take an adventure.
Several cafes were opened, although service was sometimes stopped for sirens. By evening, the tank parade in the city center was crowded, many of them dressed in traditional clothing and draped Ukrainian flags around their shoulders.
After mass in the church, Victoria Soshina, 32, who was visiting Kyiv from the southern city of Odessa, said she wouldn’t let fear keep her inside.
“We are strong, we are together, and we will win,” she said.
She had just come from the golden-domed monastery of St. Michael, in the middle of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, where the leader of the nation’s followers was holding a ceremony to honor the soldiers and pray for their victory.
One of the soldiers, Vadim Omelchuk, 58, about 6 feet 5 inches tall, served in the Soviet Army from 1985 until 1991, when the country became independent.
He believed that he would never be a soldier again, and concentrated on training boxers in Kyiv. But the day after the Russian invasion, he enlisted to fight. As a member of the Regional Defense Forces, he helped liberate the Kyiv suburbs of Irbin and Bucha, where Russian atrocities shocked the world.
“I saw what they did – it was the lowest level a human could sink,” he said.
The leader of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Metropolitan Epiphanius Domenko, said in an interview after the ceremony that the most difficult moment in the war for him was the acceptance that this was really happening.
But he added that he is now confident of victory.
“I could see that people were spiritually strong and united, and that gave me hope,” he said. Nobody believed that we would stand three days, or a week, or a month. Yet we stand.”