As Ukraine marks 31 years of statehood, Kyiv’s streets are a far cry from the way they looked six months ago when thousands were fleeing in panic and military checkpoints operated on most corners.
The very real feeling of imminent death – which jolted the population into mounting a large-scale, voluntary resistance – has subsided outside the frontline areas in the south and east. Most restaurants and businesses in the capital have gradually re-opened. But like Kyiv’s tree-lined streets and summer clothes, the physical aspects of life returning to normal have not outweighed the inner pain many Ukrainians are experiencing – brought home even more by the muted public holiday.
“As I’m speaking to you now, I have goosebumps. People I know, even my godson, are fighting at the front. There is no celebration today. I can’t even believe that this is happening,” said Yana Pasychnyk, a choral singer in one of Ukraine’s national choirs.
Wearing a traditional Ukrainian blouse, Pasychnyk was heading home after performing hymns for Ukraine at Kyiv’s St Sophia Cathedral. “I’m constantly worried and praying that our skies remain blue, and I understand that people are giving their lives for this,” said Pasychnyk.
Her feelings are common. This year’s public holiday is not being met with the traditional parade in Kyiv and nationwide town-square celebrations. Ukraine has banned gatherings amid security concerns. The country and its western allies say Russia plans to step up attacks on civilian infrastructure around independence day.
Ukraine’s general staff has warned Ukrainians not to ignore the air raid sirens, the frequency of which caused them to lose potency within the first few weeks of the war.
Visits to a Kyiv subway during two of the four sirens on Wednesday, found only about 20 people on their phones, waiting outside the sirens, while dozens more waited for trains undeterred as they did before the war.
The twists and turns of Ukraine’s independence period, during which there have been six presidents and two revolutions, have forced Ukraine to adapt to a rollercoaster of economic and political changes.
The future of the Ukrainian state is almost entirely dependent on continued western military supplies to fight Russia and financing to sustain its economy. Western support in turn derives from Ukrainians constantly agitating and demonstrating continued resistance.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, wrote on Instagram that Ukraine was marking independence day during a war for independence and he hoped one day soon Ukrainians would be able to congratulate each other on victory day too.
Ukrainian forces managed to push Russian forces out of the north of the country. The frontlines remain relatively stable in the east and south, of which Russia now occupies 20%. The military losses on both sides have been phenomenal, considering the timeframe.
Ukraine says it has lost almost 9,000 men, although the figure is impossible to independently verify. Russia has not yet named a total. The US believes Russian losses amount to at least 15,000 men, while the Ukrainians put the figure at more than double that.
Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, told CNN that Ukraine is past the worst of the war. Reznikov said: “We are in a stage of stabilizing all the battlefield or battle lines with the small moving of the units, and we made a lot of good deterrents there.”
Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, contradicted Reznikov’s assertion that the lack of movement along the frontlines was a result of Ukrainian successes. Shoigu said Russian forces were deliberately slowing down their offensive to prevent civilian casualties, a statement he first made in May.
Although it is difficult to measure their accuracy, two recent polls indicate the mood of Ukrainians chimes with Zelenskiy and Reznikov’s confidence. The polls put the number of Ukrainians who believe Ukraine will be victorious over Russia at between 90% and 98%. But for at least some Ukrainians it is difficult to muster faith in the idea of victory, despite the reams of positive messages every day.
“I think this is all a geopolitical game and I don’t think Ukraine has a chance of winning,” said Alla, a 40-year-old Buddhist teacher, sitting on a bench in central Kyiv. “If you had a family and some massive guy came along, would you put them out to be slaughtered? It’s all very sad.”
Thirty-one years ago, Ukraine’s parliament voted for the country to leave the Soviet Union and break from Moscow’s control. It was his first successful attempt after two previous failures. In the west, some media commentators hailed the birth of a new nation, while many Ukrainians considered themselves a nation denied a state by various imperial powers, primarily Russia.
When independence was declared in 1991, there was no bloodshed. Ukraine’s deputy KGB chief at the time, Yevhen Marchuk, later said in interviews that the central command in Moscow had attempted to thwart the process, seeing it as an affront.
This strand of KGB thinking is what some believe has led to Russia’s violent invasion this year, having been absorbed by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, once a KGB operative, and members of his inner circle.
“If we stop fighting that will be the end,” said Yaroslav Dmytrovych, 27, who was setting up a stand of rental bikes. “Russia has no freedom of speech. I want to live in Ukraine where it’s more interesting, happier and there are more opportunities.
“At the moment I feel OK. The sirens have ended. But everyone is waiting for something to happen and we don’t know what it will be.”