Refugee Diaries: Ukrainian Independence Day — past, present and future

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Every year, on August 24, Ukrainians celebrate breaking free of the Soviet Union in 1991. This year, the holiday falls on the six-month anniversary of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to roll back that freedom with tanks, soldiers and missiles.  

In this installment of Refugee Diaries, POLITICO asked five Ukrainian refugees in Europe to reflect on past commemorations, share their hopes for the future, and write a letter to fellow refugees spending this year’s Independence Day away from home. 

Anna Vyshniakova

Location: France

What were you doing last year on this day?

I was in Ghana, celebrating Ukraine’s Independence Day with a couple of fellow Ukrainians. We had a small barbecue. But I’d also like to emphasize that the war didn’t start just five months ago, but nine years ago. Only this time, it touches every one of us much closer than when the war had started in the eastern part of Ukraine. 

How have your feelings toward being Ukrainian changed since the start of the war?

During these past five months, even though you may not actively think about Ukraine every single day, it’s inside of you all the time. You feel that something is wrong, torn in your soul. The war means your heart is in constant pain. Your self-identity, being Ukrainian, isn’t just an attribution but something very much inside of you, something you’ll have for the rest of your life. There’s an inner debt; you owe something to your country that you need to give back. 

How and where do you hope to spend the next national day?

I think every one of us is hoping to spend it in Ukraine.

I would particularly love to spend it in the eastern part of Ukraine. It would be nice to go to Mariupol because I think when the war is over, many people will go and rebuild the city, clean the reminiscences of what was left after the missiles struck. I hope I’ll spend this moment among Ukrainians and with Ukrainians, feeling that our country is free and independent.

“Dear compatriots! My beloved Ukrainians. I want to say so much. And at the same time, I want to be silent.

When the independence of our homeland is at stake, the freedom of every single one of us is at stake. There is no Ukrainian today who hasn’t been marked by the war, by the fear of losing their home and their loved ones.

Our life has been divided into а before and after, but it goes on. We have to find the strength to fight within us. To fight the occupiers. To fight the despair. To believe in our Armed Forces and our own strength. To make the “war-life balance” work. And to remember that we are Ukraine, and Ukraine is us.” 

As told to Elisa Braun

Larysa Deshko

Location: The Netherlands
Larysa Deshko

What were you doing last year on this day?

Our family has always participated in public life. And I’ve been attending demonstrations since 1988.

Ukraine-Rus was baptized in Kyiv in the year 988. So, it was logical to celebrate its 1,000th anniversary in Kyiv. Meanwhile, the Soviet powers decided to celebrate in Moscow. Russia always wants to take ownership of Ukrainian history, including this important date. But on that day in 1988, we met near the monument of Saint Volodymyr the Baptizer, in Kyiv, to celebrate our holiday.

Since then, there have been many different demonstrations. For example, I remember getting to Instytutska Street on August 24, 1991 very well. I approached the parliament building, Verkhovna Rada; many people had gathered there. All of them were waiting for the adoption of the Act of Declaration of Independence and our withdrawal from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. I joined the group.

By that time, they had collected some money and bought bouquets to be given to the people’s deputies who voted for independence. There were 450 deputies in the parliament, and there were just as many bouquets. They were small and cheap because there was no time to collect more money. They were put beside the fountain; everyone was waiting. 

The entrance to the house was blocked by a fence and guards, but it was understood that the crowd wanted to thank their elected officials in case of a positive vote — 45 women were admitted to the entrance, each with 10 bouquets of these simple forest flowers. I was led to the entrance and given a blue and yellow flag. Then, we heard on the broadcast that, other than three representatives of Russian collaborators, all the deputies had made a decision in favor of the independence of Ukraine. We were all very happy.

Later, this day became a national holiday. We are very proud of our independence, many generations of Ukrainians dreamed of it.

How have your feelings toward being Ukrainian changed since the start of the war?

What has changed in Ukraine since the beginning of the war . . . People have realized that their rights must be protected, that Russia is neither our brother nor our friend, that we are united in our desire to defend our country.

The attitude toward the army has also changed. Toward our defenders, we feel that we’re united in the public desire to win and persevere and rebuild our country, which we love. We feel that we have such a rich language, a glorious history and that we are actually Europeans. We feel that we have many things to be proud of.

How and where do you hope to spend the next national day?

I hope for victory. We’ll celebrate with all the people, and we will celebrate in Ukraine. I will go to Maidan square to commemorate and thank those who fought for our independence.

“Dear compatriots, dear Ukrainians,

I congratulate you on this Independence Day.

Today, this holiday is different, as you have had to leave your homes and move to other countries because of Russian terrorists and murderers.

I know how hard it is for you, and that your hearts and souls remain with Ukraine. This is why I am convinced that you:

believe in Victory,

pray for Ukraine and our Army,

help Ukraine,

realize that we all represent Ukraine overseas (this is a “people’s diplomacy”).

Dear Ukrainians, we were welcomed by countries with a high quality of life (I’m not talking about those who were forcibly taken to Russia by the occupiers). This is a unique opportunity to study the experience of people who have built a society for themselves — an intelligent, fair, advanced and civilized society.

I know that we will soon return to Ukraine, and we must bring our knowledge with us to build a new state where people can live happily — not just the oligarchs. We must create a system in which the Government is forced to work for the people.

Together we will win!”

As told to Carlo Martuscelli

Olena Ostroverkh

Location: Ukraine

What were you doing last year on this day?

Last year was the 30th Independence Day of Ukraine. I was in Kyiv, watching the great air parade. I saw Mriya* — the biggest airplane in the world. It was destroyed during the first days of the war…

How have your feelings toward being Ukrainian changed since the start of the war?

I was always proud of being Ukrainian. I spoke Ukrainian with my friends who spoke Russian. But now, I am more proud of being Ukrainian, and I now speak Ukrainian with my friends who also speak Ukrainian.

How and where do you hope to spend the next national day?

Next year, I want to celebrate the Independence Day of Ukraine in a deoccupied Kherson, where my mother-in-law lives.

(*Editor’s note: The giant Mriya cargo plane, the only one ever to be produced, was destroyed in the early days of the war. The government of Ukraine has said it wants to rebuild it, or possibly complete a second unfinished plane.)

Photo by Ronny Hartmann/AFP via Getty Images

“Dear Ukrainians!

Finally, we realize how powerful we are. Our strength lies in our solidarity and commitment. Let us be proud of our identity! Let us grow even more confident and continue to improve ourselves. We will endure everything!

We will flourish and rebuild our country. Our ancestors endured, and we, too, will get through all troubles. Let us turn to our culture and continue to learn from the history of every family and country.

Now is the time to defend our borders in every way. The enemy only understands the language of the Ukrainian Army, the language of weapons.

We will win! Glory to Ukraine!”

As told to Carlo Martuscelli

Nelli Karpachova

Location: Belgium

Bonjour, comment ça va? Ça va très bien, merci! 

What were you doing last year on this day?

Last year, it was the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s Independence Day. I was in Kyiv, with my daughter Lyuba, for the military parade.

Nelli (left), with her daughter Lyuba (right)

It was a huge celebration, and we listened to our president’s speech and cheered our soldiers on. It was a lovely day, where people shouted Slava Ukraini (Glory to Ukraine)! For the first time in my life, I also saw the world’s largest plane, Mriya, which means “dream” in Ukrainian. It was truly memorable.

Mriya meant a lot to us. It was a common, united dream for us to be independent. Unfortunately, the plane was bombed and destroyed in the early days of the war. But Ukrainians will dream on. We will come back and celebrate future national days in our country. 

How have your feelings toward being Ukrainian changed since the start of the war?

Since the war in Donbas started in 2014, I’ve been feeling more patriotic toward my country than ever before. I became aware that Russians and Ukrainians just don’t share the same way forward; they have separate national identities. Our values are closer to European ones. That’s when I realized my soul is with Ukraine.

Before Russia invaded Donbas, the fact that I was Ukrainian felt unquestioned: It was written on my passport; I supported Ukraine’s football team — but that was pretty much it. 

I used to come to Belgium before the war when visiting [my daughter] Lyuba, who’s based here. But I’ve never felt so many displays of respect toward Ukrainians — not only from Belgians but from Europeans in general, in the way we are now treated and spoken to. 

Today, I feel even more proud to be Ukrainian. Before, we used to be Europe’s little neighbor. But now, I’m a proud Ukrainian in Europe.

How and where do you hope to spend the next national day? 

Today, on Ukraine’s 31st national day, I’ll be with my two friends, both named Tatiana — my daughter calls us “the Musketeers” — in a café in central Brussels, alongside other Ukrainians. 

But as to how and where I’ll spend the next national day, I’ll allow myself to hope and dream. I don’t know why, but my intuition tells me that it’s all going to be done by next summer. We’ve had lots of support from foreign countries, our soldiers have been learning how to use their weapons quickly, and the morale of Russian soldiers is going down. So, next year, I want to be celebrating in a free Ukrainian Donetsk.

“Dear Ukrainians!

Congratulations on Ukrainian Independence Day!

In these grave times for our country, I wish everyone to be strong and not lose hope and faith in our Victory.

I bow to all defenders of Ukraine. You are our Heroes.

Eternal memory to those who died for the independence of our homeland, Ukraine.

Dear compatriots, wherever you are, remember that you are Ukrainians. Give thanks to all the people of the world who have welcomed you into their homes in these troubled times.

Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the warriors of the Ukrainian Armed Forces! Glory to the Heroes! Together to Victory!”

As told to Camille Gijs

Maria Bodnar

Location: Germany

What were you doing last year on this day?

Last year, I watched the parade on TV. I looked at the Mriya plane — the largest plane in the world — and marveled at its greatness.

I remember this plane from my childhood. When I was little, I grew up in Hostomel, and the Mriya would land above my house. It’s an incredible feeling to see the world’s largest plane coming in. That’s why I couldn’t miss it on TV and wanted to see it again.

How have your feelings toward being Ukrainian changed since the start of the war?

For me, being Ukrainian means behaving with dignity. When I was in Berlin, it was hard for me, most of all because of my nationality. Back in May, I was just walking down the street, carrying a Ukrainian ribbon with me, and a Russian came up to me and insulted me, just because of my nationality. It was mentally very difficult for me.

How and where do you hope to spend the next national day?

I want to celebrate in Ukraine, where there will be no more war, where everyone will be happy and will no longer hear explosions. I want to welcome those days at my house in Hostomel. I want to see Mriya again, flying in the sky. I’ll wave to it and smile.


Beloved, strong, exhausted, inspired, independent.

Congratulations on our Independence Day!

Our country is not 31 years old — we are thousands of years old.

Thousands of years of our history, of our Ukraine.

Dream, live, hug, kiss, support and care for each other.

Happy Independence Day!”

As told to Joshua Posaner

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