Kyiv – With Russian forces controlling 20 percent of his country’s territory, tens of thousands of its citizens killed and dozens of cities and towns reduced to ashes, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday urged Ukrainian citizens and the world at large to stop and look back to remember why they do it fight.
“All stages of the history of Ukrainian statehood, its defense and struggle for it can be described in one sentence: We existed, exist and will exist!”
It was a speech to mark the first celebration of a new national holiday, Statehood Day, launched last summer when the threat of war and a belligerent Russia loomed over the country.
The date was chosen by Ukrainians to coincide with the day Kyivan Rus, the first Slavic state, was baptized 1034 years ago by Grand Duke Volodymyr of Kyiv – a figure recognized by both Russia and Ukraine as a considered central to their national identity.
Ukraine already celebrates Independence Day on August 24 to mark the country’s break with the Soviet Union in 1991. But officials said the government felt the need to create the new holiday last summer after Russia illegally annexed Crimea and fueled rebellion in the east and threatened more attacks.
Unlike Independence Day, Statehood Day aims to address a more existential issue, going back a millennium to show that Ukraine has its own history and culture independent of Russia.
Questions of history—and how that history is to be interpreted—may once have been the subject of nuanced discussion in university lecture halls. But they were armed in the run-up to the war in Ukraine, as President Vladimir V Putin tried to justify his unprovoked invasion of a neighbor who shared deep cultural and historical ties.
Just three days before launching the first missiles at targets across Ukraine on February 24, Mr Putin declared Ukraine an invention of Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. He argued that the idea of Ukrainian statehood was a fiction and that it was a mistake to give Ukraine a sense of statehood by granting it autonomy within the newly created Soviet state.
“Modern Ukraine was created entirely and entirely by Russia, more specifically by Bolshevik, communist Russia,” Putin said. “This process began practically immediately after the 1917 revolution, and moreover, in relation to Russia, Lenin and his associates did it in the most sloppy way – dividing and tearing their own historical territory from its pieces.”
The creation of Ukraine’s Statehood Day holiday came in response to Mr Putin’s longstanding historical revisionism, which many historians have criticized as an extreme misreading of history.
On Thursday, Mr. Zelenskyy attempted to emphasize the very thing Mr. Putin was attacking: Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence. “We will exist because our state has incredible sons and daughters dedicated to its defense,” he said.
“We fight every day so that everyone on the planet finally understands: We are not a colony, not an enclave, not a protectorate,” Zelenskyy said. “No governorship, no loop or crown land, no part of foreign empires, no ‘part of the country’, no union republic. Not an autonomy, not a province, but a free, independent, sovereign, indivisible and independent state.”
When the new holiday was enshrined in law, July 28 was declared a public holiday. But Ukrainians have to wait for peacetime to get a day off work. Under martial law, recently extended to August 23, almost all work is considered essential.
As befits a country at war, the holiday was marked only with modest celebrations, laying flowers on monuments, raising the Ukrainian flag, and exchanging words of support and encouragement between friends and neighbors.
“We don’t need fireworks and pomp to show the importance of our own statehood to the Ukrainian people,” said Zelenskyy. “Today we defend it with weapons in hand.”
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