Between Ukraine's declaration of independence in 1991 and the current invasion by Vladimir Putin's armed forces, citizens of Ukraine faced and overcame two great challenges to their democracy. The first came in 2004, when an attempt to rig the results of a presidential election to ensure the victory of pro-Russian candidate Victor Yanukovych led to massive protests on Kyiv's central square, the Maidan Nezalezhnosti. The protests were immediately dubbed the Orange Revolution. After two months the protesters prevailed, another election was held, and Victor Yushchenko emerged as the winner.
The second challenge, more serious than the first, occurred in 2013-2014. Yanukovych, elected president in a subsequent and fair election, had engendered a style of rule where autocratic tendencies merged with the criminalisation of the economy and the legal system by his Donetsk cronies. His government's refusal, at the urging of Russia's President Vladimir Putin, to sign an Association Agreement with the EU angered West-leaning students, who protested. The police's brutality toward the students brought discontent with Yanukovych to a head. A name instantly emerged for the protest camp on Maidan Nezalezhnosti and the associated marches and meetings of hundreds of thousands: the Euromaidan.
Peaceful protests lasted months and evolved into street battles with police. When snipers shot many dead, the protests reached a level of wrath that persuaded Yanukovych to flee to Russia. In the ensuing power vacuum Russia seized Crimea and attempted the same in south-eastern Ukraine. The plan failed, leaving only a sliver of territory under nominally "separatist", but in fact Russian, control sowing the seeds of the eight-year war of which the present Russian aggression is a radical escalation.
These destiny-laden events had a way of generating powerful, motivating pictures and stories. The orange placards, garments and ribbons of the Orange Revolution and the blue-and-yellow piano of the Euromaidan with its device of EU stars were but two of the images that accrued symbolic status. The first expressed the warmth, vibrancy and youth of the Orange Revolution, the second the cultural and patriotic content of the Euromaidan, as well as its European orientation.
As I type this, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not three days old. But already symbols have emerged that lift the morale of defenders and stoke the unexpected (unexpected to outsiders) determination and defiance of the Ukrainian military and civilians. The pilot of a MiG fighter, an aircraft that was new in the Soviet 1970s, shot down six Russian aircraft, including two state-of-the-art Sukhoi fighters. He is already mythicised as "the Ghost of Kyiv." Social media disseminates video of a woman haranguing a group of Russian servicemen with a tirade of abuse and offering them sunflower seeds to put in their pockets, explaining that when they are killed at least the flowers will mark their graves.
But possibly the most potent symbol to date, picked up by mainstream Western media too, is the story, substantiated by audio recording, of thirteen border guards on the tiny Zmiinyi (Snake) Islandin the Black Sea near the Ukrainian-Romanian border. Two Russian ships approached the island. The men were ordered to surrender, refused, and died in the subsequent shelling. The exchange between the protagonists is memorable and worth quoting in full. A voice from one of the ships is heard saying, "I am Russian Warship. I suggest you lay down arms and surrender in order to avoid bloodshed and unnecessary loss of life. Otherwise you will be shelled." There is a pause, some indistinct sounds, and then the reply: "Russian Warship, go f* yourself."
The young men are dead, thirteen families are in mourning, thirteen lives are extinguished forever, but that parting line will make them immortal in the collective national imagination. The mockery in their repetition of the pompous self-identification of "Russian Warship," the disdainful dismissal that reverberates in the obscenity that is also their death warrant; their seemingly flippant choice of honour over surrender – this is the gold that lies in those five words.
For Ukrainians, this microdrama resonates with the story, probably apocryphal, of the death of Prince Dmytro Bayda-Vyshnevetsky, the sixteenth-century founder of a Cossack fortress on the Dnipro River and, arguably, of Ukrainian Cossackdom itself. Captured by the Cossacks' then prime adversary, the Ottoman Porte, he was gruesomely executed (so the source reports) by hanging from a hook inserted beneath his ribs; yet he spent the days of his agony mocking his Turkish captors until they could bear it no longer and shot him dead.
Effortless courage; laughter at the prospect of suffering and death; triumph extracted from the jaws of defeat. That is what links Prince Bayda to the thirteen heroes of our time (for the rank of hero is theirs by mythical right; the posthumous title of "Hero of Ukraine" promised by President Zelensky is only incidental). In the Ukrainian imagination the sixteenth century and the twenty-first are spanned by the arc of Cossackdom – that warrior caste whose principal value and creed was freedom.
No wonder this narrative is unpalatable to Putinesque officialdom, which, channelled through the bland prose of Major General Igor Konoshenkov, spokesman of the Ministry of Defence of Russia, gives a different account of the event at Snake Island:
"82 Ukrainian service people laid down their arms and voluntarily surrendered to a unit of the Russian Armed Forces in the vicinity of Zmiiny Island. At present they are preparing written undertakings to abstain from participation in military action. They will shortly be returned to their families."
So, no ships shelling men unable to shoot back; not 13, but 82; not death, but surrender. The meek writing of a promise not to fight. The passivity of their "being returned," poor immature objects of Russia's benevolent and forgiving care that they are, to their families. It is an inept fabrication, a piece of propaganda, in short – a lie.
Who believes it? The same people who believe the propagandistically challenged Major General's master, Vladimir Putin, when he rants about the imaginary genocide of Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, of drug addicts and neo-Nazis in the government of Ukraine, of the fabled unity of the Russian and Ukrainian people, although the latter, at the same time, do not exist. The believers are those who want to believe lies; those who think that they must act as though they believe lies, even though they do not; and those who believe lies because they cannot distinguish them from the truth.
The problem with lies is that experienced reality often disproves them. Many Russian soldiers, perhaps expecting to be welcomed as liberators, are finding that out the hard way as they encounter the comrades-in-arms of the Snake Island Thirteen.