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KYIV – With Russian forces controlling 20% of his country’s territory, tens of thousands of its citizens killed and dozens of towns and villages burned to the ground, President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday asked Ukrainian citizens and the rest of the world to pause and remember why they struggle.
“All stages in the history of the Ukrainian state, its defense and its struggle can be described in one sentence: we have existed, exist and will exist!”
It was a speech to mark the first celebration of a new national holiday, Statehood Day, created last summer as 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 Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv – a figure claimed by Russia and Ukraine to be at the heart of their national identities. .
Ukraine already celebrates Independence Day, 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 in the summer last after Russia illegally annexed Crimea and fomented a rebellion in the east. and threatened further attacks.
Unlike Independence Day, Statehood Day aims to answer a more existential question by going back a millennium to demonstrate that Ukraine has its own history and culture, independent of Russia.
Questions of history—and how to interpret that history—might once have been the subject of nuanced discussion in college lecture halls. But they were armed as war in Ukraine approached as President Vladimir V. Putin sought 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, Putin said Ukraine was an invention of Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. He argued that the very idea of a Ukrainian state was a fiction and that it had been a mistake to endow Ukraine with a sense of statehood by allowing it autonomy within the newly created Soviet state. created.
“Modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia, specifically Bolshevik and communist Russia,” Putin said. “This process began practically immediately after the 1917 revolution, and moreover Lenin and his associates did it in the most sloppy way in relation to Russia – by dividing, tearing away pieces of its own historical territory. “
The creation of Ukraine’s Statehood Day holiday was a response to Mr. Putin’s longstanding historical revisionism, which has been chastised by many historians as an extreme misreading of history.
On Thursday, Mr. Zelensky sought to emphasize the very thing that Mr. Putin attacked: Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence. “We are going to exist because our state has incredible sons and daughters who have stood up in its defense,” he said.
“Every day we fight for everyone on the planet to finally understand: we are not a colony, not an enclave, not a protectorate,” Zelensky said. “Not a gubernia, an eyalet or a crown land, not a part of foreign empires, not a ‘part of the land’, not a 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 will have to wait for peacetime to get a day off. Under martial law, which was recently extended until August 23, nearly all work is deemed essential.
Befitting a country at war, the holiday was marked by only modest celebrations, the laying of flowers at monuments, the raising of the Ukrainian flag and exchanges of words of support and encouragement among friends and neighbors.
“We don’t need fireworks and pomp to show the importance of our own state for the Ukrainian people,” Zelensky said. “Today, we defend it with arms in hand.”