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Memorial days, vigils, and wartime traditions — how Ukraine honors its fallen defenders

Graves of fallen soldiers at Lviv cemetery on Ukraine’s Independence Day. August 2023.
Photo: Roman Baluk

Ten years of war have changed Ukrainian society.

Starting as a country with a relatively undeveloped military in the early 2000s, Ukraine has become a place where the memory of soldiers, defenders, and freedom fighters is now sacred. Walking through Lychakiv cemetery, even a casual observer will be overwhelmed with the scope of national loss: beside the hundred-year-old historical mausoleums, endless fresh graves lie beneath Ukrainian flags waving in the wind. The stones display the names of the military men and women who refused to back down, who stood as a wall against Russian terror. Be it sun, wind, or rain, the cemetery is never empty. There’s always someone there to visit and pay their respects.

“ In some ways, such a beautiful place, and in some ways, such an awful place. You see the scale of loss… there are hundreds and hundreds of graves. ” – British journalist David Knowles on visiting Lviv military cemetery.

This famous historical graveyard in Lviv has become something of a symbol among international journalists and observers. Its monuments and gravestones are striking, and its atmosphere is somber. It’s a place where nobody can deny both the pain and the strength of a country defending its right to exist. On some weeks, Lychakiv sees daily military funerals. One after another, as if they may never stop. But for Ukrainians, this place is simply one of a thousand others where memorials, vigils, and wakes have become a fact of everyday life. Ukrainian mothers cry for their children. Ukrainian civilians stand in the streets to honor their protectors. The fight for freedom continues.

Public dates and grassroots initiatives

Servicemen and local residents honor the fallen defenders in Lviv on the Day of the Armed Forces. The cemetery is filled with blue and yellow national flags and historical battle flags. December 6, 2023.
Photo: Lviv Military Regional Administration

Similar to the United States, Ukraine has more than one major public date honoring the men and women protecting their country: 

  • Memorial Day (or the Day of Remembrance of the Defenders of Ukraine fallen in the struggle for independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine) on August 29;
  • Defender’s Day (akin to Veterans Day in the U.S., honoring both living and fallen soldiers) on October 1;
  • Day of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (which started as a professional holiday) on December 6.

Ever since the initial Russian invasion in 2014, these dates have become increasingly important, as it became clear that the only thing protecting peaceful civilians from illegal occupation and violence was a well-supported and strong military. Prominent examples like the battles for Donetsk airport, where a handful of Ukrainian troops held out against much larger Russian forces for 242 days, made Ukrainian soldiers into unmistakable national symbols of defense, sacrifice, and courage even before the full-scale invasion of 2022. Today, Ukrainian culture places a strong emphasis on recognizing these aspects of society and history.

The wife of a fallen soldier receives the national flag during his funeral in Lviv. December 8, 2023.
Photo: Roman Baluk

The Day of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which was previously seen as a professional holiday, is now a day of grief, respect, and remembrance as well. No longer celebrated but instead — somberly honored. The Day of the Heavenly Hundred Heroes (February 20) is a time when people come to lay flowers to monuments of the heroes of the Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv. Civilians and soldiers alike acknowledge that they made Ukraine’s modern fight for liberty possible from the very beginning.

Both civic and governmental efforts strive to highlight the importance of memory and societal respect for the country’s defenders. Since March 2022, Ukraine honors the fallen with a daily minute of silence at 9 AM, a tradition instituted by President Zelenskyy. Projects like the Memorial Memory Platform are civil society initiatives that aim to keep the record (both cultural and legal) of civilians and soldiers who have fought and fallen for Ukrainian freedom.

Residents of Stepove village kneel in honor of their neighbor Volodymyr Pritchenko who died defending Ukraine. June 2023.
Photo: Suspilne News

At the grassroots level, kneeling vigils have now become a common occurrence, especially in smaller towns and villages, where neighbors tend to have strong ties and connections. The sight of a military convoy draped in Ukrainian flags, people kneeling along the road, rose petals strewn on the concrete — it’s a ritual of gratitude, a tribute to the bravery of the sons and daughters of the community. When these funeral processions ride through the quiet city streets, local residents bow their heads in respect. To them, it’s not an abstract idea of war or politics. It’s a personal gesture of pride and thanks. An acknowledgment that someone has fallen so that they may live and fight on.

Modern Ukrainian society also places strong emphasis on national emblems: the blue and yellow flag, the trident (national coat of arms), and the military insignias of units that defend Ukrainian lands. Ukraine has seen the rise of the importance of such symbols through the prism of military heroism. The national flag has become especially strong as a universal attribute. It now serves many important functions in society: 

  • a symbol of courage and pride,
  • a symbol of military valor,
  • a symbol of nationwide unity,
  • a throwback to historical roots, culture, and folk tradition.
Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) in Kyiv, July 2023.
Photo: Jose Hernandez 

The blue and yellow banner has become ubiquitous across the entirety of Ukraine. A source of strength, a unifying visual message. From a sign of partisan resistance in temporarily occupied territories, to a spirit-lifting badge on the clothes of regular civilians, to the sacred colors on the sites of remembrance. The Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) in Kyiv hosts a permanent installation of hundreds of its tiny replicas. What started as only 55 flags for the defenders of Mariupol is now an entire field of yellow and blue. The memorial has no name. Instead, hundreds of names are written on the flags themselves. In a grassroots impulse, people bring flowers, candles, and photos to Kyiv’s central square as a sign of gratitude and respect.

A generation of bravery

A son holds the portrait of his father that died defending Ukraine during the full-scale Russian invasion. August 2023.
Photo: Roman Baluk

It’s impossible to ignore the horrific impact of Russia’s full-scale invasion on Ukrainian society. Akin to the tragedy of World War II, it has introduced a wave of personal and collective loss that hasn’t been seen in Europe for decades. European scholars, media, and public officials have spent years coming to terms with the consequences of large-scale conventional warfare. Broken families, orphaned children, brutal war crimes — all this has taken years to unpack and understand. Today, Ukraine is living through similar consequences. Yet it has to grieve and remember at the same time as fighting a war of survival. This has given rise to a movement of honoring individual sacrifices as well as collective ones.

Left to right: poet Maksym Kryvtsov; pilot Andrii Pilshchykov; paramedic Yana Rykhlitska; decathlon champion Volodymyr Androshchuk.

Ukrainians live with the knowledge that war is taking the country’s best and brightest, men and women alike: writers, doctors, scientists, actors, athletes. A heartbreaking array of dazzling personalities that previously elevated Ukrainian society and culture. Each life is an unrecoverable loss for Ukraine and for the world.

The 33-year-old poet Maksym, 30-year-old pilot Andrii, 29-year-old paramedic and IT-recruiter Yana, 22-year-old decathlon champion Volodymyr — all of them are now remembered among the thousands of others who served in the armed forces and gave their lives for Ukraine’s survival. Many such heroes are highlighted widely in Ukrainian media, society, and public discourse.

Mural of Ukrainian defender Oleksandr Matsievskyi in Kyiv, by French artist Christian Gemi.
Photo: ArmyInform

The wartime culture of respect and remembrance has even changed the toponyms and aesthetics of Ukrainian cities. Streets, metro stations, public spaces, and parks have been renamed to honor individual soldiers, significant events, and entire military regiments. One of the central subway stations in Kyiv is now called the Square of Ukrainian Heroes. Hundreds of alleys, avenues, and boulevards have become markers of national memory. A mural by French artist Christian Gemi now decorates one of the parliament buildings in the capital, honoring Ukrainian soldier Oleksandr Matsievskyi that was killed in Russian captivity and is seen as a hero for his unbroken spirit and defiance.

A centuries-long fight for freedom

Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his wife Olena honor the Heavenly Hundred and the fallen soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
24 August 2023.
Photo: Presidential Office of Ukraine

From the Ukrainian struggle against the Russian Empire in the 17-19th centuries, to the Ukrainian cultural protests and dissidence in the Soviet Union, to the sacrifices of the Revolution of Dignity, to the current-day bloody battle for the country’s freedom — Ukraine has a continuous history of fighting for its independence. This drive is ingrained deeply in Ukrainian mentality and culture. It has now been even more solidified by modern traditions of honoring fallen soldiers, volunteers, and freedom fighters. 

“ Against the unarmed Heavenly Hundred they sent bullets. Now it’s rockets, drones, and armies. But we held the line ten years ago, and we’re holding it today. This Hundred and hundreds more — they are the earthly and heavenly defenders of our right to exist. ” — President Zelenskyy’s address on the Day of the Heavenly Hundred

Hundreds of candle-lit soldiers’ graves in Lviv cemetery. November 2023.
Photo: Roman Baluk

The Ukrainian government has made many such traditions official. Similarly, Ukrainian historians and civic activists have drawn numerous parallels between past struggles for independence, past traditions, and current ones. War has made society seriously reflect on tragedy and sacrifice. All that we can do today, both in Ukraine and in broader Europe, is to ensure that the legacy of the brave men and women that rest in Lychakiv cemetery and all over Ukraine is not forgotten. Ensure that their sacrifice for Ukrainian freedom and European peace was not in vain.