Ukrainian hopes and struggles in 6 symbols of the war
On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine, and the lives of millions of people have not been the same ever since. Many new symbols arose from the complex Ukrainian reality. Symbols of hope and horror, pride and sorrow, unity and wrath.
We asked Ukrainian on our social media pages about things that became so meaningful for them – and here are six out of the many symbols of this war. They may help to empathize a bit better with the shared Ukrainian experience and become a key to understanding all the art, reflections, and even jokes inspired by it.
Emergency backpacks became a part of Ukrainian life weeks prior to the invasion. Both news outlets and social media were full of advice on how to pack one and what you may need. Documents, money, reserve phone. Water and canned food for a couple of days. First aid kit, warm clothes, flashlight, batteries … and the list goes on. Pieces of sentimental value were not listed, but still almost always packed.
When the full-scale invasion started, many people had to leave their homes without any certainty of what comes next – but with an emergency backpack. Some got back in a few hours when the air raid alert went silent. Some in a few weeks, when the frontline had been pushed back from their town.
And some Ukrainians were left with no place to return to. They had to build their lives from scratch in other parts of Ukraine or abroad with just a few things left from the previous peaceful times. And with the knowledge that all the things that really matter do fit into a backpack.
Air raid alert
Attention. Аir raid alert. Go to the nearest bomb shelter. The sound of air raid alerts became painfully familiar to all Ukrainian. But it still makes the heart drop each and every time.
When the alert goes off, it means that you need to go to a bomb shelter or find another relatively safe place. Ukrainians have spent hundreds of hours in their corridors behind at least two walls, in cold basements and underground parking lots, in metro stations. In Kyiv alone, the air raid alert went off more than 500 times and lasted more than 21 days combined in the first seven months of a full-scale war.
When the alert goes off, it also means that a Russian rocket, plane, or drone was sent to destroy and kill. And even if you are safe for now, someone else, someone you care about, may be not. The same word is used in Ukrainian for alert and anxiety – tryvoha. And Russians are using that anxiety, constantly triggering the air raid alert on days like Easter or Independence Day.
Zmiinyi Island (Snake Island) off the shores of the Odesa region became worldwide known on the first day of the full-scale war for the immense bravery of its protectors. There were only 13 border guards stationed on the island, but they still refused to surrender to the cruiser “Moskva”, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!” was their response instead.
Ukrainian defenders were taken into captivity and the island, a point of strategic importance, was temporarily occupied by Russia. But the story did not end there. In less than two months, the flagship did actually follow the proposed direction. Cruiser “Moskva” sank after it was hit by Ukrainian missiles near Snake Island.
Russia lost several smaller boats and other ammunition in vain attempts to hold and use the island and then retreated. In early July, the Ukrainian flag was raised on liberated Zmiinyi Island.
On February 24, many Ukrainians woke up to explosions in their cities – and a necessity to secure their homes by all possible means. The adhesive tape became a popular and simple way to protect the windows: tape reduces the risk of them being shuttered by the shock wave and minimizes shards.
People shared many recommendations on how to make this method work. This knowledge, unfortunately, was gained the hard way: windows in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions had to be taped for the past eight years due to the ongoing Russian military aggression.
Today, tape crosses can still be seen in almost every building in every city of Ukraine. And when it will finally be safe to get rid of them, Ukrainians will have one more small thing to universally bond over – a struggle to clean old adhesive from their windows.
The sunflower is an old Ukrainian symbol with a multi-layered meaning. Traditionally sunflowers were associated with sun, prosperity, and the bounty of Ukrainian lands. It is an important agricultural crop – and each year endless fields of yellow flowers fill up the Ukrainian landscape.
A new layer to the meaning was added after a viral video from the first days of the Russian invasion. A fearless woman told an armed Russian soldier to put seeds in his pockets so that sunflowers would grow after he lay dead in the Ukrainian land. The flower became a symbol of resistance and the indomitability of the Ukrainian people.
The sunflower is also often seen as an unofficial symbol of Ukraine itself. It is used around the world to show solidarity with the country in times of war. For example, Melinda Simmons, British Ambassador to Ukraine, put up a bouquet with sunflowers and cotton flowers on Ukrainian Independence Day. Many people also bring sunflowers at rallies and demonstrations in support of Ukraine.
Unlike sunflowers, cotton is not a plant commonly found in Ukrainian territory. It became a symbol – and frankly a meme – for a different reason that may be explained through wordplay.
Russian officials and media always try to minimize any problems or defeats they have had to the point where it became a running joke: for example, Russian forces are never retrieving, they are relocating, or making a gesture of goodwill. And when the military warehouses in the Belgorod region are exploding, an euphemism is also used to report it.
Bang. The local population in Belgorod heard a bang, hlopok in Russian. But depending on the emphasis, the word hlopok may have another meaning – cotton or bavovna in Ukrainian. And that’s how explosions in Russian regions close to the border, and later in Crimea, became known as bavovna. Now, with the Ukrainian counter-offensive, a regular supply of cotton to Russians may be expected.
This truly people’s war already has many stories about the care, faith, and kindness of Ukrainians, as well as about their courage, resistance, and struggle. These stories are all united under the big yellow and blue flag and the thirst for freedom.
Remember that the darkest night is always before dawn. Support Ukraine. Together we will win.
Illustrations: Anastasia Levytska