John Leicester, The Associated Press
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Poppies, the blood-red flowers that cover the battlefields of Europe’s two world wars, were lain in mourning Saturday on the coffin of yet another dead soldier, this one killed in yet another European war, in Ukraine.
The hundreds of mourners for Roman Ratushnyi, 24, included friends who had protested with him during months of demonstrations that toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russia leader in 2014 and who, like him, took up arms when Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of its neighbor this February.
The arc of his shortened life symbolized that of Ukraine’s post-independence generations that are sacrificing their best years in the cause of freedom. First, with defiance and dozens of lives against brutal riot police during Ukraine’s Maidan protests of 2013-2014 and now with weapons and even more lives against Russian troops.
“Heroes never die!” friends, family and admirers shouted in Ukrainian as Ratushnyi’s coffin was loaded aboard a hearse on a square in the Ukrainian capital now decorated with destroyed Russian tanks and vehicles. Their charred hulks contrasted with the shiny gold domes of an adjacent cathedral where priests had earlier sung prayers for Ratushnyi, who was well-known in Kyiv for his civic and environmental activism.
From the square, the hundreds of mourners then walked in a silent column behind his coffin to Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square. The vast plaza in central Kyiv gave its name to the three months of protests that overthrew then President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 and which helped fuel the political and patriotic awakening of Ukrainians born after independence in 1991.
Ratushnyi had “a heart full of love for Ukraine,” said Misha Reva, who traveled in his soldier’s uniform from the war’s front lines by overnight train to say goodbye to the friend he met for the first time on Maidan, in the midst of the protests. Ratushnyi was then just 16; Reva was in his early 20s. It was Ratushnyi who introduced Reva to the woman who is now his wife, also on the square.
During the protests where riot police used batons and eventually bullets with abandon, the two friends sheltered together for one night in St. Michael’s, the cathedral where the memorial service for Ratushnyi was held Saturday morning. Poppies and a traditional loaf of bread were placed on his coffin covered with Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag.
Reva said he and Ratushnyi signed up to fight on the very first day of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24. After taking part in the defense of Kyiv in the invasion’s opening weeks, Ratushnyi then joined an army brigade, doing military intelligence work, Reva said. He was killed June 9 around the town of Izyum on the war’s eastern front, according to the environmental campaign group that Ratushnyi led in Kyiv. He fought for the preservation from development of a wooded park where people ski in winter.
“He was such a solid and big personality,” Reva said. “It’s a great loss for Ukraine.”
During the commemorations for Ratushnyi, air raid alarms sounded. They’re daily occurrences in Kyiv, which is now relatively peaceful, but reminders of the war raging to the east and south. Other reminders were the dozens of soldiers, some holding flowers, among the mourners. Some draped yellow and blue flags over their shoulders.
“He was a symbol, a symbol of a new Ukraine, of freedom and a new generation that wants to fight for its rights,” said Serhli Sasyn, 21.
The “best people are dying now,” he added.