Opinion: Every day is Memorial Day in Ukraine

It looks like a video shot with a phone from an apartment window. The camera pans a line of cars stopped on the roadway below, and it takes a minute to understand what we’re looking at.

Then a cortege comes into view: about 50 people walking slowly behind a coffin draped with the Ukrainian flag. When the shot widens, we see that traffic traveling in the other direction on the eight-lane road has come to a halt, and people have gotten out of their cars. A few are standing solemnly as the funeral passes; most are kneeling on the asphalt, heads bowed in respect.

By the time I see the social media post, “The funeral of a fallen defender in Kyiv today,” nearly a thousand viewers have reacted with comments or emojis. Among the most common: Heroyam slava — glory to the heroes.

Memorial Day in the U.S. was set aside to honor those who fell in the Civil War. Now Americans play “Taps” and put flowers on graves of those who died in many wars, all in the past. Here in Ukraine, people can only dream of the day when the flag-draped funerals have ended and battles are distant memories commemorated by a nation at peace.

More than two years after the Russian invasion in February 2022, Ukrainians are tired. The war hasn’t been going well. Many of Ukraine’s friends abroad, particularly in the U.S., appear to be losing interest. According to a March 2024 survey, more than two-thirds of Ukrainians have a close friend or relative who is serving or has served at the front, and with the death toll reaching into the tens of thousands, all too many have lost someone. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the ardor and enthusiasm of 2022 have faded.

The most conspicuous sign: In contrast to the first days of the war, when thousands rushed to recruitment centers and waited, often more than 12 hours, for a gun and a uniform, today the army is struggling to enlist fresh fighters, and the troops are suffering for it. It’s one of Russia’s main advantages on the battlefield.

Still, even now, exhausted and disheartened as many are, Ukrainians have not lost their respect for sacrifice and honor. On the contrary, it seems to come up one way or another in almost every conversation.

Some of my friends, civilians who have not served, argue that we’re all sacrificing just by remaining in the country. Nearly 6.4 million Ukrainians, some 16% of the population, remain abroad, after all, and those still here pay some price every day.

“I could be in graduate school in Europe,” said one young man, a civil servant who doesn’t want to be named. “Instead, I’m sitting in the dark, with no running water and no way to heat food, waiting for the next air alert — a siren warning that a ballistic missile is heading my way.”

Others dispute that civilian life requires heroism. “The only people sacrificing are those who are risking — and giving — their lives,” economic researcher Alvina Seliutina, 33, insists. “I can’t compare myself to them.” Still, there’s no mistaking her sense of duty. “It’s my country, it’s my family. You don’t abandon your family just because times are tough.”

In fact, a recent poll suggests, 83% of Ukrainians are still donating regularly or volunteering, mostly to help the armed forces. Every business seems to have a fund; every social media channel solicits daily.

Even students find ways to give. One tries to spare a few hryvnia every time he’s asked. “I don’t want to be the kind of person who ever ignores a fundraising request,” he tells me. Others give on a schedule. One volunteers at a clinic every third weekend; another shells out several thousand dollars every other month to pay for a drone for a friend at the front.

Soldiers have mixed views, some more bitter than others, about the growing reluctance to enlist. Valery Shyrokov, 47, an infantryman and mortar gunner who volunteered in 2022 and served, among other places, in the bloody battle for Bakhmut, uses the word “disappointed,” but his manner suggests something far stronger. “I no longer speak to friends who haven’t served,” he tells me. “I can’t stand to be around them.”

Yevhen Shramkov, 46, recently wounded in the fighting near Chasiv Yar, is more baffled than angry. “I’m not in the habit of judging other people,” he explains on a Zoom call from the hospital where he is recovering. “But I don’t understand those sitting it out. It’s like passing someone in the street who’s injured or endangered. Who doesn’t stop to help?” He expects to spend another month in the hospital and then head back to the front to join his unit.

Both those who are serving and those who aren’t think that if the war were going better, more men would be enlisting. “If we had enough ammunition, if we felt the West were standing by us, things would be different,” one friend explained. “No one wants to be a meat shield for Europe. No one wants to die if we can’t win.”

Maybe, maybe not. But the mood is nothing like in the U.S. in the Vietnam era or Europe at the end World War I. Elite units that promise skilled commanders and adequate training have no trouble recruiting. The legendary Azov Battalion is said to attract more applicants than it can accept. And it isn’t hard to sense the guilt, conscious or unconscious, that eats at most of my male friends who aren’t serving.

“We know what the fight’s about,” my friend the civil servant reminded me. “Whatever sacrifice they’re making, however big or small, everybody understands why. Our lives are at stake and our existence as free Ukrainians.”

Tamar Jacoby is the Kyiv-based director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s New Ukraine Project.

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