The Last Independence Day Before the Full-Scale War: Stories and Memories

August 24, 2023
Four women reminisce about Ukraine's last pre-war Independence Day, celebrated in 2021, prior to the profound changes ushered in by the full-scale war that followed.

The last pre-war and greatly celebrated Ukrainian Independence Day marked the country's 30th birthday, and it happened in 2021, exactly six months before Russia invaded Ukraine and before many military parade participants would wear uniform because of real military threat.

Although no one could have thought what soon awaited  Ukraine, there is certain  symbolism which connects that very happy August 24 of 2021 to the very sad and lasting today, and it can be seen through the memories of four Ukrainian women.

For Anastasia Blyshchyk, a Ukrainian journalist, now a soldier, Independence Day 2021 began quite early, as she prepared for a live report on celebrations in Kyiv. It was the very first time she wore a vyshyvanka dress, which was lavender colored  and accompanied by uncomfortable but  beautiful yellow high-heels.

"That day I was working on Maidan Nezalezhnosti. It was so atmospheric there, and very, very many people came. Lots of them were in vyshyvankas and carrying  Ukrainian flags. When I think back, I realize that it was a very happy atmosphere, and I haven't experienced anything like it since then. Everything was filled with such sincere, real, kind joy."

While Anastasia broadcasted the event across the country, Kateryna Vorobei was in the crowd trying to catch a view after coming all the way from Volyn Oblast to see it live. She remembers the 30th anniversary of Ukraine's Independence perfectly, as it was the first parade she saw as an adult.

"I really wanted to go there, and I planned everything in detail. Me, my sister, and my brother immediately took our places so that we could see everything, because we understood that the event would be big and there would be many people."

Kateryna keeps in memory how the unprecedented excitement swallowed her as she saw the parade march by, in which her friend was also participating.

"I looked upon all the soldiers and thought how brave and strong they were, and how tough it must have been to march in their uniforms, as it was a really hot and sunny day. I watched it all rejoiced, and could not think that soon there would be a war, and many of those marching would soon be protecting us and our country."

On that special day, many people shared similar happiness, but the feeling of total excitement came to all at once with the appearance of the An-225 Mriya in the sky -- the largest and most powerful transport aircraft in the world.

"I still remember that parade on Khreschatyk, and the majestic Mriya right above us in the sky. Those blue and yellow streaks of smoke from fighter jets in the air, and smiling soldiers on the streets," says Anna Zdorovko from Cherkasy Oblast, who was also in attendance.

This was also one of the most anticipated moments of the day for Kateryna.

"Our Mriya... I was waiting for it with such delight, and I was amazed by how it flew above, so low, so close to me!"

Anna spent the whole day with goosebumps, including from those airplane flyovers.

"I felt so proud of our Army and people, peaceful yet still capable of fighting back. And when a plane or fighter jet flew in the sky, especially when accompanied by aircraft from our allies -- it was truly something. We felt like a part of a global family, which the Heavenly Hundred, the heroes of the ATO, and the Joint Forces Operation gave their lives for us to be a part of."

What all three of them saw was consistently followed by Ukrainian music performed by the military orchestra throughout the event. Uliana Sozanska, Ukraine's first female military conductor, was partly responsible for that as she diligently prepared her ensemble for the grand day.

Fanfares and solemn call signals, ceremonial melodies, and, of course, marches, enhanced the vibrancy of the celebration.

"In 2021, a significant change occurred in our formation's steps and, consequently, the marching rhythm. We transitioned to the NATO system, specifically to the 6/8-time signature, whereas in the Soviet Union, marches were typically played in 4/4. The distinction is highly notable in the way the steps are executed. Our soldiers used to march with toes lifted, as taught in the USSR, while NATO troops walked in a different manner."

The preparation for August 24, 2021, involved Ukrainian composers adapting music to the new timing, sometimes even rewriting it. Led by Volodymyr Dashkovskyi, the country's head military conductor, many separate  orchestras from different parts of Ukraine coalesced into a unified whole over the course of a month.

The music was like a connecting thread, a cinematic feature that encapsulated the spirit of the entire day. It must have also been playing when Oleksandr Makhov,  --- Anastasia's colleague, a soldier, war correspondent, and a veteran --- stepped out of the marching parade to kiss her on the cheek.

Anastasia says she would give everything to relive that day, the genesis of their love story, once more, as the war has taken Oleksandr away.

In addition to so many lives, the war has also taken away the Mriya, which Russia destroyed at Hostomel airport at the beginning of its full-scale invasion, along with much of the equipment which wowed the women as it trundled by during the Independence Day procession.

Uliana no longer serves as a military conductor. Instead, she serves in a combat brigade stationed in the eastern part of Ukraine. Anastasia also enlisted in the Armed Forces of Ukraine after Oleksandr's passing, and she has already been serving for a year.

Anna Zdorovko remembers the parade's end, polished by the appearance of a Ukrainian MiGs-29 flying alongside Typhoon Eurofighters from the UK's Royal Air Force. Life has changed so much since then, as those jets are now needed not for painting the sky with the Ukrainian blue and yellow, but for safeguarding the very country those colors symbolize.

That Independence Day undeniably achieved its objective and awoke a sense of national unity among Ukrainians across the country. Over a year later, its commemoration in Kyiv is still remembered with a nostalgic happiness that even the full-scale war cannot take away.

Yelyzaveta Dzhulai
Journalist at the UkraineWorld