It’s been a month of remembrances and memorials. First, the 99th anniversary of the historic Battle of Kruty, and most recently, the third anniversary of the killings on the Maidan of the “Nebesna Sotnia,” which is translated as either Heavenly Hundred or Heavenly Brigade (a “sotnia” is a company of 100 soldiers).
On January 29, 1918, in a battle near the train station at Kruty, some 80 miles northeast of Kyiv, a small contingent of Ukrainian forces – composed mainly of a student battalion of the Sich Riflemen and a company from the Khmelnytsky Cadet School – faced a superior Russian Bolshevik force of 4,000 men. The Ukrainian contingent succeeded in blocking the Bolshevik advance on Kyiv for several days. The young Ukrainians’ resistance also enabled the Ukrainian National Republic to conclude the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, a major accomplishment as a result of which the UNR was recognized by the Central Powers despite the Bolsheviks’ attempts to represent Ukraine.
But the losses at Kruty were great. After several days of intense fighting, the Ukrainian contingent was forced to retreat, and 300 young men died defending their country. They were surrounded and slaughtered, noted the late Dr. Orest Subtelny in his book “Ukraine: A History,” and their deaths “earned for them a place of honor in the Ukrainian national pantheon.” As the Encyclopedia of Ukraine underscores, the battle of Kruty “is commemorated as a symbol of patriotic self-sacrifice and is immortalized in numerous literary and publicistic works.”
Most of us Ukrainians grew up knowing the history of the Battle of Kruty. It was, we were told, the Ukrainian version of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, which is cited as an example of the power of a patriotic force defending its native land. And we continue to pay tribute to those heroes long gone.
Now, new generations learn about the sacrifices made on the Maidan on February 18-20, 2014. Yet again, a small group of patriots faced a superior force – but this time it was a force sent by their own president, the traitorous Viktor Yanukovych. After three days of street battles, over 100 Maidan activists – who were seeking a more open government and protesting Mr. Yanukovych’s rejection of close ties to Europe – lay dead. On February 20, the deadliest day of the conflict, the White House issued a statement, which said in part: “We are outraged by the images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people. We urge President Yanukovych to immediately withdraw his security forces from downtown Kyiv and to respect the right of peaceful protest…” The next day, Mr. Yanukovych and his entourage fled Ukraine for Russia.
Once again Ukrainians had died for freedom, the independence of their country and democratic principles. And they died for Ukraine’s orientation toward Europe, for democratic principles.
Our readers will recall, of course, that it all began three months earlier with the Euro-Maidan, peaceful mass demonstrations that emerged when President Yanukovych decided in late November 2013 not to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. Then, when police brutally beat protesters on November 30, the number of participants swelled to 1 million. The protests continued when Mr. Yanukovych signed a series of agreements with Russia, and they continued into the new year, despite attempts by the authorities to clear out the city center in Kyiv.
A new political movement called the “Maidan” was born. It was no longer simply about Ukraine’s European orientation and a government that had betrayed its people. It was now about human rights and human dignity, the ability of the people to determine their own future. The movement ultimately became known as the Revolution of Dignity.
Since then, countless people have paid their respects at memorials to the Heavenly Brigade. As our colleague Petro Matiaszek, a Ukrainian American who lives in Kyiv, wrote last year: “I am still drawn to the photos and makeshift memorials to those who gave their lives so that Ukraine would be free, those of Ukraine’s Greatest Generation. Private, painful memories that make up our common Maidan destiny…” And this year, on the day commemorating the heroes of the Nebesna Sotnia, we read the words of another Ukrainian American, Lida Buniak, who was in Kyiv with her husband Dr. Borys Buniak: “…We pray for those who sacrificed themselves for our country, for our culture, for our nation and for all Ukrainians. The Revolution of Dignity continues in all our hearts.”
We bow our heads in prayer, and we proclaim: Герої не вмирають – Heroes do not die.