KYIV, Ukraine — The Motherland Monument — a 335-foot-tall stainless steel behemoth towering over Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv — was designed to assert Soviet invincibility. On Wednesday, a sprawling blue-and-gold Ukrainian national flag flew over it in a symbol of defiance.
A Soviet general secretary, Leonid Brezhnev, unveiled the monument in 1981: a figure of a woman, a sword in her right hand and a shield in her left emblazoned with the Soviet hammer and sickle. Ten years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine was free.
Drone operators marking Ukraine’s Independence Day attached the national flag to a flying machine and raised it into the sky above the steel giant. Ukrainians used the celebration — exactly six months after Russia invaded — to tell President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia that his dreams of empire would not run through Ukraine.
“The statue is a part of our history, we cannot deny,” said Yuriy Schygol, the head of the State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine. “But 31 years ago, we became independent. And today we are fighting to keep our independence.”
Defiance was the mood of the day, with President Volodymyr Zelensky setting the tone in an unannounced speech before a column of ruined Russian tanks and other military vehicles in the center of the city.
But the uncertain moment for the country was underscored by quiet streets, and a ban on mass events. Later the peace was shattered when a missile strike on a train station in the small town of Chaplyne near the city of Dnipro killed at least 22 people, according to the Ukrainian defense ministry.
Ukrainian and American officials had warned that Moscow might mark the holiday by unleashing a furious barrage of missiles. But in Kyiv, when the morning passed with air-raid alarms but no strikes, people started to venture out.
Many cafes were open, though service occasionally stopped for sirens. By evening, the tank display in the city’s center was crowded, with many wearing traditional clothes and Ukrainian flags wrapped around their shoulders.
After a church service, Victoria Soshyna, 32, who was visiting Kyiv from the southern city of Odesa, said she was not going to let fear keep her inside.
“We are strong, we are together, and we will win,” she said.
She had just come from St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, the center of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, where the leader of the nation’s faithful was holding a ceremony to award soldiers and pray for their victory.
One of the soldiers, Vadym Omelchuk, 58, nearly 6 feet 5 inches tall, served in the Soviet Army from 1985 until 1991, when the country became independent.
He thought he would never be a soldier again, and focused on training boxers in Kyiv. But the day after Russia invaded, he enlisted to fight. As a member of the Territorial Defense Forces, he helped liberate the Kyiv suburbs of Irpin and Bucha, where Russian atrocities shocked the world.
“I saw what they did — it was the lowest a human being could sink,” he said.
The leader of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Metropolitan Epiphanius Dumenko, said in an interview after the ceremony that the hardest moment of the war for him was accepting that it was really happening.
But, he added, he was now confident in victory.
“I could see that people were spiritually strong and united, and that gave me hope,” he said. “No one believed we would stand three days, a week, a month. Yet we stand.”
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