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‘A hero every day’: He joined Ukraine’s Maidan protests at 16. At 24, he died fighting Russia

Taras Ratushnyy remembers receiving a phone call from his son Roman during Ukraine’s deadly 2013 Maidan Revolution.

“I’m okay, we are coming back home with my friends from (Kyiv’s Maidan Square). Don’t worry and good night,” Roman said over the phone – even while Taras heard that same voice blaring from his television as his 16-year-old son declared the protesters’ plans to storm a building. 

The protests, which spread across Ukraine and came to symbolize its existential tug-of-war between Europe and Russia, set into motion a young generation determined to shape the nation’s future – and at the fore was Roman.

In some ways, his political convictions began long before Maidan. Both his parents were previously activists and journalists; his mother Svitlana Povalyaeva, also a writer and poet, took part in the Maidan Revolution alongside her two sons.

But that path became clear as Roman came of age against the backdrop of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, and violence between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in the eastern regions.

By 2022, he had become a well-known environmental and anti-corruption activist, with a following of supporters and admirers.

Then, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Roman immediately enlisted with the military, as did his brother and father. Nine years after the Maidan Revolution lit a spark, he was again fighting on the front lines for the future of his country, and for the democratic hopes shared by many of his generation.

But he knew he might not survive this fight. By May that year, Ukraine was losing up to 100 soldiers a day, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky.

That month, Roman – who “had a plan for everything he did,” Taras said – wrote his last will and testament on a single sheet of A4 paper, using both sides.

He laid out requests for his funeral – the ceremony, the music, the Cossack cross monument. He quoted one of his mother’s poems. And he dedicated his love to the city where he was born, as were his parents, and grandparents: “Kyiv, I died far from you, but I died for you.”

Two weeks later, on June 8, 2022, Roman was killed in action near Izium, in eastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv Oblast. He was 24 years old.

Fighting for a European future

The Maidan protests were sparked by Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych abruptly scrapping a trade deal with the European Union. Supporters of the deal had hoped it would bring Ukraine closer to the West, generate economic growth, and open borders to trade.

Instead, Yanukovych – a pro-Russia leader – turned toward Moscow, striking new deals with Vladimir Putin, and dashing the opposition’s hopes of stronger ties with Europe.

Furious, thousands of demonstrators occupied Kyiv’s Maidan, or Independence Square. Over the months, the protests swelled to represent broader outrage over Yanukovych’s policies, widespread government corruption, and police brutality — as well as the movement’s pro-democracy, Europe-leaning dreams.

In the midst of all this was Roman. At the time, the best way to find the 16-year-old was to “go to the hottest point (of the clashes),” said Taras. “Ninety-nine percent (of the time) he was there, and one percent he was sleeping somewhere because he was out of batteries.”

In her book about the revolution, history professor Marci Shore recalled asking Roman whether his mother was upset about his participation in the protests. The teenager replied: “My mother was making Molotov cocktails on Hrushevskogo Street.”

The ensuing crackdown came to a head on February 20, 2014, when police and government forces opened fire on protesters. About 100 people are believed to have died during the revolution, which ultimately saw Yanukovych ousted and exiled from Ukraine.

The movement triggered a chain of events that would roil Ukraine for years, including the annexation of Crimea and the simmering conflict in the east near Russia’s border. But it also brought a spate of government reforms – and hope to a generation of young Ukrainians hungry for change.

“Just like (how) you can’t see the forest for the trees, we, as participants of the Maidan, may not be able to see now what impact this event had on the whole history of Ukraine, but I hope it had a serious impact,” said Roman said in a YouTube video uploaded in 2014, near the anniversary of the protests.

“For me, all that was not in vain,” he added. “I see a huge number of positive changes in this country. And they happened only thanks to Maidan.”

‘My youth, my life, and my fight’

When the war broke out in 2022, Roman – who had become known for fighting to protect a green space in Kyiv from real estate development – joined the Battle of Kyiv to push Russian forces from the capital.

He then joined the 93rd separate mechanized brigade, helping to liberate a town from Russian occupation and fighting in Ukraine’s northeastern Sumy Oblast.

Through it all, he posted occasional Instagram photos of himself and fellow soldiers – at one point posting a poem by the executed Ukrainian intellectual Mykhail Semenko.

“When I die, I will die not of death / but of life,” reads one translation of the poem by Ukrainian-American writer Boris Dralyuk. “When all nature grows calm, I’ll depart, / ahead of the last stormy night – / in a flash, when death seizes my heart, / my youth, my life, and my fight.”

His father, meanwhile, tried not to think about the danger Roman was in.

“All I can do is ask, how are you? How can I help you? But (those were) kind of stupid questions from a father who is very far and cannot make any impact on his condition,” Taras said during his visit to the cemetery in November.

After Roman was killed in June 2022, his body was brought back to Kyiv, with the funeral and memorial service attended by hundreds of mourners including the city mayor. Large crowds gathered in Independence Square to pay tribute – the very place he had fought as a young protester in 2013, when his future stretched long and bright before him.

Now, more than a year later, the memory of Roman’s legacy – and that of the Maidan Revolution – continues to resonate with Ukrainians as the war grinds on into its second winter, and as Ukraine pushes hard to join the European Union.

This longtime ambition took a step forward in November, when the bloc’s executive body said detailed negotiations for membership should begin next year.

“I wish him to be proud of us. I see that it’s one year and more (since his death), but almost every day something is going on connected with Roman,” Taras said, visibly emotional. “Thousands of Ukrainians are stepping into the battle in his name trying to continue what he did. I see that Roman is still in action.”

This post appeared first on cnn.com

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