Crowds gather to mark Ukrainian Independence Day as celebrations canceled over fears of Russian attacks

A couple kisses each other on the central street of Kyiv on Aug. 22.Photography by Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

The authorities have canceled Independence Day celebrations and there is widespread concern about missile attacks, but people in Kyiv have struck a defiant tone and come out in droves to see an unusual attraction: a collection of destroyed Russian rockets, tanks and other armored vehicles.

The battered military hardware has been set up along the city’s main thoroughfare by the Ukrainian army in a bid to mock Russian soldiers who thought they would capture the capital in a matter of days last February and hold a victory parade there.

The display has struck a chord. For days this stretch of Khreshchatyk Avenue has been packed with people strolling between the mechanical carcasses. There has been an almost carnival-like atmosphere, with vendors selling ice cream cones and cotton candy while children play on tank turrets and young couples pose for selfies in front of burned-out armored personnel carriers. Some onlookers pulled out pens and etched messages on the vehicles. “Welcome to Ukraine,” reads one.

“I like it because all this could have killed a lot of people in Ukraine,” said Valerie Kubitsky, who came to see the ruined war machines on Sunday with her husband, Volodymyr. “And maybe it’s wrong to say, but I hope that in all of those tanks maybe some Russian occupants died and they didn’t get a chance to kill any of us.”

Zelensky warns of ‘ugly’ Russian attack as Ukraine prepares to celebrate Independence Day

Ukrainians usually celebrate their country’s Independence Day on Aug. 24 with parades, concerts and lots of flag waving. But this year’s celebrations have been put on hold, and instead of partying, Ukraine is bracing for another wave of Russian strikes as Moscow’s invasion hits the six-month mark.

People in Kyiv have been warned not to gather in large numbers, and the subway will stop running an hour earlier, at 9 pm, so stations can be used as bomb shelters. Officials in Kharkiv, which has been subjected to relentless shelling, have introduced a curfew covering all of Aug. 24.

“Russia may try to do something particularly nasty, something particularly cruel,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said Sunday. He also said Moscow could try to demoralize Ukrainians by putting captured soldiers on trial in Mariupol Wednesday.

A woman poses for a picture near a destroyed Russian tank on a central street of Kyiv. Scores of burnt-out Russian military vehicles were left around Kyiv after its failed attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital in the first month of the war.

Volodymyr Kubitsky wasn’t taking the threats lightly, but as he surveyed the demolished Russian armory Sunday, he wanted the whole country to come and see it. “Lots of Ukrainians think the war is somewhere behind us and far, far away. But you see almost each of this armored technology was nearby Kyiv,” he said. “We should see it, and all Ukrainians should remember this for centuries.”

But even here there were fears about what might be coming Wednesday. Dasha came to see the display with a friend on Sunday but wasn’t staying in town for long. “We are going to leave Kyiv for Independence Day because my relatives are afraid that something is going to happen here,” said the 16-year old student, who did not want to give her last name. “My parents say we better go somewhere else.”

While people have been urged to stay home on Aug. 24, there will be a few official reminders of the holiday. Kyiv’s famous Motherland Monument will be lit up in the country’s national colors of yellow and blue, and prayers will be said by priests in Saint Sophia Cathedral.

But for the most part Ukrainians will hunker down and wait.

There are few indications that the war will end any time soon. An advance by Russian forces in the east and south appears to have stalled, and the Ukrainian army has made little progress in its plan to recapture Kherson. Bombs continue to rain down in cities and towns around the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant.

Ukraine’s army has managed some recent success. It has destabilized the Russian army through a series of bombings on military bases and ammunition depots in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. Crimea had been considered far removed from the conflict and is home to a major Russian naval base. Several more explosions were reported Monday in the Crimean city of Sevastopol.

Tensions have also been heightened by the death of Darya Dugina, the daughter of Russian nationalist Alexander Dugin, who has been a strong supporter of the war. She was killed by a car bomb Saturday night, and on Monday Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, claimed that a Ukrainian woman had carried out the bombing and then fled to Estonia. The case has ramped up calls in Russia for retribution.

Ukrainian officials have denied any role in the killing. They argue that their military had little interest in the Dugins, who were not well known in Ukraine.

People climb onto a destroyed Russian self-propelled artillery system in Kyiv.

Amid all the trepidation, there will be one sign Tuesday of Ukraine’s determination to return to some kind of normalcy.

The Ukrainian Premier League will resume play for the first time since April, when the soccer season had to end prematurely because of the war. Shakhtar Donetsk will play Metalist 1925 in Kyiv in the opening match.

For security reasons, all games will be played without fans, and players will have to leave the field and head to shelters if an air raid siren sounds. Most of the matches will be played in Kyiv or western Ukraine.

“It is very important to restore big football, like other national championships, in Ukraine,” said Sports Minister Vadym Gutsait. “We continue to compete and cheer. We continue to fight and win. Despite everything, Ukrainian sports and the will to win on all fronts cannot be stopped.”

Two teams had to drop out of the league because of the fighting – FC Mariupol and Desna Chernihiv, which is located near the Belarusian border and had its stadium badly damaged by Russian missiles.

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