Opinion: Every day is Memorial Day in Ukraine

It looks like a video shot with a phone from an apartment window. The camera shows a line of cars stopped on the street below, and it takes a minute to understand what we are looking at.

Then a funeral procession appears: about 50 people walking slowly behind a coffin draped with a Ukrainian flag. When the shot widens, we see that traffic going in the other direction on the eight-lane road has stopped, and people have gotten out of their cars. Few people stand solemnly during the funeral procession; most are kneeling on the asphalt with their heads bowed in respect.

By the time I saw the post on social media, “The funeral of a martyred defender in Kiev today,” nearly a thousand viewers had responded with comments or emojis. Among the most common: Heriyum Slavs – Long live the heroes.

Memorial Day in the US is celebrated to honor those who died in the Civil War. Now Americans play “Taps” and lay flowers on the graves of those who died in many wars, all of which were in the past. Here in Ukraine, people can only dream of the day when the flag-draped funerals are over and the wars become distant memories remembered by a peaceful nation.

More than two years after the Russian invasion in February 2022, Ukrainians are exhausted. The war is not going well. Many of Ukraine’s friends abroad, especially in the US, seem to be losing interest in it. According to a March 2024 poll, more than two-thirds of Ukrainians have a close friend or relative who is or has served at the front, and with the death toll reaching into the thousands, many have lost someone. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the zeal and enthusiasm of 2022 has faded.

The most obvious sign: Unlike the first days of the war, when thousands of people flocked to recruitment centers and often waited more than 12 hours for a gun and uniform, today the army is struggling to recruit new fighters, and the soldiers are suffering for it. This is one of Russia’s main advantages on the battlefield.

Yet, even now, even if many people are tired and frustrated, the people of Ukraine have not lost their respect for sacrifice and honor. On the contrary, it seems to come up in almost every conversation in one way or another.

Some of my friends, who are civilians and have not served, argue that we are all making sacrifices by staying in the country. About 6.4 million Ukrainians, about 16% of the population, live abroad, after all, and those who are still here pay a price every day.

“I could be in graduate school in Europe,” said one young man, a civil servant, who asked not to be named. “Instead, I’m sitting in the dark, with no water and no means to heat food, waiting for the next air alert — a siren warning that a ballistic missile is headed toward me.”

Others disagree that civilian life requires heroism. “The only people who make sacrifices are those who risk — and give — their lives,” insists Elvina Selyutina, a 33-year-old economic researcher. “I can’t compare myself to them.” Still, there’s no mistaking her sense of duty. “This is my country, this is my family. You can’t abandon your family just because times are tough.”

In fact, a recent survey shows that 83% of Ukrainians are still donating or volunteering regularly, mostly to help the armed forces. It seems like every business has a fund; every social media channel posts daily pleas for help.

Students also find ways to give. Someone tries to give something Hryvnia Each time he is asked he says, “I don’t want to be the person who ever ignores a fundraising request.” Others donate on a schedule. One person volunteers at the clinic every third weekend; another spends several thousand dollars every other month to buy a drone for his friend.

Soldiers have mixed views about the growing reluctance to enlist, some more bitter than others. Valery Shayrokov, 47, an infantryman and mortar gunner who volunteered in 2022 and served in the bloody battle for Bakhmut, among other places, uses the word “disappointed,” but his manner suggests something stronger. “I no longer talk to friends who haven’t served,” he tells me. “I can’t stand being around them.”

Yevhen Shramkov, 46, who was wounded in recent fighting near Chasiv Yar, is more surprised than angry. “I don’t have the habit of judging other people,” he said on a Zoom call from the hospital, where he is recovering. “But I don’t understand people who sit quietly. It’s like passing by a wounded or in danger on the street. Who doesn’t stop to help?” He expects to spend another month in the hospital and then go back to the front to join his unit.

Both those who served and those who did not think that if the war had gone better, more men would have enlisted. “If we had had enough ammunition, if we felt the West was standing with us, things would have been different,” one friend explained. “Nobody wants to be a meat shield for Europe. If we don’t win, nobody wants to die.”

Maybe, maybe not. But the situation is not like that of America in the Vietnam era or Europe at the end of World War I. Elite units that promise skilled commanders and adequate training have no trouble recruiting. The famous Azov Battalion is said to attract more applicants than it can accept. And it’s hard not to feel a conscious or unconscious guilt among most of my male friends who are not serving.

“We know what the fight is about,” my friend the civil servant reminded me. “Whatever sacrifices they are making, whether big or small, everyone understands why. Our lives are at stake and so is our survival as independent Ukrainians.”

Tamar Jacoby is the Kyiv-based director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s New Ukraine Project.