The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A young soldier’s death reminds Ukrainians that the war is taking their best

Roman Ratushny (Hromadske International)
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Nataliya Gumenyuk, founder of the Public Interest Journalism Lab, is a Ukrainian author and journalist specializing in foreign affairs and conflict reporting.

On June 9, Roman Ratushny was killed in battle near Izyum, not far from Kharkiv. He would have turned 25 in July.

Ukrainians have experienced death and destruction on a vast scale over the past three months. But the news of Ratushny’s death, which emerged days after his killing when troops recovered his body, has struck a chord. His loss confirms something that everyone had suspected: that this war is consuming the best of our people.

The Russian invasion prompted many Ukrainians to volunteer for the armed forces: midcareer professionals, managers and students as well as workers and farmers. At this stage of the war, the military is trying to ensure that the best of these recruits are being sent to the front lines — the smartest, the bravest and those with combat experience.

Ratushny was a college freshman in 2013, when he joined the protests on Independence Square against then-President Viktor Yanukovych in the center of Kyiv. He was among the first wave of students who were beaten by riot police on the first day of the uprising. The resulting protests against police impunity brought millions of Ukrainians into the streets, triggering the chain of events that we now refer to as the Revolution of Dignity.

In the three months of protests that followed, at least 78 were killed. Yanukovych, who gave the order to shoot at the protesters, was toppled from power in February 2014 and fled to Russia, where he remains to this day. Ratushny was among the plaintiffs in a case later filed against the Yanukovych government in the European Court of Human Rights, which delivered a harsh verdict against the old regime.

Five years after the revolution, my team of journalists made a video about the events that featured Ratushny. (He makes his first appearance 20 seconds in.) At one point he muses about the significance of the uprising. Because of it, he says, “I feel like a completely free person in this country, and I feel that this country is my own because I understand if something happens this country will not abandon me.”

At age 21, he started a fight against the construction of 40-floor apartment buildings in his home neighborhood of Protasiv Yar, a natural area in the suburbs of Kyiv. He mobilized local residents for the protests and legal battles that followed over the next two years, until regulators stopped construction in 2020. When he was threatened by influential businessmen and politicians, he fought back in the courts. The Kyiv city council made a subsequent decision to confirm the area’s protected status as a “public green space.” Ratushny’s Save Protasiv Yar initiative has since inspired similar campaigns.

Ratushny was also involved in national anti-corruption efforts. He took part in the street protests in support of Kateryna Handziuk, an anti-corruption activist from Kherson who was killed in 2018. In 2020, Ratushny ran for election to the local city council, but didn’t succeed. He was just 23. No big deal — he had a big future ahead of him. Or so we thought.

When the invasion started on Feb. 24, Ratushny joined the army. Smart, active and energetic, he was taken to an infantry reconnaissance unit. At first they were defending the Sumy region near the Russian border. Later they were moved to Izyum — a critical area in Kharkiv region, a gateway to the northern Donbas. Even though the battle there has been going on for months, the Russians “did not move a meter,” as one military journalist, Yuriy Butusov, wrote in his description of Ratushny’s unit. He described Ratushny as “terribly thin and incredibly energetic, … one of the tireless engines there, one of those who truly was the soul of the battalion.”

I didn’t know Ratushny that well compared with some of my colleagues. He belonged to a different circle — more conservative and libertarian. We had different, even opposing views on many issues regarding language, identity and history. Yet I remember what a vivid impression he made whenever he entered into a room. I remember how a fellow activist responded after encountering him once: “What a generation is coming after us!”

Ratushny stands for many others. The best of Ukrainians are dying at the moment — and I mean this in the most literal sense. Some in Ratushny’s neighborhood are apparently thinking about naming a park in his memory, and that would be fitting. But he wasn’t fighting to be memorialized — he was fighting to keep Ukraine free from Russian occupation. And Ukrainians are paying a very high price for the loss of so many others like him. Those who are fighting now say they need more and better equipment not just so that Ukraine can push the Russians from its land, but also so that they can hit important enemy targets without risking more invaluable lives.

It’s our duty as a society, and as a country, not to betray those like Ratushny.

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