The last time Svitlana Povalyaeva saw her son alive was at a funeral.
“I know my child,” she said. “I know what sort of a cry from the heart it was. It was clearly a shock for him.”
More than six months after Russia invaded, Ukraine’s defense against a larger and better-equipped military has earned admiration at home and abroad. But it has come at a cost. Ukrainians are grieving. Civilians die every day in Russian shelling and missile attacks, but most casualties are young military men who represented Ukraine’s future.
At the bloodiest phase of fighting in the eastern Donbas region, Ukraine was losing up to 100 soldiers per day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other officials have said. And with Ukraine now on the offensive to reclaim occupied territory in the south and east, casualties are spiking again. The head of Ukraine’s armed forces, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, said last month that nearly 9,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died in these six months — a figure that cannot be independently verified.
In the eight years of fighting Russian proxy forces before Moscow’s full-scale attack on Feb. 24, Ukraine had lost fewer than 5,000 soldiers, according to United Nations estimates.
Ratushnyi was unusually quiet during that brief visit to Kyiv, but seemed to have so much on his mind, Povalyaeva said. He asked her to wash some clothes for him. She did, then folded them neatly.
“Somehow, it was such a grand thing for him, I don’t know why,” she said. “We spoke very little, he was saying all the time, ‘Mother, don’t worry, we’ll come back again.’”
Povalyaeva didn’t want to break down in front of her son. She hugged him goodbye, smiled and said, “See you.”
Two weeks later, Ratushnyi was killed in action. He was 24.
His loss was felt in his hometown of Kyiv, in the area near Izyum where his brigade was fighting, in northern Ukraine where his father is serving, and in Kramatorsk, near the front line in eastern Ukraine. There, Ratushnyi’s older brother, Vasyl, has started wearing Roman’s old chest plates in his bulletproof vest.
“He didn’t belong there,” Vasyl said of his brother, two years younger. “We would need him very much in peacetime. But it turns out like this.”
Roman woke his mother on the morning of Feb. 24. It was still dark. As she groggily squinted up at her son, she realized he was already dressed.
“Mother, get up, they are firing ballistic missiles,” Povalyaeva recalled him saying.
“I didn’t understand anything,” she said.
The next time she saw him was in the evening. He was wearing a military uniform. He and others from the neighborhood, Protasiv Yar, had formed their own unofficial militia. Now, he was off to fight.
“For the first time in my life, after he had left, of course, I got truly hysterical,” Povalyaeva said. “I just had a psychotic breakdown. I was screaming like a beast. The entire Protasiv Yar could probably hear me.
“I don’t know why. I had a feeling I wouldn’t see him again.”
Povalyaeva is Buddhist and raised her sons in the same faith. But she isn’t one to shun all violence; she believes killing is sometimes justified. For years, she taught her children to fight, but away from the battlefield. Povalyaeva, who is a well-known Ukrainian novelist and poet, accepted invitations to read at festivals and other events on one condition: her boys had to come, too.
That’s how Roman was constantly exposed to a pro-Ukrainian community of artists and politicians who longed for a homeland out from under Russia’s thumb. When Povalyaeva was on Maidan, Kyiv’s central square, during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 protesting presidential elections rigged in favor of the status-quo candidate, then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, 7-year-old Roman was at her side.
“He believed in our victory and in the growth of Ukraine,” she said. “And that one should do everything for that, whatever it takes, even sacrifice one’s life.”
Roman’s generation had its own revolution on Maidan nearly 10 years later. He was one of the student protesters beaten by riot police in the first days of the pro-western demonstration. He was just 16 and joined the protests for months, occasionally lying to his parents about where he was so they wouldn’t worry.
One night, Roman called his father, Taras Ratushnyi, to say he was on his way home. But then Taras saw his son on the local news, describing how he and others were about to storm a building with a pro-Yanukovych militia inside. He knew there was no way to hold Roman back.
“The difference between us, my generation, and our children is that they don’t stop,” Taras said. “I’m not sure if they realize it or not, but if one weighs the risks, if one thinks what’s going to happen, one may lose.
“So one has to act here and now, until the end. This is where the difference lies. This is what Roman is about.”
In the aftermath of the revolution that successfully toppled Yanukovych’s government in 2014, fighting erupted in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region between Russian-led separatists and Ukrainian government forces. Vasyl Ratushnyi, then 18, volunteered for front-line duty. Roman felt the same pull, but he was still too young for official service.
Over the years, he had often considered enlisting in the military. But instead he focused on a different kind of fight in his own community, protecting the neighborhood’s green space from development. Outside his apartment building, Roman created a memorial with a Ukrainian flag for the men and women who died defending Ukraine from Russian aggression.
Povalyaeva walked past it recently and noticed someone had placed candles around it, along with a picture of her son.
Eugene Cherepnya often chatted about death with Roman. They were at the front line of a war, Cherepnya said, so they thought about their own mortality. But something about this particular conversation with Roman would later strike him as odd.
Roman had just returned to their unit, the 93rd Mechanized Brigade, after his trip to Kyiv for his comrade’s funeral. His first stop when he got back was a visit to Cherepnya, 23. They’d been friends for more than a year at that point and even joined the 93rd together. Roman brought Cherepnya his favorite brand of soda from a restaurant they liked in Kyiv.
At first, the chat was typical — discussing mutual friends Roman had seen while back home. Then he turned more serious and left instructions for Cherepnya: “If anything happens to me, take my things and give them to my brother.”
“Everyone jokes about death, right? Well, we had such jokes — not jokes really, rather discussions,” Cherepnya said. “I didn’t feel anything at that moment, everything was just as usual. But, actually, somehow it did sound strange.”
In late March, after participating in some battles around Kyiv, Roman, Cherepnya and several other friends decided to link up with the 93rd Brigade in the northern Sumy Region. Roman had been drawn to the brigade’s other name — Kholodnyi Yar, a reference to the last territory where Ukrainian partisans resisted joining the Soviet Union in 1922.
Though Roman had little combat experience, he became a scout with a reconnaissance unit — one of the most dangerous jobs in the armed forces because it requires getting close to the enemy.
“We had a lack of personnel, so we would take both young and old — everyone,” said the unit’s commander, whose call sign is Bob. “They met our health requirements, so we accepted them.”
For Ruslan, a 46-year-old soldier in Roman’s brigade, Roman and his friends reminded him of the reason he enlisted. It was 2014, and he walked by a recruitment office. He saw a group of young men, some just 18, lining up to join the military. Ruslan told them he should be there instead.
He said he didn’t want to see their generation wiped out: “It’s the same thing as a genocide.”
Roman was resourceful, Ruslan said, and was constantly sourcing cars and equipment for the battalion through his connections in Kyiv. The day Roman died, June 9, he was supposed to visit Ruslan’s trench position for tea.
Ruslan teared up at the memory — not just of Roman’s death, but of other friends he’s lost in more than eight years of combat. In the first company he served with, nearly 35 percent of the soldiers died. This time, he has lost at least four he knew well.
For Ukraine, the territories occupied by Russia can one day be returned — and Izyum, in fact, was liberated, in a stunning Ukrainian counteroffensive three months to the day after Roman died. Roads, bridges and buildings can be repaired. But the lives lost are an irreversible price of this war.
“In this sense, we won’t win the victory,” said Lt. Oleksandr Sosovskyy, Roman’s deputy battalion commander. “Because even a single death is awful.”
Roman’s last mission was to creep close to Russian positions and pinpoint the location of their tanks. He was able to place mines along the road before the Russians spotted him.
Cherepnya was in his barracks when he heard the announcement over a walkie-talkie. Seneca — Roman’s call sign — was dead, the voice said. Roman’s body had yet to be retrieved because it was too close to the Russians, who had left it lying there as a trap.
“Then the saddest part began,” Cherepnya said. “I didn’t really want anything. The first two days, I wasn’t going anywhere. I didn’t leave for assignments, I was just sitting here. And it had a really bad effect on me.”
Cherepnya eventually remembered Roman’s instructions — to collect his things and give them to his brother. By his bed, Roman had left a handwritten verse — “Patagonia” by Ukrainian poet Mykhaylo Semenko: “I will not die of death, I will die of life. I will die — life will die, the flag will not waver.”
On a note with the poem, Roman had written: “Do not rush after me.”
“When people say this hackneyed phrase that the best get killed in war, unfortunately, it really is like that,” said Oleh Finogenov, 31, a soldier in the 93rd Brigade. Like Roman, Finogenov was from Kyiv and an activist.
“It’s just a tragedy,” Finogenov said in an interview in June. “The cream of the nation is getting destroyed. After the war is over, we will have to build this country all over again — and that will probably be quite hard.”
A month later, Finogenov was killed in action. Ruslan and Bob attended his closed-casket funeral on Aug. 31 in Kyiv. A Ukrainian flag covered the coffin, in keeping with military tradition. Some who attended the service didn’t even know Finogenov; they just came to pay their respects to another lost soldier.
As the procession moved into the cemetery, the wail of an air-raid siren started. The casket was lowered into the ground, and Bob tossed a single yellow flower onto it. Ruslan stood to the side, his expression pained.
Even before Roman’s body had been recovered, rumors of his death started to spread on social media. His friends were nervous: If the Russians realized they had the body of a prominent activist, would they do something awful to it?
Word had reached Taras Ratushnyi, serving in northern Ukraine. His text exchanges with Roman had always been brief, mostly to confirm the other was still alive. The unanswered messages now sent him into a panic.
He wrote to Povalyaeva. Had she heard from their son? She said it had been two days, not unusual. When on missions, he could be out of touch for longer.
But military officials soon confirmed his death — and then more agonizing news. Roman’s body remained out of reach. Within days, personal documents he had carried with him appeared on Russian Telegram channels. But there was no photo of his body. His parents feared the worst.
To retrieve Roman’s body, his commander, Bob, waited four days for a heavy thunderstorm that made him harder to detect. Worried that the Russians might have booby-trapped the corpse, Bob carefully moved it with a rope until he was sure it was safe, then carried Roman back to base.
When Taras got the news that the remains had been retrieved, he remembered Roman’s warning to “not rush after” him. He saw it as a sign.
Since Roman died, Taras said he had been living in a “different reality.” But at least “Roman was able to come back and people could come say farewell to him. That was really unforgettable.”
The night before that last mission, Roman wrote a will. He left detailed instructions, like leaving someone a particular book. He listed the organizations he wanted to receive donations. He described exactly how he wanted his funeral. He requested to be buried with a Cossack cross.
“Love you,” he signed it.
Hundreds attended his funeral, including Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko and prominent activists and artists. Many knew Roman personally. Others were there to mourn a symbol of a bright generation being lost to war.
In his old neighborhood, Roman’s name and “Heroes never die” were painted across a stone wall. To the side, there was a quote from one of Roman’s Facebook posts: “The more Russians we kill now, the fewer our children will.”
Taras said he still keeps in touch with Roman’s friends from his brigade.
“Every time I call them or text them, I’m really worried that they won’t reply,” Taras said. “Sometimes it takes them really long to respond, and then they say, ‘Sorry, we just had a really bad day here. Our people got killed again.’”
Vasyl was always the quieter and more reserved Ratushnyi brother. While Roman stepped into the spotlight as an activist, Vasyl shunned it. He never even opened social media accounts. But he watched Roman with pride.
On the day of Russia’s invasion in February, Vasyl looked for a way to get to Roman, to protect him. He was well north of the city, and before he could get to his brother, the Ukrainian military blew up the bridge he would need to cross — a tactic to slow any Russian advance to the capital.
Vasyl ultimately organized a local defense force in his area, but he worried about his brother and if he even had proper body armor and medical kits. When the two reunited after several weeks, it was Roman who brought Vasyl more bulletproof vests and medicines.
In Kramatorsk, a city near the front lines and a target of the Russians, Vasyl described how Roman left him military gear in his will, including pouches that attach to his body armor, which Vasyl uses to carry a grenade.
Their mother manages her grief with anti-anxiety medications, sleep aids and long walks with her dog.
Vasyl copes with his sadness by “waiting dispassionately for an opportunity,” he said, to kill the enemy that killed his brother.
Whitney Leaming contributed to this report from Kyiv, Kramatorsk and near Izyum.
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