KYIV, Ukraine – Even as rocket attacks continued in eastern Ukraine, and as Russian troops remained massed at the borders for what Western leaders are calling an impending invasion, residents of Ukraine’s capital Kiev paused on Sunday to remember another moment of peril: the assassination, eight years ago, of dozens of demonstrators by the Ukrainian government, which was then aligned with Moscow.
In Maidan Square, the site of the massacre, a ceremony was held on Sunday morning to honor the “Celestial Hundred”, as those killed on February 20 and 21, 2014 are called here. More commemorations were planned in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine.
The ceremony began with a performance of the national anthem, followed by a gun salute and a solemn procession of people laying flowers at the spot where many people were killed.
Iryna Horbachova with tears in her eyes said that just as the people were fighting then, the nation is ready to fight again.
“For our identity, for our freedom,” she said.
“For our right to live in the kind of Ukraine we want. Not the kind Putin and Russia want to lead us into,” referring to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
Ukraine’s current government is calling on the spirit of the 2014 protest movement to rally the nation as it faces a far greater threat – a crisis that, like the previous one, stems from Moscow’s desire to prevent Ukraine from getting closer to the West.
President Volodymyr Zelensky, who visited the square on Sunday, said those who died had given their lives “for the right to live in an independent state, in the family of European nations”.
“Their achievement is a testament to the steadfastness of Ukrainians who continue to fight for their future,” he said.
It was a decision by then-President Viktor F. Yanukovych not to sign an agreement that would have brought Ukraine closer to the European Union, prompting tens of thousands of people to take to the streets end of 2013. As the protests grew, Maidan Square in central Kyiv became the center of international attention – and, subsequently, global shock at the killings.
The demonstrators, risking their lives, persevered. For days they threw their tents, sleeping bags and endless tires on a barrier of fire, hoping to ward off the security forces.
After the massacre in the square, Mr Yanukovych brokered a deal with French and German intermediaries to stay in power in return for a promise of a snap election. But the protesters negotiated their own deal with mid-level security service commanders, who understood that Mr Yanukovych intended to stay in power by blaming them for the shootings.
As part of the deal, police commanders left town, escaping prosecution, but also leaving Mr Yanukovych and his entourage without police protection.
Mr Yanukovych fled to Russia and the Ukrainian parliament voted to oust him from office. New elections have taken place. But Moscow reacted quickly. His soldiers, insignia removed from their combat fatigues (the Ukrainians called them “little green men”), seized Crimea. And a Russian-backed separatist movement has emerged in the eastern Donbass region, sparking an armed conflict that has never stopped and is now on a sharp escalation.
The shelling there increased considerably on Saturday. Separatist leaders called for a mass evacuation to Russia and called on the men to arms – claiming, without any evidence, that Ukraine was planning a large-scale attack on territory they control.
Just as many Ukrainians in 2014 were stunned that a massacre could take place in their capital, some find it hard to accept that a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine is possible. The idea that Russia is planning “the biggest war in Europe since 1945as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned in a BBC interview over the weekend, is something many in Kyiv simply refuse to believe.
Mr Zelensky also referred to the nation’s recent history on Saturday in Munich, when he called on Western leaders to impose sanctions on Russia now, before an invasion takes place.
“Eight years ago,” he said, “Ukrainians made their choice, and many gave their lives for that choice.”