The cold weather and snow that affect tactics along the front line, also bring new reasons for anxiety in the rear. Winter will likely postpone construction plans, including the plan to create a National Military Cemetery – a resting place for the military heroes of this war.

It is no secret that the families of many fallen military personnel keep the urns with the ashes of their loved ones at home or store them in crematoria. They anticipate the creation of the National Military Cemetery which parliament voted to create back in May 2022, but the plan has not moved forward. Indeed, the bill has not yet been signed by President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Initially, it was decided that the location of the Pantheon would be discussed with the families of the victims. In March, the NGO “Heart Out” was registered in Ukraine to unite the relatives of fallen Ukrainian soldiers. Its founder and leader is Vera Litvinenko, the mother of Vladislav Litvinenko, who died fighting in Mariupol. As the number of dead increases, “Heart Out” is becoming more active and Litvinenko’s public statements are intensifying.

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Finding the best spot for the Pantheon

At first, state and city authorities considered four locations in Kyiv for the memorial complex, including a location near The Holocaust Memorial Centre at Babyn Yar, but those locations were all later ruled out.   

Next, an area on the very edge of Kyiv, near the village of Bykivnia, was discussed. In Soviet times, this place was notorious as the burial site of people executed by NKVD “enemies of the people” between 1937 and 1940. Many of those killed were representatives of the Ukrainian intelligentsia: writers, journalists, teachers, and scientists.

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“Heart Out” members considered Bykivnia an acceptable location for the cemetery, but the government officials changed their minds again and decided to place the cemetery further from Kyiv, within the boundaries of the village of Gatne, in the Fastiv district.

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The official explanation for the change of plan was that Bykivnia already had a memorial complex dedicated to the victims of Joseph Stalin’s repressions and the location offered too little space. From the outset, it was thought that 100 hectares would be required, but the proposed site in Bykivnia was only about 50 hectares.

Representatives of the Ukrainian authorities believe Gatne to be the best place for the cemetery due to plenty of available land, as well as restrictions on construction projects being less strict than within Kyiv city limits. However, relatives of dead soldiers are unhappy. Kyiv’s largest public cemetery, Pivdenne, is located in the same area and traffic is always heavy. Secondly, there is a German cemetery nearby where World War II soldiers are buried as well as German prisoners of war who died in the post-war years while they were being used as forced labor to rebuild Kyiv.

Olena Tolkacheva, a well-known volunteer, politician, and veteran of this war commented: “The relatives of the victims perceive the proposal to create a cemetery in Gatne instead of Bykivnia as an insult.”

Waiting for a burial place

All the rules and ceremonies regarding the future National Military Cemetery have been drafted. It is already clear who will have the right to be buried in this cemetery and funerals in the cemetery will be paid for by the state.

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For the relatives of fallen soldiers, cost is probably not the most important thing. The fact that military personnel already buried in other cemeteries cannot be reburied at the National Military Cemetery is a serious restriction and explains why many relatives are keeping urns with the ashes of their dead at home or in storage in crematoria.

Some relatives have lost patience or lost faith in the project in general. On Oct. 28, at Kyiv’s Lukianivske cemetery, relatives buried the ashes of fighter Alexander Gryanik. He was missing, presumed dead, for eight months before his remains were eventually identified through DNA testing. He was cremated in January 2023. The family had been waiting to bury him in the National Military Cemetery, but they gave up hope.

Speaking after the farewell ceremony for his son, Gryanik’s father said: “It makes my heart feel better because now we can come here, bring flowers and talk to our son.”

Expediting weddings

As Ukraine repels increasingly fierce attacks along the frontline, funeral music is heard in every region of Ukraine. However, the war has also expanded the geographical scope of Ukraine’s wedding agencies and the ongoing war has not stopped people getting married. Some determined agencies organize ceremonies for military personnel with unusual speed and for free.

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One such agency was created by Olena Yaroshenko from Zaporizhzhia. Her brainchild is called “Love Wins.” Last year, when Zaporizhzhia was under constant attack, Olena moved to Khmelnytskyi, further from the front line. However, she continues to organize weddings for military personnel throughout Ukraine.

Sometimes both the bride and groom are soldiers, but more often it is the groom who has only a couple of days leave for the wedding. The couple often envisages a quick signing of the register with minimal ceremony and no celebration, but Olena convinces them to have a proper wedding. She finds wedding outfits for them – also free of charge – and an appropriate venue where the couple can enjoy a traditional Ukrainian wedding celebration.

Over the past seven years, Olena has organized more than 50 weddings for military personnel. “This is our way of saying ‘thank you!’ to our guys for risking their lives. We want to give them the best day of their lives,” she says.

Since February 2022, much has changed in Ukrainian legislation on marriage. Couples no longer have to wait a month after applying to marry. They can now complete the process in a single day.

Military personnel can marry online, or a soldier’s immediate commander can draw up a marriage certificate and marry a couple, also online, if necessary.

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If the changes in legislation around marriage are making life easier for families, the controversy over the creation of the National Military Cemetery is not.

Perhaps by spring, a solution will be found that suits everyone, above all the families of the fallen Ukrainian soldiers.

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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