With the beginning of a full-scale invasion of Russia, panic gripped the country. In the first days of the war, the Russian army quickly advanced on the capital, Kyiv. In order to maintain the overall fighting spirit and calm in Ukrainian society and for the sake of concentration and cohesion during the fight against the enemy, all kinds of information, including some that was not entirely true, was disseminated through social media networks.
This is how the urban legend about the Ghost of Kyiv appeared. He is described as a MiG-29 pilot who, in the first 30 hours of Russia’s invasion, scored 6 aerial victories in the skies over Kyiv: he shot down two Su-36s, two Su-25s, one Su-27 and a MiG-29. The ghost is described as a Ukrainian ace pilot, which is actually a composite image of pilots of the 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade.
Chronology of the story about the Ghost of Kyiv
From the first day of the invasion, during the offensive on Kyiv, videos showing fighter jets in Ukraine and stories about a pilot who shot down several Russian planes began to be widely circulated on social networks.
On February 25, a video of the flight of the Ghost of Kyiv on the plane appeared on the Ukrainelive Twitter channel. However, it actually turned out to be a clip from the video game Digital Combat Simulator World.
Photos of the alleged Ghost of Kyiv, by the name of Volodymyr Abdonov, were also circulated on the Internet. But these photos turned out to be edited. In fact, there was a picture of a Canadian pilot or the deceased marine combat engineer Vitaliy Skakun, who blew up a bridge to halt the enemy’s advance in the south of Ukraine.
The next day, February 26, a tweet was published by former President Petro Poroshenko with the photo of a fighter pilot with a reference to the fact that he is the Ghost of Kyiv. But later it turned out that this photo was published by the Ministry of Defense in 2019.
At first the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine and the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) supported the story about the Ghost of Kyiv, noting that he could be one of the experienced reserve military pilots who quickly returned to the ranks of the Armed Forces after the invasion began. So, for example, on February 27, the SBU reported in a post on Facebook that the Ghost had shot down 10 enemy planes.
According to the initial version, the real name of the pilot was not revealed for his safety. In the photos circulated, which may depict the pilot, a rather young man can be seen, whose face is hidden by a balaclava.
However, on March 17, in an interview for media NV, the adviser to the head of the Office of the President, Oleksiy Arestovych, said that, in his opinion, the Ghost of Kyiv does not exist. He said he doubts the existence of a pilot who was able to shoot down so many Russian planes, but “collectively, the pilots who cover Kyiv in particular shot down a lot.”
However, it is interesting that on March 27, the Censor.NET website published an interview with the Ghost of Kyiv, whose name was withheld for security reasons. The article noted that “he had downed 22 enemy planes and cruise missiles.”
“Well, you know about this omen – if a person was sent to the dead during his life, then he will live for a long time. I sincerely believe in this,” he commented in this interview about rumors of his death.
Is Stepan Tarabalka the Ghost of Kyiv?
Later, on April 29, 2022, the British The Times published an article in which it called the Ukrainian pilot – 29-year-old Major Stepan Tarabalka – the Ghost of Kyiv. According to information in it, he managed to destroy six enemy aircraft in one day: Su-27, MiG-29, two Su-35 and two Su-25. He later brought the number of destroyed aggressor planes to 40.
But on March 23, the Command of the Air Forces of the Ukrainian Armed Forces announced the death of Tarabalka in a battle with overwhelming forces of the occupiers. The message states that the pilot was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine with the order of the Gold Star. The number of downed enemy planes was not specified.
However, on April 30, the Air Force Command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces denied information that Tarabalka could be the Ghost of Kyiv. Moreover, the command denied the very fact of the Ghost’s existence.
“Hero of Ukraine Stepan Tarabalka is not the Ghost of Kyiv, and he did not shoot down 40 planes. The Ghost of Kyiv is a superhero-legend whose character was created by Ukrainians! This is rather a collective image of the pilots of the 40th tactical aviation brigade of the Air Force, who protect the sky of the capital, who suddenly appear where they are not expected!”, the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine wrote on their Facebook page.
The Command also added that due to the fact that in the first days of the war there was a high intensity of downed enemy planes, they did not begin to deny or confirm the story about the hero pilot.
“We even played along a little bit, saying, ‘Look what this guy’s doing.’ Chats were full of messages, even girls from Ukraine and abroad asked for the contact details of our ghost. He has already become a legend, a Ukrainian superman, an avenger who destroys Russians. For us, every pilot is a hero,” said Yuriy Ihnat, spokesman of the Air Force of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
In overall terms, the legend of the Ghost of Kyiv helped to raise morale at a time when people needed straightforward stories.
A source of inspiration
On May 1, in a BBC-Ukraine commentary, military historian Mykhailo Zhirokhov called the legend of the Ghost of Kyiv “propaganda to raise spirits.”
“This kind of propaganda is important, because our armed forces are smaller, and many people think that we cannot compete with the Russians. We need it in wartime,” Zhirokhov said.
The publication notes that the source of inspiration for the legend was the fact that Ukrainian pilots never allowed Russia to establish full control over the sky, although Ukrainian pilots fly older MiG-29s.
But heroic stories about fighter pilots are part of the national mythology of other countries too. For example, Great Britain honors the brave Royal Air Force pilots who outsmarted the mighty Nazi Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain in 1940.
Real Life Heroes
However, there are so many impressive examples among the Ukrainian military of self-sacrifice and heroism in this war. So, for example, on February 24, 2022, Lieutenant Colonel Vyacheslav Yerko of the 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade of the Air Command “Center” died in an air battle in the skies over Kyiv Region.
“The occupiers launched a cynical attack on Ukraine. Yerko was one of the first to engage in fierce dogfights with enemy aircraft. In that battle, five enemy planes were shot down by the joint efforts of our pilots. But unfortunately, this was the last battle for Vyacheslav,” the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said.
On February 28, 2022, Vyacheslav Yerko was posthumously awarded the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky III degree for personal courage and selfless actions shown in the defense of state sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, loyalty to the military oath he had taken. And on May 16, he was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine with the Order of the Gold Star.
“When you sit in a fighter jet, you feel freedom,” Yerko said in an interview for Obozrevatel on August 28, 2013.
The example of the Ghost of Kyiv was followed by the defenders of the city of Izyum, who shot down more than 10 Russian aircraft.
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