The National Flag Day of Ukraine celebrates the day in 1991 when people's deputies first brought a blue-yellow flag to the session hall of the Verkhovna Rada, the day before declaring Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union. Seven years later, on National Flag Day, Aug. 23, 1998, President Kuchma then signed a decree instituting the title of Hero of Ukraine decoration.
The national award is the highest decoration awarded to citizens for a heroic deed, for which the Order of the Golden Star is simultaneously awarded, or for notable labor achievements, accompanied by the Order of State. Over the next 25 years, nearly 800 people have been given the title, sometimes warranted and sometimes questionable.
The first person awarded the Hero of Ukraine title, along with the Order of the State, was Borys Paton, president of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine on November 26, 1998. The award document says “for selfless service to science, outstanding achievements in the field of welding and special electrometallurgy, which contributed to the recognition and establishment of the authority of domestic science in the world.”
The first time the title was accompanied by the Order of the Golden Star was on August 21, 1999, to test pilot Antonov Oleksandr Galunenko of the Aviation Scientific and Technical Complex “for personal courage and heroism.”
As of August 2023, the title has been bestowed on 773 individuals – 418 of them were awarded during their lifetime, and 355, unfortunately, posthumously. During the last year and a half (since the beginning of the full-scale invasion), there have been several awards that were not published, because the names of the Heroes cannot be mentioned for one reason or another.
Normally only citizens of Ukraine can be given the title. One exception was Mykhailo Zhyznevskyi, a participant in the Revolution of Dignity, a Belarusian who died during armed confrontations on Hrushevsky Street in Kyiv.
In addition to citizens of Ukraine since independence, some who died long before have also been awarded the title, including public and political figures, soldiers and poets. Only the Ukrainian president can designate Heroes of Ukraine, but they are usually nominated by appropriate government agencies.
The traitor and fugitive Viktor Yanukovych gave the least number of awards – 40. Viktor Yushchenko designated 114 awards, Leonid Kuchma – 132, and Petro Poroshenko - 163.
President Volodymyr Zelensky has awarded the highest number of people with the title of Hero – 324.
In May of this year, President Zelensky signed a decree requiring an expert group at the State Awards and Heraldry Commission to evaluate the preliminary application for awarding the title. According to the president, this necessity arose due to the large number of appeals and electronic petitions that need to be organized.
Scandals surrounding the awarding of the title of Hero of Ukraine
After the full-scale invasion, scandals about awarding the title have grown. Quite often it may be given to someone not worthy of merit. Or vice versa: those who were worthy did not receive an award.
An interesting case is Yuriy Boyko, an odious deputy and the leader of a banned political party. The politician was awarded in 2004 and still holds the title. There have been questions about some other state and political figures.
Controversy surrounds the cancelation of the titles of Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych. In both cases, the decision was made by a court, but there was no annulment decree.
Questions have been raised of some who were given the title but hadn’t done anything “heroic.” In some instances, it has been given to low-level politicians, employees of various enterprises of the lower ranks, and poets or folk artists.
In 25 years, only three people lost their titles: Mykola Boyko, general director of the National Production and Agrarian Association Masandra, Vyacheslav Boguslaev, general director of Motor Sich joint-stock company, and Frunze Volodymyr Lukyanenko, chairman of the board of the Sumy Machine-Building Research and Production Association. Their titles were revoked after being put under sanctions.
According to political scientist and historian Petro Dolganov, because the title of Hero of Ukraine was often given irresponsibly, the concept of its importance had begun to be lost.
As he explained to the Kyiv Post, this title, in his opinion, is partly a relic of the Soviet Union. Titles like this are not typically found in highly developed democracies. And if there is, then the award is treated quite responsibly.
“When we talk about heroes, we often canonize people, deprive them of their human nature, elevate them to the pedestal of demigods,” said Dolganov. “There is a certain danger in this.
“Many non-democratic countries have glorified their political leaders in this way, saying that they are infallible, and their opinion is always right.
“However, they are also human, they also tend to make mistakes in certain situations. It is also worth understanding from a historical perspective – certain people cannot be declared ‘saints.’
“This will deprive us in the future of a critical rethinking of the past and will limit the freedom of speech of historians because in our community we often find contradictory decisions in documents, which were made by those who are glorified as heroes.”
Now, Dolganov believes, it’s more important to concentrate on the effective support of Heroes after returning from the front.
Assigning them the status of “Hero” and forgetting about them is another danger hidden in this concept. In Ukraine, they often did just that – give a person a symbolic award, applaud and that's it, be satisfied.
The gender aspect of this concept is also important: Why “Hero” and not “Heroine”? If you want to cultivate this status, you should somehow deprive it of its patriarchal content in the sense of the very sound of this word and decorate it with a feminine.
Nowadays, there are really quite a number of genuine Heroes. Some of them will be written about in books, whereas we will never know about others. What’s left in our hands is to do everything possible so the title of Hero of Ukraine is never devalued due to someone’s actions and abuse.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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