"This is an army of free people": A closer look at Ukraine's armed citizens

AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

Maksym Kurochkin has many personal and professional ties to Russia, but the Ukrainian-born playwright isn’t staying silent or remaining neutral in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Instead, he’s one of the thousands of men and women who’ve taken up arms in defense of his country; something that seemed unimaginable to him just a few months ago.

Speaking to the Wall St. Journal, Kurochkin described the number of newly-armed citizens as an “army of free people,” noting that he’s serving alongside taxi drivers, computer programmers, and journalists; citizens from different walks of life and varying political opinions who have united behind one fundamental premise: they will be free.

The WSJ does an excellent job of sharing the stories of a few of the more influential members of that army of free people, from a professional musician to a Ukrainian lawmaker now serving in the Territorial Defense Forces

Andriy Khvilyuk, from the rock group BoomBox, was supposed to be on tour in the U.S., but instead is helping police patrol Kyiv and posting regular updates on Facebook. A video he made singing an a capella version of a Ukrainian folk song with a rifle slung across his chest in front of St. Sophia’s Cathedral went viral.

In a recent video, he addressed fans in Russia, where his group stopped touring in 2014 after Moscow first invaded. “We are waiting for you in every house, in every window,” he said, speaking in Russian. “The last, oldest granny will beat you with a ladle, with a shovel, to try to kill you.

…. Kira Rudik, a lawmaker and former business executive, picked up a gun and gathered a group of a couple of dozen party members and friends at her house, sleeping on sofas and on the floor “a bit like a summer camp,” she said.

“I looked at my house, my family, my home, my cat, and realized that everything I love is here,” she said. “Why should I leave? Because Putin decided to take what was ours?”

I’ve read tens of thousands of words (and written quite a few of my own), watched hours of commentary and analysis, and I don’t know that I’ve seen a statement that so succinctly explains the motivations of people like Rudik, who had little-to-no experience with firearms, decide that she needed to pick up a gun and defend her home. In fact, her comment reminds me of a similar statement made by Capt. Levi Preston, a veteran of the American Revolution who, decades after the war was over, was asked about why he chose to head to Concord Bridge that day.

“Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had been free, and we meant to be free always. They didn’t mean we should.”

Ukraine hasn’t always been free, and it may not always be free in the future, but what Rudik and others are fighting for isn’t that different from what drove Preston and his fellow patriots to take up arms against the might of the British empire; a burning desire to live as free people in a free country.

Dancer Oleksiy Potyomkin was supposed to be leaping across the stage of the Kyiv Opera this month as the prince in the ballet “Lileya,” a Ukrainian classic. Instead, he grabbed a gun and a medical kit and joined the resistance battling Russia’s invading army.

“There are all kinds of civilians serving with me,” Mr. Potyomkin, 33 years old, said. “We’re united by wanting to do something useful rather than sitting at home wasting time.”

Some of these armed citizens will not be coming back to their homes. The WSJ reports that one high-profile member of the Territorial Defense Forces, TV personality and actor Pasha Li, was killed on March 6th in an artillery strike, and the estimated number of Ukrainian casualties is in the thousands, though that includes members of the Ukrainian military as well as those serving in the Territorial Defense Forces.

With no sign that the war will soon be over, and plenty of indications that it may in fact become an even bloodier conflict in the days ahead, Ukraine is now in essence on a total war footing. Even unarmed civilians are engaged in the fight, whether by protesting Russian occupiers, serving as medics or scouts, or helping to distribute supplies and escorting refugees to safety. The courage of those unarmed citizens shouldn’t be ignored, but I’m glad that the Wall St. Journal chose to shine a spotlight specifically on a few of the thousands of Ukrainians who have taken up arms because they mean to be free, while Vladimir Putin doesn’t mean they should.