KYIV, Ukraine — Dmytro Kotsiubailo was a skinny teenager when he took to the barricades in Kyiv’s Independence Square nine years ago, joining thousands of Ukrainians demanding to be treated with dignity and freed from the yoke of Russia.
On Friday, he was returned to that same square in an open coffin, as thousands of Ukrainians gathered to pay tribute to the boy who became a decorated soldier and a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.
Mr. Kotsiubailo was better known by his call-sign, Da Vinci, given to him because he once dreamed of being an artist. But he never got the chance: Soon after taking part in the protests known as the Maidan Revolution, he joined Ukraine’s Army to fight a Russian-backed rebellion in eastern Ukraine. He was only 18-years-old.
Over the years “Da Vinci” became one of Ukraine’s best-known fighters and a battalion commander. He was killed near Bakhmut on March 7, mortally wounded in a Russian assault. He was 27 years old.
While Mr. Kotsiubailo was one among the thousands of Ukrainian soldiers killed in the war with Russia, his story has struck a deep chord in a war-weary country that stands united behind its soldiers fighting on the front lines.
“It hurts to lose our heroes,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said as he joined the nation in mourning Mr. Kotsiubailo, whose memorial was broadcast live on national television. In speaking about the soldier’s death earlier this week, Mr. Zelensky noted how “Da Vinci” had been “defending our independence and the dignity of our people since 2014.”
By the time Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Mr. Kotsiubailo was already an experienced veteran, the youngest battalion commander in the Ukrainian military. In 2021 he became one of the youngest ever volunteer soldiers to be named a “Hero of Ukraine” for valor on the battlefield.
In an interview with the Ukrainian publication Censor.net before his death, Mr. Kotsiubailo described fighting to stop the Russian advance in southern Ukraine, being greeted with flowers as he rolled into newly liberated villages in Ukraine’s northeast and the danger posed by Russian forces despite their setbacks on the battlefield.
“Russians cannot be underestimated,” he said. “Yes, they are broken, but they still have resources — human, equipment, and weapons.”
Mr. Zelensky, Ukraine’s defense minister and the top commander of the armed forces joined the crowds at the soldier’s funeral at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, the majestic church in central Kyiv where funerals for soldiers have become a grim daily ritual. The crowd swelled as the coffin was taken to Independence Square, known simply as Maidan.
One by one, people filed past. Many left flowers and some paused to say a few words. “Thank you for everything,” a weeping woman cried. A soldier vowed vengeance, telling President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia “to put a bullet in your head.”
The crowd chanted “Glory to Ukraine,” followed by silence, then more chants of “Death to the enemy, death, death, death” and “Glory to the hero of Ukraine.”
In an interview with Radio Liberty before his death, Mr. Kotsiubailo explained why he chose to fight for his country.
“As long as there is danger,” he said, “I consider it my civic duty to protect it with a weapon in hand.”