Amidst the ongoing barbarity of the war in Ukraine, sacred and profane border guard Roman Hrybov was just awarded a medal for his chutzpah in facing down a Russian ship demanding he and fellow soldiers trapped on Snake Island surrender - an order to which he now-famously replied, "Russian warship, go fuck yourself." On the first day of the Russian invasion, Hrybov was one of 13 Ukrainian guards defending the small rocky Zmiinyi Island, or Snake Island, in the Black Sea off the port of Odesa, when a commander on the Vasily Bykov radioed them. "This is a Russian military warship," he said. "Lay down your weapons and surrender... Otherwise, you will be bombed." On the audio later released, a scratchy silence ensued. Then, a voice that turned out to be Hrybov's offered the defiant rejoinder that became so synonymous with the grit displayed by fellow patriots it's now memorialized in a new Ukrainian stamp. With no means of defence or escape, early reports said the 13 men had been killed after refusing to surrender. But several days later, Ukraine officials announced most were stil alive and had been taken captive. Earlier this month, they were freed as part of the first major prisoner exchange for 11 captured Russian sailors; by then, the Vasily Bykov had been hit and sunk by the Ukrainian Navy.
This week, Hrybov and his comrades went home to Cherkasy in central Ukraine. On Tuesday, an abashed Hrybov, in olive fatigues and shorn head, accepted a medal for bravery from Igor Taburets, head of Cherkasy's Regional Administration. "I think Ukraine should know its heroes," said Taburets. "The most important thing is that he survived, in spite of everything...an example (of) the strength of the Cossack spirit." Hrybov offered "a big thank you to the Ukrainian people." "We strongly feel this support - it inspires us," he said. "Justice (is) on our side." He ended with a small, soulful smile, that of an ordinary man who'd stood up for right with extraordinary grit, like so many others. Those acts of courage, grace and hope persist: Classical musicians playing for residents sheltering in subways, National Guard members fighting on front lines, people greeting on bended knee the returning bodies of soldiers and having babies in bomb shelters and making Slava Sweatshirts - "Go Fuck Yourself" and "Fight Like a Ukrainian" as a tractor hauls away a tank - to raise money for those who've fled. In that, Hrybov and all the rest echo history. Since antiquity, it seems, Snake Island has been known as a place of divine protection: The ashes of Achilles and his beloved Patroclus are buried there at a temple reportedly haunted by his ghost and cleaned by island birds, and it is variously called the White Island, the Island of Achilles, and the Island of Heroes.
"A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong." - Socrates in Plato's Apology on the heroism of Achilles.