‘We know in our blood’: Tapping history and hopes, Zelensky thrills crowd in Vilnius

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Vilnius, Lithuania: They gathered in Lukiskes Square in their thousands. Men and women, young and old, draped in yellow and blue. Toddlers waved flags from their fathers’ shoulders.

Others, wearing T-shirts with slogans, stood in anticipation with friends.

A woman holds a sign with the face of Volodymyr Zelensky at the Raising the Flag for Ukraine event in Vilnius on Tuesday.Credit: Getty

They were given just a few hours’ notice he’d be there, but the word quickly spread that he was in town.

He, of course, is perhaps the world’s most admired man: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The khaki-clad hero of his nation and the Western world. The straight-talking inspiration who, for more than 500 days since the Russian invasion, has never once threatened to throw in the towel.

It was the most captive of audiences. Lithuania has been independent since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990, after seven decades of Russian occupation. In this very square, hundreds of opponents of Moscow were interrogated, tortured and executed.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky takes the stage in Vilnius’s central square.Credit: Getty

Zelensky’s movements are still restricted for security reasons. Public appearances such as this one on Tuesday can be counted on one hand over the past 16 months.

“Slava Ukraini!” he bellowed to the cheers of at least 5000 people. “Glory to Ukraine!”

Since the start of the war, Lithuania has welcomed more than 74,000 Ukrainians, the largest inflow of refugees in the country’s history. This statistic says as much about the country’s past and present as it does about its future, which is linked by its proximity to Russia.

Russian occupancy lives in the minds of many Lithuanians. If they didn’t experience it, their parents or grandparents did. Vilnius is the closest EU capital to Moscow.

Zelensky brought to Vilnius the battle flag of the 10th Mountain Assault Brigade “Edelweiss”, which is fighting near Bakhmut, the destroyed town in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Speaking to the crowd first in English, Zelensky said Bakhmut was “one of the most decisive battles for freedom in Europe”.

People held Ukrainian flags as Volodymyr Zelensky spoke in Vilnius. Credit: Getty

“This is how our children and grandchildren will remember it,” he said.

“This flag of ours means that there will never again be deportations from the Baltic countries to Siberia,” he said.

“Never again will there be the divisions of Poland and the humiliation of Hungary by invaders. There will never be tanks again in Prague and ‘winter wars’ against the freedom of Finland … There will be no more occupations in Europe!”

What Zelensky lacks in height (he is 170 centimetres tall), he makes up for in presence. An engrossed crowd cheered almost every line. As a leader, he captivated, but as a politician, he was on message.

The city, which has a population of around 700,000, is plastered with messages calling for NATO members – in town for a two-day summit – to accept Ukraine into their ranks.

Among the crowd was Asta Ivanauskiene, a 47-year-old researcher. She told journalists: “I am almost 50, but I felt like a student. I was shouting, screaming like I saw a rock star. But he is more than a rock star.”

At times Zelensky, standing next to his wife Olena, looked emotional and overwhelmed. But, just like he has time and time again, he struck the right tone. As he attempts to persuade world leaders to let his country into the 31-member club, Zelensky made his pitch to the people.

“They know that security means being together with Ukraine. I am grateful to you, Vilnius, and to all Lithuanian cities and communities for every call in support of Ukraine, for sheltering our people who have taken refuge from hostilities here, at your home,” he said.

The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, delivers his address in Vilnius.Credit: Getty Images

“Thank you for your help to our defence and for your clear, honest and, importantly, courageous position on inviting Ukraine to NATO. Ukrainian flags on Lithuanian streets clearly prove that we are already allies, and Ukraine will defend both its own and your freedom! And no one should ever, ever look back to Moscow.”

Towards the front of the stage, Virginija Pleskiene, 66, wore a ribbon made from the Ukrainian flag.

“I got it on the third day of the war at the Russian embassy. It’s now practically 500 days that I’ve been wearing that ribbon, so the question of why I’m here seems ridiculous to me,” she said.

“It seems to me that it is the duty of every normal person to be here.”

The speeches were followed by the Ukrainian national anthem. Those who knew the words sang. Those who didn’t placed their hands on their hearts.

The mayor of Vilnius, Valdas Benkunskas, then solemnly raised the flag of Ukraine.

Perhaps the small children who managed to catch a glimpse of Zelensky will pass their memories onto the next generation, as their grandparents did for other historic events. Most of those present witnessed a moment they’ll never forget.

One woman told inquiring reporters she’d hid her tears behind her sunglasses.

“We really support Ukraine joining NATO,” an emotional Leva Vasiliauskaite said.

“We know what it’s like because we’ve been occupied.

“Maybe not everyone in the West knows that, for example in France, the United Kingdom – but in the Baltics, Poland, we know in our blood, we feel it.”

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