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A man in Kyiv holds postage stamps depicting a Ukrainian border guard and the Russian warship Moskva, which was recently sunk, April 14, 2022.VALENTYN OGIRENKO/Reuters

The crowd of hundreds outside Kyiv’s Central Post Office was growing restless. Some of them had been standing in line for more than eight hours – just to buy a stamp.

Not just any stamp. A stamp depicting a lone Ukrainian soldier flipping the bird at a grey Russian warship, perfectly capturing this country’s spirit of defiance through one of the iconic moments of this 56-day-old war.

The image is based on the response of Roman Hrybov, the commander of a State Border Guard Service unit of 19 who were stationed on Snake Island, a Ukrainian outpost in the Black Sea, at the start of the war.

On Feb. 25, the second day of the war, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, approached the island and demanded that the Ukrainian garrison capitulate.

“This is a Russian warship,” someone says in an audio recording of the exchange between Cdr. Hrybov and the Moskva that quickly went viral in Ukraine and beyond. “I ask you to lay down your arms and surrender to avoid bloodshed and unnecessary deaths. Otherwise, you will be bombed.”

Cdr. Hrybov can be heard playfully asking a member of his unit if he should make his position clear.

He then responds with a line that is now on billboards and bumper stickers all over this war-ravaged country: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”

Cdr. Hrybov and the other guards were initially believed to have been immediately killed, though it turned out they had been taken prisoner. All 19 returned to Ukraine in a prisoner swap late last month, and Cdr. Hrybov was awarded a medal.

People line up to buy postage stamps at the Ukrposhta, the Central Post Office, in Kyiv, April 20, 2022.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

The episode grew even more famous after the Moskva, which had fired cruise missiles at Ukrainian cities throughout the first seven weeks of the war, sank on April 14. Though Russia claims the warship accidentally caught fire and then sank while being towed to dock for repairs, Ukraine says it went down after being struck by two anti-ship missiles.

Among the hundreds in line outside Kyiv’s main post office were people who saw buying one of the commemorative stamps as part patriotic duty, part souvenir collecting.

A million copies of the flipping-off-the-warship stamp were printed, and more than 700,000 have already been sold.

“Maybe it’s our patriotism. We want to help. The money will go to support the army, as far as we know,” said Anna Kobushkina, a 25-year-old surgeon who said she had been in line for an hour.

Each stamp costs 24 Ukrainian hryvnya, with four going to the country’s armed forces. “I will buy as many as they give me,” she said.

With hundreds of people ahead of her, and those at the front starting to shove and jostle, Ms. Kobushkina looked to have little chance of reaching the post office before the end of the business day.

She said Cdr. Hrybov’s act was “a beautiful moment” that captured the country’s fight for independence, adding that she hoped to one day pass the stamps on to her grandchildren.

“By their actions they demonstrated that even a small group of Ukrainian people are not willing to surrender,” Ihor Krupsky, a 56-year-old pharmacist who had also been in line for an hour, said of the soldiers who defied the Moskva. “For me personally, this means that even though Ukraine is not a big country, we will resist the Russian aggressor by any means possible.”

Some believe the Snake Island guards’ defiance has helped inspire Ukraine’s broader war effort, which has seen the country’s smaller military defy predictions by holding off one of the largest armies in the world. Earlier this month, Russia was forced to abandon – at least temporarily – its attempt to seize Kyiv in order to focus its forces on a smaller battleground in the east.

But in a country that has taken a catastrophic economic hit since the start of the war, many who were lined up to buy stamps Wednesday were doing so less out of patriotism than a need to make some money. The International Monetary Fund predicted this week that Ukraine’s gross domestic product would fall 35 per cent this year, almost entirely as a result of the war.

People line up to buy a newly issued stamp commemorating the defiance of the Snake Island border guards, Kyiv, April 20, 2022.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

The stamps cost the equivalent of about $1 each at the post office, but packs of 12 were selling for several thousand dollars on eBay and other websites Wednesday.

For the most part, people want to buy them and then just sell them, said Oleksey Oleksandrovich, a 22-year-old who gave only his first and patronymic names and said he had been in line since 5 a.m. He planned to immediately sell any stamps he was able to purchase to a friend, who intended to hold on to them a little longer to see if prices continued to rise.

Ihor Smilyanskyi, the chief executive officer of the national postal service, Ukrposhta, was mobbed by stamp seekers when he arrived outside the main post office – which is on Kyiv’s central Independence Square – Wednesday afternoon. Some demanded that volunteers helping the country’s military be given priority access to the stamps.

Mr. Smilyanskyi told The Globe and Mail that, even if most of the people lined up at the post office were trying to make some money, the prices being paid for the stamp elsewhere spoke for themselves.

“I think the popularity of the stamp across the world is sending the message to the Russian army where it needs to go. And I’m happy this message will be sent more than one million times.”

He said Ukrposhta was already designing more limited-edition patriotic stamps. He even hinted that the Moskva might again feature on one, since it is now a “submarine.”

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