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Russia’s invasion has brought to Ukraine a new sense of national unity. A wartime wedding represented an intimate expression of that sentiment

Svitlana Maistruk and Oleksandr Sydielnikov embrace after exchanging vows in Lviv, Ukraine, on Sunday.Photography by Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

As Oleksandr Sydielnikov stood outside a 17th-century cathedral waiting to get married on Sunday, his best man approached with news.

Andrii Chumak had just heard from Ukrainian Special Forces members who have been using two Jeep Wranglers that Mr. Sydielnikov helped to procure. The soldiers, attacking Russian supply lines deep in occupied territory, had come under fire by four Russian tanks. The Jeeps enabled their escape through swampy terrain.

“It saved their lives,” Mr. Sydielnikov said. “I am so happy.”

Moments later, he walked up the steps into the cathedral with his bride, Svitlana Maistruk. In the eyes of the state, they were already husband and wife, after a civil ceremony last summer.

When it became clear that Russian troops would not easily overcome Ukraine, Ms. Maistruk returned to Lviv from Poland for the ceremony.

But they had not yet exchanged church vows.

Ms. Maistruk was surprised when Mr. Sydielnikov suggested doing so now. After the first attacks on Kyiv, she fled to Poland, where she has helped to obtain thermal imaging equipment for Ukrainian troops. He remained in western Ukraine, securing materiel for the country’s special forces and delivering humanitarian goods to violence-stricken areas.

But when it became clear that Russian troops would not easily overcome Ukraine, Ms. Maistruk began planning her return – and Mr. Sydielnikov began arranging the ceremony.

“It’s a very exceptional and quite dangerous time,” Ms. Maistruk said Sunday morning, as she dabbed on lipstick in preparation. “But together with pain and fear there is still a lot of love. And people want to testify that life continues.”

Russia’s invasion has brought to Ukraine a new sense of national unity. A wartime wedding represented an intimate expression of that sentiment.

“We are strong when we are together,” Ms. Maistruk said.

The couple exchanges church vows at a cathedral in Lviv. “It’s a very exceptional and quite dangerous time,” Ms. Maistruk said before the ceremony. “But together with pain and fear there is still a lot of love."

Besides, she added, “everybody is getting married now.” Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice recorded 15,443 weddings in the first month of the war.

“A lot of people want to get married, especially soldiers going to war,” said Nestor Kyzyk, a priest at the Saints Apostles Peter and Paul Garrison Church, which is operated by the military chaplaincy arm of the local diocese of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

But the reasons for doing so have changed. In the early days of the Russian invasion, couples exchanged hurried vows before men left to fight. Now that Russian forces have retreated from parts of the country, it has “become more obvious that we will win,” Mr. Sydielnikov said. Getting married now was a statement of national solidarity, and a protest against Russia.

The ceremony took place before flags emblazoned with the golden trident of the country’s armed forces, and Mr. Sydielnikov found his mind drifting far from the centuries-old frescoes of the church ceiling. He thought about his parents, unable to attend because they are living under Russian occupation in the Zaporizhzhia region. He thought about war and its many fears. He fought to keep back tears.

“But still I was happy,” he said. “I was thinking we are showing them that we are alive – and you will not defeat us. You will not kill us. It was very emotional for me.”

The couple met in Rome in 2018 at a rule-of-law program. Mr. Sydielnikov has worked in judicial reform. Ms. Maistruk works in anti-corruption. They belong to a generation of young Ukrainians tired of domestic dysfunction and eager to leverage foreign knowledge and assistance to effect change.

Svitlana Maistruk (centre) takes a photo with Iryna Zemlyana (left) and Angleika Ivanova after her wedding ceremony.

After the ceremony, they walked to lunch with the small group that had gathered for the day, people whose lives and stories recounted their country’s loss and resilience.

Mr. Chumak, the best man, was wearing his wedding attire, a black T-shirt with a profane riposte to a Russian warship that has become a national rallying cry during 46 days of war. He laughed at a question about how the jeeps were secured for the Special Forces. If Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s President, “asks volunteers to find nuclear weapons, we will find them,” he said.

Mr. Chumak quit the wedding reception early to make the long drive back to his parents’ house, where he will help sow vegetables. Across Ukraine, families are transforming backyards into “victory gardens,” a reprise of Second World War efforts in Britain.

The remaining 14 wedding guests gathered to eat inside a private room at Vinoteca Praha. In the early days of the war, Luda Hodarieva, one of the restaurant’s owners, offered its space as a staging ground for the collection and sorting of donated goods by volunteers, including Mr. Sydielnikov. On Sunday, Ms. Hodarieva joined the couple for lunch. So did Angelika Ivanova, a former colleague Mr. Sydielnikov evacuated from Kyiv with her seven-month-old son.

Friends stood to toast the couple around a table laden with Italian meats and cheeses. “This war has given us both good and bad,” said Iryna Zemlyana, the maid of honour. She had returned to Ukraine from Poland together with Ms. Maistruk. Before coming back, they had blocked trucks from travelling to Russia and Belarus, drawing attention to continuing trade and the need, they argue, for broader sanctions. Ms. Zemlyana was already considering a trip to France for new protests.

War has brought much darkness, she said. But at Sunday’s wedding, “there were no shadows.”

Wedding guests gather after the ceremony to toast the married couple. Many of those at the table have intersected with The Globe and Mail over the course of reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Many of those at the table have intersected with The Globe and Mail. When correspondent Mark MacKinnon and photographer Anton Skyba were left at a safe house outside Kyiv with no way to evacuate, Ms. Zemlyana helped to secure a vehicle. Mr. Sydielnikov and his brother-in-law Serhii Maistruk drove to their rescue amid intense fighting.

Mr. Maistruk had planned to enlist as a reservist in Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces. Instead, he agreed to serve as The Globe’s driver, and has for weeks delivered the newspaper’s journalists to the country’s distant corners.

On Sunday, he handed Mr. Sydielnikov a wedding gift, of a sort. It was a bullet retrieved from a maternity clinic attacked by Russian forces. The clinic stands not far from his own house, which he spent the past nine years building. It now lies in ruins, struck by an attack that left a gaping hole and buckled structural walls. A rocket fin lies where the front door once stood.

On Saturday, Mr. Maistruk went home for the first time since the war. He retrieved his father’s watch and the glass flute used at his own wedding from the remains. The house cannot be salvaged.

A day later, he stood up at his sister’s wedding lunch.

“The Russians will never break our traditions or destroy our country. Fuck them all,” he said, raising a glass to the couple. “You will be happy, build the nation and bring up children in the way they should be brought up. I love you.”

Svitlana Maistruk and Oleksandr Sydielnikov married in a 17th-century cathedral in Liviv as hymns echoed off the elaborately decorated walls. In the early days of the Russian invasion, couples exchanged hurried vows before men left to fight, but marriage is now more a statement of national solidarity and a protest against Russia.

The Globe and Mail