Roman Ratushnyi lived and died for just causes. As a teenager, the Ukrainian environmental and civic activist joined the Maidan pro-democracy and pro-western protests in Kyiv in 2013. He made his name defending a piece of woodland in the capital from illegal construction. On June 9, a few weeks before his 25th birthday, he was killed near Izyum, in the east of the country, while fighting for the Ukrainian army against Russian invaders.
To his friends and fellow activists, Ratushnyi was an exemplar: principled, ethical and determined to change his country by standing up to abuses of power. He embodied the vitality of Ukrainian civil society, which has been such a strength in the country’s war effort.
“Roman was the ideal example of the Ukrainian citizen,” says Nazarii Kravchenko, an entrepreneur and fellow civic activist. “For civil society he was an example of righteousness, uncorruptability and high ideals.”
Ratushnyi was born in Kyiv on July 5 1997 into a civically minded home. His father, Taras Ratushnyy, is a journalist and activist who campaigned to protect the capital’s heritage sites. His mother, Svitlana Povalyaeva, is a well-known Ukrainian writer. As a child he was taken by his parents to demonstrations.
He took part in the Maidan protests against the government of Ukraine’s corrupt pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who spurned an association agreement with the EU in favour of closer ties with Moscow. On November 30 2013, along with scores of other protesters he was beaten by the Berkut, the brutal riot police.
Ratushnyi, then a law student, began a long campaign for legal redress which culminated in a 2021 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that his right to peaceful protest had been violated.
In a 2018 account, Ratushnyi wrote that the Maidan revolution, which forced Yanukovych out of office, unleashed deep changes in Ukrainian society and political culture: “Without the Maidan, without the demonstration of real resistance to the authorities, these things would not exist. Now I feel completely free in this country. And I feel this country is my own.”
Ratushnyi next worked as an investigative journalist, uncovering stories of official malfeasance. But he came to prominence in 2019 leading a campaign to protect Protasiv Yar, a patch of hilly woodland with a small ski slope in his central Kyiv neighbourhood.
Residents were furious when a property company owned by businessmen allied to oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky began to clear the site for a residential complex — without proper permits but allegedly in cahoots with local officials. Ratushnyi set up a campaign group, mounted a legal challenge and organised demonstrations, which led to clashes with police. He also won over Vitali Klitschko, Kyiv’s mayor, to his cause.
During one of many protests, he was arrested on what he said were trumped up charges of vandalism, later dismissed by an appeals court. He also claimed he received death threats over his action to save the site.
The campaign took a heavy toll on Ratushnyi, Yevhen Cherepnya, a friend and fellow campaigner told Suspilne, a news outlet. “But Roman said ‘if you get down to business, you have to finish it’.”
And finish it he did, or so it seems. In January this year, after a three-year battle, Ukraine’s supreme court ruled against the developers.
The following month, when Russia invaded, Ratushnyi immediately joined the volunteer territorial defence at the Kyiv front lines. He transferred to an army reconnaissance unit and took part in the celebrated battle to liberate Trostanyets, a town in the north-east, before redeploying further east to the Donbas.
“The more Russians we kill now, the fewer Russians our children will have to kill,” he said in a tweet, which Twitter deleted after it was widely shared following his death.
This tirade laid bare the animus some Ukrainians, even civic-minded ones, now feel towards their Russian tormentors.
Every dead Ukrainian soldier is a loss to the country, but Ratushnyi was special.
“Yesterday, like many, I cried,” Vakhtang Kipiani, the editor of Historical Truth, a news outlet to which Ratushnyi bequeathed money, wrote on Facebook. “Roman Ratushnyi was my personal hope for change in the city and the country. The Russians killed this hope.”