It is a searing image: A 17-year-old boy wrapped in a Ukrainian flag and standing near a theater that was destroyed by a Russian airstrike in the razed southern city of Mariupol. The sky in the photograph’s frame is a clear blue and all around him is ruin and destruction.
The image caught global attention on Tuesday, as government officials quickly heralded the act as a symbolic representation of Ukrainians’ lasting resistance to Russian occupation. The New York Times has confirmed that the photo was taken in Mariupol.
“I want to thank him for this act,” said President Zelensky in his evening address. “This guy is one of many of our people who are waiting for the return of Ukraine and who will not accept the occupation under any circumstances.”
Russia gained control of the port city in mid-May, after its forces stamped out the Ukrainian force’s final stronghold in the underground bunkers at a steel plant. The fall of the last defenders came after Russia had bombarded the city for weeks on end.
Since then the city has become the focus of a propaganda war. Local officials in exile have painted a portrait of a devastated city on the verge of collapse, with no clean water, while Moscow has claimed peaceful life has returned there. The images of a teenager wrapped in a flag play into Ukraine’s narrative that the country will never accept Russian rule.
“Even under occupation, Mariupol does not surrender,” the Mariupol City Council wrote in a Telegram post alongside two images of the boy defiantly facing a building destroyed by war. “It takes real courage to do this,” the statement said.
The images were originally posted on Instagram late Monday from a private account, which has since been removed. Petro Andriushchenko, an aide to Mariupol’s mayor, said there was a plan to evacuate the young man in the coming days for fear that he may face swift retribution for the performative stunt.
One image appeared to show the young man standing near the city’s Drama Theater, which was destroyed on March 16 by a Russian airstrike. The attack became a potent emblem for Russia’s brutality in the war. The word “children” had been written in huge white lettering on the ground outside the theater. The strike killed hundreds who were sheltering there.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians remain in the city, according to local officials. Daily updates on the Telegram messaging service from Mr. Andriushchenko and the Mariupol City Council have painted a grim picture of life for the residents, who they say have no working sewers or drinking water.
A recent post cautioned that Russian occupiers had been directed by Moscow to “conduct a covert mobilization of men of conscription age.”
“I appeal to the residents of Mariupol who are in the city, do not succumb to Russian propaganda and avoid employment where you will be thrown to the ‘front’ to die,” said the city’s mayor, Vadym Boychenko, in the post on Tuesday.
“Every day the victory of Ukraine is getting closer and our Mariupol will definitely be liberated,” he said.