Last February, the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ made headlines around the world as a worthy Ukrainian opponent responsible for bringing down five Russian planes and a helicopter. Since then his supposed tally had allegedly grown to include 40 Russian planes. In March, we were even treated to a selfie of the famous pilot.
Then on Friday, reports started circulating claiming that the courageous pilot had been identified as Major Stepan Tarabalka, 29, and was killed on March 13 when "overwhelming" Russian forces shot down the MiG-29 he was flying. This turned out not to be true despite making headlines around the world.
Although Tarabalka did exist and did receive Ukraine's top medal, the Order of the Golden Star, for bravery in combat, with the title 'Hero of Ukraine,' the Ukrainian Air Force released a tweet saying that the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ actually represents "the collective spirit of the highly qualified pilots of the Tactical Aviation Brigade who are successfully defending Kyiv and the region."
The information about the death of the The Ghost of #Kyiv is incorrect. The #GhostOfKyiv is alive, it embodies the collective spirit of the highly qualified pilots of the Tactical Aviation Brigade who are successfully defending #Kyiv and the region.— Ukrainian Air Force (@KpsZSU) May 1, 2022
This was illustrated in earlier statements made by Ukrainian spokesman Yuriy Ignat where he said: “The Ghost of Kyiv is alive and embodies a collective image of the highly qualified pilots of the tactical aviation brigade successfully defending Kyiv and the surrounding region.”
Raising the nation's morale
Considering Ukraine is defending itself against a country that is much stronger in terms of military strength, the story of 'The Ghost of Kyiv' functioned as a morale booster for the nation and its military.
Mikhail Zhirohov, a Ukrainian historian, considered the Ghost of Kyiv story as "propaganda for raising morale." "It's essential to have this propaganda, because our armed forces are smaller, and many think we can't be equal to them [the Russians]. We need this in wartime," he further said to BBC.
The Ukrainian Air Force, however, did acknowledge that Tarabalka was indeed a hero, as well.
Who is Tarabalka?
Born in the small village of Korolivka to a working-class family, Tarabalka proceeded to graduate from the Kharkiv National University of the Air Force. He had a wife and an eight-year-old son.
His parents gave an interview to NPR where they explained their son's passion for the skies and for his country.
"He would always watch the paratroopers in their air exercises. And he would run in their direction to try to see where they landed. Since early childhood, he always dreamed of the sky, about flying higher than the clouds," his mother said.
Disclaimer: This article has been updated to reflect new and ongoing information.