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‘He dedicated his youth to Ukraine’. Meduza’s interview with the wives and mothers of three Azov soldiers who defended Mariupol to the end

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Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant was under continuous siege by Russian troops from early March until May 17. The last place unoccupied by Russian troops in the city, the plant was completely cut off from the outside world. Ukrainians managed to defend it up until May 16, when the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces ordered the commanders of the units in Azovstal to “save the lives of the personnel.” The soldiers (the majority of whom belong to the Azov regiment, which was using the plant as a base) laid down their weapons and surrendered. Meduza spoke to the wives of two of the Azov soldiers who were taken prisoner, and to the mother of one who died, about what it was like to follow the siege from afar as their loved ones were under siege inside the plant.

Please note. This investigation was originally published in Russian on May 21, 2022, and was conducted on May 15, 2022 — one day before the soldiers in the Azovstal steel plant were taken captive.

Yulia (Menada) Fedosyuk

Wife of Azov fighter Arseniy Fedosyuk, who is currently in Russian captivity

For the first week of this war — of this escalation — they hadn’t attacked Mariupol yet. At that point, I was still in touch with my husband; Azov was in Mariupol in anticipation of an attack, and my husband was supporting me because I was in Kyiv. He wanted to know about the missile strikes and about my health. Later on, the battle for Mariupol began, the entire city [of Mariupol] lost Internet, and I couldn’t get in touch with him for a month. It was hard, but I was able to get updates about him from the regiment’s commander. I tried not to bother them too much, so I got information once a week — they would tell me whether he was alive and whether he was healthy.

Then Elon Musk’s Starlink receivers were delivered, and I was able to communicate with my husband again. Most of these receivers have been destroyed now, and I only hear from my husband about once or twice a day [Note: Meduza spoke to Yulia Fedosyuk on May 15, before the battalion’s fighters surrendered. After they were taken captive, Fedosyuk refused to answer any more of Meduza’s questions.] He has to leave his bunker under fire, risking his life, to send me and his mom messages.

About a month ago, he was injured: a piece of shrapnel hit him in the leg. Because they had no access to medical equipment, the wound healed with the shrapnel inside. Thank God sepsis didn’t spread and he can still function completely. Injuries in the conditions of the Azovstal plant carry a higher risk of death: you can’t get around or try to run away.

[In 2014,] he graduated from Kyiv-Mohyla Academy with a history degree. He was an active participant in the Revolution of Dignity; he was shot in the face with a pellet gun. Right after the Maidan, he spent three days in a polygon [a combat training center] and set out for his first battle. Without any preparation, without training, he found himself in a war at 20 years old.

During his three-day stay at the polygon, he was reading Franz Kafka’s book The Trial — so his call sign became “Trial.”

We’ve been married for five years. We met online: he was in the trenches, so meeting in real life, offline, wasn’t exactly possible. For about five years, we’ve been doing things that way. I live in Kyiv and he lives on the front. We’d see each other during his time off or on weekends. There’s an official number of days they can talk off — 45. Plus some weekends when I went to see him. But I don’t think we spent more than two months a year together.

I know a little ancient Greek, and I was teaching Arseniy the language. For me, that was something sacred — the ability to impart my knowledge to someone. Conversations about history and philosophy were an intimate thing for us. We were on the same wavelength, and that was the reason we first started talking. I really miss those conversations.

The best memories I have [from our five years of marriage] have to do with the time we spent in Mariupol. The city has such unique, beautiful nature. There’s the steppe, the sea, and eagles flying around. We spent a lot of time there when I came to visit him. I went to visit him in Mariupol often, so I know the city well. All of these awful photos have really affected me, because the streets are streets we’ve walked down; the buildings are buildings we’ve stayed in. And watching it all is just horrendous.

Russia attacked Ukraine eight years ago, not three months ago. My husband has been on the front since the very beginning [of the war]. He’s literally been in the war continuously. Every time we met, I knew it might be the last time we’d see each other. Of course the situation is especially tense and tragic right now. But I understand why he’s there. We share the same values. The same idea of what freedom is. The same vision for the future of Ukraine, of our country.

I married him because he’s a passionate person; he’s always ready to fight to defend me, our country, and our values. That knowledge helps me stay strong and to do everything possible to help him. To help get him out of there, and to make him proud of me back here at home.

We’ve made a lot of plans together for when the war ends — about having children, or about Arseniy’s career. He decided to dedicate his youth to Ukraine. To get our territory back, to get rid of this tyrant and of the Russian army. For that purpose, he’s prepared to stay in battle for as long as it takes. And as for his personal plans and goals, he’s put that off for later.

Without a doubt, I believe he [my husband] should defend us, defend his principles. For me, part of being a man is fighting for your own freedom. And for me, Arseniy is a unique kind of person. A rare type of person — someone who’s willing to sacrifice his health, and even his life, to defend freedom. I’m proud that he’s there — that even in inhuman conditions like those, he continues to act honorably. He continues to live up to my expectations of him. Safety is for people who are prepared to trade freedom for comfort; who are ready to turn a blind eye. That, of course, doesn’t suit us.

I believe that all of this [Russia’s claims that the Azov regiment is made up of Nazis] is being done for one reason: Azov is a very motivated regiment, and it’s completely made up of volunteers. It’s made up of young guys, very professional, very combat-ready — everybody knows that. Over the last eight years, it’s been made clear time and time again that the Russians are always afraid when they’re fighting Azov. Because you can’t negotiate with them. They’re a dangerous enemy and it’s difficult to fight them, so better to slander them, to come up with some mythology that turns the whole world, even Ukraine, against the Azov regiment.

The Azov battalion isn’t Neofascist, it’s not Nazi, nothing like that. It’s an official formation of the Ukrainian army. Over the course of its history, all kinds of nationalities have served in the regiment: Armenians, Azeris, Greeks, Georgians, Crimean Tatars, Jews. There are currently about 40 Jews in Azovstal, and two days ago, Ukraine’s chief rabbi reached out to the Israeli Knesset with a letter asking for Israel to serve as a third party and evacuate the Azov battalion.

I work as an assistant for a Verkhovna Rada deputy [Sviatoslav Yurash, from the Servant of the People party]. His father [Andrii Yurash] is the Ukrainian ambassador to the Vatican, and it was my idea to reach out via a letter to the Pope. We agreed to have us come visit, but I didn’t expect it to be so intimate. I was sure we would just be there with a large group, and that we’d just watch the official ceremony and then leave. But they sat us close to the Pope himself. Afterwards, he let a small group of people come up to him, and that included us.

This surprised me: before us, about 10 people came up to him, and he was sitting — he has bad knees so it’s hard for him to get up. When it was our turn and we were introduced, he stood up and shook our hands. He immediately plunged into the story, and he was clearly both emotional and well-informed: he was nodding and agreeing. He knew in the loop about what we were talking about. When we asked him to come to Ukraine and become the third party who could organize an [evacuation] corridor, he answered, ‘I spoke to the cardinal — it’s not a problem.” That’s how we came to the conclusion that only one of the three countries was posing a problem: the Russian Federation. The Pope made several offers, but they were rejected by Putin himself.

My husband and I always planned to take a long trip through Europe. We really love antiquity, the history of ancient Rome and ancient Greece, and we wanted to spend some time in that setting. It was painful for me to be in Rome alone, because I’d dreamed that we would one day both go there and witness its grandeur together.

Nadezhda

Wife of Azov fighter Volodymyr, who is currently in Russian captivity

My kids and I came to Mariupol from western Ukraine on December 25, 2021 — for New Year’s and the holidays. We had a normal life. Other than his time off, holidays were the only time when we [my husband and I] could spend some much time together. We’ve been living apart for seven years now.

I left Mariupol on February 20 with the kids. We [my husband and I] were planning on meeting up soon: either I would go back to Mariupol or he would resign. It was all set. After February 24, though, I knew our plans had been wrecked. I really wanted to have him close right then. There was so much uncertainty: we have two kids, and it’s unclear where we should go or what we should do.

In 2015, our son, Mikhail, was born, and in 2020, we had our daughter, Anna. [Until Russia’s invasion,] we were making plans for the future. Volodymyr was ready to leave [the Azov regiment]. We wanted to have another kid and buy a house. To start living like a normal family; to live like other people. We wanted him to be able to leave for work in the morning, come up in the evening, eat dinner, all of those things.

My oldest kid is now six years old. He doesn’t speak; he’s autistic. It’s very difficult. He takes up of lot of time, both from me and from all of our relatives. Our youngest daughter is a year and a half, and she’s starting to speak. The kids miss their dad. Our son needs a courageous person to look up to, and our daughter needs to see how a man should treat her and her mother. They miss their dad and I miss my husband. As they say, “Dad can do anything” — he can go shopping, fix things, and raise the kids.

In early March, we were initially in regular contact, but then I started hearing from him less and less frequently. [Sometimes] he would disappear for several weeks at a time. When we finally heard from him again, he was in Azovstal; he would write every three days to tell us he was alive. Whenever I couldn’t get in touch with him, it would make me anxious. It’s easier when he’s in touch: as soon as he writes “I’m alive,” everything is fine again. The last time we spoke was yesterday [May 19], and he told me he was still in the plant.

When I’m walking down the street with two children and I see a family [with a father] coming towards us, it automatically makes me think of my husband. They have everything: they’re drinking coffee, relaxing, watching their kids swing on the swings and laugh. And when you’re alone, when you come home and there’s nobody waiting for you, or nobody who arrives home from work in the evenings, or even calls… We used to talk on the phone and send messages back and forth — but now, nothing. Emotionally, it’s very difficult. You just hang on and hang on and hang on. And then you come [home], sit with your sadness, cry for a bit, and then move on with renewed strength — but it’s hard.

We met in the fall of 2013. Until 2014, Volodymyr wasn’t a soldier, he sold sporting goods. He was at the Maidan, and afterwards he went to serve as a volunteer with the border guards. In February 2015, he joined Azov. He wanted to protect his country — Ukraine is his home. If someone comes into your home, you don’t say, “Sure, live here, I’ll just leave.” Nobody’s saying that; everyone is trying to drive them away. For him, “Ukraine is our mother,” just like in the song.

At first, he went with nothing at all — at that point, they weren’t promising to pay anyone, and all of the uniforms were gathered by volunteers and their friends. It wasn’t like it is now, when they promise you however much money. Back then, they didn’t have any. It was just an idea. After that, the amount of time we had together drastically decreased.

That’s when we learned I was pregnant. I was always alone during that period, but he would come see me on his vacations. At first, it was often — two or three times a month. Then more rarely. There was one time when I didn’t see him for six months. He would come for two weeks at a time; two weeks is nothing at all. He had very little time to spend with his family.

After our daughter was born, he couldn’t get away as often; he’d say, “Just a bit longer, and then I’ll leave [the regiment].” Our little girl just melted his heart.

He didn’t know what he wanted to do [after leaving Azov], and that kept him there. [In Azov,] he felt right at home — he was never bored. He grew up there and he learned a lot — in addition to combat skills, he learned to work with electricity and to level walls. Because apart from war and combat training, they made their own housing: one day [the regiment would be] here, then a few months later, it would move. They had to set everything back up. He was constantly learning new things — even from the Internet, from videos.

He liked that the regiment supports the “idea of a nation” symbol. Everyone in the regiment is a patriot; they all love their country. He’s a patriot, too. He knew where he was going and what he needed to do.

For me, those guys [who are fighting in Azov] are our nation’s best. People like my husband are one in a thousand. He truly loves his family and his country and would never let anything harm them. Whenever someone starts denigrating [Azov], saying they kill children or that they’re Nazis… Not only do I know my husband, I know his friends [in the regiment]. These guys are holding the country together. For them, it’s not just an army, it’s a way of life — which means they serve with love and responsibility.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to live under siege. My husband is physically healthy, thank God, but I know it’s got to be hard for him psychologically.

Volodymyr has a goal: to return home. He has people waiting for him here. He always says, “I’m hanging on, everything’s fine.” And I tell him, “Just hold on, we’re waiting for you.” Constantly.

I hope they arrange a prisoner exchange, but I know it will be difficult. Things would be simpler if it were a different regiment, but we all know what Azov [means] to Russia. Every soldier has people waiting for them. I’m waiting for my husband. Some people are waiting for their fathers or sons. It’s important to talk about them so they’re not forgotten. They deserve it. They’ve done a lot for Ukraine and for the world.

Iryna Egorchenko

Mother of slain Azov soldier Artem Moshi

On the night of [May] 8, I had a dream that Artem had fractured his spine. I woke up at 3:00 a.m. The first thing I did that morning was call the Azov regiment’s patronage service to find out how Artem was doing. I got through. They told me that that night, the hospital had collapsed, and that they were still waiting for official information about the victims. They confirmed his death on the morning of May 11.

Despite his rough exterior, Artem was soft and sensitive. He grew up on Christian values and principles. We’re religious people and we do a lot of public service. All my life, I’ve worked to serve others, and now that’s part of the work we do. We [Artem’s father and I] helped troubled teens — kids with behavioral issues or family problems. We run a camp for troubled teens, and Artem always helped us there.

After he turned 14, he started boxing; he was muscular, dense, tall, and strong. He wasn’t full, but his muscles were big. He worked out. Some teenagers work out three days a week, but Artem worked out almost every single day. When his trainer saw how he interacted with people, he let him start leading the younger groups. At 16, Artem had already won the title of heavyweight boxing champion in Kyiv.

In 2018, at 18 years old, he said he wanted to join the army. He saw it as his chance to toughen up, to gain some new skills. It was a bit of a surprise for us, but we didn’t argue with him — he was still at that age where it’s better to join the army than to go down the wrong path. We knew it was a serious decision. Draft orders come at 20 years old [in Ukraine], but they let him join [earlier] since he had his parents’ permission.

When he was done serving, he said he was interested in a career in the military because there was opportunity for growth — his eventual goal was to join the Ukrainian Security Service. Of course, like any parents, I can’t say we were thrilled that he wanted to sign a [military] contract. Especially as the war in the Donbas had been going on for six years at that point, if I remember correctly. I saw how he had matured, and I didn’t want to pressure him or control his life— this was his life, his aspirations. He signed a contract with the [Azov] regiment and left.

He chose that regiment because at that point, they were more or less famous already and were officially being incorporated into the Ukrainian army. I don’t think he attached any other extra meaning to it. He just saw himself as a strong warrior who could be of some use to his country.

[At the beginning of his service,] Artem was in Urzuf, a village in the Donetsk region. He and I would write back and forth. By that point, he had become a skilled driver and a BMP vehicle mechanic; he’d studied for his license and gone to take the exam. At first, it made me anxious how he almost never spoke about his combat missions; after all, he wasn’t allowed to. But I more or less learned to adapt. Of course, our faith helped — the whole family prayed for him, the whole church even.

On February 24, after Russia launched its full-scale invasion, I lost touch with Artem. I didn’t hear from him at all for five or six days. We were greatly worried, of course. After that, he sent some things home and asked me to pick them up. They were probably being relocated or something. We brought his clothes, his MP3 player, his headphones, and his documents home.”

photos from azovstal

I know I raised a principled person who stood up for what he believed in. But that didn’t make it any easier to lose my only adult son — my wonderful child in the prime of his life. I realize that I won’t see him again here on earth. I’ll never see his children. He’s gone. It’s extremely difficult and very painful, of course. On the other hand, when I think about the fact that he died for a purpose… You don’t know how many women have written to me about how they were about to get out [of Mariupol through humanitarian corridors] because they [Azov] were keeping [Russian] troops busy, resisting. They’ve let me know Mariupol is still standing. Mothers and children have written: “Thank you for your son.”

Here in Ukraine, there’s not a single magazine, publication, or broadcast that wouldn’t talk about my son and his heroism. Word of his bravery has spread throughout all of Ukraine. Near School No. 8 in Kyiv, where he studied, there’s a square. They want to name it after my son. His friends are naming their children after him.

However painful it might be for me to speak as a mother, part of my heart will always be with him. He’s a worthy child. I realize my son gave his life for freedom; he fought to the last and courageously accepted his death. Of course, as a Christian, as a believer, he’s in a better place now, and we’ll see each other there one day. That gives me hope.

[After the war,] Artem wanted to raise troubled teenagers and be their coach, teach them to box. He wanted to build a big house and bring me and his stepdad to live there. “I’ll take in a bunch of kids, and we’ll all raise them together.” He always did all he could to be of use to society.

The last [time I heard from him] was on the evening of May 7 — soon before he died. He thanked me for the prayers and said they had saved him on multiple occasions. “Send a big hello to everyone who’s praying for me.” He really had told me about several times when prayers saved him from bullets. “Everything will be okay — I can feel it.” He wrote that he loved me. I wrote back that I loved him too. That night, God took him away.

At this point, it’s still too early to get his body; we’re still waiting. But I understand that my son isn’t there anymore, just his body. I understand that it’s the living who need more help right now. So I’m not pressuring anybody; I realize there’s no way to help my son anymore. Let them work on helping the living, saving the living, so that mothers can have their sons back and wives can have their husbands back. And we’ll be waiting for our son; we’ll close this chapter of our family’s story together with him.

Interviews by Andrey Kaganskikh

Translation by Sam Breazeale

https://meduza.io/en/feature/2022/05/25/he-dedicated-his-youth-to-ukraine ‘He dedicated his youth to Ukraine’. Meduza’s interview with the wives and mothers of three Azov soldiers who defended Mariupol to the end

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