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“The place of my death and my life”- the sublime agony of Azovstal

The story of the last stand at Mariupol’s steel works that captured the world’s attention, and why the tragedy remains far from over.

July 15, 2022 - Francis Farrell - UkraineAtWar

The Azov regiment soldier stands in the ray of light at the Azovstal steel plant during its siege by Russian army, May 2022 / Dmytro ‘Orest’ Kozatsky/Azov regiment

Surrounded on all sides by an evil that ever so slowly tightens its grip. All escape routes closed. A bleak, mangled industrial wasteland devoid of anything resembling natural life. Death tumbles down from above in an unrelenting rhythm. To shelter from it is to inhabit a dimly-lit underworld of suffering: of starvation, exhaustion, and festering wounds. The world watches, transfixed by the struggle but powerless to change its course. The old factory bears its proud Soviet name, Azovstal. A looming prophecy of its ultimate fate, of a fortress of unbreakable resistance.

72 days into Russia’s siege of Mariupol and already weeks since the city’s remaining defenders retreated to the huge Azovstal steelworks. Serhiy Volyna, commander of the Ukrainian 36th Marines Brigade, was waiting for a miracle.

“I feel like I’m in some hellish reality show where we military are fighting for our lives, taking every chance to be rescued, and the whole world is just watching”

Volyna spoke to the world through viral Instagram posts calling for the rescue of the plant’s defenders. The commander’s pleas for help were emblazoned with close-ups of his rugged battle-weary face, marked by an unmistakably crooked nose and an intense stare straight into the camera.  

The ever-desperate calls of Volyna and his comrades were heard by Ukraine and by the world. The name of the Soviet-era industrial powerhouse even reached the stage of the Eurovision Grand Final, where Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra cried “Help Mariupol, help Azovstal right now!” after their victorious performance in Turin. No amount of awareness, however, could change the fact that whether they lived or died rested only on the decision of one party: Russia.

Into the inferno

As those who have never seen it are often reminded by those who have, war is hell. From the wholesale destruction of Kharkiv and the depraved massacres in Bucha to the grinding, WWI-esque new frontlines in the Donbas, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a portal into the hell of war.

The word “hellish” takes on an entirely new meaning when describing Azovstal. Even in peacetime, the steelworks are caked in oxidised material, a great rusty mark the size of central Kyiv on the map of Mariupol. As the defenders of the city retreated to within the factory bounds along with hundreds of civilians, the intensity of the Russian attacks began to turn the area into a dark, reddish-brown hellscape straight out of the cataclysms of Hieronymus Bosch.

Above the surface, huge dumb munitions dropped by Russian bombers—of the same kind that killed hundreds of sheltering civilians when one flattened Mariupol’s Drama theatre—pounded the territory of the steelworks. Blast furnaces and machine halls that worked for decades as a jewel in the crown of Ukrainian heavy industry were reduced to apocalyptic landscapes of twisted iron. Periodically, drone footage revealed bombardments of a more sinister kind: white-hot thermite munitions rained down upon Azovstal from Russian rocket systems, spraying vast areas with iridescent death for anyone who dared reside on the surface.

Life in the underworld of Azovstal was no less awful. Inside the sprawling network of over 25 kilometres of tunnels and shelters under the factory, where the defenders spent most of their time, conditions soon became dire beyond imagination. As food supplies slowly became exhausted, a soldier’s text message to a loved one went viral.

“How’s it going? Shit 🙂 Bit by bit we are dying- well, for now only in battle, but soon from hunger :)”

Far worse than starvation was the suffering of those wounded in the fighting. Pixelated videos that reached the outside world bore witness to the frightful shortage of medical supplies inside Azovstal. In the damp and the dust of the shelters, the word unsanitary does not do justice to the conditions in which medics operated on the wounded. Dozens of wounded soldiers lay for weeks in pain as their wounds began to fester, with no antibiotics remaining to stave off infection.

Faces of steel

Horrific imagery aside, the role played by the Azovstal steelworks in the defence of Mariupol, and in turn, of Ukraine, was crucial. For six weeks after Russian forces completed their “strategic withdrawal” from the disastrous campaign in Ukraine’s north, the ongoing resistance in Mariupol continued to tie down the units required for the stated next phase.

As the rest of Ukraine was given a mild reprieve and Russia regathered its strength, the fate of the defenders of Azovstal came to capture the attention of the world. In a surreal sign of the times, despite Russian attempts to jam the signal, a reliable internet connection with the besieged steelworks was enabled by Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites.

Connected to the world, Azovstal was a fortress with a face: several faces, in fact. Ukrainians in their hundreds of thousands flocked to the personal Instagram pages of those known to be fighting there; liking, commenting, and sharing every snippet of news, every brief moment that was shared.

Volyna, alongside Denys Prokopenko and Svyatoslav Palamar, the leaders of the nationalist Azov Regiment, would give regular addresses and even media interviews to the world- retelling with soldier-like formality and a laconic awareness of their hopeless position. In the words of Prokopenko: 

“We walked consciously into this cauldron. We knew that according to the plan it would be necessary to defend the city from all sides, and that’s what happened.”

It was, however, the faces of the rank and file, sincere in their desperation, that would prove the most heart-wrenching. The world learnt the name of Asan, a combat medic of Crimean Tatar origin, as he reached out to Turkish president Erdogan to plead for an extraction by sea that was never going to come. Older Instagram posts showed Asan in a previous life, before the war, smiley and clean-shaven. The thin, haggard face on his plea to Erdogan now spoke with a voice that was losing its last drops of hope.

“We don’t have time. I don’t know if I have a tomorrow”.

Late in the evenings, followers of Asan could watch in real-time as he posted typed-up prayers from the Holy Quran. As the Cyrillic letters poured forth with rolling Arabic verse, viewers could only guess at the conditions in which they were written.

Others in Azovstal choose different paths of self-expression. Kateryna, a 21-year-old music student from Ternopil serving during the siege as a paramedic with the call sign Ptashka (“Birdie”), would sing songs of patriotic duty. Lit only by a dim electric torch as she sat with her rifle among the wounded, Ptashka’s words echoed around the dark cellars of the steel cauldron they inhabited.

Let the thunder rattle, let the rain fall,

Let the avalanches roll,

We are going into battle for our people,

For the freedom of Ukraine.

As much as one might try though, words could never convey the agony of Azovstal. Of all the viral multimedia that came out of the siege, nothing was more powerful than the photography and video work of Azov Regiment fighter and press office head Dmytro Kozatskyi, known to the world by his call sign Orest.

From deep inside the dark labyrinth of bunkers under the steelworks, Orest’s photographs shined a light not only on the conditions suffered by the wounded but of the fortitude with which they endured the hell of Azovstal. Smiling out of the darkness on a post-dated 10 May, the face of a fighter from Ternopil known only as Mykhailo spread quickly around Ukrainian social media. Little could capture the pride and pain of Azovstal better than the image of smiling Mykhailo: right arm badly wounded, pinned by a brutal, cyberpunk external fixator; left hand, grimy and tired, producing the V-for-victory sign.

The preservation of life 

By then, nobody had any illusions of victory, but some of the fighters still hoped for an ending to the story that didn’t involve capture by Russian forces. A viral petition was signed by almost two million people, appeals were made to Erdogan, Pope Francis, and Elon Musk for a way out, but nothing could change reality: between Azovstal and the closest Ukrainian positions were over a hundred kilometres of wide fields under Russian control, never mind the sea.

The worldwide admiration enjoyed by the defenders of Azovstal did not give them an exemption from the rules of war. They were combatants, and their choice was a grim one: fight on or surrender. Given the abominable conditions, the fact that they stuck with the former for so long was enough to make the battle objectively one of the greatest last stands in history.

On 16 May, the order finally came in from the Ukrainian command in Kyiv. Those remaining in Azovstal had completed their old mission and were given a new one: to preserve their own lives. Kyiv spoke of evacuation and of prisoner swaps, but beyond the hopeful wording, this could never be more than a simple negotiated surrender. 

A final goodbye

The battle of Azovstal had entered its final twilight. Though Russian forces did bomb the steelworks one more time on the 18th, the site was mostly quiet as day by day, hundreds of Ukrainian troops laid down their arms and emerged from the steel jungle. They were met patiently by Russian buses, on board which the last photographs were taken of them since.

On 20 May Orest posted a link to a short film he made to YouTube. Four minutes of slow panning shots from inside Azovstal. Overcast light streaming into a great machine hall through thousands of openings in its shredded walls and roof. Over the haunting, bass-heavy ambient music; the steady fall of rain echoing around the cavernous space. In the foreground, a lone, unnamed soldier perches squats inside a booth, taking long, slow puffs of a cigarette. Both director and starring actor were enjoying their last taste of freedom. As the video went public, Orest posted his last tweet

“Well, that’s all. Thank you, from the shelter of Azovstal – the place of my death and my life.”

Over these days, Orest, along with Asan, Volyna, Ptashka, Mykhailo, and each and every one of those faces of Azovstal who made it to the end of the siege, became a prisoner of war. In the end, all the attention in the world wasn’t going to be able to evacuate them magically from under Russia’s nose. Nonetheless, the fact that the defenders were able to surrender safely at all could well be largely thanks to all the noise made around Azovstal in its final moments of resistance. 

Weeks of darkness

The war in Ukraine may continue to regularly hit the world’s front pages, but with time the news cycle will always inevitably march on to the next big story. Though mass media have moved on, the Azovstal story is not over. The Ukrainian presidential office puts the number of Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) from the steelworks at approximately 2,500. Claims from Kyiv that prisoner swaps were agreed upon quickly dissipated, and for over a month now, loved ones of the defenders of Azovstal have been largely kept in the dark.

For now, it is understood that the POWs are being kept in a prison colony in occupied Olenivka in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), notorious for its own cramped and unsanitary conditions. According to political and legal expert Yevhen Krapyvin, “No one knows what will happen next. Either there will be interrogations, and then — the exchange process, or there will be interrogations, convictions and serving sentences, or there will be a show trial in the so-called “DPR”.

Other factors make the prospects of survival, let alone release, even more grim for the defenders of Azovstal. Firstly, the nationalist Azov battalion, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is the primary bogeyman of Russia’s “denazification” propaganda narrative, in which the people of Ukraine are being held hostage by a US-backed Nazi regime. Speaking to Hromadske radio, Kravypin added: Russians don’t take into account international law, the status of prisoners of war, and believe by default that our servicemen are neo-Nazis, that they committed crimes against the civilian population.” 

To make matters worse, the POWs from Azovstal are nominally being held by DPR authorities, rulers of a gangster state within which no attempt is made to meet norms of international law. Unlike in Russia, the death penalty is in force in the DPR, a fact morbidly paraded around the world by the recent sentencing to death of foreign volunteer fighters Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner and Brahim Saaudun, who surrendered earlier on in the battle for Mariupol. A month after their show trial and sentencing, Aslin confirmed by phone to his mother in Britain that the execution will take place.

Whether or not capital punishment really will be carried out on the three foreigners, its use by what is essentially a terrorist group as a bargaining chip is a tactic that could easily see itself repeated with those from Azovstal. The Ukrainian people were united in calling for their rescue, but it’s unclear what wartime concessions they might stomach in exchange for their release. 

Azov- steel

For anyone invested in the Ukrainian cause, it’s hard to speak of the battle of Azovstal without prescribing a romantic, almost sublime quality to it. It’s no coincidence that in their depictions of the battle, Ukrainian artists have often turned to heavy religious imagery, of a struggle of light and dark, of the guardians of life in a heroic last stand against a horde of inhuman demons.

Anyone who’s made it this far will see that this article has hardly tried to buck this trend. The time for a more critical discussion on the battle and those participating will come sometime. As long as Russia’s violent onslaught on Ukraine and its people continues at full tilt, however, that time is not now.

Together with every other hellish event of the war, Azovstal galvanised Ukraine at a time when a new, less frantic but no less brutal phase of the conflict was opening on the Donbas front. The faces of the defenders of steel have become the shining example of grit and resilience, of which Ukraine will need plenty more in the months to come. 

On 29 June, in what was the largest prisoner swap in the war so far, 144 soldiers were returned to Ukraine from Russian custody, including 95 defenders of Azovstal. The swap was a promising early sign, but amid the recent uptick in attacks against civilians and more Western weaponry promised, hardening positions may make further swaps unlikely.

Unlike those killed in the Euromaidan revolution, now known in Ukraine as the Heavenly Hundred, those who fought at Azovstal are still with us. Just as they held down the plant for the sake of Ukraine, they must now be fought for. On this, the words of Yulia Fedosyuk, wife of Azov fighter Arseniy and deputy head of the Association of Azovstal Defenders’ Families, were blunt and resolute.

“To the degree we’re able, we’re going to fight for them everywhere and always.”

Francis Farrell is a Budapest-based graduate student at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at UCL, with an interest in post-Soviet conflicts as well as elections, media freedom, and opposition politics in authoritarian regimes. He has lived previously in Albania and Ukraine, working for international organisation field missions. He is passionate about engaging with the human stories of the region through language-learning and photography.
 

This article is part of a collaboration between Lossi 36 and New Eastern Europe. Lossi 36 is an online media project publishing news, analysis, and photography from Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Since 2018, we are committed to providing high-quality content while shining a spotlight on the work of students and up-and-coming professionals. Read the original post in its entirety here.

 

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