– Maksym! How did the morning of February 24, 2022, start for you? What were your first decisions?
– On that day I was in the cardiology department for inpatient treatment. At about 6 am, I realized that a full-scale war had begun. At 7 am, the first information appeared that the enemy was already on the territory of the Kherson region. At 11:00, we were informed that the enemy had raised its “aquafresh” (flag) at the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station dam. In six hours from the moment of the invasion, the enemy had crossed the entire left-bank part of the Kherson region. It was scary because we realized that the enemy was only a few kilometers away from Kherson. Of course, I escaped from the hospital and went to my daughter. I gave general instructions to her and my wife. And then I went to the military enlistment office with a friend. I had served in the military from 2014 to 2017 under a contract, so I decided to return to the unit I served in as soon as possible.
– What did you see in the military enlistment office?
– It was chaos at the military registration and enlistment office. There were a lot of people ready to take up arms and defend the city. But it was obvious that there were no algorithms for action, no instructions on how to act, and so, unfortunately, Kherson lost precious time because of this chaos and lack of organization. Personally, I was told at the military registration and enlistment office to contact my unit on my own. I contacted them and they told me to come. At that time, my unit was in another region, so my friend volunteered to take me to the unit. The transport was no longer running, the fuel in the city was cut off, there were lines at gas station s and shops. By hook or by crook, we found fuel, but we didn’t get to the military unit because the car broke down. And while we were looking for another car, the exits from Kherson were already cut off. So we decided to join the terrorist defense.
– Did you already have a terrorist defense in your city at that time?
– It should be noted that the territorial defense was not fully organized at the time of the full-scale invasion. In fact, it began to be created only in January 2022. Only one incomplete brigade was created in the Kherson region, which included motivated people who were ready to defend Kherson, but they did not have time to undergo training. They were armed with assault rifles, and not all of them, and tanks were against them. Of course, due to a lack of time, experience, weapons, personnel, and coordination, the system did not work as of February 24. And it ended up with the territorial defense telling us that there were no weapons, so go home. We tried to find weapons, contacted Kyiv and the Ministry of Defense to report the situation. But on March 1, the occupation forces had already entered the city. And we had no choice but to start creating a resistance movement.
– You were captured on March 15. What helped you survive?
– My dreams and memories helped me survive in captivity. The main thing in captivity was not to live in the moment. I dreamed of walking with my grandchildren.
– How did you create a resistance movement in Kherson in the absence of communication?
– Our belief that the city would be liberated helped us. We wanted to promote de-occupation from within. Why did I take this step? Everything is simple. Before the great war, I was engaged in creating a resistance movement. This is my military specialty. I had not only the knowledge of how to do it, but also the experience. Ukrainian mobile communication and the Internet in the city disappeared sometime in April. For some time we were saved by the wired internet in the office. We had a signalman, a friend of mine. By default, we understood that each of us could be captured at any time. Therefore, we had our own rules of communication and boundaries of what was acceptable in conversations. Especially after captivity. I can’t tell you how we acted, what we did. I don’t want to endanger people.
– Well, first of all, how could I leave if mobilization was announced? I had to go to defend the country. It was my duty. Secondly, as for my family – my daughter and ex-wife – this is a painful issue. We agreed on the first day that I would go to the military service and they would try to leave the city. But everything did not go according to plan. We had no idea what the occupation was, how it would turn out. After I was released from captivity, my family took me to their home because I was in poor physical condition. Let’s just say they were actually lifting me up. But it was not my physical condition that worried me, it was the threats that the Russian special services made to me in captivity. They told me not to even think about taking my family out of the city. In fact, my family was held hostage. I was desperate, my hands were tied, until they were evacuated.
– How did you manage to do it?
– My friends helped me through international organizations. I had no choice but to trust them. I convinced my wife that we had to save the child. On the appointed day, I put them on the bus and, seeing them off, I thought we might not see each other again. It was very hard. They left in the direction of Zaporizhzhia, through Vasylivka. And when they called me and told me that they were already on the government-controlled territory, I was relieved. Although I must admit that I had mixed feelings – my daughter was very supportive when she was with me. I realized that it would be hard for me without her. After evacuating the city, the family ended up in Germany. One of my daughter’s dreams to study in Germany came true. And I started working more actively, although I saw signs of external surveillance of myself. I realized that there was a game going on and that I had to outplay the enemy. It was like a spy thriller.
– We felt it was about to happen. On November 11, we raised the flag on the city council building. We were still thinking about where to raise the flag. We decided that it was too early to raise it on the regional state administration, because the region had not yet been liberated. We went to the city council and raised the flag at 14.15. And then we drove around the city with our flag and told everyone we met that the city was liberated. Just so you understand, no one knew that the city was liberated because there was no communication. There was even a case when people did not believe us and thought we were provocateurs.
– Didn’t you want to leave right away, because the way was open?
– To leave everything and everyone behind? That would have been the easiest solution. But the occupation of Kherson lasted 256 days. As of November 11, the city had been without electricity, water, and heat for several days. We had to help restore life in the city somehow. On November 12, the first police officers appeared in the city. We handed over the city council building to them. After the liberation of Kherson, it was mined. We guarded it. In addition, we were in such a high emotional state that we could not even sleep. Let’s say the curfew ended at 6 a.m. My friend and I were already meeting at 6:05 a.m., drinking coffee and eager to do something. We could neither sleep nor eat in the first days, we were so overwhelmed by emotions. I left for Mykolaiv on November 18. I wanted to see a free country. I wanted to hear Ukrainian songs, see Ukrainian flags, Ukrainian signs, eat Ukrainian food and drink Ukrainian coffee. We in Kherson were deprived of this opportunity. Everything was forbidden. I will tell you one example: when we agreed to go to raise the flag on November 11, it turned out that everyone came with their own. Each of us had a national flag hidden, which the others did not know about. And when people started gathering on the square on November 11 and 12, everything was covered in Ukrainian flags! This means that most Kherson residents hid their flags during the occupation and kept them until the moment of liberation. During the occupation, we began to love Ukraine more. Faith, hope and love for Ukraine helped us. Even though we were left without Ukrainian internet and communication, we read and watched the news through VPNs, heard the arrivals, saw their consequences, and rejoiced when the Ukrainian Armed Forces delivered precise strikes on enemy concentrations, such as the former court of appeal or a dormitory.
– Before we even had time to recover, we started getting in touch with philanthropists and volunteers. They offered to deliver humanitarian aid to the city. Some found out about us through social networks, from friends. It was different.
– I see this as a result of your previous active social activities and work.
– Yes, it probably played a role. There was trust in us. People knew that we would not steal, sell, misuse, etc. The UN World Food Program helped us the most. Then Ukrainians from Slovenia, Norway, and the west of our country joined to help. We were not even always informed. For example, we would receive a message from Nova Poshta saying that a parcel was coming to you. And I found out after the fact who sent us what. Or on Facebook, they would send me Ukrposhta parcel numbers. And so it was.
– I soberly assessed the needs of the community after the de-occupation. The first thing to do was to feed people, provide them with basic necessities, give them light and heat. Of course, it would be great if most of the citizens left Kherson. I even appealed to people on Facebook to leave. But my appeal was met with criticism and resistance. Mostly women reproached me, so I gave up trying to convince the fatalists. Although in reality, there are not many people left in the city. An interesting observation: the first time I told myself that the city was empty was in April. Then in May I told myself: no, now the city is empty. In June, I said to myself, Now the city is empty for sure. And so it was every month. And only now, in February 2023, I saw what an empty Kherson is. You can walk along the main street of the city from the train station to the embankment and not meet a single person. You can count the shops that are open on one hand, and you can probably find a pharmacy. Trolleybuses don’t run because all the power lines have been cut. Minibuses and buses are running, but the drivers may not return every time they leave for their route, as well as the passengers. The shelling is going on around the clock, chaotic and unpredictable. You can go out to buy bread and not return. There are no safe areas in the city. Even if an air alert is declared, there will be no time to hide because the mines fly very fast. This is not a situation where a Russian plane has launched a missile from the Caspian Sea and you have time to get to a shelter. That’s why the situation in the city prompted me to organize first aid courses. If you are staying, then learn how to save yourself and your neighbor. I turned to the ambulance workers and offered them to make their job easier. I said, “Teach us how to act properly before the ambulance arrives to save a person’s life after being wounded”. The instructors agreed, and I provided them with supplies (gloves, tourniquets, bandages, etc.). Moreover, I emphasized to our cadets that each of them should train two more people after completing the course. Thus, we trained about 60 people.
– Did you personally know any Kherson residents who were waiting for Russia or the Russian world?
– Yes, I knew one such person from Kherson. We lived in the same neighborhood. He was a journalist. His views were pro-Soviet rather than pro-Russian. The occupation authorities gave him a certain “position” in Kherson. And after the city was liberated, he had to leave everything and go to Russia. He can return here only after serving a prison term for treason. But even if he stays in Russia forever, who will he be for his child? It’s impossible to hide the truth, no matter how hard you try.
– You are now in the process of returning to the Armed Forces. Before February 24, we discussed what should be the motivation for men to join the military. Then you said that the motivation was a long-term contract and decent financial support. What is your motivation now?
– That’s a good question. I clearly know that we are now fighting for the fate and future of our children. Yes, it is difficult for us. It will be difficult for us for several more years. But we are consciously fighting for the fate of our children so that they can return to live in Kherson and Ukraine. Personally, I want to create such conditions in Kherson that our children would want to come back here instead of staying in Germany. I even found a positive side to the fact that my children went to Europe. They will see how people live there, how rights and freedoms are respected, and bring this experience back here. Today, unfortunately, we are united by the war, but I want the time to come when we will be united by common values, goals and the future.
– How do you feel about the reduction of financial support for servicemen who are not in the combat zone?
– I believe that financial support should not be cut right now. First of all, every defender has his own family to feed, even though he is on duty. Therefore, for him to stand up for the defense and not worry about what his children are eating, he must receive a decent salary.
– Maksym, after the de-occupation of Kherson, the citizens registered a petition on the website of the President of Ukraine to appoint you as the head of the Kherson Regional Military Administration. You have not been appointed, but I have a question: are you ready to take responsibility and start rebuilding the city and Kherson region?
– I want to rebuild the region’s economy in a professional and scientific manner. Now the No. 1 task in my personal action plan is to liberate Ukraine from the occupiers. But I am already thinking about the fact that after the victory I must have a clear and reasonable action plan to rebuild the city and the region. That is why I decided to immediately start working on my dissertation, in which I will define a plan for the post-war reconstruction of our region. I have already found a supervisor at Kherson National Technical University.
I have already talked to him. In April, the university will hold a scientific and practical conference on this topic, and I plan to participate and actively work on my dissertation.
– How will you combine service and study?
– It will be difficult, but I will try. I have two years to do my research. I don’t want to waste any time.
– Suppose we have already won and you have already finished your search. How will you implement it?
– I hope that after the victory we will return to the election process. I will come to Kherson residents and offer them my plan for the restoration of Kherson region. It will be my clear election program. As Kherson residents decide, so it will be.
– How do you see Ukraine’s victory?
– Personally, I have defined it as follows: when I drink coffee in Yalta, Ukraine has won.
– What day this year since February 24 has been the happiest for you?
– 11.11.2022. The day of the liberation of Kherson.
The interview was conducted by Yulia Pidkurganna