This is an essay by Ukrainian writer and journalist Mariya Starozhytska, dedicated to fallen Defender Vadym Antonov, who served in the 2nd Special Purpose Donbas Battalion of the National Guard of Ukraine.
On the morning of August 10, 2014, he went missing during a battle with an enemy reconnaissance and sabotage group near the village of Tretiaky, Ilovaisk, Donetsk Oblast.
In October 2014, a search team from Evacuation-200 (“Black Tulip Mission”) found decomposed human remains in an unmarked grave near the Ilovaisk cemetery that were taken for analysis to a laboratory in Zaporizhzhia. Vadym Antonov was identified by DNA analysis on February 7, 2015.
It is part of the Plus 1 project created to memorialize the fallen Defenders of Ukraine.
Vadym Antonov. He who soared to the heavens
Author: Maria Starozhytska
During military exercises in Petrivtsi, when he was asked to choose a call sign, Vadym stopped suddenly, bringing the queue of soldiers to a halt. He thought it over quickly, but it was clear to him that his heart and soul belonged to little Sofiya, his angel, his ray of sunshine, his six-year-old daughter whom he called “Kosychka”. Any other name that came to mind did not suit the formidable volunteer fighter of the 1st Assault Company of the 2nd Special Purpose Donbas Battalion.
“So you’re Antonov?!” – asked Mykhailo Savulchyk, call sign “Elf”, a comrade-in-arms who had also been on the Maidan. “Are you related to the famous aircraft designer, by any chance? So, let’s call you “Samoliot” “Litachok” (Airplane). Sign up, and let’s go and get our weapons!”
Everyone loved “Samoliot”. He was the first to offer assistance, fought as if he was a natural born warrior, although he had never served in the army due to his poor health. His closest friend was “Lavr”, Valeriy Lavrenov. They’d met on the Maidan on a dark January night, when the first Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred were killed on Hrushevskyi Street.
They achieved victory there together; they joined the Donbas Battalion together. They thought this turmoil wouldn’t last too long… just long enough to end this grassroots movement to restore the country’s territorial integrity, which they had begun as part of the Mykhailivska Sotnya on the Maidan.
On his thirty-eighth birthday on July 24, “Samoliot” received a gift from his comrades – the right to raise the Ukrainian flag in newly-liberated Lysychansk. He was overjoyed and celebrated the event with his friends. They raised a toast to the end of war, as no one wanted to fight any longer. But it was their fate and destiny to follow their battalion’s battle cry – “Ніхто, крім нас! (No one but us). Then, he spoke at length with his “Kosychka”, asked her what new fairy-tale princess doll she wanted, what kind of letter she’d write next to her father – not just drawings but actual words.
Vadym and his friends joked that it would be good if doctors took sperm from volunteer fighters and froze it, just in case. So that their wives, lovers and women who wanted to birth the best and brightest children could do so even after the birth father’s death. Because no matter what we say or do, this war is destroying the gene pool of the best country in the world, Ukraine. Homeland of smart, free and brave people.
Their unit was deployed to Ilovaisk, to check on activities at the railway depot, where trains from Russia, loaded with guns and ammunition, wagons with heavy weapons regularly passed through. Ilovaisk has long been called the gateway to the Donbas, so this entry point needed to be closed at any cost. As soon as military support for the enemy is cut off, the war will end quickly. Then, he’ll be able to take “Kosychka” to school, to first grade… probably next year, because now the battalion will be posted at schools in different Donbas cities. It’s obvious that the school year won’t begin here on time.
Ten of them left for Ilovaisk – “Lavr”, and “Yar”, and “Chub”, all his closest friends. “Sensei” is in command, shouting loudly, as if there were ten times as many men. “Samoliot” leads the group; he always wants to be in the lead. Wagons, railway tracks. A concrete wall with colourful graffiti. Suddenly – a sniper. A head shot. The helmet couldn’t protect him from the bullet. Then, heavy gunfire, grenades flying from both sides. The commander orders the unit to retreat: “He’s no more. “Samoliot” is gone.”
His comrades-in-arms ventured out three times to retrieve Vadym’s body, but it was gone. They couldn’t believe that he’d been killed; maybe he was wounded and the enemy had captured him… His older sister Olena, who’d always been very close to Vadym, refused to submit a DNA sample, believing in her heart that her brother was still alive. But then, in winter, the Black Tulip Mission search and evacuation team brought home a zinc coffin. At the funeral service, Vadym’s mother searched desperately for her son, wailing incessantly about the headless body with missing arms and legs lying in the casket. In disbelief, impeding the final burial of her son while his comrades – “Lavr”, and “Yar|, and “Chub” and “Elf – prayed on their knees.
Olha, his ex-wife, didn’t bring “Kosychka” to the funeral. She knew Vadym wouldn’t want that. Let the little one remember him as he really was, strong and skillful, the best father in the world.
A year later, when the Donbas Battalion was finally fully armed with tanks, the fighters decided to name the military machines in honour of their dead. But, it wasn’t possible to call the tank “Samoliot”. Someone said it just didn’t sound right and that it would take a long time to explain the whole story to others.
Those who knew Vadym Antonov, a hero with an incredibly beautiful smile, will never forget him. Neither will Sofiyka Antonova, his daughter, a now second-grader.
The project is built around 22 individual exhibition stands. In iconic and powerful moments captured by a photographer’s camera – Youry Bilak, a Frenchman of Ukrainian descent – Ukrainian families tell the stories of their loved ones – Ukrainian soldiers who perished in the war. Each narrative, each individual is but one small grain, one tiny unit of a module in a living organism. By telling his story, we bring him back to life.
Each family chose an object that most reminds them of their departed: a father’s jacket, a guitar, a suit of medieval armour, a book. These family artifacts reflect a living continuation of the departed loved one. Ukrainian artists, intellectuals, and journalists were invited to create original texts about each soldier.