Editor’s NoteThis is an essay by Ukrainian writer, journalist Yevhen Polozhiy, dedicated to fallen Defender Mykola Kozlov, who served in the Donbas Battalion.
Mykola Kozlov, call sign “Matviy”, joined the army as a volunteer, serving in the Donbas battalion. Covering the retreat of his comrades, Mykola was killed in an ambush near the village of Karlivka, Donetsk Oblast on May 23, 2014. Four other Ukrainian servicemen were killed.
It is part of the Plus 1 project created to memorialize the fallen Defenders of Ukraine.
Mykola Kozlov: Matviy, Grandson of Matviy
Author: Yevhen Polozhiy
In the context of his biography, Mykola Kozlov should have been one of the very first people to raise the Russian flag at city hall in his village in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in the spring of 2014.
His bio details at a glance: he was born in the Russian Federation; he served in the Soviet Army and then entered the Moscow Higher Military Command School; upon graduation, he served in border guard services, completing his military career as commander of an outpost in Georgia. In 1991, due to illness, he returned to civilian life with the rank of major. He moved to his wife’s native Ukraine, although he didn’t accept the idea of an independent Ukraine. In his opinion, western Ukraine belonged to Poland, while eastern Ukraine belonged to Russia.
Without doubt, the instigators of the “Russian spring” were definitely counting on the support of persons like Mykola Kozlov: people who continued to live as though the USSR still existed; former military personnel, ethnic Russian speakers, and in Kozlov’s case, persons with advanced KGB training. Indeed, Mykola Kozlov did take up arms, but for the exact opposite side. He joined the Donbas Battalion as a volunteer fighter to defend Ukraine, the country which he had long refused to recognize.
How did such a transformation occur? What events prompted 59-year old Kozlov, who up until the fall of 2013 watched only Russian-language television, to dramatically change his personal beliefs? In another scenario, Mykola Kozlov could just as easily have ignored the separatist storm rising in the East and lived with a clear conscience as a pensioner, quietly watching his television shows, tending to his beloved backyard orchard, fishing and hunting regularly. He was in good health and could have lived that way happily and for a long time.
But that is not what happened. His life never would have turned out that way, because the dry details of his biography offer only a cursory glimpse of the true essence of this man. At his core, Mykola Kozlov possessed a profound desire for justice, a longing that continually influenced his fate and impeded his military career.
“Back in 1986, he was deployed to Almaty, Kazakhstan. At that time, there was turmoil,” recalls his wife Valentyna. “He said, you’d never believe the sight of soldiers with ordinary sapper shovels, chopping at civilians, cutting off their heads!”
How the protests were quelled left the young officer angered and disillusioned… Then in 1990, when the Georgian movement for independence began, there were clashes in Tbilisi in which a pregnant woman was beaten up and many people died. Mykola went to the Communist party office to renounce his membership. He was never forgiven for that gesture, and there began a pressure campaign against him, to retire him quietly from the army, under the guise of health concerns.
He was 37 years old when he was discharged from the army. He immediately left with his family and settled in Ukraine, although practically speaking, he continued to live in a Russian milieu. “Right until December 2013, we exclusively watched Russian television programming,” confirms Valentyna. “However, when they began to beat up the students on the Maidan in November 2013, my husband became very angry. “How can they beat up children? So violent and brutal! Let’s have a look at what is being presented about the protests on Ukrainian television!”
“And so we began to watch,” Valentyna recalls. “In this village where we live, the residents are overwhelmingly Russian speaking, and generally watch Russian television news, where they constantly heard such things as “The Maidan is full of drug addicts and drunks!”
By now, Mykola Kozlov didn’t believe anyone – neither neighbours nor the television news. He knew he had to witness what was happening with his own eyes, and so in February 2014, he travelled to Kyiv, to the Maidan.
Mykola Kozlov arrived on the Maidan on February 18th.
“That trip to Kyiv left a big impression on my father,” his daughter Olena remembers. “No sooner did he arrive at the Maidan that morning than he was welcomed by a girl who brought him sandwiches for breakfast. He told her that he didn’t need anything to eat, as he hadn’t worked for it, but she replied that it was their way of thanking him for just being there. My dad had arrived exactly at the time of the shootings of the Heavenly Hundred. As an officer and as a man, there was no way he could remain a bystander. That’s when he began to help evacuate the casualties. He told us about evacuating a young man, badly wounded to the chest, who continuously sang the national anthem of Ukraine. ‘Here’s this kid. They’d fired two bullets into him, and he was singing the national anthem of Ukraine… How? Why? He had such a powerful spirit!’- my father was deeply moved by him.”
Valentyna explains “Mykola returned from Kyiv a completely different person with a completely different perspective. Whenever he heard Plyve Kacha po Tysyni (ancient Lemko folk song that became the official requiem for the Heavenly Hundred and for those who died during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014-Ed), he would start to cry. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! He had always been so stoic, and before that, I had never seen him cry…”
“Father was adamant that this meant war,” states Olena in a daze. “February 18th, my mother phoned me and explained that a war had begun, relaying to me what dad had told her over the phone. He clearly understood how it would all evolve…”
Yes, it was war. In March 2014, the younger son in the Kozlov family, thirty-year-old Pavlo, was mobilized. He served in the 25th Separate Mechanized Brigade, one that was fated to experience many difficult trials at the beginning of the war. In May, Pavlo would receive his first military medal.
After witnessing the deadly events on Maidan and the rapid mobilization of his son, Mykola Kozlov could no longer sit idly at home. His natural instinct for justice, along with his manly character spurred him to find his place in this war. At the recruiting office, he was rejected on account of his age; the same thing happened at the Security Service of Ukraine, where he likewise had registered his name. He usually didn’t bother his wife with such matters, but after two rejections, he asked her to find the website and contact information of the volunteer Donbas Battalion. Following a short telephone conversation, Mykola Kozlov arrived at the battalion base in Novi Petrivtsi.
He took the call sign “Matviy”, in honour of his grandfather who had died in the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War and whose heroism he greatly admired.
“Honestly, my dad never reconciled himself to what had happened in Georgia at the beginning of the 90s, and he asked for a discharge from the army, under the pretext of health issues,” recalls his daughter Olena. “Upon returning to civilian life, he was offered several opportunities from former colleagues: he could have moved to Moscow where he would have received a comfortable apartment; he received business propositions, as well as offers of various appointments. Once, when I asked him why none of that had materialized, he replied, ‘I want to look my grandchildren in the eyes with a clear conscience’. And so it happened that this feeling of justice and order brought him over to this side, to our side… In March of 2014, my dad had a dream: our home was in ruins, and on those ruins there was a raven. ‘What does this mean?’ he asked. How will all this end?”
Valentyna Kozlova belongs to a talented community choir in the village of Vyschetarasivka. On May 22, the entire choir travelled to perform for an audience of soldiers at Zaporizhzhia. That evening, her husband phoned at a mutually-agreed upon time. However, the next morning, he unexpectedly phoned again.
“I was so surprised,” Valentyna says, recalling that terrible day. “He wasn’t supposed to phone at that time. We only call each other in the evenings. He’s telling me something, but at first I don’t understand. Is he saying goodbye, or is he saying forgive me? Then, we were disconnected. I called back, but he didn’t answer. So instead I phoned my daughter. She says, ‘Mom, turn on the TV … They are reporting on a battle, and the Donbas Battalion is fighting against Chechen soldiers!’ That was the extent of our news. That evening, I was watering our flowerbeds when Olena phones: ‘Mom, go back into the house and sit down.’ I did as she instructed, then she continued, “Mom, I’ve had a phone call informing me that dad’s been killed…”
The Kozlovs have a large home in Vyschetarasivka. It is cool indoors even in the August heat. We’re speaking with Valentyna about events that occurred more than two years ago, and yet, here and now, she is struggling hard to keep her emotions in check. Memories can be unpredictable, and one never really knows the emotional impact they might have on you. But, Valentyna is a military spouse, herself a former military service employee. She remains stoic.
“The women from our choir immediately came over to support me,” she recalls. “Later that evening someone suggested, ‘Why don’t we call Mykola’s phone number?’ So we did, and a stranger answers. My friend Olia says we should grill him with our questions, but the man must have discarded the phone and wasn’t replying. It’s horrible to think that someone would stoop so low as to steal a dead man’s phone! … Those choir ladies were a big help to me, remaining close by nearly all the time…”
Valentyna is a consummate hostess, and for dessert, she offers us grapes and peaches, fruit from their own orchard, the very one her husband tended. In the room, behind the table, a large flag of the Donbas Battalion hangs on the wall. Next to it, is a memorial corner dedicated to her deceased husband: photos, the chevron of the battalion, his border guard cap, tiny Ukrainian flags, a bouquet of flowers, and a glass vigil light. Valentyna knows few details of the battle in which her husband died, though it can be said that she actually knows quite a lot. “Matviy’s” group travelled to Karlivka to take up a strategic position at the spillway of a water dam. They were caught in an ambush. A battle ensued and the Donbas fighters couldn’t hold out until reinforcements arrived. From their group of six, only one remained alive, a fighter by the name of “Khimik”. Wounded, he hid under some sheets of corrugated panel, and when the separatists left, he made his way to a checkpoint controlled by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. “Khimik” was the last from the battalion to see Mykola Kozlov alive – gravely wounded, and crawling towards a building. The body of another fighter, call sign “Raider” was never found. The bodies of the dead soldiers were finally recovered on May 27th
“For three days, we received no information. Olena was ready to go there herself,” Valentyna Kozlova says. “But we were advised to seek help from the organization “Samooborona” (“Self-Defence”- Ed). They agreed to assist us. A farewell procession was held in Zaporizhzhia along Soborna Street, and then the casket was immediately brought here. It was a closed casket… Military personnel from Donbas Battalion attended the funeral. He was buried as an officer, with full military honours.”
Their son Pavlo was wounded in January 2015, but didn’t tell his mother.
“It wasn’t until that summer that I found out,” Valentyna says. “I read on a website interview that Pasha had been wounded. Those in my choir knew, everyone knew, but I didn’t. They say they were protecting me. I underwent surgery soon after the funeral… And in general, I try not to stay at home. The village mayor suggested I find work at a local business. We sing our Ukrainian songs in our choir. Mykola loved Ukrainian songs and often travelled with the choir. In our family, everyone sings, except Mykola …”
The Kozlov family has many relatives in Russia, although they are not in contact with them now. “We’ve disconnected,” is Valentyna’s curt reply. There are also family members in the occupied territories.
“I don’t want anything to do with them,” she replies tersely, referring to her husband’s family who live in Donetsk. “I can’t help thinking that Mykola’s blood is on their hands; they were the ones who called for the Russians! I told his sister, ‘You forgot how much he helped you and you insult him, calling him a Banderite! Ironically, towards the end of his life, he liked the idea that he was a Banderite. I would get phone calls from those who had served with him when he was a career soldier, and they’d suggest that I should return to Russia. I’d reply by saying, ‘For now let’s just not have any contact with one another, ok?!’ It was so stressful for me to listen to them…”
When the war began, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast formulated the most detailed mobilization, and now, of all the regions of Ukraine, it accounts for the greatest number of losses, more than 450 fatalities. In Vyschetarasivka, in addition to Mykola Kozlov, three young men also died. The mood of people in the East has changed, and there is now deep sympathy for the Ukrainian side. There are several reasons for this transformation, and sometimes it is for very practical reasons.
“We had two separatist sympathizers in our choir,” Valentyna explains with a laugh. “But now, they’ve settled down and we all get along well. They admit they don’t want to live like people in the occupied territories!”
After the death of their father, life changed dramatically for this family. Pavlo completed his military service, was demobilized, and moved to Zaporizhzhia. The older children, 36-year-old Myshko and 40-year-old Olena, on the other hand, signed up as contract soldiers and currently serve within the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
“I felt differently about Ukraine than my dad did,” says Olena, recalling her childhood. “For me, in particular, the key moment was when I read the classic novel Kaidasheva Simya (by Ivan Nechuy-Levytsky, 1878 – Ed) and discovered the richness and humour of the Ukrainian language. Dad also read Ukrainian language books, but his relationship with Ukraine had always been somewhat different… That’s why I was quite surprised to learn he supported the Maidan. But when Russia illegally occupied Crimea, father called out these perfidious actions for what they were… … Indeed, he fought such corruption and deception his entire life.”
At the end of our conversation together, and packed with peaches for our return trip home, I listen to Valentyna Stefanivna who recalls one more incident. When her husband was killed and his story became public knowledge through the media, she received a phone call from a stranger, a professor from Lviv by the name of Vasyl Humeniuk. He said that in his family he had a son, a daughter, and a grandson. The professor offered his help and support. They started to correspond. Slowly this relationship between the two families from different parts of the country and who spoke different languages blossomed into a friendship based on mutual respect and values. Recently Olena’s daughter Katia visited the professor and his family. She explained that the visit with the Humeniuks went very well, and that she now calls Vasyl Vasyliovych her grandfather.
“Since my own grandfather was killed,” Katia says a little self-consciously, “But I’m certain he wouldn’t be offended!”
Now would be a poignant moment to conclude the life story of Mykola Kozlov, “Matviy”, a genuine and honest man, a fearless soldier. But there is more. As fate has shown, such individuals do not leave this life without making an impact on the world around them. In August 2016, I along with author and veteran Ivan Pohorely, travelled to Vyschetarasivka to speak with Valentyna Stefanivna Pohorely himself has quite an interesting story to tell – while seriously wounded, he saved a young girl’s life, even though it meant that he became a prisoner-of -war. There is a description of these events in the book, Ilovaisk. I met Ivan again three months later, this time in Zaporizhzhia, at a book launch for With Ukraine in My Heart, about participants of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO). In this compilation of 14 stories about these brave men, there is also one story about a brave woman, Yulia Matviyenko. I was so intrigued by her story that I began to read it right there at the presentation. This is what I read:
“And then, Karlivka and the ambush of the Donbas Battalion… One of the dead went by the name “Matviy”. He was a career officer and border guard and was nearly 59 years old…” according to Yulia’s description. “After Matviy’s funeral, conducted very solemnly, with military honours, I returned home and struggled to find my purpose in life…”
This was the beginning of Yulia Matviyenko’s volunteer military activism. (It is no coincidence that our Hero’s call sign and Yulia’s family name share a common root, “Matviy”).
Ten months later, “Belka” signed a contract with the Armed Forces of Ukraine. She trained as a sniper, and with her precise deadly aim, she strikes fear in the enemy.
Now we can truly bring our story to an end. “Matviy” has completed his deed.
As always, with integrity, honesty and self-sacrifice. To the end.
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.
Tags: Defender of Ukraine, Identity, Photo project, Russo-Ukrainian War (2014-present)