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“They love pets, books, and sports.” Wives of Azovstal defenders tell about their husbands and efforts to save them

Kateryna Prokopenko, right, with from left: Anna Naumenko, Yulia Fedosiuk and Olha Andrianova.
“They love pets, books, and sports.” Wives of Azovstal defenders tell about their husbands and efforts to save them
Article by: Orysia Hrudka
Edited by: Michael Garrood
The Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol put up fierce 82-day resistance to overwhelming Russian forces, tying up about 20,000 Russian troops in the besieged city before being hopelessly encircled in the last remaining fortress of Azovstal. As the humanitarian operation to rescue them continues, their wives spoke about the efforts to rescue everyone Azovstal, the critical situation in which the besieged defenders found themselves after weeks of encirclement, as well as the stories of their husbands who went to the war eight years ago. Courageous on the battlefield, their husbands share a love of animals, reading, and sports.

On 16 May, 53 seriously injured Ukrainian soldiers were evacuated to a medical facility in the temporarily occupied Novoazovsk, and 211 people were taken to Olenivka in Donetsk Oblast, which is located 10 km from the Ukraine-controlled territory, where they will await a prisoner swap. The operation involves third parties, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, and a UN negotiating team. Their role is now crucial to ensure the Russian side will fulfill the agreements.

Evacuation of Ukrainian soldiers is underway from Azovstal in occupied Mariupol

At a press conference on 15 May, the wives of Azovstal defenders insisted on the need to evacuate the whole Mariupol garrison. Anna Naumenko, the wife of Azovstal defender Dmytro Danilov, said that there are around 700 wounded soldiers at Azovstal but the situation is changing every day because some of them die and there are constantly new wounded. Only seriously wounded are included in this number because a fragment of shell in the arm is not even considered to be an injury taking into account the horrible situation with the wounded in Azovstal, Yuliya Fedosiuk, the wife of Arseniy Fedosiuk, says.

“Because it’s absurd: today we take out only all the wounded and tomorrow we have two hundred more wounded because the shelling is constant and relentless,” Yulia Fedosiuk said.

It was impossible to unblock Mariupol militarily, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense said. After 82 days of the fight in the besieged city, the situation at the Azovstal plant became critical. Antibiotics were very scarce and people with amputations were not given antibiotics or painkillers. “People with severe injuries are just trying to get through that, they are trying to be patient,” Anna Naumenko said.

“Limbs even without serious injuries are being amputated, without painkillers – just cut off raw. They don’t have any medicine. They have only a glass of water for everyone, and they can take a sip only once for 5-6 hours,” Olha Andrianova, whose husband was injured in Mariupol, said.

“We need to save our heroes, not give them posthumous awards”

“Is this a war right now, where equal forces fight with each other? Now it is just bombing. Now it is just 11 kilometers [the square of the territory of the plant] of the surrounding area with a lot of wounded, a lot of pain, tears, suffering,” Anna Naumenko said.

The wives say that Azov Regiment defenders were preparing for this full-scale war for eight years, improving their equipment and combat skills, training even on water. And they were ready.

“Mariupol is like Aleppo. Atrocities like this haven’t happened in Europe since 1945,” Yulia Fedosiuk said.

In a statement on 16 May, Ukraine’s General Staff said that the Azovstal defenders had fully implemented their combat mission: by holding defense for 82 days, they distracted Russian forces from other directions and thwarted Russian plans, preventing the transfer of up to 17 Russian battalion tactical groups (about 20,000 personnel) to other areas of Ukraine. This prevented the Russians from rapidly occupying Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts and allowed Ukraine to build up its defense.

“The defenders of Mariupol are the heroes of our time. They are forever inscribed in history. They include the separate special unit “Azov,” the 12th Brigade of the National Guard of Ukraine, the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, border guards, police, volunteers, the Territorial Defense of Mariupol,” the General Staff wrote.

It said that the Mariupol garrison had fully implemented its combat mission and has been ordered by the higher military command to save the lives of personnel.

“The most important thing is to save the lives of the heroes of Ukraine, not to give them posthumous awards,” Kateryna Prokopenko, the wife of Azov regiment commander Denys Prokopenko, said.

Wives of four Azovstal defenders tell their stories

They like animals, sports, and reading – those are the traits shared in four stories about Azov Regiment troops, as recounted by their wives. All of them went to war after finishing university when Russia invaded Ukraine’s east and Crimea in 2014

Anna Naumenko, wife of Azov warrior Dmytro Danilov. Source: Porta a Porta TV

Anna Naumenko:

“My husband’s name is Dmytro. Since the summer of 2014, he has been an Azov volunteer. He is very kind and very fond of animals. In our car, we always have some pet food and we often go to animal shelters. He especially loves cows.

Since we are always at a distance – I live in Kharkiv and he was based in Mariupol – he often sent me photos of dogs and cows from the [military] base.

His best friend died in Mariupol on March 25.

He likes sports and often goes to marathons. All his free time he went to places by bicycle. We love mountains a lot and we usually choose to spend our vacation there, hiking and living in tents.

He loves to read. His every rotation begins and ends with our trip to Knyharnia Ye [the largest Ukrainian bookstore chain]. There is no more space for his books in the apartment.

This summer he is going to take part in the Berlin Marathon, for which he got a starting place.”

Azovstal wives husband
Yuliya Fedosiuk and Arseniy Fedosiuk. Photo of Yuliya Fedosiuk

Yulia Fedosiuk:

“My husband Arseniy was an active participant in the Euromaidan. There he was wounded by the (pro-Yanukovych) Berkut. Then, in 2014 he had just graduated from the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy [one of the leading Ukrainian universities]. And immediately after the Revolution of Dignity, he joined Azov.

Arseniy said that they had only three days of military training. They fired about ten bullets and went to the east of Ukraine. He took part in the battles for Ilovaisk; he liberated Mariupol in 2014. In fact, he has been on the frontline for 8 years in a row. Our relationship was mostly remote. We met only during vacations or weekends when he could come to me in Kyiv or I could visit the military base in Mariupol where he was.

Kateryna and Denys Prokopenko. Source: 24 Kanal

Arseniy loves sports as well. I think this applies to all people from Azov because it is impossible to be an Azov soldier if you do not have serious physical training. There are special physical tests to join the regiment.

He loves to read too, Arseniy loves history and philosophy. It brought us together. We talked and fell in love with each other.”

Kateryna Prokopenko:

“My husband Denys Prokopenko worked in various fields where English was needed because he graduated from the Institute of Foreign Languages.

He was involved in various sports – football, boxing, and skiing which he loves the most. In general, we began to discover hiking, mountaineering, rafting, and climbing. At the beginning of every rotation, we tried out all kinds of extreme outdoor sports together.

Azovstal Prokopenko
Azov regiment commander Denys Prokopenko at Azovstal. Source: Azov telegram page

He is very kind. When I see animals, I go crazy, and he supports me in it. We constantly feed animals whenever we see them. He reads a lot of books.

He went to war in 2014 and achieved everything himself. [Denys Prokopenko became a commander of Azov regiment]. This is not surprising because his great-grandfather took part in the Winter War on the side of Finland. He fought against the Soviet Union. It is very symbolic in fact.

I’m already waiting for him to come back and we’ll go skiing and hiking again. This year we planned to take part in swimming competitions on the open water on the Dnipro River. But the war started, and our plans were disrupted.”

Olha Andrianova:

Olha Andrianova, the wive of Serhiy Petrenko. Source: Porta a Porta TV

“It is so strange that many people are afraid of Azov… The propaganda about them was so strong. But each of them really loves animals and goes in for sports. Even before, they were sending us photos of the animals they saw and fed. When you know them well, it’s not surprising at all. The propaganda that they are so cruel is very strange.

My husband Serhiy is injured now. I am sure that the strength of his spirit helps him to hold on. As well as my love.

Like everyone else, he went to the war after his student years. The situations indeed are very similar.

But I would also like to talk about my best friend who died on March 25, Maksym Kahal. He is a world champion in kickboxing, and he has been a member of the National Guard since 2015. He took part in all competitions and everywhere he won first place.

Azov Azovstal
Maksym Kagal. Sourse: With Ukraine 24/7

We even joked that if he goes to the competition, everyone else has no chance. When I asked him about it, he said: ‘you know, I don’t win because I’m just like that but because I do my best.’ And he always made every effort in everything – in command, in military affairs.

He had the highest award and was a very worthy warrior. We even joked that no bullet could take him because he was fast. When we were driving a car slowly we said that he would run faster.

He never got tired at all. Unfortunately, he did not have enough strength to resist air bombs. But I believe that he is still defending our Ukraine.

He has been at Azovstal since March 25 in a refrigerator that is no longer working. Like so many other soldiers who died there. It is very important for us when extraction will take place, which we are very much counting on, to take away not only the wounded and not wounded soldiers, but also the dead.

For Ukrainians and for us in particular it is an honor to bury every hero of Ukraine and bury them with dignity. Moreover, in 2015 he told us to plant an oak on his grave. We have to do it.”

What diplomatic solutions were considered

A diplomatic solution is the most sought-after in the current situation because there is not enough time for the military unblocking of Mariupol. Surrendering to Russian captivity will inevitably lead to torture and death, the wives said. That is why the role of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and a UN negotiating team, are engaged. The role of these third parties is now crucial, taking into account the cruel attitude of Russian soldiers to the Azov regiment.

Since 2014, only one warrior from Azov has returned from Russian captivity. He had broken teeth, damaged internal organs, and generally was in a terrible physical state, Yuliya Fedosiuk says. All the other Ukrainian POWs from Azov were tortured and killed:

“The attitude of the Russians towards the Azov fighters is much worse than towards other units, both due to propaganda and the fact that Azov is very professional.”

Recently, Dan Zvonyk from the Azov Regiment, who was defending Mariupol, was taken prisoner. The Russians shot a propaganda video with him demonstrating the alleged good attitude towards POWs.

“And then, as usual, Russian soldiers tortured and killed him and sent a photo to his mother,” Kateryna Prokopenko, the wife of Azov regiment commander Denys Prokopenko says.

Dan Zvonyk was 26 years old. He joined the Azov regiment 8 years ago as a volunteer.

“We know they don’t deserve to die under torture,” Kateryna Prokopenko says.

Military unblocking of Mariupol is also possible, Yuliya Fedosiuk says, but there is no time for it because it requires the liberation of other cities. On 15 May, the relatives of Mariupol defenders insisted on their evacuation from Azovstal to a third country. For this purpose, they were appealing to countries like China and Türkiye that can put pressure on Putin and Russia and be mediators in the process.

“An option has been worked out where the Azovs will lay down their arms in a third country and leave it. We ask the countries to form a coalition that will insist on it, and we ask everyone who can offer themselves as a third country to do so. The more discussion there is, the faster it will happen,” Yuliya Fedosiuk says.

On 15 May, the wives said that serious attempts are made at the state level, but the main risk is the blocking of them by Russia.

“Our defenders are very courageous. And we on our information front must also do everything possible and impossible to save them,” Olha Andrianova said.

The evacuation of the Mariupol garrison started on 16 May. However, on 15 May Yuliya Fedosiuk, the wife of Azov soldier Arseniy Fedosiuk, said that Ukrainian defenders at Azovstal do not believe much in a diplomatic solution. “Now they are quite pessimistic and are preparing for the last battle. Soldiers die every day, and the wounded suffer. It is very hard to find yourself in a situation where your friends die,” she said.

Nevertheless, the extraction of Azovstal defenders can be achieved, she says, with a little more effort and pressure from third countries on Russia, as well as more public and media coverage.

Information frontline is crucial to ensure Russia fulfills agreements

Just two days before the start of the evacuation operation, during the Eurovision song contest on 14 May, Kalush Orchestra called on the world to save Azovstal defenders. “After Kalush’s appeal, many more people have found out about Azovstal,” Olha Andrianova says.

“But the fact that Oleh [Kalush’s soloist] said these words is not a victory. However, when I heard it, I smiled perhaps for the first time since February 24,” Anna Naumenko says.

The girls thanked all the stars, universities, and writers who recorded their appeals regarding Azovstal defenders. They urged that all sorts of appeals need to be recorded every day. Azovstal defenders’ wives are confident that all these little steps will bear fruit.

Recently, the women have been in Europe, telling various organizations and journalists about what they learn from their husbands at Azovstal. For example, last week Kateryna Prokopenko and Yuliya Fedosiuk met with Pope Francis.

Світлина від Vatican News.
Yuliya Fedosiuk and Kateryna Prokopenko met with the Pope to tell him about the situation at Azovstal plant and their husbands. Source: Vatican News

During the meeting, they asked the Pope if he would consider coming to Mariupol or Zaporizhzhia to evacuate the military. He said: ‘in general, I talked to the cardinal and this is not a problem’,” Kateryna Prokopenko says.

“It was obvious that he [the Pope] was emotionally and informationally immersed in it. The problem here is that it should be not only the Pope, but all those who have at least some influence on Putin: either Putin will allow for it, or he will have no relationship with the whole civilized world,” Yuliya Fedosiuk says.

Being together in this helps, said the women. “We cannot be understood by someone who does not have a loved one in Mariupol,” Yuliya Fedosiuk stressed. Kateryna Prokopenko says that she would sacrifice what she has to be with her husband right now:

“You look at your life, where everything is comfortable. There is food, water, medicine, a comfortable bed. This is terrible.

In fact, I have been morally in Azovstal for a long time. And I would exchange all this comfort to be under bombardment, without food, without water, but next to my husband. I understand that I am important here because we are engaged in information warfare every day and it produces results.

The first days when we were in Europe, the questions were the same every day as the Nazis. These myths are very easily dispelled. For the second week, we are here, and few people are asking these questions, because it is cynical, it is ridiculous, and everyone understands who a real fascist is, a Nazi, a real enemy of the world, and a terrorist. We are doing our utmost to free everyone in Azovstal. I hope that in the near future we will all be in Ukraine.”

It is very damp in the bunkers, there is a problem with sepsis, the girls said. Bombing and shelling are constant, even phosphorus bombs are thrown on Azovstal.

“They literally do not see the sun. They breathe the fungus that is now in the bunker. And when they go out, they look for water and food,” Yuliya Fedosiuk says.

azovstal wives
Screenshot from the press conference on 15 May

The girls said that once in a day or two, their husbands manage to contact them, although the situation was different for Azovstal defenders located in different parts of the plant.

“My husband is far away from the internet connection so he has to risk his life under bombing to write me and his mother,” Yuliya Fedosiuk said.

Olha Andrianova said that her husband is wounded, and she can communicate with him only once in two weeks. “He always writes to me ’We hold on’,” said Kateryna Prokopenko.

To save the lives of their husbands, the girls continue their information campaign.

“A person who lost an arm or a leg for his country is still hoping that his country can save him. He hopes that he will be saved. In our opinion, the chances are very high if everybody is really involved in the process.


We believe in our government, we trust it. We ask everyone to concentrate all your efforts, to direct all diplomatic and political pressure there,” Yulia Fedosiuk says.

Full English-language version of the press conference

Edited by: Michael Garrood
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