“We must hurry to live!”

The story of 65-year-old Anatoliy Voloshyn from Mariupol, who survived a serious injury, captivity and decided to get married

In 1994, he “came to God”, and in 2022, he joined the army and took up arms. For Anatoliy Voloshyn, it was a difficult choice: can a true and committed believer kill, even if it is about protecting his country?

Later, Anatoliy himself will define it this way: “It was a challenge for me. A tough question to which I had no clear answer. But for myself, I answered as follows: evil must be stopped.”

This evil left a deep painful imprint on Anatoliy’s life. The man was almost killed by a shell that exploded right in front of him. But, besides that, he feels endless pain every time he thinks about his family scattered on different sides of the front line. But the man holds on, lives and even prepares for a wedding.

An ordinary man from an ordinary city, but with an extraordinary destiny.

Anatoliy Voloshyn was born beyond the Urals. He was five when his parents moved to Ukraine. And since then he has lived here, studied, got married in Mariupol, became the father of four children.

He worked hard all his life. His work as a bulldozer operator made him spend 12 hours alone among stones. And this is what Anatoliy considers the hardest part of his job.

“Twelve hours of continuous thinking is hard. The bulldozer works over stones and ditches, you are constantly under tension. But you may not believe it this is creative work. I thought I was working as a landscape designer, moving mountains with the power of a bulldozer and the power of faith,” Anatoliy Voloshyn says with a smile.

 “In the Soviet Union, we lived, as they say, ‘like everyone else.’ Being the same was the rule in the USSR. And in the 90s, we gained freedom and an understanding of its value. It changed a lot. The main thing is that freedom allowed us to choose”, Anatoliy says.

He chose to be free.

For more than twenty years, he worked at Azovstal and the Illich Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol.

“A factory is like slavery. Once you get there, the factory is like a swamp that sucks you in. It’s like you stop belonging to yourself, you lose your will. People work very hard, very much, until exhaustion. And they are paid peanuts. And they no longer need anything in life. It was always surprising to me when I met people who had never traveled outside the Donetsk region or even outside the city. You stay there, stuck in it, and you don’t notice how your life is passing by.

After working 24 years at the plant, I suddenly asked myself: “What am I doing here, for what?” And I quit. I became a “freelancer”, worked in Poland, even in Russia for a while, saw the world. I felt like a free man,” the man says.

On February 24, 2022, he realized that the neighboring country wanted to deprive him of this freedom.

Anatoliy says he couldn’t sleep that night, so he was watching the news when he suddenly saw a video of Russian military convoys crossing the border and invading Ukraine. Soon after, explosions were heard Russia began shelling Mariupol. And then everything was quiet.

“I thought that was it, we were already captured – that’s why everything was quiet. I decided I had to go to the military commissariat immediately,” recalls Anatoliy Voloshyn. In the morning, he was already standing outside the Territorial recruiting center.

There was a queue of men outside the Left Bank military commissariat. Not as many as Anatoliy expected to see. However, people were coming, standing in line, waiting.

A military man came out and asked if there was anyone from the Territorial Defense Forces (TDF). Anatoliy Voloshyn had nothing to do with the TDF, but he thought that he was probably a member of the TDF, since he was not a military man.

“Probably, I’m from the TDF,” he said, and was immediately shown into the building. He and the other men were taken to the headquarters, dressed in military uniforms, and given the text of the oath. After that, he was given a machine gun. That was how his war began.

The formed TDF unit was located in the administrative building of the Azovstal’s blast furnace shop. There was a basement, but not a bunker there. Very quickly, little remained of the above-ground floors. Anatoliy Voloshyn’s unit was moved to a building near Veselka Park.

“A soldier from the Azov regiment came there and announced that the Mariupol garrison needed excavators to dig fortifications,” the man continues recollecting. “I said I was a bulldozer operator, but if I learned a little, I could work as an excavator operator. But he said there was no time to learn and we must work immediately. I agreed and went with him.”

Anatoliy was very happy to have the opportunity to hold the wheel of an excavator instead of a gun, because, on the one hand, he was useful to his country, and on the other hand, there were no contradictions with his religious beliefs if he could help defend Mariupol in that way.

Already on March 1, the military took 3 excavators from the city water services company and Anatoliy Voloshyn started working on one of them. 

“I dug trenches on the eastern outskirts of Mariupol and made caponiers for armored personnel carriers. Loud shots and explosions were heard all around. Already in early March, there were piles of mangled and charred equipment and vehicles in the city. But I had no fear. That’s probably because my adrenaline was pumping…“ Anatoliy thinks. At the time, I had a fever and didn’t feel well, but I continued to dig trenches, because I understood that what I was doing was very important and definitely more important than my cold.”

Already on March 2, the Russians blew up all generating units supplying power to the city, and Mariupol was left without electricity. They had to dig in absolute darkness. They couldn’t work in daytime because everything was clearly visible not only to them, but also to the enemy. So, they had to perform tasks ‘blindly’ at night. How did they manage to do it? According to Anatoliy, solely thanks to some ‘third sense.’

In the dark, something happens to the body, all senses are heightened, some gut feeling helps,” Anatoliy Voloshyn says.

On March 14, he received a task to go to the Azovstal central entrance to take a night vision device from there. Anatoliy Voloshyn was a convoy man, because no one was allowed to go alone. 

There was a model of a Ukrainian tank near the entrance gate, and the Russians were constantly firing at it. One of the shells exploded in front of the windshield of the car where Anatoliy Voloshyn and his brother-in-arms were. 

Anatoliy was severely injured. His bones remained intact, but the soft tissues were torn, and the chest was pierced. A piece of shrapnel stopped just a centimeter from his heart, having pulled the clothes and the buckle of the bulletproof vest into the wound.

“Our car could explode at any moment. I was afraid that I might burn alive in this car, because the doors were jammed and wouldn’t open…” Anatoliy recalls those scary moments. “I don’t remember how I managed to get out through the window. My abdomen was cut open. We were taken to the military hospital near the Neptune pool. I underwent surgery there. But already on March 15, the Russians dropped an aerial bomb on the hospital. It exploded under the windows of the ward where I was after the surgery. Nurses dropped in and said, “Sorry, guys, but there is no one to carry you to the basement. You have to go yourself.” So I had to get up with my just-operated stomach and go slowly to the basement.” 

The wounded stepped carefully — the floor was littered with shards of broken glass and concrete. Someone gave them shoes because they didn’t have their own. It was very cold. Everyone was shivering with cold, or maybe in fear. 

The next day, Anatoliy Voloshyn was moved to Azovstal. At first, he was in the hospital there, better known as Zhelezyaka, and on May 1 he was moved to the Territorial Defense headquarters near the blast furnace shop, where his service had begun. At that time, nothing was left of the headquarters building except for the basement. 

The Russians bombed mercilessly. That’s when Anatoliy Voloshyn felt what real fear was. He was lying right under a huge cast iron sewer pipe. And then, according to Anatoliy, he kept wishing the building wouldn’t collapse, the pipe wouldn’t burst and he wouldn’t drown in sewage.

“It was a little easier for me than for others. I knew where I would end up, if anything happened. But the young guys next to me… It was terrible… Hell is not vats of boiling tar. Hell is the place where we were at that time,” says Anatoliy Voloshyn.

On May 16, he and his comrades-in-arms were ordered to lay down their arms. And on May 17, he left the shelter. 

“If you can talk about “luck” in such a situation, that’s exactly what happened to me. I was lucky enough to be imprisoned in the occupied Dovzhansk of the Luhansk region (the old name is Sverdlovsk, that’s what the occupiers call this city now – note). Unlike Olenivka and most other prisons where Ukrainian prisoners of war and ordinary civilians were kept, which I heard about from my brothers-in-arms, we were not abused so much,” Anatoliy recalls. When they brought us there, we were immediately stripped naked and searched. But I had nothing. I destroyed everything more or less valuable back at Azovstal. For example, I smashed my phone because there were contacts and messages from my friend Henadiy Mokhnenko. We were together for many years both in life and faith; and now the Russians have labeled him a terrorist and put him on the wanted list. To call a man who saved so many children’s lives a terrorist! It’s unheard of! I think the Russians would never have released me if they had looked at my phone and read my correspondence with Henadiy. 

After the search, they made us squat. In the evenings, everyone had to watch Skabeeva’s propaganda program on Russian TV. However, we had three meals a day, and we also had bed linen. So, compared to other prisons, it was not so bad.”

On March 7, 2023, Anatoliy Voloshyn was included in the exchange lists. The man recalls that his joy was mingled with sorrow, because young men who had wives and kids remained in the cell… And they were in prison, deprived of all rights.“I’ve already lived… I am 65. I raised children, saw the world. And now I’m released, while the young, those who have not done anything in this life yet, are kept in prison. It hurts. It’s unfair,” says Anatoliy.

Anatoliy is still undergoing rehabilitation and treatment, preparing for another surgery. But despite the war and severe injury, he tries to live a full life. 

In June, Anatoliy Voloshyn is getting married. In the midst of the war, after everything he had been through, at the age of 65, Anatoliy asked Viktoria from Lutsk to marry him. It was their friends who introduced them.

“We started writing and calling each other. I told her we had no time for long courtships. The war is going on, and no one knows what will happen tomorrow. So we must hurry to live. And Viktoria agreed. So now we will use our personal example to prove that the East and the West are together,” Anatoliy Voloshyn smiles.

Now he is sure more than ever that it is not things we should hold on to. We should hold on to people. 

Author: Mariupol journalist Аnna Murlykina

*All photos provided by the author

Supported by the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. The views of the authors do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Government.