Politics

A soldier’s story: From Canada to Ukraine


Svyatik Artemenko travelled from Guelph, Ontario, to Ukraine at the end of January to play professional soccer. A few weeks later, he found himself at the frontlines of Europe’s most brutal war in decades. His life’s journey—from Odesa on the Black Sea coast, to Winnipeg as an immigrant, then back to Odesa as a soldier—is quintessentially Canadian. Artemenko, who is 22, has come of age with his feet firmly planted in two national identities, standing at the hyphen in the middle of “Ukrainian-Canadian” for all of his young life. When Russia invaded, he transformed himself from a Canadian soccer recruit to a Ukrainian fighting for the future of his homeland.

Now back in Canada, Artemenko is coming to grips with the trauma of war, even as he resumes his soccer career. During his time in Ukraine, he spoke regularly with Maclean’s contributing editor Adnan R. Khan, documenting his experiences in a conflict of global consequence, and the events that led him to come back.

This memoir by Svyatik Artmenko was told to Adnan R. Khan.

***

When I arrived in Odesa at the end of January, more than 100,000 Russian troops had already gathered around Ukraine’s borders. The world was watching for an invasion that could pull Europe into its first war in decades. 

In Ukraine, though, there was only distant talk of war. No one I met thought it was a realistic possibility. Vladimir Putin was acting tough, but ever since the Russians had invaded the east of the country in 2014, he had been the butt of jokes—a puny, wannabe dictator who spent more time getting his picture taken trying to look tough than actually being tough.

So even as Russian troops were mobilizing, Ukrainians shrugged and went on living their lives. It was peaceful and carefree, with cafés full of people, couples taking long walks on Odesa’s beaches and bars pumping bass late into the night. War was the furthest thing from my mind, too. The only thing I was thinking about was proving to the soccer club that had invited me to Ukraine that I was good enough to play for them.

Podillya FC is a team based in Khmelnytskyi, around 500 kilometres northwest of Odesa. To be candid, it wasn’t my first choice. I would have loved to play for Chornomorets FC, Odesa’s home team, or Dynamo in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. Both are in Ukraine’s Premier League, and I’ve always dreamed of playing at the top level in the country where I was born.

But I wasn’t complaining. Podillya was a first-division club, one level down from the Premier League. More importantly, it was a team on the rise, with hopes of breaking into Ukraine’s elite league within a few years. I had the chance to be a part of that. 

So when I took the train from Odesa to Khmelnytskyi, I was barely paying attention to the news. Podillya’s management put me up in a beautiful apartment not far from their stadium, and my days and nights were quickly consumed with one goal: impressing the team’s coaches. It was going better than I could have hoped. On February 23, I was invited to the team’s office, where there was a contract waiting for me. My dream was coming true. Everything was happening as I imagined: putting pen to paper, pulling on the team jersey for photos. I was so proud. 

MORE: My escape from Ukraine to Canada

That night, I had a hard time falling asleep. When I finally did, it didn’t last long. At about five in the morning, I woke to the sound of distant thuds. I would find out later that these were missile strikes hitting a military base not far from Khmelnytskyi. At the time, though, I had no idea what was going on. I immediately checked my phone and saw that I had a bunch of missed calls from my parents and friends in Canada. When I called home, my mom picked up the phone. “Have you seen the news?” she said. “Russia just invaded Ukraine.” 

It was like someone had popped a balloon. I could feel all of the excitement deflating inside of me. As ridiculous as it sounds, my first thought was that this would postpone the second half of the soccer season, which was scheduled to start in mid-March. If I wanted to play soccer in Europe, I thought, I would have to help find a way to end this war. Just 12 hours earlier I’d been sitting in the bleachers at Podillya’s stadium daydreaming about being in goal against Dynamo Kyiv. I imagined myself making an impossible save to win the match. I could almost hear the fans screaming and clapping.

I tried to push that idea out of my mind. My country was being invaded, and there I was thinking about soccer. It was stupid. As I looked out my window into the darkness, I thought about my friends in Odesa and the summers I’d spent there as a child. All of it was under threat. I was stunned, and angry. I decided at that moment that I would join the fight for Ukraine.

***

To my parents,  Odesa is the most beautiful place in the world, a city of more than a million people that feels like a seaside town. Even in the middle of this war, I can see it through their eyes: the restaurants, the Mediterranean architecture, the views of the Black Sea. Ukraine is smaller than Manitoba, and every inch of it is precious to the people who live there. My parents left only because of me. They wanted a better life for their son.

My father, Vladyslav, was a cardiologist; my mother, Lidiya, an English teacher. They were living a relatively comfortable life. But in 1991, after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union, the country’s economy collapsed. By the time I was born in February of 1998, conditions had gone from bad to worse. My parents had lost hope of ever building the kind of life they wanted for their children.  

They arrived in Winnipeg when I was two, with almost nothing. My dad’s medical qualifications weren’t recognized in Manitoba, so the best he could do was find a job as a janitor at a hospital. My mom was luckier: her English skills helped her land a job at Carpathia Credit Union, a bank set up by Ukrainian-Canadians to provide financial opportunity to the Ukrainian community.

‘I counted more than 100 dead, both foreigners and Ukrainians, while I was collecting bodies from the attack on Yavoriv’

Over the next years they worked hard to build a middle-class life. They had two more kids—my sister, Nika, and brother, Glev—bought a house just north of the city centre and settled into a working-class routine. It wasn’t perfect, of course. My parents missed their homeland, their family and their friends. When I was a kid, we would go back to Odesa every summer. For my parents, it was like refilling their energy tanks before heading back to the freezing Canadian prairie. 

For me, those trips were pure magic. I became fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian. I would spend long summer days with my uncle, a sea-traffic controller at one of Odesa’s ports, watching the huge freighters coming and going. The seaside was my favourite place, especially the stretches lined with cliffs. I used to love standing there, looking out and dreaming about sea monsters and adventures on sailing ships.

I also loved playing soccer with my friends. For Ukrainians, soccer is a religion. I developed a passion for the game during my visits to Odesa, and I was good at it. Back in Winnipeg, I was recruited at the age of 16 to an advanced soccer program at Glenlawn Collegiate. That was the same year I signed up for the Canadian Forces reserves—a decision I had no idea would serve me well later in my life. I spent a year training, including a summer at CFB Shilo in Brandon, Manitoba, earning my basic military qualification. In the end, I dropped out and focused on soccer.  

When I was 19, the Winnipeg Valour recruited me as their backup goalkeeper for the inaugural season of the Canadian Premier League, a pro circuit just below Major League Soccer. From there, I went to the University of Guelph and played for their varsity team and eventually signed with Guelph United FC, a semi-pro club competing in Ontario’s premier league. In 2021, we won the league championship and qualified for the 2022 Canadian Championship. But the big highlight came near the end of the year, when I received a call from Podillya asking if I wanted to try out for them. It was the opportunity I’d been waiting for. I bought a one-way ticket to Odesa, packed my bags and left for Ukraine.

***

 On February 24,  almost exactly a month after I arrived in Khmelnytskyi, the sun rose over a changed country. Russian forces were advancing quickly from Crimea, which they already occupied, toward Kherson, a city on the Dnieper River not far from Odesa. The shock of the invasion was rippling throughout Ukraine. 

I talked to some of my new Ukrainian teammates with Podillya, who told me they were all enlisting in the country’s military. A few hours later I was lining up at the army recruitment office in Khmelnytskyi. The queue was longer than I’d expected, stretching a block down the street before doubling back to the entrance. The Ukrainian military was already drafting men between 18 and 60 years old before the invasion started, but as soon as the war was on, people were rushing to volunteer. One of the men in line—a tall, bulky guy who seemed to have some military experience—was telling his friend that he thought the Russians would move on to Mykolaiv, east of Odesa, because that’s where the main highway crosses the Pivdennyi Buh River. They would need to take the bridge there before they could begin an assault on Odesa.

READ: ‘Anybody want to drive this ambulance to Ukraine?’

I waited more than two hours before I learned I couldn’t enlist because the regular army was only accepting Ukrainian citizens. I was surprised. I knew that Ukraine doesn’t recognize dual citizenship—when I’m there, I’m technically considered a Canadian visitor. But all my life I’ve felt as much Ukrainian as I have Canadian. I worried I might not get a chance to defend the country of my birth. The recruiting officials could see how disappointed I was. They assured me there were plans to establish some kind of force for international volunteers.

I left Khmelnytskyi that day and headed back to Odesa, disappointed but still holding out hope that I would be able to contribute to the fight. The next day, I received a call from a Ukrainian military official who told me there would be an International Legion, and I should prepare to leave for training at any moment. In the meantime, I signed up to local neighbourhood patrols, which had been quickly assembled to watch for saboteurs and spies.

These kinds of covert operations were a real fear in Odesa, where many residents are native Russian speakers: in early January, Ukraine’s intelligence service, the SBU, arrested a Russian agent who was recruiting people to carry out attacks in Odesa. As the war started, the government was concerned that sleeper cells were preparing to sabotage Ukrainian defensive positions, or were sending information back to Russia about the city’s defences.

Artemenko in Odesa in mid-March, when he was assigned to a unit operating behind Russian lines. (Photograph by Valeria Ferraro)

Artemenko in Odesa in mid-March, when he was assigned to a unit operating behind Russian lines. (Photograph by Valeria Ferraro)

The patrols were tasked with looking for suspicious activities and reporting them to the authorities. When I signed up, they asked if I had any military training and if I could handle a gun. I showed them a photograph of my basic military qualification certificate from Canada. That was enough for them to assign me to the patrols and issue me a nine-millimetre pistol, which I kept tucked into my pants, under my jacket. Working in groups of three or four, dressed in civilian clothes so we could blend in with the local population, we walked the streets in downtown Odesa, sometimes during the day and other times at night, when the city was under a curfew.

Once, during a daytime patrol, we saw a guy walking around taking pictures. It was weird because he wasn’t taking pictures of anything that would make a nice photo—just random street shots. We went up to him and told him this wasn’t the time to be taking pictures. He tried to walk away, but we followed him and called in the police. They stopped him, and when they checked his documents, they found a Russian passport and a notebook listing locations around Odesa. He was arrested.

I never found out whether he was a spy. If not, it was stupid of him to be acting suspiciously when things were so tense. Odesa wasn’t being bombed in the same way as other cities, but everyone was preparing for the worst. Occasionally one of the Russian warships lined up on the Black Sea would launch a missile. One hit the airport. The Russians had even tried to deploy a landing party in Koblevo, just east of Odesa, but were repelled by Ukrainian forces. 

The Russians were finding it hard to get to the city. The Ukrainian military and volunteers were fighting heroically to hold off any advancements from the east, and Odesa’s cliffs provided natural protection against an amphibious assault. For extra protection, the Ukrainian navy had set naval mines in the sea. 

Sometimes I would take a walk down to the beach, or along the clifftops I had loved so much as a kid. I could see the Russian warships lining the horizon, these ominous black shadows. It felt like something could happen at any moment. 

One cold morning at the beginning of March, the beach was empty and the water was dark grey, under a cloudy sky. I was frustrated: it had been nearly a week since the Russians had invaded and I felt like I was wasting my time with these city patrols. Nothing had happened since we’d stopped that guy taking photos a few days earlier.

I spoke to my parents every day and told them how discouraged I was watching the war without being able to contribute. They worried about me, of course, but they were also proud of my decision to stay and fight. The Ukrainian military had surprised everyone with its resistance against the much bigger Russian army. My parents understood why I wanted to be a part of that.

Two days later, I received an order from Ukrainian military officials to report to the Yavoriv training centre, near Lviv, the main city in western Ukraine, where the International Legion was based. I was finally going to get my chance.

***

 When I arrived  at Odesa’s central station to catch the train, officials were only allowing women and children to board. Most Ukrainians fleeing the country were heading to Lviv, and then on from there to Poland. Men of fighting age were prohibited from leaving, but I had papers from the Ukrainian military that identified me as a recruit. 

At first, the women on the train car I boarded didn’t realize I had volunteered to fight. I was the only man and I didn’t have any military equipment. I looked like a civilian and, in their eyes, like a coward on the run.

There’s this trick Ukrainian grandmothers have to make a person feel guilty without saying a word. It’s this look of pure disgust, and if you ever experience it, you don’t easily forget it. On the train, I got so many of those grandmother looks that I almost started to believe I’d done something wrong. A few women came up and asked why I wasn’t fighting to defend Ukraine. When I explained I was on my way to Yavoriv for training, their attitudes completely changed. Word got around the car that I was a volunteer, and everyone started offering me food, water and anything else they thought I needed.

One elderly lady came up and gave me some prosphora, the holy bread handed out at orthodox services. She told me she’d been at church in Odesa not too long before evacuating to the train station. She wanted me to have it as a blessing. I was deeply moved. I’ve always had a strong faith in God. Standing in that crowded railway car for the nearly eight-hour journey to Lviv, surrounded by terrified women and children fleeing their homes, I knew the best I could do to ensure they returned was train hard, do my duty and pray to God for a quick end to the war.

Yavoriv certainly had the facilities to provide excellent training. It was a massive base, spread over thousands of acres with lots of forest. There were tactical training areas; artillery, tank and shooting ranges; and long, two-storey barracks. The commanders could have really put these guys through their paces, weeding out those who didn’t have what it takes. 

I hadn’t been at the Yavoriv base long, though, when I realized the International Legion wasn’t all it was hyped up to be. A lot of people had taken up President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for help, but that didn’t translate into a capable fighting force. Some of the guys lacked the mental discipline to be soldiers. There would be a drill, for instance, and they would take their time putting on their shoes and getting dressed. At a boot camp for Canadian reserves, they would have been punished for that. 

They weren’t receiving the kind of training—the yelling and breaking people down—that scares away people who lack the mental toughness to operate in a war zone. This training seemed designed to give them just enough basic skill that commanders could throw them into the fight. We did some physical training and some offensive and defensive tactical manoeuvres, and that was about it. Most of the volunteers seemed to think they were there on some kind of adventure vacation. I was skeptical they would ever be ready.

RELATED: Scenes from the war in Ukraine

Because of my previous training, my commanding officer put me in charge of teaching people how to load their magazines. One guy was trying to load the bullets backwards. When I pointed out the mistake, he shrugged and said he’d never held a weapon before. I asked what he had been assigned to do, and he said he was going to be a sniper. It was unbelievable.

That’s not to say everyone was incompetent. There were some experienced foreign volunteers, including my commanding officer, a 20-year veteran of war zones. I stuck close to him because I knew he would be able to improve my skill set. I don’t know what it was—maybe the discipline I’d learned from playing soccer—but this officer seemed to trust me. 

Still, I wondered why they weren’t kicking some of these people out and telling them to go home. There were plenty of volunteers; they had set up a tent camp to house the overflow. Did the commanders believe they could just throw bodies at the Russians and win the war that way? I was uneasy. I knew that most of these guys would be ill-equipped to handle a life-threatening situation. They might very well get me killed.

***

 On my ninth day  at Yavoriv, we were awoken by an air-raid siren and left the barracks to take cover. No bombs had fallen, and we went back to bed a little pissed off, only vaguely aware that what had probably been a Russian reconnaissance plane flying overhead could mean trouble later. 

By 5:30 in the morning, I was in a deep sleep, so I didn’t hear the first missile. But it must have been close to my barrack, because the explosion nearly threw me out of bed. There was no warning—no siren, no announcement over the loudspeakers. Immediately after the blast, there were a few seconds of eerie silence, as if everyone was too shocked to react. Then chaos: people shouting, boots stomping on the concrete floor. I don’t remember getting dressed, but I must have done, because I had my uniform and boots on when a second rocket tore overhead. It’s a sound I will never forget, like a giant sheet of paper being ripped in two, accompanied by that high-pitched whistling noise you hear bombs making in war films. Then the explosion, the ground shaking, the windows shattering. 

I stood dazed in the dark for a few seconds as my fellow soldiers ran for the exits, some with cuts on their faces from shards of broken glass. I saw one of my friends sitting on his bed. He had been next to a window and looked like he was in shock. I threw him over my shoulder and ran. 

Outside it was freezing cold, but with so much adrenalin pumping through me, I barely felt it. Another rocket shredded the air and slammed down somewhere in the direction of the shooting range. Someone was barking orders to take cover in the forest, so I ran in that direction, my friend dangling from my shoulder.

I stumbled over frozen ground for what felt like an hour but was probably no more than a few minutes, getting clear of the buildings. Rockets were raining down almost non-stop. I would later learn the enemy had launched more than two dozen cruise missiles toward the base from bombers flying in Russian airspace.

This was my first taste of the Russian way of war. I’d decided to join this fight almost without thinking. Watching the Russians lay waste to the place where I’d been living for the past nine days was the first time I’d felt fear since signing up. I was facing an enemy that had no problem killing indiscriminately from a distance. What would it be like on the frontline? If I was killed, would I be looking into the eyes of a human being who fired a gun? Or would my killer be some far-off grunt in Russia pressing a button? Or someone well behind the frontline loading artillery shells? 

As the sun rose and the missiles stopped, some of my fear melted away. But for many of the foreign volunteers, this first taste of war was a reality check. It woke them up to the fact that this wasn’t some kind of Hollywood movie where they were the heroes dodging every bullet. Many, including the guy who’d been loading ammunition backward into his magazine, decided to go home. 

I didn’t blame them. These guys demonstrated pure heart for coming in the first place. Their departure was probably for the best, though. It’s better they were put through the experience of war on the training base than on the frontline, where their inexperience would have put other lives at risk.

The attack on Yavoriv strengthened my resolve. The base was badly damaged, and from the looks of it, the Russians knew exactly where to hit it to cause the most carnage. Anyone who had been on the second floor of a barrack was either dead or badly injured. Anyone in the tent camp had been blown to pieces.

We dug in for a few days in the forest, with little more than our clothes and blankets to keep us warm, eating military rations that we retrieved from the base. We built fires during the day, but at night we weren’t allowed to because they would make us an easy target for Russian attacks. 

A few of us dug a ditch where we slept in case the Russians did bomb us, huddling together for warmth. I used some of the skills I’d acquired in a Grade 10 outdoor education class back in Manitoba, where we learned wilderness survival. I knew how to build a lean-to over the ditch, so we had some cover from the elements. Funny, because I’m not much of a camper. I’m not even sure why I took that class. I guess growing up in Canada, where the wilderness is such a big part of our lives, it was just a normal thing to do. 

We spent most of our days digging through the rubble and recovering the remains of the dead. There were no survivors; gathering up the dead mostly meant collecting body parts and reassembling them into whole human beings so they could be identified. 

‘You don’t see the things I’ve seen and not change in some basic ways’

It was gruesome work. I try not to think about it, but sometimes those images pop into my head. I guess they’ll haunt me for the rest of my life. While I was doing it, I kept thinking about all those terrified people in Ukraine’s cities hiding in bomb shelters. After the missiles hit, would there be anyone to dig them out of the rubble?

***

 Over the three days I spent at Yavoriv after the attack, I counted more than 100 dead, both foreigners and Ukrainians. There must have been more buried under all that rubble. When I left for Odesa, the recovery teams were still digging.

The devastation created some uncertainty about the future of the International Legion. The more experienced volunteers were becoming frustrated even before the bombing. Some, including my commanding officer, felt like the Legion had been a publicity stunt to show that most of the world was on Ukraine’s side. After the attack, he gathered some of the guys he thought were ready to fight and told us if we wanted to leave, we were free to do so. There were other volunteer brigades operating in Ukraine that would give us the chance to contribute. He could put us in touch with them.

I was willing to be deployed anywhere in Ukraine, of course. But after the missile attack, returning to the familiar surroundings of Odesa felt right. My commanding officer linked me up with a volunteer battalion attached to the SBU. He told me they could use my language skills, and my steadiness in times of crisis. 

At the SBU base, I was assigned to a group of volunteers who were tasked with supporting Ukrainian special forces operations. It wasn’t what I’d expected to be doing. All of my training in Canada, and the little I’d received in Ukraine, was geared toward the infantry. I was expecting to go to the frontlines and shoot at Russians.

Maybe that kind of thinking was simplistic. By mid-March, the frontline around Mykolaiv was shifting. Ukrainian counterattacks and Moscow’s changing strategy had allowed us to push Russian forces back toward Kherson. Ukrainian forces had prevented enemy troops from crossing the Pivdennyi Buh River, sparing Odesa. After that, the frontline was less about infantry engagements than artillery and air strikes, with special forces conducting covert, pinpoint hits as the Russians retreated. 

My unit’s job was to infiltrate the frontline, come in behind the Russians and set traps—IEDs and land mines—to make their withdrawal more painful. On one mission, we might be sent to get close to the enemy, disguised as civilians, and radio back their positions. On another, we might be told to disrupt a retreating column by neutralizing a key armoured vehicle so Ukrainian special forces could then go in and take out the whole group.

MORE: Canada’s government is sending body armour to support Ukraine. So is this group of activist fundraisers.

It was nerve-racking work. The thinking was that if we looked like civilians, the Russians wouldn’t target us. But as we knew from the scenes in Bucha and Irpin, where hundreds of bodies and mass graves have been found, many Russian soldiers have no qualms about killing civilians. During our first mission behind enemy lines—it would end up being our only one—we were shot at and nearly hit by artillery as we drove around Russian positions in a civilian car. One of the men in my unit took a piece of shrapnel in the arm from an artillery round that landed some 10 feet from our vehicle. 

That was the worst period of my life. Being killed worried me less than being captured. The Russians had made it clear they didn’t consider foreign volunteers to be covered under the laws of war. I knew how they would treat me—like a mercenary, or a terrorist. I would likely disappear into their prisons forever. When I went out on that mission, I told myself: Putting a bullet in my own head is better than being caught. I know it sounds gruesome, and it wasn’t something I dwelled on. It was just a reminder of how high the stakes were before we headed out. 

The scenes of devastation I witnessed were another stark reminder. I saw the bodies of civilians, left in ditches on the side of the road, some scorched black as if someone had tried to burn them.  

There were forced relocations, too. On my one mission behind Russian lines near the end of March, I witnessed Russian-speaking Ukrainians in a village near Mykolaiv being forced to board military trucks heading east, either into Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine or on to Russia itself. When we told our commanders what we’d seen, they said there was little that could be done. I can’t imagine what those people must have gone through, or what they might still be enduring.

By early April, Putin’s new plan for Ukraine was obvious. He had failed to take over the entire country, so his forces were limping out of Kyiv and Kharkiv and redeploying to the east, with the goal of taking the entire Donbas region. In the south, they had retreated to the outskirts of Kherson, the first city in Ukraine they’d taken control of, and dug into defensive positions, setting up tanks and artillery in populated areas so we couldn’t shell them. Playing defence in a war takes fewer resources than going on the offensive, especially if you’re using human shields.

(Photograph by Valeria Ferraro)

(Photograph by Valeria Ferraro)

Once the Russians had dug into populated areas, my commanders decided it wasn’t worth the risk for my unit to repeat our trip behind enemy lines. The new worry was that Russia would restock its forces and make a new push on Odesa, potentially using Transnistria, a Russian-controlled territory in Moldova, to launch a two-pronged ground assault on the city. 

My unit was retasked with capturing Russian agents, identified by the SBU, who were operating all around the Odesa region, sending information back to Russia about Ukrainian troop deployments or weak points in our defences, anything the Russians could use to plan a new offensive. We would be given targets who we would then track down and arrest. 

The work was less stressful than missions behind enemy lines: with no Russian troops in the area at the time, there was no risk of capture. But it came with its own risks. Sometimes, our targets were armed, or they would run away, forcing us to open fire on them. Once, we were assigned to pick up a suspected saboteur who was sheltering with a family. When we broke through the door to raid the apartment, everyone inside panicked, and we couldn’t be sure which of the adults was our target. We just started screaming, fingers on our triggers, for everyone to get on the ground. Fortunately, no one got shot.

My time fighting in the war had, in a way, come full circle. My first contribution was helping arrest a suspicious person taking pictures and notes on Odesa’s streets; my last missions involved chasing down and capturing spies and saboteurs.

I was a different person, though, than I had been during those early days in Odesa. You don’t see the things I’ve seen and not change in some basic ways. It was hard, much harder than I’d expected. I’d never been in a war zone, but other people who have told me this was the worst they had ever seen. The level of devastation is terrifying.

***

After a month and a half, a part of me just wanted to go home. When I had some time off and spoke to my friends back in Canada, they asked me about my experiences. I described the things I’d seen matter-of-factly, and they responded with shock. “That’s so messed up,” they said. But for me, it just felt kind of normal. I really didn’t feel any emotions about it anymore.

I realized this shouldn’t be normal—that it wasn’t good to be so numb to these experiences. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was having doubts. But I was also torn. I had become extremely close to the people I met during my time as a soldier, the men and women who sacrificed everything to defend their country. I didn’t want to abandon them. 

My time off—a couple of days every week or so—was difficult. I was allowed to leave the SBU base, but after the intensity of my missions, going back to regular life in Odesa was unsettling. The rhythm of the city was returning to some kind of normal. It was early April and spring had arrived. Cafés and restaurants were open. People were still tense, but they were going about their daily routines. And yet for me, the war was never far away.

The Russian warships on the Black Sea had disappeared beyond the horizon, but we knew they were still there. Warning sirens would ring out regularly because of the threat of missile attacks. From time to time, one would land, almost randomly, hitting a street here or a building there. It was as if the Russians were reminding us that they were still out there, that we weren’t safe, that the war was not over.

By the middle of April, I desperately needed a break. I’d come to realize over my six weeks or so in the war that I didn’t want to be a soldier, though I was definitely good at it. I had volunteered so I could help my people live free from Putin’s tyranny. But I’d come to Ukraine to play soccer. 

READ: What it takes to truly fight for freedom in Ukraine

It looked almost certain that the whole season would be cancelled. Podillya’s officials had told all of its foreign players they were free to sign with other teams temporarily if they wanted to keep playing. I was the only one who had volunteered to fight, but I was considering my options. My coach at Guelph United had offered me a contract for the upcoming season. The Canadian Championship was scheduled to start in early May, with Guelph United playing the Halifax Wanderers, a Canadian Premier League team, in its first match. My coach said if I was back in Canada, I could be in the lineup.

If we won, we would be up against Toronto FC, a Major League Soccer club that includes players who will be representing Canada next fall at the World Cup in Qatar. Just to be on the pitch playing against them would be a highlight of my career. 

I felt guilty for wanting this opportunity as much as I did. The war was still raging in Ukraine’s east. By the third week of April, the Russians had launched a fresh offensive to take the entire Donbas region. But I decided to complete one last set of missions and then return to Canada. My commanders told me the Russians were also preparing for another assault on Mykolaiv from Kherson, while building up troops in Transnistria. Then, on April 22, a Russian general admitted on state television what most people suspected: Russia intended to take all of southern Ukraine, including Odesa, cutting off Ukrainians from the Black Sea.  

When I got that news, I was in a car on my way to the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, where I was booked to fly to Toronto. I had long feared that Russia planned to invade my hometown, but the confirmation felt like a punch in the gut. I pictured all those old ladies when I’d boarded the train to Yavoriv back in early March, fixing me with their looks of disgust as I left the country.

I knew, though, that I was not running away. In the weeks that had passed since then, I’d survived missiles and mortars; I’d gone undercover and infiltrated the frontlines of one of the world’s most powerful armies. I’d witnessed death on a scale no one should ever have to see. I’d fought for my people.

It was time to go back to my other home, where there was no war, and where I could be the person I dream of being. It was the right choice, if a painful one. As I approached the border with Moldova, I thought of my beautiful Odesa—miraculously intact despite the war—and wondered if I had set eyes on it for the last time. The Russian war machine was coming. Wherever it went, death and destruction would follow. 


This article appears in print in the June 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “A soldier’s story.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.





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