Ukrainian soldier Maksym Sviezhentsev: «You have to accept that you can die, and this acceptance makes you stronger»
Dr. Marta Dyczok is having a conversation with Dr. Maksym Sviezhentsev. He holds a PhD in History from Western University, which is where she teaches. He tells stories about joining the Armed Forces of Ukraine in 2022, fighting near Bakhmut and even finding time for scholarly work.
The decision to join the territorial defense
Marta Dyczok: Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling. My name is Marta Dyczok, and I am delighted to be the guest host for this podcast, and I have a special guest. With me in studio today is Dr. Maksym Sviezhentsev, who holds a PhD in History from Western University, which is where I teach, and he is now in Kyiv, and he’s been back in Ukraine since 2021, 2022?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: January 2021.
Marta Dyczok: January 2021. Thank you very much for finding the time to speak to us. The reason I asked Dr. Sviezhentsev into the studio today is: he is a scholar who became a soldier. On the 24th of February 2022, Russia escalated its war against Ukraine. Dr. Sviezhentsev was in Kyiv, working, building a promising academic career, and on that day, he went and signed up. Please tell our listeners why you decided that you had to go and sign up.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Thank you for hosting me, firstly. It’s a simple question and a hard question at the same time because I didn’t feel like I had a choice. Yeah. That’s the simple answer. Of course, it was scary to go to the drafting point and sign up, of course this first step is always scary, but we… Well, actually, I decided, that I am going to join the territorial defense just a few days before Russia escalated its war, so I went to the drafting point sometime around February 22-nd, maybe? And I signed a contract with the military. But it was not a valid contract because contracts are signed by both parties, right? And I was the only one signing it, I had to finish some kind of medical examination which was scheduled for February 24th.
Marta Dyczok: [Laughs].
Maksym Sviezhentsev: So I signed the contract and, theoretically, I was invited for the first training on the weekends that week. So, theoretically, I considered myself to be part of this territorial defense, so I kind of thought of myself as a person who already volunteered. They’re already relying on me, that’s what I’m thinking, so on February 24th, theoretically, I could have left Kyiv, of course, nobody would have even thought of me. Nobody would even remember that I was there or signing any contracts, but I felt like I didn’t have a choice because my wife, my son were in Kyiv. And the Russian military was already near Kyiv, right? So, that was a maturation of all of us at that time, our families were in Kyiv, so we had to stand between the Russian army and our families.
The first day of the full-scale war
Marta Dyczok: Ah, yes. And when you went on the 24th, you were one of many. Can you describe what it was like on that day?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Well, I have to say that to get to the drafting point where I was going to go, I had to cross the whole Kyiv. Because I rent an apartment in one part of Kyiv, but I was registered in a different district of Kyiv. So, I had to go all the way across from the right bank of Dnipro to the left bank of Dnipro, I had to travel by subway, so, imagine, February 24-th, Russia is already in waiting, and everybody woke up because of explosions, but traffic was running…
Marta Dyczok: And the subway was running.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: And the subway was running.
Marta Dyczok: Must have been packed.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Not really.
Marta Dyczok: Huh.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: And one thing I remember is walking toward the subway, because I noticed that those little buses, like city buses, were not running, so I had to walk. I noticed that I had to walk towards the subway, and I saw the road that was going towards the exit from Kyiv, and it was packed with cars. So, there was a huge traffic jam, people that were exiting Kyiv, and it was around 8 am, maybe 9 am. So I travelled all the way to the drafting point, and yes, there were people there, but nobody knew what was happening. Like, I saw some first guys wearing civilian clothing, and having like…
Marta Dyczok: Armbands?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Yellow marks on their shoulders.
Marta Dyczok: Like armbands.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Yes, yes, kind of patrolling the street around the drafting point, but then, nobody really knew what to do at that drafting point. And the first thing they did was they transferred all of us to the nearby school. Just to, probably, just to move us away from the military. It’s not a military base, but it’s in a military building, right? They moved us to the school, and again, nobody really knew, what was happening. They tried to separate people with military experience and those people, who were taken first, then they tried to, like, figure something out. People with military experience or people, who had some kind of military education, so those were separated first. People with medical education were taken as well. I didn’t have military education, I didn’t have medical education, I was a civilian.
Marta Dyczok: With a PhD, but no military training.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: With a PhD, but in History, not in engineering.
Marta Dyczok: That’s right.
«I was wearing civilian clothing, no equipment or anything»
Maksym Sviezhentsev: So, I was kind of staying in those lines way at the back. At some point, I realized that nothing was happening in that school, so I just asked somebody, and I was assigned to some kind of a person, who was a commander, I guess? He wasn’t a commander, he was like a just guy like me, but he was a head of our group. I don’t know what kind of group that was, even, it was like some kind of spontaneous group. So, I asked whether anything was happening and whether I can go home, because I came to the drafting point without anything. I was wearing civilian clothing, no equipment or anything, and he said, ‘yes’.
Marta Dyczok: Sorry to interrupt, was that typical? The other people who were there?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Most people were wearing civilian clothing.
Marta Dyczok: So, just people like you, just picked up and came?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: They just simply did not have military clothing, or military shoes or… it was winter, right? It was cold, so no winter shoes, military winter shoes.
Marta Dyczok: Well, why would you have military winter shoes if you’re a historian?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Yeah, so, I went home, I travelled again, all the way through Kyiv, I went home and that was around noon, and my son had to go to bed for his noon sleep, so that’s what I was doing because he was waiting for me all morning, so I put him to sleep, and then I didn’t have time to pack, so I took my backpack, I took some underwear, I took some shoes that resembled of military shoes, and then walked, went back to the drafting point. And there again, when I came to the school, at some point, something started happening, and they started transferring people to kind of headquarters of one of the military bases and there again nothing was really organised, it was lineups after lineups, and then air raid sirens, so then we had to go to the basement, and then again lineups and lineups, and you had-
Marta Dyczok: So a lot of waiting around.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Yes, and you had to kind of like push your way through to get enlisted, and then finally, they let us in, my turn came, and then I went in, I signed the contract, just the contract that I signed several days before, they lined us up around 10 pm, and they said here is like we created a unit, you are now a unit.
Marta Dyczok: What was your unit number, name, number?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Um…
Marta Dyczok: It was a long time ago, sorry.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Yeah, well, I simply don’t know those words in English, I think it’s called a squadron?
Marta Dyczok: Mhm. Was it like a number?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: A unit of 100 people, right? So we had our squadrons, we had our like smaller units, so we exchanged contact information, and then they let us go home and come back in the morning. But it was already 10 pm, the curfew started and I couldn’t travel through the whole city to get home, so I had to sleep at one of my friend’s apartments, I happened to meet two friends near that drafting point.
Marta Dyczok: Oh, so your friends also went…
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Yes.
Marta Dyczok: Independently, and you just met up with them?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Well, we did contact each other before, but yes, we met near the drafting point, and we then served in the same unit. I also met some other friends from Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, for instance, near the drafting point and I know that they still serve in the military, we just happened to be in different squadrons. So, yeah. They let us go home, I slept at my friend’s apartment, and then we had to return in the morning of February 25-th.
Marta Dyczok: So signing up wasn’t as easy as… But, I mean, that’s understandable. The country was invaded and suddenly all these people showed up to volunteer, so you got registered, you got put in a squadron, and it’s now been a year and a half.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Yeah.
Every time we lose our brothers-in-arms, something dies inside. Almost like a piece of soul goes with them.
Yesterday we lost two.
They had transferred to another unit just a month ago.
Mortar crew. They covered us during the last two campaigns in the war zone. RIP
— Maksym Sviezhentsev (@msviezhentsev) September 11, 2023
The experience of war
Marta Dyczok: : So, how would you describe the highlights? So you’ve signed up and what are sort of the things that really stand out for you in terms of what you did over this past year and a half, sort of where you sent, the experiences you had in those places?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: We constantly had to adjust to situations that were very new to us, so everytime it looked like something very scary and unknown and difficult, maybe unachievable, but then after you go through those points, and you move forward, something else even harder comes up, and then you look back, and you think, huh, that was not such hard.
Marta Dyczok: Can you give us an example?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: First weeks of being in the military were very hard physically and psychologically, because we didn’t get much sleep, we were under constant psychological and physical pressure. We didn’t have clothing, we were wearing civilian clothing, and it was cold, it was really cold. We didn’t have military winter shoes, for example, and we were freezing standing on the guard. We didn’t really have a place to sleep because once you take, once you go on your shift for 2 hours, then you have two hours of break, and during that two hours of break you have to eat, you have to sleep, but then once you were away, somebody took your place to sleep. So, you have to find a new spot, and those spots were very different. I got sick a few days into me being in the military, I had some kind of lung inflammation.
Marta Dyczok: Oh dear.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: And I coughed really bad for like months probably and then still had to continue on with service. So, that was very hard.
Marta Dyczok: It’s a bit of a rough start.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Yeah. Yeah, but then you get over it. Several times during the Kyiv campaign we had a situation, where we were expecting Russian armored vehicles and tanks advancing on our positions, and we didn’t have experience on how to repel them, we were very modulated, of course, we were sure, that we will destroy those tanks, but we didn’t really have means to destroy them, right? Neither did we have knowledge or experience.
Marta Dyczok: Something I remember because we were in touch: your sense of humor never left you. I remember you shared a joke about the tanks, the tank coming, advancing on Kyiv, and your response was “You mean there’s only one tank?”
Maksym Sviezhentsev: [Laughs.] Yeah, those jokes were constant. You mean, yeah, just one tank? That’s funny. Come on. It was probably a way of our commanders to rise our moral, those jokes, because at some point there was a joke that the unit ahead of us, in front of us, the 72-nd brigade, that was fighting Russians actually, unlike us, the plan was that they had to let us into the battle and they refused. They said that those Russians are their prey to take. I don’t know whether that is a real story or not, but that was told to us as a joke. Not really as a joke but as a way to rise our morale, right? So, yeah, there were several instances, where we were lined up and told that Russian tanks were coming. We have those anti-tank ammunition, but we don’t know how to use them. [Laughs.] So, we need volunteers.
«There was no one to teach you»
Marta Dyczok: But they trained you in all of this, certainly? I mean, I realize that this was sort of learn as you go, but there must have been some people who did know how to use the equipment and teaching people like yourself, right?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Well, that was an advantage of our unit, of people who volunteered themselves and most of people had university education, right? Those people, at some point, could teach themselves.
Marta Dyczok: Right.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: So, if there was no one to teach you, you Google it. [Laughs.]
Marta Dyczok: Wow. Wow. So, intellectuals on the warfront, teaching themselves how to use military equipment by Google.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Yes.
Marta Dyczok: That’s wild. Technology has been a really important part of this war, and you just mentioned that you… how it helped you in practice. Communications once you’re out there in your unit: can you talk about how that evolved over time? Because that’s one thing Russia has been trying to do is to disrupt communications. So, what’s it like when you’re out of the front, and again, has that changed over time?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: The quality of radio stations evolved. So we started with cheap Chinese radios, and now we have digital radios which are encrypted. So, that’s a huge difference. I cannot really speak about that more because I’m a very low-level communicator all over that radio.
Marta Dyczok: Well, I was thinking more, I didn’t realize about the radios, because that’s more military communication. I was thinking more about communication like, you know, you need to be in touch with your family to tell them you’re okay, right? And that presumably you were doing on your phone, or, so, how did that work out in the field?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Well, when we were in Kyiv, we had our phones, so we could use our phones whenever we wanted. Then, when we travelled to Kharkiv Oblast, there were places, where phones were not allowed or could not even be used because it was no connection. Whether because it was a power outage and those cell stations were not working or whatever, or because Russians were creating their own stations to catch our phones and then trace them and then hack them right? So, at first it was very hard to communicate, especially in those places, where there were no connection. There were places where we had to organize and, let’s say, write a text message to one of the relatives of one person and then ask to transfer the information then to other relatives, that everything was fine, and we would take turns sending those text messages.
We would tell all our families in advance that I will not be in touch with you for sometime because literally there were places where you would go on a crossroad and you connect to the network and then you send a text message and then that crossroad would be shelled with mortars right? So, it was not safe. Later we had our Starlinks, and that was very helpful, both for military communication and for communication with families. Because we spent some several weeks in a place with no any kind of connection or electricity or anything, but with the help of Starlink we had connection to the rest of the world.
Marta Dyczok: That must have been very important. I don’t know if you will answer this question, but I’m gonna ask you. Could you tell us which places you were deployed to? You mentioned that you started off around Kyiv, and then you went to Kharkiv.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: We started in Kyiv, we travelled to Kharkiv Oblast, and we spent three and a half months there.
Marta Dyczok: So, this is spring of 2022, or summer?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: That’s the end of spring and the summer. We returned in late August. We returned to Kyiv on August 24th. And we were in various places in Kharkiv Oblast. Then in December we went to Luhansk Oblast and that was Bakhmut direction as they say, so it was not really close to Bahkmut, but it was one of the areas of attack, attack against Bahkmut.
Marta Dyczok: So that was the heavy war zone at the time.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: That was a very heavy war zone because unlike Kharkiv, where we did get under shelling, we didn’t really have close combat, but we did get under shelling, and yes it was a new experience, and it was sometimes scary experience, but you get used to it over time, you learn how to adjust to it. But then Luhansk region was constant heavy shelling, and it was negative temperature outside, so it was very cold. We got frostbites standing in those trenches. It was very hard to dig those trenches because you had to dig in a rock, and it was constant shelling, yes. Again, we didn’t really get into close combat and there is a huge difference between getting into close combat and not getting into close combat, like, there are steps you experience, right? First, there is a huge difference between being shelled and not being shelled. Human mind changes a lot under mortar fire. And then there is a huge difference between getting into close combat and not getting into close combat, that’s yet another level. So, we did not get into close combat in the Luhansk region, but we were under constant artillery fire. During the daylight, it was just constant artillery fire. And then, we again, we returned to Kyiv, and we went to Bakhmut area again in spring 2023, and again spent three and a half months there, so we came back to Kyiv just over a month ago, I think.
Marta Dyczok: Recently. Wow. Something else I’d like to ask you about, but again, I don’t know if you want to answer this. During your deployments to the Bakhmut area, did you encounter Russian soldiers, and if you want to talk about that?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: There are two ways to encounter Russian soldiers, and one of the ways is close combat where you don’t really get to talk to them, and yes, we did have those fights. And another way is taking them prisoners and yes, we did have a chance to communicate with them, let’s put it that way.
Marta Dyczok: Anything you would like to explain about that? Like what did it feel like, what did you talk about, just what were your impressions when suddenly the enemy is your prisoner?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: We didn’t really talk.
Marta Dyczok: Didn’t really talk.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Much.
Marta Dyczok: Okay.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: You ask questions like where are you from, why are you here? But then you realize, that talking to them does not give you any positive feelings and doesn’t really answer any of your questions because you don’t need those words, you don’t need those answers, you know those answers without any speaking. So, there is nothing to talk about with them.
I attend cemeteries (and funerals) way too often recently.
Coming back from the funeral of Prof. Kirsenko, one of the founders of the history department at Kyiv Mohyla academy and its first chair.
He was a remarkable person and historian that influenced generations of students.
— Maksym Sviezhentsev (@msviezhentsev) September 22, 2023
The topic of decolonising Crimea
Marta Dyczok: Switching gears a little bit. I was once again impressed with you when I saw that despite being on the frontlines, being shelled at, in close combat, taking prisoners, watching your colleagues be killed, you still found time for scholarly work, and you with your colleague Martin Kisly, published an article in the Canadian Slavonic Papers, a peer-reviewed journal. Now this is something for people, who are sitting at our university, complaining how difficult it is to publish. This person wrote and published a peer-reviewed journal in conditions of war. Can you tell us how you found time to do that and, well, actually let’s start, well, how you found time to do that, how is that possible, and then I want to hear a little bit more about the article itself.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Well, I was in Kyiv at the time, so I didn’t write it while being in Bakhmut, right, near Bakhmut, I wasn’t in Bakhmut itself. I was in Kyiv at the time and, to be honest, most of the organizational work was done by Martin. He found time, he contacted the editors, he even made some of the changes, because when we went through the edit period, I was already in the war zone. So, I read the proofs and I even send some of the comments, but those were comments sent in a text message and Facebook, right? So, I have to tell you the truth: most of the work was done by Martin.
Marta Dyczok: Well, the logistical work.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Yes, yes.
Marta Dyczok: But the thinking and the writing, you guys did that clearly together.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: The thinking and the writing, we did that together, yes, but logistical work was done by Martin.
Marta Dyczok: So, tell us about the article itself, what’s your key argument? What’s the title of the article? What’s the key argument?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: I don’t remember. [Laughs.]
Marta Dyczok: That’s okay. We can look it up, it’s in the spring issue of Canadian Slavonic Papers, Spring 2023?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: I think so.
Marta Dyczok: Yeah? Okay, we’ll look that up.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: I think it was some kind of decolonising Crimea and “de-” was in parentheses. I remember, when we first had an idea to write something about it, it was our response to the debate that just rose in Ukrainian public sphere as to what status should Crimea have after the de-occupation. And that was some kind of a statement back then that Crimea should not have an autonomy, it should become a regular oblast. And that Crimean Tatars should not have any autonomy, they just need to be part of the Ukrainian community and just like a regular…
Marta Dyczok: No special status.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: … national minorities, they would call them, right? Even though-
Marta Dyczok: As opposed to Indigenous people.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Yes. And that was our response, that article was our response that, first of all, Crimea is not a regular oblast, not because of the Russians who live there but because it is an Indigenous area for Crimean Tatars, right? And second of all, we cannot rely on the history of Crimean autonomy within Ukraine to- and say that, look, autonomy did not work out, that’s why we should deprive Crimea of autonomy, because the autonomy that Crimea had after the fall of the Soviet Union was an autonomy of Russian people, or rather Soviet people in Crimea, but not autonomy of Crimean Tatars. So, it was not an autonomy of colonised, it was an autonomy of colonizers. So, that’s why we cannot reference the so-called failed autonomy to say that Crimea should not be an autonomous republic. And then we argued that Crimean Tatars as Indigenous people have a right, it’s not a right that is given, it’s a right. We cannot take that right away from them, we cannot give or take that right, it’s their right.
Marta Dyczok: It exists, yeah.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: To have their autonomy to self-govern within Crimea, and it’s actually kind of a tough question what this autonomy should look like, probably nobody knows the answer yet, even Crimean Tatars don’t really know the answer yet, so they should figure it out, but once they figure it out, we need to be ready to communicate with them about it, and that communication, that debate, that discussion should not be on whether or not we should create that autonomy of Crimean Tatars, it’s about what is the autonomy-
Marta Dyczok: How the autonomy should look like.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: That we are creating, yes.
Marta Dyczok: Dear listeners, I forgot to tell you at the beginning of our broadcast that Dr. Maksym Sviezhentsev is from Crimea. He was born is Sevastopol in 1991, so he is the same age as modern Ukraine, and has been studying Crimea as a scholar, his doctoral dissertation is about Crimea, and he’s the first person to apply settler-colonial theory to look at Russia’s actions in Crimea, so he is one of the top experts on looking at this issue of Crimea colonization, decolonization, and now has very interesting things to say about what Crimea will look like, the ideas for organizing its political and social life after de-occupation, as they say it. Max, can I ask you what your vision of the future is? Right now, Ukraine is still fighting. You are on the frontlines, right now you’re in Kyiv on a break but will probably be sent back again. Crimea is your homeland, although you’re not a Crimean Tatar. How do you see the future?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Well, I’m pretty sure that Russia will lose at war, I’m pretty sure, that Russia has already lost at war. We haven’t won it yet, we need to still fight it, we’re still losing people, we have to fight this war with our hands behind our backs, kind of, because we don’t get enough weapons and ammunition and- I don’t know what the future is, and I hope it is good, but I see that it costs a lot, it costs too much. We lose too many people that could be saved if politicians made different choices and adopted different decisions. Yeah, I don’t know what the future is.
Marta Dyczok: Would you consider living in Crimea after it’s de-occupied?
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Yeah, sure, if I survive. [Laughs.]
Marta Dyczok: I believe you will survive. With your spirit and your experience and know-how and…
Maksym Sviezhentsev: I didn’t mean it to sound so dramatic.
Marta Dyczok: Of course, because you never know. You’re out there.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: I didn’t mean it to sound so dramatic because that’s part of the process of fighting, right? You have to accept that you can die. And that, actually, this acceptance actually makes you stronger. So, yeah, my humor became darker over a year and a half; I tell jokes, that I would never tell two years ago.
Marta Dyczok: But your sense of humor is still with you!
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Yeah, but that’s what I’m saying, I didn’t mean to sound dramatic, but yeah, I accept the fact that I might be killed.
Marta Dyczok: Well, I hope that you don’t because you have so much still to do. Now, when the war is over, I don’t know if you have time to think about this when you’re out there patrolling in the middle of the night in the cold, what are your plans? I know you’ve been accepted on a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard, so hopefully that will be the first thing you do.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Yes, that’s the first thing I would like… actually, no, that’s the second thing I would like to do. The first thing I would like to do is get back with my family and be a father to my son. The second thing I would like to do is, yes, proceed with that post-doctoral…
Marta Dyczok: Fellowship.
Maksym Sviezhentsev: Fellowship, and spend a year in Harvard trying to do yet another research. And then I don’t know. I’m used to not planning already, you know. I cannot plan for more than a day ahead, and even those plans right now do not really work, so, my plans change all the time. So, I’m already used to not planning, so let’s finish the war first and then we’ll see what comes next.
Listen to the full interview, turning on the audio player at the top of the page