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Ilya Bezruchko
Former editor and anchor of Jewish News 1 channel

You shall not pass. The fellowship of the steel

Illia Samoilenko & Yulia Fedosiuk 

Photo by Ilya Bezruchko
Illia Samoilenko & Yulia Fedosiuk Photo by Ilya Bezruchko

A true story of the Mariupol siege and its heroic defenders

I was waiting for an arrival of a delayed flight from Warsaw in the heart of Ben Gurion Airport. People around eagerly awaited their beloved ones from abroad. Everything around was the usual airport routine. But we were waiting for extraordinary guests from Ukraine – Lt. Illia Samoilenko (Special Operations Detachment “Azov”) and Yulia Fedosiuk (deputy head of The Association of Azovstal Defenders Families). This is their first joint mission abroad as representatives of both military and civil parts of the Azovstal defenders movement. I would also say that this is a very symbolic and significant visit to Israel that shatters the myths of Russian propaganda about the “Azov” regiment.

“Azov” vs Propaganda

Since 2014 Russian propaganda has been working on creating the myth about “Ukrainian Neo-nazis” in military uniform, which was supposed to legitimize their full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Russian media has extensively demonized ” Azov, ” which poisoned people’s consciousness worldwide. Sadly, some international journalists were covertly exploited by Russians, leading to several articles and investigations whose only sources were “unnamed whistleblowers.” Other journalists, naming themselves independent investigators, can not even figure out the difference between the “Azov” regiment and the political party created by the veterans of this unit. It looks like someone is writing an article about Likud, claiming it’s a logical continuation of The Irgun. From my point of view is better to read and analyze local researchers than try to focus on and quote some “Instagram investigators.” E.g., Michael Colborne is known in the western media but is not experienced enough and qualified for such research due to the lack of sources and understanding of Ukraine’s political and military processes.  

Nevertheless, I can not deny that some of the far-right activists from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus joined the unit in 2014 (when it was founded). According to my sources, among “Azov” veterans and acting soldiers, most of those who shared the far-right ideology left the unit back in 2015. Most of these radical adventurists who tried to bring intolerance ideology into the newly arranged battalion were originally from Russia, claiming they were fighting against Putin’s regime in Ukraine. 

However, these shady people disappeared less than a year after joining the unit for unknown reasons. Leaving only a trace of the unpleasant stories they created for the media through their appearance in the battalion (at that time). Knowing the methodology of Russian propaganda very well, I would assume that these people were “moles” in the regiment. Their main task was to damage the reputation of the newly created unit, and they did this very well. As Illia Samoilenko told me once: “They (Russians) only can do two things well. They can lie good, and they can intimidate.” Since 2017 new commander of the regiment Denys Prokopenko (“Redis”), has organized a strict set of measures to implement NATO standards in unit training, hierarchy, ideology, and methodology of warfare. 

Vyacheslav Likhachov, historian, human rights activist. Arsenal Book Festival-2018. (Wikipaedia)

In conclusion to these arguments, I would like to quote Vyacheslav Likhachev (Ph.D. in history, journalist, political scientist, and social activist). Mr. Likhachev has been monitoring right-wing movements, xenophobia, and antisemitism for over 20 years in Ukraine. His fundamental researches provide the most profound and balanced understanding of Ukraine’s ongoing respect for human rights.

“Firstly, the radical far-right background of some of the founders of “Azov” is true. However, this was not reflected in the activities of “Azov” in any way. E.g., there was a large Jewish community in Mariupol, a functioning synagogue, which in eight years never encountered any problems with any “Azov” fighter. The situation is similar with the Muslim and Greek communities. The biggest danger for the ethnic communities of Mariupol and all local residents was the Russians’ indiscriminate use of heavy weapons against civilian infrastructure. But the fact that the founder of “Azov,” Andriy Biletskyi, continued to exploit the name of the regiment for years while creating new political projects of a nationalist direction further confused the outside observers.

Secondly, Russian propaganda does not neglect lies and makes an impressive picture. This picture is virtual, but do not underestimate Russian propaganda. It is systematic, professional, and convincing, especially in Western society, which is not used to such blatant lies. Western culture tends to abandon the black-and-white vision of the world and consider more complex models. It is typical for them to look for the truth somewhere in the middle between polar points of view. And the truth, as Adam Michnyk said, does not lie in the middle, it lies where it lies.”

Jews within the ranks of the “Azov” regiment

Considering that many people still believe in Russian propaganda, I decided to share 3 stories of Jewish “Azov” soldiers I contacted personally. 

Vitaliy “Benya” Barabash (Times of Israel)

Vitaliy “Benya” Barabash: The Jewish Ukrainian soldier who called for the assistance of the Jewish leaders of the State of Israel from bunkers of the “Azovstal” iron and steel plant. He appealed on behalf of at least 40 Jews in the besieged plant and became the face of the Jewish soldiers of the “Azov” regiment. After a long term in captivity, he is now in Ukraine, recovering from wounds and other horrors of detention.

Ilham Gasanov: Kyiv urban specialist, volunteer, and member of the “Azov” shared his thoughts about being a Jewish soldier of the famous unit.

Ilham Gasanov

“For a long time in my family, it was not usual to talk about it. The Soviet past was the reason for it. But at the beginning of the 2000s, my sister went to the ORT Lyceum in Kyiv. I also joined ORT. Its educational program plunged me deeply into the Jewish context. My bar mitzvah was held there, and the lessons of tradition and Hebrew aroused my interest.

As a teenager, I got into the Israeli scout movement in Ukraine. Then there were multiple trips to Israel, Jewish city holidays, and volunteer initiatives.

Choosing the unit in 2022, the Azov approach to service was decisive. It consists of horizontal communication, accessible communication with the command, and encouragement of initiative, often lacking in other units.

During the interview with the unit commander, we came up with the topic of family roots. My answer made the officer laugh a lot. As it turned out, he also has Jewish roots. We have Jews, Christians, Muslims, and representatives of other faiths in the unit. Still, dialogues and disputes about football occur more often than regarding religion.

It seems to me that nationalism is synonymous with patriotism. There is nothing wrong with the fact that there are people who identify themselves with a particular territory, culture, or language. All according to Hillel. If I am for myself, then who am I?”

Valentyn Dziubenko: Ph.D., member of the Press Service of the “Azov” regiment. His story is about the identity, “Azov” regiment, and nationalism.

Valentyn Dziubenko

“My family has representatives of different nationalities: Ukrainians, Russians, Armenians, and Jews via my mother’s side. As a child, the family did not talk about Jewish ancestors. I became interested in this on my own in adolescence. I do not profess Judaism, but while studying at the university in the specialty of religious studies, I became interested in Judaism as one of the main profiles of my scientific interests. I traveled around Ukraine as part of research groups, wrote scientific articles on Jewish studies, and went on field expeditions to explore Jewish cemeteries. In 2013, I entered the academic program in Jewish studies at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, where I studied Hebrew, Jewish religious texts, and the history of the Jews. In 2021, I defended my thesis on a topic related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and received a Ph.D. in Philosophy.

“Azov” is a model of military professionalism and passionate sacrifice. For many years I communicated and made friends with the fighters of “Azov.” When I had a chance to apply my knowledge and skills in the ranks of the regiment, I agreed without hesitation. I work in the press service of the regiment. Destroying myths and propaganda theses around “Azov” is part of our work. And my background destroys these myths by itself.

My ethnicity or religion simply doesn’t matter to anyone in the unit. Your professional and human qualities are essential in “Azov.” Someone knows about my Jewish roots and treats this as usually as if there were, for example, Belarusians, Germans, or Japanese in my family. Some don’t know about it because it doesn’t matter to them. Not a single time during my service in “Azov” and the years of friendship with many regiment soldiers I had any problems related to my Jewish or Armenian roots.

The war in Ukraine today is not just a national conflict. This is the fundamental opposition of freedom and tyranny, justice and injustice. Ukraine today unites all who fight for liberty and justice, regardless of nationality and religion. And “Azov” is the vanguard of this struggle.

I consider nationalism an ideology inherent to a specific historical period in the era of the formation of modern nations associated with establishing nation-states. I have always believed and believe so today that nationalism in “Azov” has never been perceived in a primitive biological context. This nationalism is more about civil values. And confirmation of this is the presence in the regiment of representatives of different ethnic groups, speakers of other languages, and faiths. They are united by things that go far beyond primitive definitions.”

“Azovstal” (iron and steel plant) siege

During days when Russian occupants circled the plant in the unconquered city of Mariupol, all Ukrainians were following news from the city. At that time, I received a message from a friend, a volunteer, requesting help to transfer the appeal of Jewish soldiers of “Azov” to the Israeli PM and government. This is how I got acquainted with “Azovstal” defenders and their stories. At that moment, we managed to run a media campaign drawing the attention of the Israeli audience to the battle for Mariupol and the humanitarian crisis, which is still ongoing. However, more was needed to engage Israeli authorities to mediate the conflict and organize the extraction of the city’s garrison and civilians from the burning city.

Illia Samoilenko during Mariupol siege (Sky News)

Speaking with “Gandalf” Illia Samoilenko in Tel Aviv, I’ve learned a lot about those times and how it all went on in bunkers above the Mariupol.  

He told me those who could still fight in the Mariupol garrison did not expect to survive the battle.

It’s basically when you accept that you’re dead already. It’s a freedom,” said Samoilenko. “You’re free to fight like it’s the last day of your life.

The decision to surrender was made to save the over 600 wounded. 300 people were heavily wounded among them.

On May 17, almost 2 000 Ukrainian soldiers surrendered to the Russians. They were sent to the Olenivka prison camp in Russian-occupied Donetsk. 

“Gandalf” spent only four days in prison, where the food was hardly palatable. He was recognized as a high-value prisoner because of his media appearances. That’s why he was sent to solitary confinement in a “Lefortovo” prison in Moscow. 

On September 21, Samoilenko and some of his brother-in-arms were released from Russian captivity. That was one of the biggest POW exchanges when Ukraine got out of Russian dungeons, top commanders of the Mariupol garrison, and some other military men. 

“Azov” delegation in Israel

Yulia Fedosiuk and Keren Betzalel
Photo by Ilya Bezruchko

Up to 700 “Azov” soldiers and officers’ status remains unknown, except that they are in Russian prisons all over the country.

– Tells me another member of the “Azov” delegation to Israel, Yulia Fedosiuk, deputy head of The Association of Azovstal Defenders Families. Her husband, Arseniy Fedosiuk remains in Russian prison; his current location and status are unknown. Yulia and other relatives of Mariupol defenders have enough bravery and inner power to overcome their pain and fight for their beloved ones. Mrs. Fedosuik and members of The Association of Azovstal Defenders Families speak loudly around the globe, calling world powers to help rescue their relatives. They had already visited the Pope and the Congress of the USA. Now they came to Israel sharing the truth about the Mariupol siege and the fate of those who remained in Russian captivity. 

Anna Zharova
Photo by Vyacheslav Feldman

 

This trip of Illia Samoilenko, an intelligence officer of the “Azov” regiment, and Yulia Fedosiuk was organized by the “Israeli Friends of Ukraine” and sponsored by the “Nadav” foundation. IFU is an Israeli NGO working in humanitarian aid and volunteering for Ukraine since 2014, combating Russian propaganda as a part of its mission.

In addition to our main charitable activities, the fight against Russian propaganda has become one of our primary goals. Since the 90s, the term “Russian street” appeared in Israeli society, shaped and filled with pro-Russian rhetoric and narrations. With the beginning of a full-scale war in Ukraine, our movement aims to create a “pro-Ukrainian street.” Such visits as the visit of the representatives of the “Azov” regiment are essential to fight myths and better understand who the Ukrainians are fighting today and what dangers there are for Israel itself in cooperation with Russia.

– stated Anna Zharova, Co-Founder of Israeli Friends of Ukraine.

That is why they organized a visit of the “Azov” officer and a representative of the families of Mariupol defenders. It is part of a fight with tentacles of Russian propaganda that they have spread worldwide. During the week in Israel, Mr. Samoilenko and Mrs. Fedosiuk visited the Knesset. They met a dozen Israeli journalists spreading the truth around local media and presenting a movie, “Filtration camps of the Russian Federation: 5 stories of Mariupol residents – about torture, interrogations, and abduction of children” made by Ukrainian news agency – Bihus Info. This movie was shown in Tel Aviv and Haifa, bringing over a half thousand people from all over Israel to learn the shocking truth about Russian war crimes. 

18-12-2022 Tel Aviv
photos by Mikhail Korotkov – (Instagram)
Israeli Friends of Ukraine – (Instagram)

Among those who visited movie screenings were several Mariupol survivors. They managed to escape the city through the humiliating procedure of filtration. They proved from the event’s stage the facts mentioned in the movie and by our guests from “Azov.” There were a lot of very touching moments, but one I would like to share with the audience of the Times of Israel. During the screening in Haifa, a tiny woman took the floor. She told her story of how she survived the humanitarian crisis. She provided food and first aid for elderly people hiding in the basement of the apartment building.

I will never forget when the Russian soldier defecated in the pan with a porridge. It was done in front of 11 elderly Jewish people hiding in the basement from the indiscriminate Russian shellings of the city’s quarters. 

This is only a tiny piece of horror that happened to the people of Mariupol. 

On the day of the first movie screening in Tel Aviv, a burned hanukkiah was found in the ashes of a Mariupol synagogue destroyed by Russian shellings. This hanukkiah was bright and festive last year, standing in the synagogue’s window. This picture shows the tragedy of the Mariupol Jewish community. The girl’s name is Yael, she managed to make an Aliya to Israel, and she is safe now. The man in the picture is Alexander Oleinikov, a well-known young Jewish leader of the community. His status – went missing.

Yulia’s and Illia’s visit to Israel finished with a symbolic tree planting in honor of Mariupol in Israel. Samoilenko chose to plant an Oak as it has strong ties with the unit’s ideology and symbolizes the strength and power of the defenders of Mariupol. Yulia chose a Holly, which represents the will to fight for its existence – the same as what happens to the people of Ukraine nowadays. On the same day, they were privileged to meet Natan Sharansky, an Israeli politician and human rights activist who spent 9 years in Soviet prisons as a refusenik. Mr. Sharansky was born in Donetsk. Mariupol (Donetsk region) was a town he visited every summer during his school years, as summer camps for that region took place in that city. During the meeting, Illia told Nathan Sharansky that actually, both of them served their terms in Russia in the same infamous prison, “Lefortovo.” However, both of them are free now. The tyrannic Soviet regime that imprisoned Sharansky did not exist anymore. Now it’s the turn of the “new Russian order” to stop its existence.

From the depths of Moria to the Freedom

illia Samoilenko
Photo by Ilya Bezruchko

Illia “Gandalf” Samoilenko, Arseniy Fedosiuk, and their brothers in arms stood firm during the fight for Mariupol. They chained 20 000 Russian soldiers and officers from moving North. A Special Operations Detachment “Azov,” and other units of the Ukrainian army, stood for more than 80 days, defending the land and the people of Ukraine. They were fighting longer than both France and Poland resisted Nazi Germany. Although the “Balrog” dragged Ukrainian fighters into the darkness of captivity, our “Gandalf” is free again and fighting for his sworn brothers. Many things must be done to free more than 700 “Azov” members and other POWs from Russian captivity. 

And I would like to stress that there is still time for a move for Israeli officials to consider the possible extraction procedure of Azovstal defenders to Israel from Russian captivity. Benjamin Netanyahu told Putin that he hoped a way would be found to end the war and the suffering caused by it as soon as possible during the phone call on December 22, 2022. I hope these are not empty words but a solid commitment to stop Russia’s war against Ukraine. 

Gandalf said that “You shall not pass” – and kept his word. Now it’s the turn of the Israeli PM to keep his word. 

About the Author
Ilya Bezruchko is CEO of the co-working network in Ukraine, a blogger and the Jewish activist.
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