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A ‘Dancing With the Stars’ alum escaped Ukraine. Racked by survivor’s guilt, he says he’s returning to Europe.

Maksim Chmerkovskiy in Beverly Hills, Calif., in 2019. (Tony Forte/MediaPunch/IPX)
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After a five-day trek that included hunkering in bomb shelters, squeezing into trains packed with Ukrainian refugees and staying awake for one 36-hour stretch, Maksim Chmerkovskiy finally escaped Ukraine and made it to Poland.

Hours later, he felt the guilt creep in.

Chmerkovskiy, a Ukrainian-born American citizen famous for his longtime stint on “Dancing With the Stars,” was one of the few men fleeing Ukraine as the Russian military invaded on Feb. 24. As an American, he was allowed to go, even as Ukrainian men were forced to stay and fight. Surrounded by women and children on a train headed west out of Kyiv, the professional dancer said he felt like he was taking up space.

“I felt wrong leaving. I felt wrong being on that train,” he told his 1.1 million Instagram followers from his hotel room in Warsaw, just hours after getting out of the country. “I still feel guilty [about] being on a train. I took up space, probably.”

Stuck in Ukraine, a ‘Dancing With the Stars’ alum broadcast his five-day escape to 1.1 million Instagram followers

A week after his escape, Chmerkovskiy told CNN’s Anderson Cooper he’s still experiencing “survivor’s remorse” and plans to return to Eastern Europe soon, “joining efforts on the ground.”

Since that first night of safety in his Warsaw hotel, Chmerkovskiy has flown back to the United States and reunited with his wife — fellow “Dancing With the Stars” alum Peta Murgatroyd — and their 5-year-old son. He’s also given several interviews in which he’s continued to describe feeling guilty and ashamed.

“I cried from the airport. I felt embarrassed … the entire ride back 'cause I was the only man on the train amongst all women and children,” Chmerkovskiy told “Good Morning America” on Friday.

On Monday, Chmerkovskiy told Anderson Cooper that leaving Ukraine “really wasn’t a decision” because he simply obeyed when officials told him he had to go.

Still, he added, “I felt really bad going.” That feeling “sunk in even worse” when Chmerkovskiy arrived at the train station in Kyiv and saw that all his fellow passengers were women and children. At 6-foot-2, Chmerkovskiy felt he was “too big” and, in the video he shot from his Warsaw hotel room, said he wanted to make sure he wasn’t taking the place of “another mother with two kids.” During the train ride, he stood in between cars in freezing temperatures, leaving the interior for others, coming inside only to thaw out before returning to the unheated area.

Chmerkovskiy said he helped others with carrying bags and other tasks so he wasn’t “just taking up space.”

Like Chmerkovskiy, many people experience survivor’s guilt after enduring life-threatening situations in which others may have died, according to Psychology Today. It’s commonly seen in Holocaust survivors, war veterans and those who’ve lived through airplane crashes and natural disasters.

In her Psychology Today article “The Moral Logic of Survivor Guilt,” ethicist Nancy Sherman focused on soldiers returning home from the battlefield but acknowledged that the affliction applied to others who had survived life-or-death trauma.

“In war, standing here rather than there can save your life but cost a buddy his. It’s flukish luck, but you feel responsible. The guilt begins an endless loop of counterfactuals — thoughts that you could have or should have done otherwise, though, in fact, you did nothing wrong,” she wrote.

First day as a Ukrainian refugee: Warm bed, guilt and cursing Putin

Chmerkovskiy was born in the Ukrainian city of Odessa in 1980 when it was still part of the Soviet Union. He lived there until age 14 when his family emigrated to the United States. He’d been back in his homeland since September working on various television and dance projects, including “World of Dance UA,” a reality competition series, according to CNN.

Chmerkovskiy “fell back in love” with Ukraine during that time, although he said he had never stopped loving his homeland. Still, spending months there brought on a realization. “I know who these people are. I know now who this country is, what it represents, what it stands for,” he said in an Instagram video while standing on a Kyiv balcony just hours after the Russians launched their invasion.

His wife wrote on Instagram that her family’s lives “are forever changed” and “our sole focus is on this war.” On Monday, after saying he’s still experiencing “survivor’s remorse,” Chmerkovskiy told CNN he intends to return to Eastern Europe next week to help his fellow Ukrainians.

“I’m going to go back to Poland and [be] joining efforts on the ground,” he said, “and sort of, like, justify my safe out that way.”

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