Opinion The survivors of Putin’s atrocities have a warning for us

The destroyed Azovstal industrial complex in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 10. (For The Washington Post)
5 min

Those who argue that Russian President Vladimir Putin should be allowed to keep parts of Ukraine should meet the survivors of his atrocities. They know firsthand the horror of life under Russian occupation. Their stories remind us of what Ukraine is fighting for — and what the free world is standing against.

Anna Zaitseva was a 24-year-old schoolteacher in Mariupol when Russian forces attacked her city in the first days of the invasion in February 2022. She and her 3-month-old son took refuge in the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant, where her husband, Kirilo, worked. A former soldier, Kirilo left his family bunkered there and joined the local defense forces, known as the Azov Regiment. Zaitseva brought enough diapers and food to last a few days.

Zaitseva and her son were trapped inside the plant for 65 days, enduring constant Russian shelling. They emerged only to find their hometown destroyed — but their ordeal was just beginning. She and her baby were evacuated via a supposed “safe corridor” that was anything but safe. The Russians regularly attacked civilians who were trying to get out of the city. During Zaitseva’s own evacuation, Russian forces bombed a building she was in and Ukrainian soldiers had to dig her out.

Zaitseva was then taken to a “filtration camp” run by the Russian army. There, she was strip-searched, forced to hand over all of her electronics — and told to leave her baby in her captors’ care. (She refused.) She was interrogated about her husband, but she didn’t know his whereabouts. Only through a YouTube video did she learn that Kirilo had been taken into captivity, on a stretcher, when the steel plant fell. The last time they spoke on the phone was 11 months ago.

“I don’t even know if he’s alive,” she told me in an interview last week in Washington.

Now a refugee in Germany with her son and mother, she still shudders whenever she hears a helicopter. She has no idea when she will be able to return home, if ever. Meanwhile, she is traveling the world with a message: Don’t abandon the Ukrainians living on the Russian side of the front lines.

“People in the West are tired of this topic, sure,” she said. “But could you think about the people in captivity? Are they tired or not?”

Zaitseva came to Washington last week to attend the screening of the film “Slava Ukraini,” the latest war documentary by French writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. The film follows Lévy as he tours the front lines in eastern Ukraine. His goal is to remind Western audiences of the stakes in the Russia-Ukraine war for the greater cause of freedom and human rights.

“Ukraine is a shield that protects all of Europe and the United States from Putin’s barbaric actions,” Zaitseva said. “Don’t think that Ukraine is so far away — everything is connected in this world.”

Lévy also brought to the screening Mykhailo Dianov, a fighter with the Azovstal Regiment who held the steel plant in Mariupol while under siege. After being shot four times on the battlefield, he was captured by Russian troops and taken to the notorious Olenivka prison. During his four-month imprisonment, he was tortured and sustained additional severe injuries.

Olenivka prison is where, last July, Russian soldiers reportedly blew up one of the prisoners’ barracks, perhaps to hide the evidence of their torture and killing of Ukrainian prisoners of war, including many from Azovstal. Dianov said the Russians were trying to force Ukrainian solders to confess to Russia’s own atrocities.

“They killed kids,” he told me. “They were trying to put the blame on the Ukrainian soldiers for the crimes they already did.”

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Dianov’s message is that Ukrainian forces need better weapons — and more of them — to fight back the invaders and reclaim their stolen land. This is the only way, he says, to end the war sooner. Both of these survivors rejected the Russian propaganda that paints the soldiers of Azovstal as Nazis.

“It’s not true. The real fascists and Nazis are in Russia,” Dianov said.

Their stories are tales of tragedy but also of perseverance. The bravery the people of Mariupol showed when besieged by tens of thousands of invading Russian troops will go down in history as previous sieges have been remembered in places such as Mount Masada, Troy or the Alamo, Lévy told me.

“Azovstal is a Masada in reverse — the fortress is not high above ground; it’s in the depths of the earth, but it’s the same spirit of resilience and courage,” he said. “The Russians will pay a high and historic price for the destruction of Mariupol and for the acts of genocide committed there.”

The least the United States and Europe can do is recognize the courage Ukrainians have shown by giving them the increased support they are begging for. This is crucial not only for saving innocent people already living under Putin’s cruel rule but also for those he seeks to subjugate next.