Larisa’s husband, Igor Fedusov, joined the Ukrainian army just a few months before the full-scale invasion began. He had wanted to since 2014, following the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. But Larisa, whose father had volunteered to join the fight, had seen how often her father could not be reached, and how hard it was for her mother.
Time and again, she asked her husband to wait; wait until their daughter grew up a bit, until she got pregnant with the second baby, until, until, until…
One day Igor, her loving husband with two university degrees, came home and said that he was going to join up. It was 2021. “That’s it. I decided. I have to go”, he said.
Soon, after training, Igor Fedusov was sent to Mangush near Mariupol. He served with an artillery unit attached to the 17th Separate Tank Brigade from Kryvyi Rih.
A few days after the Russians went “all in”, Larisa recalls, “he called me at 4 a.m., he said he was alive and that he was in Mariupol.
“My husband always told me that everything was fine. He didn’t call for weeks, I heard explosions when he called, but everything was ‘fine,’” she said. “ In March, he called and said: “You see, darling, I told you that I should have joined the army earlier. Maybe I’d be better prepared . . . ”
On April 12, he called once more. “I was so happy that he was calling! And the children were next to me. He said: ‘My sunshine, I love you so much. Take care of yourself and our children. I don’t think I’ll survive. We’re going to try to break out.” The baby boy was sleeping, but their daughter, Sophia, who was nine, heard everything. “She was screaming and crying”, Larisa says. “And I felt like I’m dying with him . . . .”
It is easy now to forget those terrible weeks in the all-out war when Mariupol was besieged by Russians bringing promises of liberation for Russian-speakers, and instead delivering death to perhaps 20,000 civilians as they laid waste to 90% of the city. Around 1,000 Ukrainian troops died and more than 3,500 were captured, famously including the marines and Azov troops who had fought in the Azovstal steel works.
But the 17th Separate Tank Brigade is not famous and relatives have struggled to be heard, or find out what has happened to its soldiers.
Eventually, Larisa discovered that Igor was alive but in Russian hands. The wife of another captured soldier told her that their husbands were at the Illich plant in Mariupol. “Because I didn’t know anything. Only that he loves us . . . and that they’re ‘fine,’” she sighs.
Larisa adds: “The media forget that Mariupol is not only Azov but also many other units. It’s not just those who were in Azovstal remain in captivity. Everyone should be remembered. Everyone must be freed. Our guys, who were at Illych factory – without ammo, without food and water. They were bombed around the clock. They were completely surrounded, without supplies, and without orders to withdraw or to surrender. They held on to the last. And they have a right to return home. We are longing for them to come home.”
The Mariupol metallurgical plant, where Igor’s unit was stationed, was razed. According to the testimony of Mariupol residents, there was a medical point underground, where they could receive treatment from Ukrainian soldiers. But at some point, Russians completely surrounded the area.
After finding that the Russians were holding her husband, Larisa turned to journalists. She wrote to all kinds of Ukrainian state and international organizations, such as the Red Cross. “I asked the ICRC at a meeting later: ‘Please just tell me how is he feeling. I want to understand if he has some medical help. I want to know if he has something to eat. And they tell me that they cannot get there, they cannot do anything about the situation. But you are the Red Cross!”
She was unable to find much information. Earlier this year, she found out where her husband had been held back in 2022. And other than that there was a video made by the Russians, that she discovered by chance, which showed Igor weighing about 50 kg (110lbs) less, saying hello to her and asking about the children.
Every morning she and the children kiss Igor’s photo. They also kiss “him” goodnight and try to make plans for when he comes back. The couple’s daughter, Sophia, is now 10. Their son, Matviy, is just four. He’s told that Daddy is “at work”. Working to earn money, to buy toys, or a pizza, or something else.
“Recently Matviy was looking at the window”, Larisa says. “And he asked: where’s my daddy? Is he at work again? I don’t want him to work anymore . . . I don’t want a pizza, I don’t want any toys. I want daddy”.
Lera Burlakova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) She is a journalist and former soldier from Ukraine. She served in combat from 2014-2017 after joining the Ukrainian army following the Russian invasion of Crimea. Her war diary “Life P.S.” received the UN Women in Arts award in 2021.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.