Whenever she gets a spare moment and the pain inside her has subsided, Kateryna Prokopenko picks up a pen and draws.
She used to work as a graphic artist for a Ukrainian grocery store chain and loved animation so much that she illustrated children’s books on the side. Now her cartoons have a harder edge.
All of her drawings center on one subject: the Azovstal iron and steel works in Mariupol. That’s where a group of Ukrainian soldiers led by her husband, Lieutenant-Colonel Denys Prokopenko, held off the Russian army for months before surrendering in May. As the stalemate wore on, Lt.-Col. Prokopenko used his proficiency in English to gain international media attention, making videos about life inside the plant and holding lengthy press conferences through a portable satellite link.
He and hundreds of other soldiers from the Azov Regiment – which has a history of far-right leanings but is now part of the Ukrainian army – were taken as prisoners by the Russians. Some of them have likely been killed; those still alive face execution or lengthy prison terms in Russia. But so far, no one has been able to tell Ms. Prokopenko with any certainty what happened to her husband.
In one of her drawings the steel plant is a giant monster, swallowing up a soldier with his arms reaching out. In another, the Azovstal smoke stacks stretch up menacingly behind the silhouette of a soldier in a field with flowers and a dove. Still another depicts a helmet in the shape of a helicopter taking the fighters to safety.
“During this period of time I do only art for myself with my emotions about this war,” Ms. Prokopenko said as she laid the drawings down on a table in a coffee shop in Kyiv. “I don’t know when I will have some time for rest. I don’t know even when will there be time for normal sleep, or normal food, or normal mental state.”
She’s 27 years old, with light blond hair and soft features that belie a fierce intensity that has emerged since the siege of the steel plant. In the past few months she has formed an association of wives and relatives of “Azovstal defenders,” toured European capitals and even met Pope Francis, all in an effort to secure the soldiers’ freedom.
At every stop and in every media appearance, her message has been the same: “Don’t let them die. Don’t let them be forgotten. That’s all we want.”
This was not how she ever imagined her life would turn out.
She grew up in Kyiv, an only child who loved animals so much she refused to eat meat. Her mother died when Ms. Prokopenko was six years old, leaving her alone with her father, who is also a graphic artist. After studying international relations at university, she spent a few years as a wilderness guide before taking up graphic design.
She met Lt.-Col. Prokopenko, 31, through social media. He was already serving with the regiment in Mariupol, having given up a job teaching English in Kyiv to join the unit when it formed in 2014.
They bonded over a shared love of nature and similar family backgrounds; Lt.-Col. Prokopenko is also an only child who lost a parent at a young age. He was just 8 when his father died.
They married in 2019 but Lt.-Col. Prokopenko’s military service meant they could only meet a few times a year, just enough for some short hiking trips or ski holidays. She joked that she has still gone faster than him on the slopes. “I had a record of 93 kilometres per hour, he is 91.”
After the war broke out in February, Ms. Prokopenko worried as the Russian army advanced on Mariupol and eventually surrounded the steel plant. She and other volunteers organized shipments of food and other supplies, never sure whether the items would make it to the plant. She recalled crying when her husband called to say a box of vitamins she’d sent had gotten through.
Their last contact was three days after the surrender. He was in Olenivka, a prison camp in Russian-controlled eastern Ukraine. “It was a pretty terrible connection,” she said. “It was a 30-second call. He asked me how I’m doing. I replied but he already had been cut off.”
Since then, she’s endured a stream of rumours and false starts about Lt.-Col. Prokopenko’s whereabouts. To cope, she lives in Kyiv with two other Azov wives. “We keep all together in one circle and support each other,” she said.
One of the toughest blows came last week with news of an attack on Olenivka, where about 1,000 Azov fighters were held. The Russians claimed 53 Ukrainian prisoners died and 75 were injured. They also blamed the Ukrainian military for using a U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, to strike the camp.
The Ukrainian army has denied the claims and said Russian forces killed the prisoners. Ukrainian intelligence says satellite images and intercepted phone calls point to a premeditated bombing by Russia’s mercenary unit, the Wagner group. The United Nations has set up a fact-finding mission but so far no third party has been to the site.
There’s little doubt the Russians want the Azov soldiers dead.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has framed the invasion as a bid to “de-Nazify” Ukraine and the Azov fighters have featured prominently in Russia’s propaganda. The unit has controversial links to far-right ideology but it was incorporated into the regular Ukrainian army years ago. Some Russian lawmakers have called for the death penalty for Azov soldiers, and this week Russia’s top court designated the regiment a terrorist group, meaning the soldiers could be jailed for up to 20 years.
“It’s important to break all the myths about Azov Regiment because they are real heroes. They are not Nazis,” Ms. Prokopenko said. “They are just normal guys.”
Still, she is under no illusions about what the Russian may do to Lt.-Col. Prokopenko. “Azov is the most motivated, most patriotic unit in Ukraine,” she said. “So of course they want to kill all the soldiers.” The only solution, she added, was a prisoner exchange or an extraction operation.
On Thursday, she joined a couple hundred people in Kyiv’s Sofia Square to call attention to the Olenivka bombing and urge the international community to respond.
Ms. Prokopenko stood off to the side, patiently giving rounds of media interviews. At one point she paused and turned to look at the crowd. “No one cares. In Europe, in all the world,” she said, her eyes burning. “We’re so angry at this indifference. We’re so frustrated.”
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