In one of the districts of Kyiv, men in uniform, some with flowers, are gathering near an inconspicuous gate. These are the fighters of the Azov regiment who came to say goodbye to “Maus” — Junior Sergeant Vyacheslav Kushnir, who died in Mariupol. In twilight, the men in uniform all seem the same — tall, shapely black silhouettes. The short and fragile Natalka Bagriy, who takes care of the deceased in the Patronage Service, stands out noticeably against their background. But now she is in charge and gives tasks to the men:
“Give me a flag,” she says to one. To another: “Where are the torches, where are the personnel?”
Farewell to the fallen in Azov is different from the usual military burial ceremony. Mandatory components since 2014 are torches and the Prayer of a Ukrainian Nationalist. They bury “Azovians” in a coffin with the black symbol “Idea of the Nation”.
“Azovians” speak briefly and quietly to each other.
“Iʼm afraid to be stupid,” the tall bearded man smiles at Natalka and, like a schoolboy, repeats: “Garrison, get up! Farewell and commemoration of the fallen brother can be started.”
“Only not ʼGarrison, get upʼ, but ʼGarrison, line up!ʼ” she corrects. “Is it lying down?”
“What if I accidentally switch to Russian?” asks another guy.
“Itʼs nothing,” reassures Natalka.
Nearby, another man awkwardly twirls two red roses in his hands.
“Will you tell a speech?” his mate asks.
“I donʼt know,” heʼs definitely embarrassed.
“Well, itʼs not for the cameras, itʼs from the heart. You will never see Slavik again. I would say if I were you. We are doing it not for someone — but for ourselves.”
“Maus”ʼs family comes to the base — his wife, mother, and sister. Natalka explains to them how the farewell will go, what to do with the flag and chevrons.
When the ceremony begins, the area is already completely dark due to Russian shelling on October 10. The coffin is taken out of the car, the door is closed, and the only source of light that remains are the torches in the hands of the “Azovians”:
“Garrison, line up! Farewell and commemoration of the fallen brother can be started.”
Those willing say a word about “Maus”. The first of the soldiers asks for permission to switch to the surzhyk and tells that he remembers Slavik as a child, naive, smiling, and he grew into a sergeant with an officerʼs heart and commanded a platoon.
“I hope Maus is met our guys there already,” he adds at the end. “And that there will be a thousand times better than here — he deserved it. For each of our boys, we will take thousands of Russians to the other world. I thank his family and parents for raising him this way. Unfortunately, the best of the best are leaving. This is a military tradition.”
A few more soldiers are speaking. Finally, one of them exclaims:
“Weʼll take revenge!” the rest respond in unison.
So they move on to the “Prayer of the Ukrainian Nationalist”.
“Ukraine, Mother of Heroes, come down to my heart!” begins the leader of the farewell ceremony.
“Ukraine, Mother of Heroes, come down to my heart!” everyone responds.
Each row is repeated in this way.
“May I find death in the ranks of those, a sweet death in torment for you!” shouts someone especially loudly.
After the joint prayer, mother and wife take the floor. They speak quietly, try to stay near the coffin for as long as possible. At the end, all mates walk in a circle past the coffin. The wounded are the last to go, their crutches glinting in the light of the torches.
“On the last journey!” exclaims the leader of the ceremony.
“Glory! Glory! Glory!” the mates repeat, and to this sound the coffin is carried to the car. It is said that the farewell procedure is over. Azov members put out the fire, it smells like tar. Stars are visible in the sky, unusually clear for Kyiv.
Everyone walks their way. A woman who was at a farewell party approaches Polina. She hugs her and says:
“Polinochka, I will run. Hold on.”
"Weʼre holding on,” she answers briefly. Up close, Polina looks like a tired blond teenager wearing thin-rimmed glasses. “We have a heart of steel thanks to our ʼMausʼ. Everything will be fine.”
Vinnytsia. Polina and “Maus”
“His first nickname was “Batyushka” (”Holy Father”),” Polina says about her deceased husband. “Because until 2017, he was a monk. And then he joined Azov.”
The word “Maus” has nothing to do with mice, but it was this animal that became part of the tattoo that Polina drew for her husband. Later, she recognized his body only by this tattoo.
They met in 2019. Slavik was on the Svitlodar arc a few hundred meters from Polinaʼs friend who died. Thatʼs why they started talking. And fell in love.
“First he was a senior soldier of a mortar platoon, then a junior sergeant,” Polina says. “But he was already performing officer duties. He always took a responsible approach to work, worried about everything, controlled everything, helped everyone. He was very proud of being in the regiment.”
Even before the first meeting, in the messenger, Slavik asked if Polina wanted to become his girlfriend, and in the future, his wife. She waved it off, but noted in her journal that it looked like their story would continue. They began to meet — although, virtually, they managed to see each other at the end of 2020, when Polina first came to Slavik in Mariupol. From that day they began to live together, and within a month they got married.
They last saw each other on January 16, 2022. Polina took Slavik to the train station, from where he and his mates went to study. He was never released on the weekend. And on February 24, Polina, together with the wives of the Azov members, waited in her apartment for the evacuation bus that Slavik sent to her. The same evening they left Mariupol. On the way to Zaporizhzhia, Polina dropped her husband a beacon in Telegram, and he sent her his. These beacons were moving toward each other along the same route — Slavik was going to Mariupol. They passed each other without stopping, only to see how their marks on the map had drifted apart.
Slavik wrote from Mariupol, called when he could. He never told her that he became the commander of the 2nd company group of the 2nd battalion of the Azov regiment.
“He always made sure that the boys slept as long as possible, ate better — he thought more about them than about himself. He cooked and made bread for them,” Polina says. Weʼre talking on the phone and I can hear her smiling at this point. “He was always in dangerous positions, watching over everything.”
Slavik was last contacted on April 4. He promised that he would come back when the war ends, and they will have children. This was his first and only promise to Polina.
After ten days of silence, on April 15, she wrote: “I hope for a miracle that you are alive.” The next day, Polina was told by her husbandʼs mate that “Maus” had died from a bullet wound. They were able to take only his weapon and an officerʼs bag, Polinaʼs New Yearʼs gift.
May 24 was Polinaʼs birthday. The day before, an unknown person wrote to her in Russian from Slavikʼs Telegram account: “You can stop writing here. Look for him in the Mariupol morgue.” At the end of the message was the name of the location where Slavik died. Polina asked a local man to go to that place. There he found his token. Despite this, Polina hoped that her husband was in captivity. She says:
“We were looking for him for half a year. The Joint Center and the Coordinating Headquarters for Prisoners of War issued us an official letter that he is in captivity. And it turned out that his body was brought back in the first exchange of war prisoners, on June 2. On June 12, Polina brought Slavikʼs toothbrush, which she took from Mariupol, and his motherʼs hair to the DNA examination. The lab said the DNA from the brush didnʼt match. The police investigator who handled the death case did not respond for two months. Slavikʼs mother and brother submitted their DNA for the second time on August 26, their saliva was chosen as the material. On the same day, it turned out that in fact the DNA from the brush did fit and was already in the database. The result was promised in two days. In a week, Polina called the director of the laboratory and the investigators — as it turned out, they did not communicate with each other. Eventually, the investigator told Polina that “there may be a DNA match”. For a few more days, the family waited until one police department in Kyiv received a paper letter with the result from another police department.
When the letter arrived, Polina already knew that Slavik had died. During the waiting time, she found an employee of the Kyiv morgue, where bodies from Mariupol were accepted. That woman was already in a group created by the Patronage Service, where relatives sent photos of special signs of soldiers. Basing on the photo of the tattoo, she did not find Slavikʼs body among other. However, when Polina wrote to her personally, she found the match.
“It was the human factor,” says Polina modestly. “The morgue worker then sent another photo of the skull that they matched. The body was in terrible condition. I looked at the bodies for half a year, and they looked better. It seems that Slavikʼs body had been lying under the sun for all those months and a half. Itʼs a wonder that this tattoo remained.”
All the time, Polina was accompanied by the Patronage Service — they resolved issues with documents, with legal wording, received a death certificate and the conclusion of the Public Prosecutorʼs Office. And on October 10, the “Maus” family was taken to the morgue so that they could see and touch him for the last time.
Kyiv. Patronage service
On the morning of October 10, Kyiv was again hit by Russian missiles. Natalka Bagriy and I are going to Bucha to get a medical certificate about the death of a soldier. His mother is in another region, so the service collects documents for her.
“Our unit already communicates so well with everyone that we can do most of the paperwork without the participation of parents. This is not a violation,” explains Natalka, watching the road, and adds already about herself. “I have been in the Azov regiment since I was 18 years old. I didnʼt do anything else. I have an education as a theater and film director, but now I am organizing not the shooting process, but something else.”
Now Natalka is 26. She jokingly calls herself a “dwarf” — short, thin, with a bob cut hairstyle and thin, slightly cunning facial features. Her family moved from Vinnytsia to Kyiv, where the girl was finishing school when the Revolution of Dignity began. Natalka was on the Maidan from the first day.
“I was always an activist, I went to rallies, did anti-agitation against Yanukovych — everything not to be interested in boys,” she laughs. We are already on the way out of Kyiv, when a rumble is heard from the far left, and Natalka suddenly becomes serious. “Damn. Yes, it was a blast.”
Many of her acquaintances went to Azov immediately after the Revolution of Dignity, so Natalka helped the regiment. Later, she was invited to the Patronage Service to work with the wounded — to accompany them in their treatment and rehabilitation. At the same time, she studied and worked for a short time in the theater: she wanted to do something civilian in case of discharge from the regiment, but this never happened.
Natalka says that Azov is like one family, so the relatives of the military themselves also belong to it. The Patronage Service regularly communicates with the families of the killed — they invite them to events on important dates, maintain contact in joint groups, and provide financial assistance. Also, the families of those killed in Azovstal are gradually joining these groups. Families who have lost everything are rented housing for six months. Each family receives a one-time 15-20 thousand hryvnias from the fund.
“God, whatʼs going on?” Natalka glances at the phone, where the messages “are you okay?” are popping up one after another. “Did they [the Russians] hit the headquarters? I have urns with cremated people there!”
Natalka calls the headquarters — itʼs intact. However, she asks to take care of the urns.
For eight years, she did not officially work at Azov, and from February 2022 she planned to sign a contract for military service and move to Mariupol. But she unexpectedly received an offer to go to Iceland. She was supposed to return on February 25 — in the end, thatʼs what happened, but she was coming back scared, already with a bunch of equipment and sleeping bags.
In March, Natalka began dealing with the issues of the dead — receiving bodies from evacuation, identification, burial, providing moral and financial support of their loved ones. Now she is a full-time paramedic driver in a medical company. On her white socks is written: “Make no step back — the morgue is behind us.”
It takes an hour to get to the morgue in Bucha. There is one refrigerator in the yard, in which bodies that have not yet been identified are stored. In total, since June, the Patronage Service has received more than 500 bodies. Whether they are all “Azovians” is unknown. Of all, only 52 were recognized.
When receiving the bodies, the Patronage Service examines them — whether there are any documents, tattoos, personal belongings, chevrons, uniforms. They work together with law enforcement officers who open a criminal case. Together with forensic experts, they take pictures of the signs for the base, wipe the body of slime to see the tattoo. Samples of tissues from the body are sent to the laboratory, relatives take a DNA test. Natalka says that the bodies are mostly at that stage of decomposition, when you can recognize a person only by DNA, and sometimes not by the first time.
As soon as we enter the territory of the morgue, we feel the sharp smell of bodies. In the office, there are skulls on the shelves, on the walls there is a map of Ukraine, a drawing of a Russian ship being sent to hell, and a stylized Ukrainian military image of the Virgin Mary with the signature “Bucha”. Natalka is already well known here.
“I have a DNA match order,” she holds out the document.
“Circumstances of death?” clarifies the employee, unfolding her records.
“On 14.03, he died while performing a combat mission,” replies Natalka.
“On which territory?”
“On Azovstal. He was a gunner of the anti-aircraft artillery unit.”
While they are looking for documents, the workers discuss the explosions in Kyiv and Iranian drones. When we get out to the car, Natalka gets a call from the morgue in Kyiv — the body of the “Maus” fighter is to be identified there today.
Four refrigerator trucks hum monotonously in the yard of the morgue. The family of the deceased is already here — they are waiting on the street while Natalka arranges to show the body. The pathologist takes the gurney outside to one of the refrigerators. He returns already with the body in a black bag.
The family is in no hurry to come. A wife, mother, sister, and husband pass each other a bottle of water and put on protective masks — the smell is unbearable for them.
Polina, “Maus”ʼs wife, turned completely pale.
“I know my reaction,” she says. “I drank a lot of sedatives, but I know my reaction, so we took sachets in case someone gets sick. Be prepared for one of us to fall.”
“Are you sure you want to see [the body]?” Natalka clarifies. “The body is in a deep freeze, the tattoo is no longer visible.”
They do want. The sister stays at the exit.
Mom begins to cry and beg as soon as she sees the body. Polina holds on and, wearing blue gloves, busily begins to look for a mouse tattoo — and there is practically no soft tissue left.
“Yes, thatʼs his black helmet,” she says, recognizing what can be recognized. There should also be a wedding ring and personal items, but there is nothing.
After examining the body, the mother finally says:
“Natalochka, we have things that we would like to put in his hands, but there are no hands.”
“Yes, these are the ribs,” Polina adds, touching the body. “The brothers said that there was a hundred percent bullet wound, but where — they didnʼt say. I saw the lower jaw, there werenʼt even any teeth there, I donʼt know how...” After a moment, she adds. “Yes, itʼs all his. We have already recognized [the body].”
The body gets hidden in a bag, the family leaves the morgue. Polina, surprised by her resilience, hands Natalka a package and a soft pink cartoon mouse to put in the coffin.
Natalka says goodbye to her family, gets into the car and exhales loudly.
“She wants to work for us,” she says about Polina.
“You just have to go through it all,” Polina tells me on the phone a week after “Maus”ʼs funeral. She began to draw up documents at the Azovʼs Special Operations Forces in order to work there in the information direction, and is already making farewell announcements and photos for the funeral, T-shirts, and billboards for the families of the deceased. “I offer everything I can to honor the memory of the dead as their relatives see it. This saves me. I go to my husband every day and do not cry, but tell him what I do for others — because he was always there for everyone. I am very proud of him. I continue his path. Well, how else can the wife of a military man behave, especially in Azov?”
Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.