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Maxym Zubov: “I compete with the person in the mirror”

Why the Army

In 2012 I graduated with honours from the master’s program at the Kyiv National University of Technology and Design. I was offered a Ph.D. position, and I even planned to pursue it. The exams were scheduled in six months. However, during that time, I decided that I wanted to join the military.

Being a paratrooper was a childhood dream of mine. My father was a paratrooper.

I just reassessed my life and realised that I didn’t want to be in that department, in that university, with those people, studying and working together. I didn’t want the life those people have. I clearly understood that I should have a military specialisation to be able to defend my country. In May 2013 the war was not even close, but as  I was 21 years old probably there was a certain teenage maximalism in me that didn’t fade away.

I always had a conscious civic position, even though I come from the northern part of the Sumy region, a Russian-speaking city. I wasn’t involved in Plast or other youth nationalist organisations or patriotic movements. But somehow, I developed a sense of belonging to my country – Ukraine, and I believed that any citizen should be able to defend it if needed.


I was born in Russia, in the Belgorod region. Now everyone knows where it is, even though they used to think it was Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi. My birth certificate says: mother – russian, father – russian, and accordingly, I am russian. But I have Ukrainian roots on my mother’s side – her father was Ukrainian, and her grandmother’s father was from Ukraine too.

When I was four years old, my parents got divorced, and my mother returned to her parents in Ukraine.

However, I grew up in the russian-speaking city of Shostka, the Sumy region. It’s an industrial city with many people from russia. Even in schools, teachers taught in Ukrainian, but outside school, everyone spoke russian. My family is russian-speaking.

No one deliberately instilled love for my country in me, instead, they focused on instilling general human values: respect others, don’t harm, don’t steal. Probably many factors influenced me. At that time, Ukrainian culture was gaining popularity and I switched to Ukrainian bands like TNMK and Tartak from Detsl and Basta. 

I also had a crafts teacher who organised bicycle tours to nature and nearby places. We went on various hiking trips. Thanks to him, I got interested in photography. But it was more about instilling love for my homeland through history, Soviet history in particular, as we had famous Soviet heroes born in our region, such as Kozhedub – a three-time Hero of the Soviet Union, and Kovpak, born in Putyvel was the leader of the partisan movement during World War II.

About Russians

Every year I used to spend my holidays with relatives in russia, and even then, the differences between us were noticeable. Regarding war, russians have a different attitude towards people, the phenomenon of war, and its significance. War is not just about tanks, weapons, soldiers, and armies. Those are only external manifestations. And from the inside  – it’s about suffering and killing.

As Golda Meir said: “We will have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” It’s the same with us and the russians. Roman Shukhevych said: “We are fighting not because we hate our enemy but because we love those who are standing behind us.” This is what makes us different. Since 2014, we’ve been defending Ukraine, continuing the path of the previous generations of Ukrainians. We are protecting those who come after us. But russians just hate us. They don’t protect their people.

I have many relatives in Russia on my mother’s side. They say it’s a matter of politics. As for my father’s side  – I didn’t even ask. They all know everything perfectly well in Russia. They are aware of everything but choose to remain silent. And that’s even worse. They are complicit as well.

Beginning of the war

In May 2013 I signed a contract with the 95th Separate Airmobile Brigade of the Airborne Forces.  My half-brother, who was a year younger than me, was serving there. So, I met the war already as an active military serviceman, a professional soldier. I had already had a year of service which was by the way really intensive. As it turned out, we were being prepared at a quite high level to counteract illegal armed formations.

In March, we were transferred from the Zhytomyr region to Chongar. We arrived there in the evening, and the next morning, I was on duty at the base camp when we had the order to go for reinforcement due to the threat of the russian airborne troops landing. We quickly loaded up on two APCs and headed to Arabat Spit, near Genichesk.

There’s a gas distribution station beyond the village of Strilkove, an eminence that is still part of the Kherson region. Crimea begins further, after the gas station. There were border guards and about seven people from our brigade there.

We didn’t reach the gas distribution station as our forces stationed there had already left. They were expecting a large-scale landing and were afraid they wouldn’t be able to hold their positions.

So, we were lying on the shore of the Azov Sea, observing the potential airborne troops landing area along the coast. We saw a group of two helicopters coming from the Crimea side but were convinced they were our people. We didn’t believe it could be someone else. When those helicopters flew right above us at an altitude of about the third or fourth floor of a building, I noticed a red star on the bottom. That’s when fear struck me.

I was a grenadier, and my grenade launcher was loaded; I could have aimed at those helicopters. Maybe I could have taken down at least one. But no orders were given and it wasn’t clear what was happening. And that was terrifying, a really scary moment.

They flew by, turned over Syvash, and then returned. Later, there was, indeed, a landing of their airborne troops at the gas distribution station, plus the approach of their infantry and paratroopers along the ground route from the Crimea. They occupied the gas distribution station, and we moved back a bit. They took control of the station and settled in at a nearby tourist base.

Between them and us, there was a “ceasefire” line, and one night we frequently used illumination shells to mark the buffer territory. Then one of their commanders called and asked us not to fire those shells because it scared his conscripts. We did achieve some of our objectives.

Actually what happened in March was that russia had already occupied part of the Kherson region.

In Strilkove, we nearly had close combat, but the issue was resolved by the commander of the 79th Separate Brigade. No one understood what was happening then,  no one really believed in the war. It seemed like everything would somehow settle down and subside. We realised there could be provocations, but still, we believed it would somehow be resolved,  like with Tuzla.

Then we were transferred to Henichesk, Obytoch spit, and were observing at the Azov sea horizon level. There was a probability of the airborne troops landing in the Zaporizhzhya region. 

ATO zone

Then, at the end of April, we were transferred all the way through Zaporizhzhia to Dobropillia, the Donetsk region.

On May 2 we had our first losses there. There was an attack on our convoy near Sloviansk, which was supported by some locals and two of our guys were killed. After that, we were airlifted to Kramatorsk. The city was fully occupied, except for the airport. We were sent there to reinforce it and stayed there for almost a month. There were no active battles. At first, we still had taxi drivers’ phones, they would come, and we’d give them money or contacts for Nova Poshta (delivery service). The taxi drivers would go to the city, collect packages, buy things, and bring them to us. But then, the separatists started to catch those drivers and take them to basements. Later, shelling of the airport began.

But when Serhiy Kryvonos took over the defence of the airport, we started strengthening our positions. On May 29 when we were digging trenches at our positions, we saw smoke from a downed helicopter with General Kulchytsky, then we saw the attack aviation working. But each time the helicopters flew over us less and less because they were shot down more and more frequently.

Around May 31 we were transferred to Mount Karachun on helicopters. I saw how nervous the pilots were, smoking cigarettes. There were no emotions on their faces except fear. Not a desperate kind of fear but a conscious realisation that it might be their last flight.

My battalion was supposed to take Karachun. They sent us there for reinforcement, and we stayed there for a day, then moved to the ATO headquarters, somewhere near Izyum.


On June 3 we were told to storm a checkpoint near Sloviansk, and it was supposed to be just separatists, but it turned out that they had a good fortified area and the eminence. Moreover, we were marching in a column which made us absolutely vulnerable. And when we started the attack, it was unclear where the fire was coming from. We had a lot of wounded soldiers and our battalion commander was killed then.

He was a real commander, he led us at the head of the column and adjusted the artillery fire together with our reconnaissance platoon. He was visually different from everyone else, and he was shot by a sniper. His front and rear armour plates were pierced in the heart area, and he died immediately. Taras Senyuk from Ivano-Frankivsk region was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine.

Then my company commander took over the battle. His lost leg due to an explosion later but we managed to retreat. 

I was also wounded in that battle. Separatists were firing machine guns towards the asphalt so they ricocheted into our legs. Both of my legs were wounded. I remained conscious, my comrades put tourniquets on me,  injected me with butorphanol, and dragged me behind the APCs and then behind the tanks. Later I was almost run over by a tank.

It was scary to fly when we were being evacuated to the hospital because the helicopters were being actively shot down. I thought: “We survived the battle, but they might shoot us down and it’s over.” And it was very difficult not to close your eyes when you wanted to sleep because of fatigue and blood loss.  


I had been bedridden for two months. The heel bone on my right leg was smashed by a bullet, and five bones, including the heel bone, were broken on my left leg. Doctors could look at each other through my heel. And then my feet were so swollen that I couldn’t get out of bed, it seemed like they would always be so big. It was very hard. 

My mom took care of me all the time, and I’m grateful to her, but it was my girlfriend who motivated me. She played a crucial role. Later she became my wife. We had met at McDonald’s, where we were both working. We had a relationship but decided to break up. 

But she knew that I was at war, and when I posted a photo from the hospital on Vkontakte, she wrote that she wanted to come. It was right at the moment when I thought that no one would ever need me. Besides I was in constant pain because my bones and tissues were still healing…

It’s like when you’re a tough paratrooper walking on the edge, playing with death, thinking that nothing will ever happen to you, and when it does –  you feel like a helpless kitten. But when she came and talked with me I didn’t feel any pain. 

Then I was given a wheelchair. It was like a breath of fresh air for me. People feel sorry for those in wheelchairs, but in fact, the wheelchair allows you to move, it does not limit you, on the contrary, you are not bedridden anymore. Then there were walkers, crutches… When I was discharged home, I would crawl on my ass around the apartment. I had not left the house for a month. It was both uncomfortable and I didn’t really want to.

About the losses and the memory

There is a lot to think about in the hospital. During sleepless nights there you feel despair and cry. When I learned that a man from my platoon was killed, I cried like a child. It is the feeling of helpless rage and despair when you can’t change anything. Ihor was the first of my friends to die. It’s terrible to realise that the person is not there anymore… Then Serhiy Parubets and Dmytro Ivakh followed… And the further you go, the more you lose – the more callous you become. You are depressed by such news, but you move on faster. You realise that this is the way of a warrior. And this is war. 

It’s important that the price they paid was not in vain, they must be remembered. Not in monuments, not on memorial plaques, but in people’s hearts. That’s where the memory lives, as long as you recall and talk about them. A memorial plaque and everything can be removed or broken and just a grave mound in the cemetery will be left.

After the army service

After I left the army, it was important for me to influence change, to pass on a better country to my children.  I was writing my diploma in Kyiv-Mohyla Academy on the topic: “State policy on the memory perpetuation of the fallen defenders of Ukraine”.  I worked in the area of memorial work at the Ministry of Veterans. 

At first, I worked at the Ministry of Regional Development. There were positions of reform specialists there. I had an interesting area of work – creating barrier-free space and preserving architectural heritage, in terms of construction. In Ukraine, the Ministry of Culture is in charge of preservation, but the Ministry of Regional Development also has a small part of the responsibilities. 

Creating a barrier-free space is very important. It’s a matter of urgency now and will be relevant for years to come. In general, it’s about how ready we are to be a modern and civilised society. I had worked there for half a year and was transferred to the Ministry of Veterans to the same position – a state expert. I became a state expert of the expert group on memorial work. Pavlo Podobied worked at the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, and they were developing a military burial ritual. 

One of the projects I was working on was the National Memorial Cemetery. It should be located in a place with maximum attendance and involvement of international delegations. This is the place where all international delegations should see and understand the price of our struggle and pay tribute to our soldiers. When international delegations come to Washington on official visits, they go to Arlington National Military Cemetery to lay a wreath at the grave of an unknown soldier. This way they pay tribute to the fallen Americans in the fight for their freedom and democratic values in the world. Similarly, our National Military Memorial Cemetery is a place where we pay tribute to the fallen defenders of Ukraine at the governmental level. And all international delegations that come to us must visit this place if they respect our country.


What is the most important thing at war?

Luck.  You need to have the skills to make luck smile on you more often. It’s a normal feeling of guilt that your comrade died and you survived. There, you become a kind of pack, you feel like you belong. And everyone is on equal footing, and it could have been you. What is at work here is mere luck.

Are you persistent in your work?

I can start many things and then quit them. And then I start again, concentrate, and achieve results. 

What motivates you?

The feeling of responsibility for the fallen comrades motivates me at my work.  In general, I love to travel. My wife and I used to travel a lot before our children were born and before the full-scale war. I am a traveller by nature and I have a dream. I am working on it. I also want to walk the way of St. James, and there are two of them by the way, a Portuguese and a Spanish one. My wife motivates and guides me, and my children motivate me. 

Sea or mountains?

I love everything, I love the world – rivers, lakes. I don’t know how not to love it, I love cities, I love nature, it relaxes me. When my children were born, we went to the Sea of Azov and went to Dzharylhach with them. Once before the children were born, we climbed Hoverla on Independence Day and the Niesamowite Lake. Earlier, we used to climb the Chornohora range with the guys. After I was wounded, I returned to the mountains with a backpack, and the mountains are just one love, and so is the sea.

How should civilians treat veterans?

Just like in America. They treat all the military with respect. A significant part of Americans serve in their army. When they retire, there is still an understanding that the person in uniform is the one who replaced them. And civilians understand that a man in uniform is a defender. 

I mostly wear civilian clothes now, because as Oleg Sentsov once said: “I don’t want to be a political prisoner for the rest of my life”. Similarly, I don’t want all my life achievements to be about being a veteran. This is a stage of life that I am proud of, but it should not be the only one in my life. That’s why I’m trying my best to just live. 

Respect for veterans is manifested in events such as the Invictus Games or the March of the Invictus on Independence Day

Of course, there should be gratitude. But in my understanding, respect is the best form of gratitude. In America, it’s “Thank you for your service.” and the same phrase in Ukrainian is the right idea.

Why do you want to take part in the Invictus Games?

In 2017 I applied for the Invictus Games in Sydney but didn’t make it. Then I focused on my studies, and work and gave up archery. I hadn’t picked it up for five years. And now I’m shooting again.

In Dusseldorf, I will compete in archery, powerlifting, and wheelchair volleyball. 

This year is the year of closing of my gestalts. I wanted to join the team since I learned about the competition from Pavlo Mamontov. He told me about the Invictus Games and the Master’s Program in Public Management and Administration. That’s how I ended up at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Pavlo was an example for me. I also wanted to be a part of the national team, I wanted to represent our country at the international level, and I wanted to benefit society. I saw this as the way of my physical rehabilitation. 

When I was bedridden for two months, I had to use a bedpan and I was thinking: “Damn, you’re 24 years old and you’re so weak you can’t wipe your own ass. It can’t be like this.” I wanted to prove that I could do more. I’ve come a long way. And for me, Invictus is about the fact that I can do more. 

I’m not against anyone, I’m against the old version of me. I saw my rivals and I keep them as a reference point. But I compete with the person in the mirror. This is my only rival. 

I also became a father. Until the age of 13, parents are the most important people in the world for their children. I want to be an icon for my children until then, to set an example for them so that they are proud of their parents.



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