People of the Underground: How the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works turned into a fortress for the Ukrainian defenders of Mariupol and a shelter for hundreds of Mariupol’s civilians
Writer — Olena Struk
Editor — Maria Semenchenko
Illustrator — Karyna Katsun
Translator — Oksana Mekheda
From the beginning of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, Mariupol, a city by the sea, was under siege. The Russians surrounded it, and their brutal terror began: residential areas were bombed every day with both missiles and aerial bombs, thousands of civilians were killed. The invaders prevented local residents from evacuating: cars with people who tried to leave the city were shot at, volunteers helping people to escape were taken prisoner.
The underground bunkers of the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works became a shelter for many residents of Mariupol. Later on, they also became a stronghold for the defenders of the city who held off Russian attacks on the surrounded city for 86 days. They were the soldiers of the Azov Regiment, marines, border guards, officers of the National Police and the Security Service of Ukraine.
There were a lot of wounded among the Ukrainian military. They had very little water and food, medical supplies and equipment, and they couldn’t transport their dead out of Azovstal. Meanwhile, ever heavier weaponry was used against them: planes dropped high explosive incendiary 500-kilogram bombs and fired missiles, as well as fire and phosphorus bombs, banned by international conventions. Some of the civilians stayed in the shelter for weeks without ever coming out to the surface because of the constant bombing. They practically lived underground.
The Mariupol defenders gave a chance to the Ukrainian army to regroup, prepare, mobilize reinforcements and receive some weapons from Ukraine’s partner countries. In mid-May, the Azov Regiment commander Denys Prokopenko reported that Mariupol defenders had fulfilled their task and received an order to save their lives. On May 16, with the help of international humanitarian organizations, the exit of the fighters to the Russian-occupied territory began. Ukraine called this process an evacuation while Russia claimed that the Ukrainian warriors were surrendering. Severely wounded Ukrainian soldiers and civilians were evacuated from Azovstal a few days earlier.
Now the destroyed and burnt Mariupol is occupied by Russians. The Ukrainian soldiers who left Azovstal are now POWs, with only a small number of them exchanged so far. Ukraine still hasn’t received all the bodies of those who were killed at Azovstal.
On July 29th, the world knew about another Russian war crime. The Russians killed more than 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war, and dozens of people were wounded in the occupied Olenivka (Donetsk Oblast). These prisoners of war were the defenders of Mariupol.
This story is about the desperate resistance of the Ukrainian military, the survival of civilians, and, of course, about the Azovstal Iron and Steel Plant which was destined to become a place where history unfolded.
Mariupol historian Vadym Korobka narrates:
“Mariupol is a child of the industrial revolution. At the end of the 19th century, a railway was built to the city, and a deepwater port was constructed nearby. Two iron and steel works were built, called Nikopol and Providence. Later, in the 1920s, during the Soviet period, they were combined into the Illich Metalworks, named after Lenin’s nickname. And finally, in the 1930s, Azovstal was founded.
‘This new industrial complex was to be built on the left bank of the river Kalmius, next to where it flows into the Azov Sea. Why there? Pure mathematics. It is the shortest path by sea to the Komysh-Burun iron ore mines on the Kerch Peninsula. Coal from Donetsk mines is also close by.”
“I live on hope”: story of Ihor and Olena
They were standing on the bridge connecting the left and right banks of the city. Mariupol was glowing with evening lights. Azovstal’s blast furnaces, cranes and stacks loomed dark against the sky, as if someone had cut an industrial landscape out of paper. The plant’s gates were very close.
“I remember that we had first kissed there. It was a year ago in March. For a few days I’ve been haunted by the thought, ‘Why there in particular?’” recounts Olena, the wife of an Azov soldier, Ihor (the name has been changed for safety reasons).
Back then they couldn’t even imagine what Azovstal would become for both of them. For them, everything was just beginning. Olena was born in Mariupol. She worked as a civil servant and was bringing up a son. Ihor was from Dnipro, but when he went to serve as a marine, he moved to Mariupol, where his military unit was stationed.
They met on a dating website. “I’m embarrassed to admit this,” Olena laughs. She didn’t expect much of it: because “dating websites can’t be serious,” because she was older than him, because she had a five-year-old son from a previous failed marriage. But in five months, they got married.
“70% of our story happened thanks to Ihor. He is gentle, but you can feel the power in him. If it was me making the decision, I’d try to consider everything and think everything through. But he just said, ‘I like you, you are my wife.’ It’s the kind of confidence which you can’t resist. In the end, everything really worked out the best way it could,” she says. But she immediately adds, “Sadly, it was very brief.”
Ihor’s military career started in 2017.
“I loved the fact that he was a military man. He spoke about some absolutely heroic things that sounded like something out of a Statham movie. But at the same time he was so humble, as if it was just an ordinary job. I’ve always been astonished by the contrast between what he did in the military and his easy-going personality in everyday life, by how calm he was, no dramatic heroism,” Olena recalls.
Ihor was transferred to the Azov Regiment last year. Olena explains that he needed it for professional growth. He would go to their training base every day. Sometimes they had field training.
“Ihor had grown a lot during his year in Azov. He was aware of it, and the qualification tests supported that,” comments Olena. “If there ever existed some kind of manual or a code of honor, faithfulness and courage, he would be the prime illustration. He believes in the world, believes in people. Sometimes I even asked him, ‘Are you serious?’ But I loved that about him.”
Right before the full-scale Russian invasion, her husband was called up for a combat tour. It wasn’t the first time, so Olena wasn’t worried. There was no particular panic in the city either. Mariupol had been living near the frontline, just 15 kilometers from it, since 2014.
“We were used to the state of war. I didn’t leave Mariupol 8 years ago. I wasn’t going to do it this time either. We knew that the city had fortifications on the side of Shyrokyne, Donetsk,” recalls Olena.
Together with Ihor, they had prepared just a little stock of medical supplies. Olena’s husband reminded her how to use a turnstile and an occlusive bandage. They also packed some dry foods and candybars in a backpack, and that was it.
“On February 24, the bombing started. I think that we got more bombs in that one day than we did during the 8 previous years. We hadn’t heard those terrible sirens before either, because we’ve never been bombed from the air. The air bombing is different from Grad missiles. It’s very scary,” says Olena.
She took her son, left the apartment in the apartment complex for the military, and went to stay at her mother’s house, with a basement and a food supply. Ihor called her in a couple of hours and asked her to leave the city. Olena managed to get on the last evacuation bus, organized by Azov for the families of soldiers. Since then, Ihor would occasionally call her, but that was it. During one of these brief conversations, Olena told Ihor that he would become a father.
“When we were leaving Mariupol and traveling to Ihor’s relatives, I wept a lot. I cried for my city, for my life. It turned out that I was so very attached to my home, I even missed my towels and quilts. You can’t fit your whole life in a suitcase,” she says.
She didn’t worry about Ihor: “I knew that he was with his guys, at the right place for him, and that he was prepared. This thought kept me sane.” She would later learn that he was at Azovstal from the news.
Azovstal is the fourth largest iron and steel plant in Ukraine. In fact, it is a city within the city, containing 45 buildings on the territory of 11 square kilometers. It is one fifth of the area of Mariupol itself. This is where the Mariupol garrison would hold its defense.
Sometimes Olena and Ihor managed to talk or message. Ihor asked about their son and said that he missed Olena’s jokes. Also he questioned her about the pregnancy.
“He tried to support me. He listened to all my whining. When I complained bitterly about leaving my bread making machine in Mariupol, he promised that we would buy a new, much better one. It’s a military attitude: there’s no problem without a solution. I could see that he was in good spirits. He had to be, because he knew that I was waiting for him. I promised to cook so many things for him: tiramisu, brownies, bread in that new bread machine,” Olena recalls. “Ihor really missed bread. Sometimes he would text me, ‘I would give anything for any slice of bread, wheat, rye, dry. But it’s OK. We have food.’ Once he wrote that they had found a box of Snickers at the plant. Another time, ‘we had tea twice, and now we are waiting for porridge.’
Ihor didn’t share details. Only during their last conversation in mid-May, Olena saw how exhausted he was. At that point, she didn’t hear his usual “All is well. We had porridge. I’m not wounded.”
“At that point, they didn’t have enough food or water. He began to tell me, ‘Well, I had something to eat, had some water, and they promised us more later.’ His exhaustion, both physical and emotional, was evident. It was my turn to support him, with words if with nothing else. ‘I know that you are at the end of your strength, that you are exhausted, but hang in there, you will become a father. And you promised me to come back!’” the soldier’s wife recalls.
She believed that a miracle would happen till the very end. “I thought that someone would think something up and save them. I thought it would be something specifically Azov-style: saved by sea, by helicopter, by boats,” Olena says.
On May 16, the Main Intelligence Department of the Ministry of Defense, Ukrainian Armed Forces, National Guards and Border Guards began the rescue operation to get the blocked defenders of Mariupol out of Azovstal. The garrison left the territory of the plant. Russians took the Ukrainian fighters to the occupied territories. More than 2.5 thousands of Ukrainian military men and women from Azovstal had been taken prisoner.
“I felt devastation and despair. I used to think that Azov fighters didn’t have much of a choice: to die at Azovstal or to die in captivity. Who knows what’s worse,” Olena says.
Now she lives on hope. Sometimes she takes her phone and rereads his messages. “Memories are my medicine, in the absence of anything else,” she writes on social media.
“I don’t have any special feelings for Azovstal,” she admits. “It’s just a place. It was the people who resisted.”
Olena is expecting her baby son in October. “Ihor has to be there,”’ she says. “There is no other way.”
The story of Ivan Holtvenko, the Director of Personnel and Administration of the Azovstal Plant:
“The major development of the plant happened during the Cold War. At that time, every plant was equipped with a bomb shelter, and Azovstal was no exception. Nevertheless, the shelters at this plant had never been used for their express purpose.
It wasn’t until 2014, which brought the first attempt to conquer Mariupol, that they became a subject of serious consideration again. We realized that these bomb shelters might still be of use. We cleaned them up, brought in enough food and water for 14 days, and basic medical supplies. We had been checking these supplies twice a year during the last 8 years, renewing the supplies as needed. Additionally, the plant had 7 diners and 8 canteens with their own food supplies that people had later used.
All in all, Azovstal has 36 bomb shelters. The bunkers are not interconnected. When we realized that the situation might get out of control, we informed our staff that bomb shelters were open to everyone. By our estimates, at some points they sheltered up to 2.5 thousand civilians.
When the full-scale invasion started, we decided to pause the production at the plant. Our defense lines, it turned out, stretched from the north to the east of the city. We expected an attack from there. But the enemy advanced from the back, through Kherson, Melitopol and Berdyansk. They also attacked from the air. It was only a matter of time before the first bomb hit the plant.
In such a situation, gas communications at Azovstal became the source of grave danger. I’m talking both about the natural gas piped to Azovstal, and about the lump coke mixture produced by blast furnaces and coke batteries. If breathed in, it can lead to clinical death. That is why, around February 26, we began to turn off the power at the plant, which in fact meant that Azovstal would shut down completely. This had happened only once in all 88 years of its existence: in 1941.
No one expected the plant to turn into a fortress that would be bombed and shelled continually for three months. All administrative buildings were completely destroyed. The shelters are under them, by the way. They were bombed on purpose.”
“We found ourselves smack in the middle of hell.” The story of Serhiy Dukhno
It was a regional math competition for school students. Serhiy didn’t really prepare and wasn’t surprised when he didn’t come in among the three winners. Therefore, he didn’t go to the next level in Kyiv. His teacher wasn’t happy: “If you squander your gift, you’ll end up working at a rail workshop!”
She couldn’t be more right.
“Many years went by, and here I was at Azovstal, at no other place than the rail workshop,” laughs Serhiy Dukhno, aged 61. “I regret nothing. Turns out I made a good specialist in hydraulics.”
He had worked at the plant for 36 years until his retirement. His wife worked at the plant’s laboratory, and later his son joined Azovstal as a rolling mill operator.
Here’s what he told us. “I certainly knew about the bunkers, but I had never thought that Azovstal would give me not just work but a shelter too. I am glad that we ended up there. If we stayed in the city and tried to hide in the basement under our house, we probably would be dead by now. Many of my neighbors died buried under the rubble of their houses.”
Nevertheless, the decision to move to the Azovstal shelter didn’t come instantly.
“What shall we do, Dad?” “It’s OK, we’ll wait it out. It will be just like 2014. They will fire, and we’ll stop them.” That’s how Serhiy recalls a conversation with his son. At that time in late February, he didn’t believe that the full-scale war would break out. He was also reassured by the fortifications outside the city.
“When the explosions started, I counted the shots fired at the city, and estimated the probability of them getting to our house. It was low. I reassured our relatives,” he explains.
But on March 1, a missile hit just five meters away from their home, leaving a huge hole at the site of a children’s playground. On that morning, the family packed their two cats in a bag, took their Yorkshire terrier Carry, grabbed their emergency bag with documents, got some food and headed for Azovstal.
“The fortifications did no good. The war tactic changed completely. The Russians destroyed Mariupol from the air, square by square. I shouldn’t have been so complacent,” Serhiy says.
Their new place was 10 meters below ground. It was a huge long room, 30 by 8 meters, with benches where almost a hundred people could sit.
“I remember thinking, the land opened under their feet and people saw hell. As it turned out later, we really were smack in the middle of it,” Serhiy says.
When he descended into the bunker with his family, there were 19 people there. Soon the number of refugees grew to 42. The bunker was cold and wet. The ventilation system didn’t work because the power was cut off. During the first day, there was no light either. But, luckily for the bunker’s dwellers, there were two electricians among them.
“They were the heroes. They had found two accumulators in the machinery halls and carried them down to the shelter under bombardment. Then managed to turn them on,” Serhiy recalls.
Led-lamps had replaced the sun. The lights would go on at 6 a.m. and off at 10 p.m. People sheltering in Azovstal fashioned beds out of pallets they had found at the plant. They also had to search for warm clothes. The plant’s workers used to keep their warm coats and pants at the workplace, and the dwellers of the shelter used them to get warm. The temperature on the surface during those days was nearly freezing, between 0 to 5 degrees Celsius.
Every morning started with boiled water barely colored with coffee or tea. That was their breakfast. Soup for everyone was cooked for lunch. For dinner, they had more boiled water with a biscuit. The kitchen was organized in the next room. They cooked over a fire. There was a supply of water and dry food in the bunker: 175 sets of dry food divided among those who stayed in the shelter at the time. Each set contained 1 tin of meat, 1of fish, two kinds of porridge (buckwheat and wheat), crackers and biscuits. The people who stayed there decided to pull their resources and cook for everyone.
“I remember how difficult it was to leave behind your everyday habits during the first days. For example, women had to wash their hair very often, even though water and food were finite resources. Nobody could tell how long we’d be stuck there, and how to use supplies wisely to avoid famine. At first, we didn’t know that it was better not to drink unboiled water, because, sorry for the details, it was unpleasant to clean our improvised toilet. Not to mention that every person has their own personality and views. That was a source of conflict right there. Nonetheless, no matter how different, we were all in the same boat. If you decided to jump out, you would die,” Serhiy told us.
He admits that it took him a whole week to adapt and accept the new reality. Eventually though, everybody found their place in this story, according to Serhiy. They had a group of “woodcutters” who would go around the plant and look for firewood. Serhiy’s son was one of them. Electricians were responsible for keeping the lights on. Some were searching for more food. They had to go through personal possessions left behind by the workers.They did find some cigarettes, leftover coffee and sugar.
“Some people succumbed to apathy. They received their portion of food, and that was it. Only kids stayed kids. They were running, jumping, drawing, playing,” recalls Serhiy.
From time to time, the Ukrainian military would visit the bunker and bring food: potatoes or pasta.
All the days were the same. Serhiy woke up, drank hot brown water, and went to the observation point which he put up next to the shelter’s exit. When he was lucky to find a cigarette butt, he would smoke and think. “My son was constantly complaining, ‘Why are you sitting there like an old owl?’ But I was observing, looking at the people, and at some point it seemed like I could read their thoughts,” Serhiy says.
The emotional tone differed day by day though: some were worse, some better. Fortunately, no one at their bunker got seriously sick or wounded. But as the shelling intensified, difficulties turned into unbearable obstacles. Initially, the quiet moments would last for an hour or two, but later the bombing was nonstop. Grads, mortars, ship artillery: they had it all, but the planes were the scariest. Some people never left the bunker and hadn’t seen daylight or got fresh air for weeks. The last time Serhiy went out onto the roof of his shelter was on March 9.
“I saw death then. Not the way they usually draw it, but in the shape of a huge black cloth. My house still stood, but behind it everything went black. It seemed that this darkness was getting closer, gnawing at anything that got in its way. It was such a paralizing terror. I realized that everything that I had lived for just disappeared,” the man recalls.
It might have been at that point that he realized that it was time to move on. He started to get dark dreams about roads. After that came the terrible shelling of March 15, when the walls of their shelter shook.
“I had no doubt that the walls wouldn’t cave in, but the exits could be blocked by all these attacks from the air. Then we would die of hunger and thirst in blocked rooms. I just saw this picture so vividly before my eyes,” he recalls.
Serhiy and his family decided to get out without waiting for the official evacuation. He shared his plans with a soldier he knew, but the man didn’t support the idea: “It is really dangerous out there”. But if it was dangerous out there, it would soon get dangerous down here too, reasoned Serhiy. Waiting for that to happen seemed too frightening a prospect. Serhiy says, “Sitting there and doing nothing was killing the will to fight for life”.
Together with his family and two other families, 12 people in total, he left the bunker on March 25. When Serhiy was picturing the plan and visualizing their map of escape, he didn’t see this idea as a risky delusion.
“But then we saw a man get killed by a bomb before our very eyes. I realized how much responsibility I had taken on. If any of us were killed, it would be my fault,” admits Serhiy. “I am an atheist. But there are no atheists in the trenches, as they say. You start asking somebody for help anyway.”
During their escape from Azovstal, Serhiy raised his eyes to the sky three times and whispered two words: “Help me.” Someone heard him. They reached Zaporizhzhia. It took them five days. They walked for 120 kilometers, passing numerous Russian checkpoints and enduring humiliating searches by the Russian military. Now Serhiy and his wife are staying with their relatives in Poland.
“We, people from Mariupol, had our past stolen from us, our future taken away. But it is not the worst thing. We are also lost in the present,” Serhiy muses. “We can’t find ourselves anywhere else. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the bunker. After facing danger, my wife and I became closer, we became as one. I got to know my son. I can tell that I had brought up a good man. In the bunker, he told me: when we get out, I will enlist. We got out. Now my son is in the army.”
Mariupol historian Vadym Korobka narrates:
“The first batch cast iron was produced at Azovstal in 1933. A workers’ settlement appeared on the left bank of Kalmius, later becoming a part of Mariupol. Now it’s the left bank region of the city. Its eastern part was shelled by Grads in the early 2015. 29 people were killed then, and 92 were wounded. You could say that Russians were showing us what the future held.
The population of Mariupol increased fivefold from the 1920s to the late 1930s, largely due to the construction of the plant. During WWII, the Germans seized Mariupol in one day, but the Soviets managed to get some of Azovstal’s equipment to Urals. The plant itself was damaged as the Red Army retreated.
During the Soviet era, tens of thousands of workers worked at Azovstal. It was a symbol of prosperity, a place where you could make money.
The rapid development of the metallurgical industry turned the city into an ecological disaster zone though. It drew a lot of attention during perestroika. In 2012, a large ecological protest was held in Mariupol. In recent years, the city was developing quickly, becoming an eco-friendly and comfortable place to live. Up until the full-scale invasion, Mariupol had been a kind of front window of the Donetsk Region while the occupied territories seemed to be caught in the past. Maybe that was the reason why Russia took revenge on this city.”
“I had no doubt that he would make it”. Story of Maksym and Tetiana
Tetiana’s last conversation with her husband, Maksym Slobodianiuk, was on May 9. According to the Telegram channel of the Azov regiment, that was how that day unfolded for the defenders of Azovstal: the enemy carried out 34 attacks from the air, and 8 attacks from strategic bombers. Ship and field artillery, MLRS, UR-77 vehicles and tanks were also firing nonstop. The enemy infantry continued their assault on Azovstal.
That was the last time her husband called. On May 12, Tetiana took her 4-year-old son to kindergarten. When she went to pick him up, someone called her from an unknown number.
“I thought it was Maksym,” Tetiana says.
“Your husband is dead” was what she heard.
“We got married in 2018. Our son Kyrylo was born on July 23, right on my husband’s birthday. We worked hard. We bought an apartment in 2020, and a new car in 2021. We traveled around Ukraine and abroad, spending a lot of time together. We planned to have a daughter in 2022. It felt like we were always in a hurry, afraid of running out of time,” tells the soldier’s wife.
Maksym and Tetiana met in Mariupol. Tetiana was born in Yalta, some 30 kilometers away from Mariupol, while Maksym was from Yampil, further to the northwest, in the Vinnytsia region. Their friends introduced them.
“I think we’ve met” were the first words they said to one other.
“You know, it was meant to be. That much was clear to us from the very first moment,” Tetiana says. “We were married in four months.”
She worked as a regional director of the Ukrainian Taxi Services while he served in border troops in Novotroitske. Then he was transferred to Mariupol to be closer to his wife and a newborn son.
“Maksym was a great father. I gave birth at 23, and it wasn’t easy. He always supported me. He ironed the baby clothes and helped with the baby at night. He always played with his son. They were best friends. Maksym was really attached to his family,” she recounts, describing her husband.
Maksym’s father was in the military, and Maksym always wanted to follow in his footsteps. That is why he went to study at the Khmelnytskyi Border Troop Academy. He was the senior operating officer of the cross-border crime unit. This year, he planned to get his Master’s degree to advance in his career.
“He was sure that this was the work of his life. As a cadet, he happened to be near Crimea when the Russians started to attack in 2014. He described bringing the dead bodies of his friends back to the Academy, and how later he had dreams about that. But that didn’t change his goal to serve,” explains Tetiana.
“Let’s make this decision: as soon as the war begins, you are leaving the city on that same day. You will have half an hour to get ready,” Maksym told her before Russia’s full-scale invasion. He looked troubled, but he tried to calm Tania down: “For me, not surviving isn’t an option.” And in a few days, the Russians fired Grads at Mariupol.
Tetiana and her son went to Vinnytsia. “Nothing mattered anymore: not our apartment, not our stuff. I didn’t even look at the pictures of houses on fire. I didn’t look for our house among them,” Tetiana says. Her only worry was her husband. She lost a lot of weight. Sometimes Maksym, who was defending the city since the day of invasion, would lose cell phone connection for 3-4 days. That was the most difficult thing for Tetiana.
“Nobody told us that they were at Azovstal, and we were not allowed to ask,” Tetiana says. “By April, it was clear that only Azovstal was left. I remember asking Maksym, ‘Are you where all the others are?’ His answer was a simple yes. He loved me very much and didn’t want to upset me. He always said, ‘Everything will be well with us. We don’t give up. We will win. We have food to eat, we have water to drink. Don’t worry. I will come back to you soon, I will hug you soon.” That was his go-to phrase: “Everything will be fine.”
He didn’t tell Tetiana about the wound. In March, Maksym’s toe was torn off by shrapnel. She learned about this later from her husband’s brother.
“Maksym made a video call once. He was always caring and joyful, but his eyes were so sad,” Tetiana recalls. He confessed to his wife that they hardly ever slept because of the never-ending rattle of explosions, and that they didn’t have much to eat.
“But I couldn’t even think that Maksym would die. He was experienced, well prepared, motivated. He had ten years of service under his belt. He was often under fire. I had no doubt that he would make it,” she said.
That day Maksym and five of his comrades got caught in aerial bombardment. The bomb hit the building they were in, collapsing the whole structure as if it were made of cardboard. All six soldiers got buried under the rubble. They didn’t get Maksym’s body out until the next day.
After getting the news of her husband’s death, Tania didn’t leave home for ten days. Then she realized that the longer she stayed in bed, the worse it got, so she pulled herself together and went to work.
“Work helps me to carry on and distracts me. I got peace in my soul after we buried Maksym,” Tetiana says.
Every Saturday, she goes to the cemetery with her son. Tetiana honestly told him that his father wasn’t with them anymore, and that she cried because she loved him. And the boy said, “Don’t cry, you can love Dad even when he is no longer with us”.
“I am proud of everyone who was at Azovstal, who risked their lives and stayed there till the very end. They are fearless warriors,” Tetiana says. “Their will is so very strong.”
The project is produced with the support of Lviv Media Forum and EU-funded programme House of Europe.