KYIV, Ukraine—The young man never told anyone he was going to war.
The 20-year-old student at Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko National University slipped away in June 2014 to join a civilian paramilitary group fighting in eastern Ukraine.
The young man, whose name was Sviatoslav Horbenko, was a star pupil at the university’s Institute of Philology, where he studied Japanese. When he transferred from a university in Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine, during his third year, he had to retake 17 exams.
He aced them all.
“There was no bellicose air about him,” said Serhiy Yanchuk, an associate professor at Taras Shevchenko University and coordinator of the university’s Students Guard, a volunteer militia comprising students and faculty.
“He never acted or behaved aggressively for his personal cause,” Yanchuk said. “He was friendly, warm hearted, and an easy-going person. One would surely want to be a friend of such a guy.”
“He was an exceptional student,” said Ivan Bondarenko, a professor who heads the university’s Institute of Philology. “And he was an inspiration to all of us.”
Horbenko’s angular features and piercing eyes distinguished him physically, reflecting the intensity of his inner convictions. His work ethic and natural intelligence set him apart from his peers academically, inspiring high hopes for the future among those who knew him well.
Horbenko’s father, Olexander Horbenko, is a surgeon. He volunteered to treat wounded protesters in Kyiv during the 2014 revolution.
The younger Horbenko was active in pro-revolution groups in Kharkiv, where he was studying at the time. As the revolution became violent in February 2014, Olexander Horbenko encouraged his son to transfer to Kyiv to continue his studies due to the threat of reprisals against protesters by authorities in Kharkiv.
At his father’s behest, the younger Horbenko moved to Kyiv and settled into life and his studies at Taras Shevchenko National University.
And then, a few months after the war began in the summer of 2014, Sviatoslav Horbenko disappeared. Without telling his friends, family, or teachers, he joined Right Sector, a civilian volunteer battalion, to fight at the battle for the Donetsk airport.
Olexander Horbenko ultimately was able to track Sviatoslav down at boot camp. The father tried to dissuade his son from going to war. But Sviatoslav was determined.
“That was my last meeting with him alive, our unforgettable conversation,” Olexander Horbenko later said. “Sviatoslav considered defending his fatherland as his duty, and he developed the strong bonds of military comradeship.”
At their parting, the elder Horbenko placed a necklace with an icon and a cross around his son’s neck. It was the same necklace worn by his own father—Sviatoslav’s grandfather—during World War II when he fought the Nazis. And Olexander had worn it as he weathered sniper fire on the Maidan during the revolution.
“And I let him go,” Olexander Horbenko said. It was the last time he saw his son alive.
In September 2014, Sviatoslav Horbenko stepped onto the battlefield for the first time. One month later, on Oct. 3, 2014, he ran into the line of fire to rescue a wounded comrade.
While Horbenko dragged the man to safety, a tank shot at them. A piece of shrapnel from the round went into Horbenko’s neck, slicing his carotid artery. He was dead within minutes. As for the soldier he had run out to save—he survived.
“Death takes the best of us,” said Denys Antipov, an instructor at Taras Shevchenko University and a veteran of the war in eastern Ukraine.
Because Horbenko served in a civilian volunteer battalion, he is not officially recognized as a combatant by the Ukrainian government. He has not received any posthumous decorations, and his family has not received the compensation of about $23,000 that typically is given to the families of fallen soldiers.
“His family feels really humiliated by such ignorance,” said Yanchuk, the professor who coordinates the university’s Students Guard.
Hell and Cyborgs
The second battle for the Donetsk airport, for which Horbenko volunteered, was fought at close quarters, and it was brutal.
Opposing troops sometimes holed up on different floors of the same building. For months, soldiers on both sides endured near constant shelling, tank shots, rocket attacks, close-quarters gunfights, and even hand-to-hand fighting, according to some Ukrainian soldiers who fought in the battle.
Ukrainian soldiers had taken control of the airport in May 2014, during the opening weeks of the war. That September, weeks after the conflict’s first cease-fire, combined Russian-separatist forces launched an offensive—comprising heavy armor, artillery, and rocket attacks—to take back the airport.
What followed was an apocalyptic showdown that lasted until January 2015.
The Ukrainians gave the nickname “cyborgs” to their soldiers who fought at the Donetsk airport—a reference to the science fiction beings that are a fusion of man and machine. It alluded to the superhuman grit required to endure such intense and brutal fighting, and a mechanical ability to endure endless fear and suffering.
Donetsk’s Sergey Prokofiev International Airport was rebuilt in 2011 for the Euro 2012 soccer championships. More than 1 million passengers passed through the facility in 2013, the year before the war started, on airlines including Lufthansa and Aeroflot.
The new terminal was stylish and modern. It featured manicured landscaping, polished floors, and chic metal detailing. A bellwether, many hoped, for Ukraine’s more prosperous future.
As the war in Ukraine evolved from skirmishes to artillery and tank battles in 2014, the Donetsk airport became a key prize. The opposing sides fought savagely for its control. Artillery and rocket attacks reduced the modern buildings to gutted ruins of crumbling concrete and twisted rebar.
Runways and the surrounding open spaces were churned into a cratered lunarscape, reminiscent of images of no man’s land from World War I battles like the Somme or Verdun.
The charred skeletons of planes littered the tarmac. The physical destruction evidenced the intensity of the battle, and the hellish conditions soldiers on both sides endured.
Surrounding villages like Pisky, about 1 mile from the airport perimeter, where Ukrainian troops staged for battle and fired artillery, also were reduced to demolished ghost towns by reciprocal separatist artillery, rockets, and tanks.
Yet, even amid the bloodletting, the opposing sides were able to demonstrate fleeting acts of humanity. Soldiers who fought at the airport described short truces, during which officers ventured out to collect the dead. Enemies walked among each other, their desire to kill undimmed, but held in check to honor the fallen men under their command.
Pro-Russian separatists, commanded and supported by Russian regulars and armed with Russian weapons, ultimately won control of the airport in January 2015. Ukrainian forces pulled back to nearby villages where they dug in for a protracted, static, long-range battle.
Two years later, Ukrainian forces still are entrenched on the periphery of the airport. Both sides fight from trenches and abandoned, artillery-blasted homes and buildings in a daily, tit-for-tat exchange of artillery and sniper fire.
The fighting has de-escalated from the death spiral of the winter of 2014-2015, but it hasn’t ended.
‘We Shouldn’t Give Up’
The students filled the hallway at the appointed hour. They squeezed, shoulder to shoulder, leaving a pocket of empty space in front of the table with the flowers, which was next to a poster with a picture of Sviatoslav Horbenko and some details about his life.
Behind the table and the poster was the entrance to the room at Taras Shevchenko University’s Institute of Philology that was named in Horbenko’s honor.
It was the second anniversary of Horbenko’s death. Some students held flowers. Others stood quietly, with their hands clasped in front of them.
“He would have made a good professor, a good husband,” Antipov, a 27-year-old teacher and war veteran, told the students gathered at the memorial ceremony.
“Do whatever you can to help our country,” Antipov told them. “But the most important thing you can do is to study, so that his death wasn’t in vain.”
Down the hall from the ceremony was a wall display featuring pictures of students and faculty who served in past military conflicts, including Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Ukrainian sniper for the Red Army credited with 309 kills in World War II.
Horbenko’s picture is now among the others.
“History constantly repeats,” Antipov said.
About 200 students and faculty from Taras Shevchenko National University died fighting in World War II. The history of students volunteering for war dates back to the Battle of Kruty in 1918, during the Russian Civil War.
About 300 students, along with about 100 free Cossacks, mobilized to defend Kyiv against a force of about 5,000 Bolsheviks. The students holed up at the Kruty railway station on the outskirts of the city, but eventually were overwhelmed.
More than half of the combined force of students and Cossacks died in the battle. Kyiv ultimately fell to the Bolsheviks and, along with the rest of Ukraine, was incorporated into the Soviet Union.
The legacy of the students who fought at the Battle of Kruty inspired the formation in 2014 of the group called the Students Guard. Under the direction of Yanchuk, approximately 200 students and faculty members have received military training as part of an auxiliary guerrilla force dedicated to Kyiv’s defense.
“Our goal is to train students to take up arms in the event of an emergency,” Yanchuk, the coordinator, said.
Life in Kyiv is moving on from the war, even though it hasn’t ended yet and the front lines are only a six-hour train ride from Ukraine’s capital city.
There is a film festival in Kyiv this week. The hip underground speakeasies in the city center are filled every night with patrons sipping on craft cocktails while jazz bands play covers of American songs.
At the Art-Zavod Platforma on the left bank, a former Soviet industrial space is now an art flea market and a venue for food festivals and concerts nearly every weekend.
“We try to remember that the war is far from over,” Vasyl Yutovets says.
The coffee bars in central Kyiv perpetually are filled with hipsters and students. The foreign journalists who used to be an ubiquitous presence largely have left. Only a few stalwart holdouts remain, convinced that the forgotten conflict in the east still holds the potential to spiral into something much worse.
“Here in Kyiv, the mass media, the political leadership tries to make the war look far away,” said Vasyl Yutovets, a student at Taras Shevchenko University and commander of the Students Guard. “We try to remember that the war is far from over. The threat is growing day by day.”
Yet, despite the distractions of youth, and many Ukrainians’ blind eye to the ongoing combat in the east, some students haven’t forgotten about the war.
“The hardest part is not going to the front line,” said Yutovets, who served in Ukraine’s National Guard and is a veteran of the war.
“But returning is hard, too,” Yutovets said, adding:
I can’t imagine doing nothing while our country is suffering. We are still hopeful for our future. When the war began, it was very easy to get to the front lines. We realized, then, it was our duty to support the war.
Civilian defense battalions like the Students Guard are also a hedge against further Russian aggression, Yanchuk said.
“When [Russian President Vladimir] Putin encounters the possibility of fighting territorial defense battalions, militias, or even students, it acts as a deterrent,” Yanchuk said.
Yanchuk served in Ukraine’s armed forces for three years and took part in peacekeeping operations in Kosovo. He also participated in joint training events with the U.S. military at bases in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas.
Yanchuk leverages his military experience and his personal connections with Ukrainian military instructors to organize training events for the Students Guard.
The group conducts weekend training events, including first-aid courses, field training exercises, and weapons training. The group also runs specialty courses, including training on mines and booby traps, tactical mountaineering, and a basic sniper course.
The Students Guard at Taras Shevchenko University is another instance of Ukrainians’ enterprising solutions to their country’s myriad problems independent of official government channels.
“Civil society is two, or three, or five steps ahead of the government,” Yanchuk said. “Civil society is winning the war, despite all efforts from Ukrainian and Russian politicians.”
In eastern Ukraine, grassroots humanitarian groups have popped up to address the needs of Ukraine’s 1.7 million internally displaced persons as a result of the war. Across the country, veterans’ groups have formed to help returning soldiers reintegrate into civilian life and deal with the psychological consequences of combat.
And as fighting in the Donbas continues, volunteer civilian territorial defense battalions remain ready to defend their respective cities in the event of a Russian invasion.
Harkening back to the legacy of partisan groups of World War II, Ukrainians took their country’s defense largely into their own hands in the opening months of the war in 2014.
As the pro-Russian separatists and their Russian military handlers seized town after town in eastern Ukraine, some feared a march on Kyiv, which could have split the country in two. In the eyes of many Ukrainians who volunteered to fight, the war in the Donbas had become an existential battle for the country’s survival.
“The volunteer battalions were the only reason we kept our independence,” Denys Antipov says.
The Ukrainian military was at that point a ragtag force. Its soldiers were a motley mix of draftees and recruits; equipment reserves had been depleted by decades of plundering by corrupt oligarchs and arms dealers.
With the regular army on its back foot, civilian volunteer battalions formed out of the remnants of protest groups active during the revolution. These paramilitary groups mainly comprised young men with no military experience, although some veterans from the Red Army, including Afghanistan veterans, also were in the ranks.
“There was a real chance the front could have collapsed in 2014,” Antipov said. “Nobody knew what was going to happen. So, many young people wanted to train for guerrilla warfare.”
Initially armed with hand-me-down weapons from local police forces, or collected from the enemy dead, the volunteer battalions stalled the combined Russian-separatist march across eastern Ukraine.
“There was no army in 2014,” Antipov said. “In my opinion, the volunteer battalions were the only reason we kept our independence. Why else would the Russian tanks have stopped in 2014?”
Then, in August 2014, thousands of Russian regulars streamed into eastern Ukraine to reverse the Ukrainian offensive. At the time, it looked like Ukraine was facing a full-scale Russian invasion.
“We were concerned in the summer of 2014 of how far Putin was willing to go,” former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt told The Daily Signal in an earlier interview.
“If the Russians broke through, there was no stopping them,” Pyatt said. “We were concerned that Putin was deploying enough force to mass an invasion.”
Although hundreds of miles from the front lines, some in Kyiv began to prepare for a partisan, guerrilla defense of the city.
Spray painted signs indicating the nearest bomb shelter became ubiquitous—they still are. City authorities issued instructions on how to use the metro as a bomb shelter.
Officials across the country made similar preparations for war. The Ukrainian military built anti-tank trenches around Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, the country’s second-largest city. And local officials and civilian groups built a network of fortified checkpoints around Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk), Ukraine’s fourth-largest city.
Ultimately, Ukraine’s cobbled-together military was able to thwart the combined Russian-separatist advance at several key places, including the battle for Mariupol. Today, many credit the civilian volunteer battalions with turning the tide of war and fundamentally reshaping the Kremlin’s strategic objectives in Ukraine.
“It was Ukraine’s improvised army that held it all together [in 2014],” Pyatt, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said.
Later, after the ceremony to honor Horbenko, members of the Students Guard gathered in a nearby lecture hall to speak with this foreign correspondent.
Yanchuk was among the students and faculty members. He wore a pressed suit and tie and carried himself with military bearing as he explained the history and the mission of the Students Guard by giving a PowerPoint presentation that would make any U.S. military officer proud.
Yanchuk never met Sviatoslav Horbenko, yet he spoke reverently about the young man, explaining how the courage and sacrifice of Ukrainian millennials could finally put an end to Ukraine’s generational cycle of war and revolution.
Yanchuk posthumously enlisted Horbenko in the Students Guard in 2015.
“The war leaves scars,” Yanchuk said. “Both physical and moral.”
The 39-year-old teacher and Ukrainian army veteran then beamed with pride as he talked about the students who volunteered for the Students Guard, and their willingness to spend weekends training for their country’s defense.
“In the U.S., college life is associated with fraternities and parties,” Yanchuk said. “For these students, they have to seriously consider the possibility of fighting to defend their homes from a Russian invasion.”
The students were initially reluctant to speak openly about their fears and hopes. But they began to speak freely (and mostly in English), revealing a resilient hope that life will get better.
“My hope is very strong,” said Olga Makhinya, a student at Taras Shevchenko University and a member of the Students Guard. “I want to live in a united Ukraine. My native country, without war, without problems.”
But there was also a pervasive sense that the struggle is far from over. Their youthful, romantic vision of the future was moderated by a sober cynicism born from a collective exposure to violence.
“The time of idealistic and romantic people is over,” Yutovets said. “Now is the time to be pragmatic. We shouldn’t give up.”
Many of the young people gathered in the lecture hall that day had witnessed lethal violence, whether on the front lines in the Donbas, as the veterans had, or during the 2014 revolution. They shared a common bond and a collective sense of sacrifice.
“We don’t have faith,” said Viacheslav Masniy, a 24-year-old Ph.D. student and a veteran of the war in the Donbas. “Faith is to pray and wait. We are willing to struggle. We are tired of hiding our identity, like our parents did in the Soviet Union.”
These students and faculty considered the conflict in the Donbas to be a fight for their country’s independence from Russia and freedom to foster closer ties with Western Europe.
“Our enemies are not fighting for their freedom,” Masniy said. “They are fighting to destroy our country. They don’t believe we are a nation, or that we are a state.”
But Ukraine’s better future will not happen automatically. The students and faculty, mostly in their early and mid-20s, repeated a commonly held opinion among Ukraine’s millennials—that the “Homo Sovieticus” mindset of the older generations is beyond fixing, and real change in Ukraine will be possible only when the younger generations, for whom the Soviet Union is not a living memory, take power.
“I think that the future of our country depends on our generation,” said Olga Svysiuk, a student at Taras Shevchenko University and a member of the Students Guard.
“Our example shows other people that we can change the situation for the better,” Svysiuk said. “We can change everything, if we want to do it.”
“We don’t just need heroes,” Masniy said. “We need to build a country.”