First days of freedom after a month as a POW

April 17, 2023
This essay is written by Ukrainian warrior Max Kolesnikov. Age: 45 years. Code name: Bald.
Photo credit: Max Kolesnikov

During the first days of captivity, I set three goals for myself. In the order of priority, they were as follows:

  • Save your own self -- your spirit, views, principles, personality. Everything that makes me myself.
  • Break free. Don't get buried somewhere in a foreign country or remain a pitiful convict in their prison.
  • Stay healthy as much as possible.

I forbade losing myself just to break free as soon as possible or betray my principles just to stay healthy.

Mission completed, I am home for a week already, in Ukraine. The very existence of these concrete goals helped me here. It was easier to judge every event, every move made by myself and by the enemy, make the required decisions, survive the hardest of days, keep spirits up, and support the will and the mood -- my own and of my comrades.

It may seem banal but under any, even the most adverse circumstances, you should have a goal. Remember it, don't stop moving towards it, and succeed. Especially when under tremendous pressure of your circumstances or from the enemy.

Having set a goal to save my own self mentally, I developed a system to achieve it.

Imagine a bridge over a chasm. The chasm is captivity, edges are the past and the future. I need to go over the chasm, not falling, not breaking myself, not being scared to death. The bridge is firmly held in place, it won't flip over, however difficult it is to walk over it. In my dreams I think about what holds the bridge in place, what makes me stronger, what cheers me up, it helps finding a meaning and giving strength to hold with dignity, not betraying myself, not succumbing to depression.

Finding things that held everything together turned out to be very easy.

The first and the most important thing is family. People who wait for me, who have shared with me happiness, memories, dreams about future. People whose love and respect I want to deserve. My wife, daughters, parents -- I want to remain myself not only for myself but for them as well, to keep them in my life, care about them, and make them happy again when I am back.

The family includes the closest friends who share my values and principles.

The second thing that holds everything together is my interests. Studying for a psychoanalyst and desire to help people, cooking, as something that helps me being creative, traveling the world that I like so much, and that I want to see with my own eyes.

The third thing that holds everything together is culture.

Prison guards can't take away from me songs of Okean Elzy, Foals, and TNMK, books by Márquez and Rowling, movies by Woody Allen and Wes Anderson.

I remembered movies and books and shared my memories with my cell mates, trying to find a distraction for them and myself. It helped cheering up and making time go faster. I sang a lot to myself, often merely whispering, tried to remember songs in Ukrainian as the Ukrainian language was a stronghold in the Russian POW camp. I managed to remember Chervona Ruta, I sang it to myself thinking about my wife.

My consciousness and subconsciousness are my own territory, Russians and all their Special Forces can't get there.

I dreamt a lot when asleep and these dreams about family, childhood, future helped me tremendously. I seldom dreamt about food which came a surprise to most of my cell mates!

When it was hard physically or I felt bad, I was turning back to things than held everything together for me. I was trying to remember something related to them, to plan something for the future. Captivity is temporary I was telling myself and people around me while my family, interests, my culture are always with me. Nobody can get them away from me even if they are only in my thoughts, memories, dreams. So, I will remain true to myself under any circumstances, or so I hoped and believed.

I guess I succeeded.

And you will succeed too.

This essay is made possible by the support of IREX Veteran Reintegration Program. The contents are the “sole responsibility of Recipient” and do not necessarily reflect the views of IREX.