our only option
Volodymyr Voloshchuk in conversation with Illia Leontiev
Photography: Vic Bakin
On February 24th, in a city with a population of over four million, a sizable traffic jam took place as people desperately tried to flee. In a state of shock, individuals fought to save their lives. Some headed to the western part of the country, while others sought refuge abroad. Consequently, over five million Ukrainian refugees were soon scattered worldwide. However, some were determined to stay in Kyiv, regardless of the circumstances. Martial law was enforced in Ukraine and a mobilisation order was issued which forbade men of conscription age from leaving the country. Everyone was faced with two choices: to flee the country and start anew or stay in Ukraine and adapt— meaning to volunteer or join the fight in defence of their homeland. This choice is still faced by people, every day, and it will continue to do so as long as the war continues.
Illia, Kyiv, April 2023.
When I packed my bags that morning, I realised my entire life could fit into a single backpack. As I drove off to my friend’s place, I mentally said goodbye to my apartment. A few hours later, while watching a video of a dozen Russian helicopters flying near Kyiv, I said to myself: “I refuse to leave Kyiv. I am staying.”
The same went for Illia Leontiev, a 25-year-old Ukrainian who, on February 24th, woke up to the sound of air-raid sirens and explosions. Just a few hours earlier, until 2 am, he had been discussing with a friend whether no attack would take place or if war would break out. “I was saying to myself: ‘No, it can’t be true,’ but I opened Telegram, and everything became clear.” At 5am, in a video message, Vladimir Putin announced the start of a so-called special military operation, but in reality, it marked the beginning of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“I really didn’t know what to do that night,” he says a few minutes after we meet. We coordinated the meeting on Telegram. It’s early May, and we are sitting near a tree in Kyiv’s central park, not seeking shelter from the sun, as the spring has been unusually chilly.
Illia, like me, was among the many young men who never fathomed joining the military service before the full-scale invasion. Just weeks before the war broke out, he completed his master’s degree in IT (Information Technology) and contemplated his options regarding the mandatory visit to the military enlistment office. “I had no desire to serve or be associated with the army. I was fundamentally against the existence of armies as institutions.”
However, two months later, on April 17th, 2022, the LGBTQ Military’s Instagram account—a platform that promotes inclusivity and supports LGBTQ individuals serving in the Ukraine military—shared a story featuring Illia as a soldier defending Ukraine. The post included a photo of him standing in front of a rainbow flag, with his bare torso, displaying a chestnut leaf tattoo on his chest while wearing a military uniform.
The invasion profoundly impacted Illia, leading him to make a definitive choice. He willingly presented himself at the military enlistment office and joined the territorial defence forces, aligning himself with the cause.
On that gloomy Thursday morning in February 2022, just like many others—myself included—Illia checked on his friends and family to ensure they were fine and then thought about what his next steps should be. He remained in Kyiv for a few days while his parents refused to leave the city. Eventually, he accompanied a friend to the border in Zakarpattia and decided to stay there. Illia doesn’t hide that the thought of leaving Ukraine crossed his mind. He was frightened by the speed with which the Russian army got close to Kyiv. “Their plans to ‘capture the capital in three days’ no longer appeared so far-fetched,” he tells me. Like many others seeking to flee those days, his motivations were driven by fear and the unknown.
“But why didn’t you leave and choose to take up arms?” I ask him. Here and now this question sounds absurd: we are sitting on Pejzazhna [Landscape] Alley—one of the most popular places to go on walks in the historical centre of Kyiv—lots of people are walking around, you can hear children’s laughter, dog owners calling out to their pets, someone who has come here for a mini-picnic—no hint of a war in the country. Illia is dressed in a pink fitted T-shirt that accentuates his physique, adorned with necklaces, nails painted in various colours, and straight-legged trousers. Looking at him, it’s difficult to believe that this young man has returned from the front lines. He has a youthful appearance with slightly flushed cheeks and no thick beard. He gives off a partygoer vibe more than an experienced warrior.
This is not how he usually looks, but today he’s going to the queer and sex-positive Stezhka party. This weekend is filled with parties in Kyiv, starting during the day and ending at 11 pm—an hour before the curfew, which runs from midnight until five in the morning. The organisers of these events contribute with the proceeds from ticket sales by helping out volunteers or purchasing pickup trucks for the military. Alongside Stezhka, the renowned Ukrainian rave called Cxema is hosting a party after a four-year break. The following day, there will be another party at the Club on Kyrylivska—К41, where clubbers from all over Europe used to gather. Last week, they opened a summer open-air dance floor called Backyard. Illia describes this two-day party as one of the best experiences of his life, saying, “On the dance floor, we all felt united, connected by the same vibrations. I can’t think of anywhere else like it.” I remember that past weekend vividly—hundreds of people dancing on different levels, surrounded by smoke and vibrant lights. Amongst them, I remember seeing him dance with his bare torso while wearing a harness. Then an air raid, which began an hour before the end of the party, marked another nighttime shelling of Kyiv and Ukraine, bringing everyone back to reality.
“But why didn’t you leave and choose to take up arms instead?” I ask him again. “I saw what the Russians were doing to Mariupol. I remembered Donetsk, which they occupied. And I thought, ‘No, I don’t want that to happen to my city’.”
Illia visited Mariupol for the first time a month and a half before the war broke out. “It was Christmas, and no one around me had ever been to the seaside in winter. Where should we go? Oh, Mariupol! It’s an interesting city; I’ve read a lot about it,” he recalls. He was amazed by the rapid development of the city and the vibrant parties and cultural initiatives. “It felt like people were actively working to develop Mariupol. It was impressive,” he tells me.
Mariupol is also my hometown. I lived there for 14 years. After Russia’s unsuccessful attempt to seize power with the help of quasi-formations called ‘DNR’ the Ukrainian government began to actively invest in the development of Mariupol. Although I have lived in Kyiv for the past six years, I visited Mariupol on January 28th, a month before the Russian invasion, to celebrate my mother’s birthday. Even then, the world was discussing Russia’s preparations for the invasion. However, my parents stayed calm and reassured me they weren’t afraid. They’d been living near the border for eight years and had no intention of leaving—they remained of the same idea even after February 24th.
On March 1st, I lost contact with them. It was the day Mariupol was surrounded by Russian troops, leaving the city without electricity, water, heating, gas, and communication. Those were the most agonising ten days of my life. The only sources of information were Telegram channels that shared screenshots of text messages from people who could get in touch with their loved ones. The images captured by the remaining journalists in the city–Mstyslav Chernov and Yevhen Maloletka—were shocking, confirming what was going on. It was happening not in some distant place but in the very city where my parents were living. With no information, I stared at the photos, fearing I would come across something that would indicate the fate of my parents amongst the casualties. Finally, on March 11th, they managed to get in contact with me, and on March 15th, they successfully fled from the occupied city to territory under Ukrainian control.
The fact that it was Mariupol that motivated Illia to join the defence forces left a strong impression on me. His romantic nature and craving for excitement and thrills only intensified that impression. Before 2022, he had travelled extensively around Ukraine and Europe but desired something more extraordinary. He wanted to be surprised. And then, unexpectedly, the war came to him. “I was in Zakarpattia the days after the invasion and at the beginning of the Mariupol siege, when I decided to join the territorial defence forces. With my background in IT, I realised that while there might have been enough soldiers, there was probably going to be a shortage of specialists. So, I approached them and expressed my readiness to serve, but on the condition that I could contribute in a role related to my profession.” And that’s how he became a liaison officer in the Zakarpattia territorial defence forces.
Illia served in the army for nine months, four of which were spent in the combat zone near Sloviansk in the direction of Donetsk. During his time there, his role involved repairing networks, setting up antennas, programming walkie-talkies, and similar tasks. Illia’s mother only discovered that he was part of the army two months after he had already enlisted.
Throughout that time, he had told her he had rented a house in Zakarpattia with his friends and was working remotely.
As we talk sitting on the grass enjoying the sun’s warmth a dog suddenly runs out from behind us, running towards its owner. Illia reacts quickly and looks around as if expecting danger. He becomes tense and focused. It seems like he even clenches his fist. This is a new reaction he has developed after the war, something he hadn’t quite noticed before. He prefers not to be approached from the side or behind, saying: “I won’t hit, but I will react strongly.” Another consequence of his experience in the war has led to him being overly sensitive to sounds. This is now something common amongst both soldiers and civilians in Ukraine. Even loud noises like something falling down in a construction site or thunderstorms can trigger a feeling of tension, as if these were perceived as being explosions. For example, when I hear the sound of a moped or a loud car, І instinctively look up to the sky, searching for kamikaze drones that have been actively used to attack Ukrainian cities recently. Although Illia jokes: “Any explosion or missile that strikes more than 500 metres away is considered far enough.”
“How were your four months at war?” I ask him. “Now, I think of that time as if it was a dream. My mind has tried to block out that part of my life as much as possible. It was like a dream, and now I have woken up in Kyiv.” I seek clarification, asking, “Was that dream a nightmare?” He replies: “Yes, but it’s a nightmare that brings understanding.
War is like a psychedelic trip: it can be incredibly frightening, but once is over, you feel like a different person with answers to certain questions.
He adds: “Furthermore, I don’t experience fear anymore. It’s as if fear became atrophied during war. No matter what I do, I don’t feel scared. Not at all. That’s why I’m seeking the help of a psychologist.”
I ask him how he found himself fighting at the front after starting off as an IT technician in the back lines. He recalls, “There was a time when I felt a bit bored there, which might sound strange. I went to join the intelligence unit for a change of pace, knowing it would be interesting. They agreed but warned me about the risks. While we were driving, a drone spotted us, and suddenly there was gunfire aimed at us. It was like a scene from a movie, with explosions happening just a few metres away with smoke and dust engulfing us. We kept driving, even though there seemed to be nowhere to escape. We had to jump into a ditch and wait, hoping it would end, if we were lucky enough. As I lay in that ditch, I looked at my fellow soldiers, who had fear in their eyes. But for some reason, I found myself smiling and thinking, ‘What else should I be afraid of? I shouldn’t be afraid!’ That’s how my psyche perceived it as.
He was the youngest among his fellow soldiers. The army equalises, and it doesn’t matter what you were before the war—whether you worked in factories, if you were an IT specialist, a politician, or had your own businesses. According to Illia, everyone had their respective roles and responsibilities and a common understanding of why they were there. To avoid misunderstandings or arguments, one had to avoid discussing bigger topics. People simply concentrated on fulfilling their duties and doing what was required of them.
Amongst the many different life attitudes there was also patriarchy being prevalent. Illia was in a battalion formed in Zakarpattia: “This is a region where patriarchy is very much ingrained; it is typical and as archaic as possible, where the man is the head of the family, and the woman’s place is in the kitchen. As they say, all these ‘old values’. I have very different views, and sometimes we would touch upon this topic.” However, they hardly spoke about his sexual preferences: “I’m surprised, but they didn’t give a damn. It’s as they were following a ‘it’s none of my business; let people do whatever they want’ kind of attitude.”
At the same time, the Instagram post featuring Illia as an LGBTQ+ military man received thousands of likes. In one publication dedicated to the International Day Against Homophobia, Illia is quoted saying, “How did I come out when I was at the front? I was simply talking to my fellow soldiers, and somehow it came up, so I told them the truth. They were okay with it. Sometimes they joke but in a friendly way. It’s important to be open and true to yourself. Unfortunately, this is still a problem for many people.” Illia commented on that during our conversation, saying he doesn´t necessarily identify as gay. Although the posts portrayed him as such, he did it to promote progressive ideals, understanding the importance it could have for others. In one of his posts, I saw his response to a comment from a girl who admired him: ‘I like girls too,’ he wrote. As part of a generation that isn’t necessarily inclined to adhere to labels, we can consider Illia more of a free spirit.
Four months at the front is not a short time, and during that time, he gained a deep understanding of the reality of war. “It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment, but it was probably after a few months in the war zone. Thoughts began to arise. I confronted what war was like and realised: ‘No, I definitely don’t want to be here anymore. I feel like I’ve done my part and helped the state’. At the end of my service, I spent two months in a military hospital. I was lying there, almost lifeless. They first sent me to a local doctor, who recommended transferring me to Kyiv for further treatment. And now I am undergoing rehabilitation with a psychologist.”
I know that after Illia left the army, he went to Berlin for a month. In January, he posted a photo of himself in front of the Berghain facade. I ask him how come he chose to return to Ukraine, despite the opportunity he had to stay in Europe and live a better life. “I still love Ukraine. I don’t want to leave,” he replies without thinking. “Despite everything, I love my country.”
I know what he means. Neither before the war, nor now, have I ever once thought of moving away. That feeling has only intensified, and it intensifies every day. I did not queue up at the military commission, with friends we volunteered instead: we cooked (our favourite bars and coffee houses turned into volunteer hubs) and delivered food to the military, the hospitals, and old people’s homes. We lived day by day, but with the clear conviction that the Russians would be defeated. It was also important to me that my closest friends stayed in Kyiv, Ukraine, and some even came back from Europe. Despite the rockets and drones attacks that now take place almost every night.
In the future, one of the problems that Ukraine will have to face is how to bring back those young people who have left, especially the creative class. These individuals, who are proficient in multiple languages and highly skilled, have already adapted to the new conditions of life in Berlin, London, Lisbon, Prague, and other cities across Europe.
He tells me he travelled to Berlin to clear his mind and ‘do his own thing’. “I went there to gain experience, to witness how the mecca of techno culture spends its nights, and to bring that experience back here. However, I didn’t gain a lot of useful information there and learnt very little that could be applied in Kyiv. Being in Berlin made me realise that everything happens in terms of parties there when it’s actually a million times better in Kyiv, truly. Even Germans and Europeans come here and acknowledge that we do it better.”
The first party Illia attended after being at the front was Stezhka, a series of queer and sex-positive parties that emerged during the full-scale war. In these parties, there are simple rules that promote respect and equality. The focus is creating an environment where racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, body shaming, kink-shaming, and discrimination are not tolerated. Participants are encouraged to use a language that is inclusive and gender-neutral, and there is a strong emphasis on treating everyone equally, without any special treatment or privileges. The goal is to create an atmosphere where everyone feels safe, valued, and free to express themselves without judgement. Unlike similar parties in Kyiv before the war, the music at Stezhka is not focused on hard techno and electro but rather on house and disco music, and each party features a dark room.
I ask Illia what he likes about these parties, and he said, “It’s about creating a sense of community and inclusivity. People often conform and remain conservative at traditional parties, but at sex-positive parties, individuals can freely express their desires and engage in consensual activities without fear of being judged. It allows for a deep connection to the music, to emotions, and the freedom to authentically be yourself. These events promote the spirit of freedom that resonates with many Ukrainians who value equality and reject restrictions. We want to be free; we love freedom. For me, queer and sex-positive parties are an opportunity for self-expression and celebrating the diversity of human experiences.”
“Would older Ukrainians ever agree with this statement?” I ask, laughing. “I don’t care. It’s not up to them to live our lives; it’s not up to them to build the future. It’s up to us to decide what that future holds. They built their lives, gave us life, and now it’s our time to build the next generation, to create conditions for them that we did not have ourselves.” He understands that the majority may not share his views; however, he firmly believes that the younger generations have the power to shape their own lives and create a better future for themselves.
Currently, Illia works for an energy company and, in addition to that, he and his best friend Nastya have started organising their own series of parties called Hirka. The first party took place this year in early February. It is also a sex-positive party, the name of which refers to the old Ukrainian traditions and leisure of the youth of that time. “At our parties, we combine techno culture, ethnic and Ukrainian traditions. We want to broadcast Ukrainian culture through techno so that people can understand what it means to be Ukrainian and who, in general, is a Ukrainian. Only now we’re starting to realise who we are and what our place in the world is,” Illia explains.
“I can honestly say that I’m happy” he replies when I ask him about his vision of the future and what it takes to find happiness. His response took me by surprise. It reminded me of a recent conversation I had with friends, where none of them could confidently claim to be happy. “I don’t need to do anything specific to be happy,” Illia continues as if he could read my thoughts. “Of course, I wish for Hirka to gain widespread recognition, just like Kyrylivska (the club located at 41, Kyrylivska Street). I want my party to become a phenomenon in its own right.” He smiles. “Especially here, life is so unpredictable. We can only cherish each moment and live in the present. We can’t control what happens, but we can control how we live our lives. I try to make the best of every situation and appreciate the precious moments we have.”
He believes that after the war, Kyiv will emerge as one of the key cities and new centres of Europe, both in terms of culture, technology and medicine. However, the question remains: will this happen after the war or after victory?
For Ukrainians, there is only one acceptable outcome for this war: Victory. Illia says, “We simply have no choice but to win.” He is correct. Any other outcome would mean capitulation and the destruction of Ukraine.
Civilian building shelled by Russian troops. Borodyanka, Kyiv region, July, 2022.
The destroyed towns and villages of Bucha, Irpin, Izium, Mariupol, Sievierodonetsk, Lysychansk, Bakhmut, and countless others stand not only as evidence but also as a testament to why Ukraine will never be able to forgive Russia.
As we converse, he tells me he has been informed a few days prior about the deaths of seven of his former comrades. “How does this news affect you? Don’t you feel guilty being here while they’re over there?” I ask. “I suppose I don’t, I’ve experienced similar circumstances myself. However, in war, it often boils down to chance. It’s not a matter of someone being destined to be there or not, or destined to die. It’s all about probability and luck. The news of their deaths deeply saddened me, but I strive not to let those thoughts consume me.”
A pendant made from part of a shell of a bullet that fell near him at the front hangs around his neck. He always wears it as a reminder that life is one and it can end at any given moment. “We should not be afraid of anything; there will be no other life,” he says, looking above the buildings to the other side of the square.
We keep sitting there, smoking cigarettes, as the afternoon passes and the shadows of the trees gradually envelop us. We continue talking about those who left and those who stayed, about heroism, us and our peers in Europe, our values, and perspectives about the country. But, during this whole time, his words, “I’m not going back to the front again” keep lingering in my mind. With a subtle sense of uneasiness, once our conversation comes to a hiatus, I ask, “What would you do if the Russian army managed to get to Kyiv again?” Ilia turns his gaze away from the people running after a ball on the other side of the park: “I’ve thought about it. I don’t know how I would feel. But if Kyiv needs to be defended, I’ll go. To me, Kyiv is everything.” He looks at me, almost waiting for a reply. I can see in his eyes that he’s not afraid, I wonder if I am, but before I can even think of something to say back, he smiles at me as if he knew that I would do exactly the same. As if he knew that if there’s one thing that has become even clearer because of this war, it’s that freedom, to every single one of us, means everything.