Sunday, March 26, 2023

The Life and Death of a Ukrainian Photographer

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Maksym Levin, a Ukrainian photojournalist in his early forties, woke just before nine at a military base outside Kyiv. It was Sunday, March 13, 2022, the eighteenth day of war. The morning was overcast, and a light snow coated the ground. Russian troops had advanced within fifteen miles of the capital. Levin checked his phone. His girlfriend, Zoriana Stelmakh, had texted an hour and a half earlier: “Good morning, kitten.”

“Good morning,” Levin replied. “How are you?”

“I passed out last night. How about you, kitten? Did you sleep?”

“Yeah, same.”

Stelmakh had made Levin promise to check in every three hours whenever he was on assignment. Using an app on her phone and a tracking device installed in Levin’s Ford Maverick, she monitored his coördinates in real time.

“Heading out,” Levin texted. “I’ll be out of network.”

“Stay safe ♡.”

Several days earlier, Levin had lost a camera drone in a pine forest north of Kyiv. Before the battery died, the drone had sent some low-resolution footage that appeared to show surface-to-air missile systems. He was certain the drone had picked up Russian positions. Levin was a journalist through and through, but he was a Ukrainian first and had no scruples about sharing strategically useful images with the soldiers whose lives he had been documenting. “You should not forget that you are a human being,” he once told a room full of professional journalists at a media symposium. “If there is a need, then help.”

A residential building destroyed by Russian shelling, in Borodyanka, March, 2022.

A soldier named Oleksiy Chernyshov agreed to accompany Levin into the forest to recover the device. They had known each other since 2013, when Chernyshov was a photographer shooting protests on Maidan alongside Levin. Dressed in military fatigues and cradling an AK-74, Chernyshov took the passenger seat. Levin fastened a blue armband to his black jacket, signalling to any Ukrainian soldiers they might encounter that he was a “friendly.” He also packed a Swiss Army knife, a helmet, a bulletproof vest, and a headlamp; in the car, he kept a jerrican of gasoline.

At 12:51 P.M., Stelmakh could see Levin and Chernyshov travelling west on a country road through the forest. They were driving at just under twenty miles per hour when the car came to a halt. Over the next six hours, Stelmakh sent Levin a flurry of texts. At 6:55 P.M., night was beginning to fall, and Levin’s G.P.S. tracker indicated that he was in the same spot in the forest—near Moshchun, a village on the banks of Irpin River. “Kitten,” Stelmakh wrote. At eleven, she sent another heart emoji.

Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, had referred to Moshchun as a “gate for the enemy on the way to the capital.” Around the time that Levin went missing, Russian forces surrounded the village, subjecting it to intense bombing and shelling from the air. Two out of every three homes were destroyed. Almost all of its residents had fled; the few who remained were living out of their root cellars, coming up to ground level only to scavenge for food. The commander of the brigade tasked with defending Moshchun, Oleksandr Vdovychenko, informed Zaluzhnyi that he didn’t have the “strength and means” to hold the village. One of his subordinates later told the Washington* Post* that in a single day “I felt like I got hit with a hammer on my head at least eight times, because everything was falling right next to us. . . . Many men couldn’t cope mentally.”

Stelmakh continued texting Levin every few hours. “Please be alive,” she wrote on March 15th. “Please don’t leave me.”

The next day, Levin’s phone picked up a signal in Moshchun. The G.P.S. indicated that his car was still in the forest.

In the late nineteen-seventies, Levin’s parents, Yevgeny and Valentina, moved from a city in southern Russia to a suburb of Kyiv. They already had a two-year-old son, Alexander, and after three years in Ukraine welcomed their second child, Maksym. “We were on the way to the hospital, and my parents still hadn’t decided on a name,” Alexander, now forty-six, told me recently. “I said, ‘Let’s call him ‘Maks.’ ” The family spoke Russian at home and visited the country often to see relatives, many of whom are still there.

When Levin was five years old, Yevgeny, an engineer, was transferred to Vietnam. The family lived in a Russian community there for two years before returning to Ukraine. Yevgeny often travelled for work. Several years later, on a trip to Poland, he bought Levin a rangefinder camera called the “Kyiv.” Levin had a friend whose father, a sports photographer, was always bringing home souvenirs from exotic places: Tokyo, Toronto. “I never wanted to be a war photographer,” Levin told the online magazine LensCulture, years later. “Travel the world, meet new people . . . that was the whole idea.” In his late teens, Levin enrolled in a university program in computer science, “to please my father.” After graduating, he pivoted back to photography, “probably more out of vanity than for the sake of peace in the world.”

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