Engaging with Ukrainian POWs and their families via LEGO [Feature]

This past Saturday marked the 500th day since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Last year, I wrote about why I personally choose to actively support Ukraine and its defenders. Remembering my WW2 vet grandfather, my first group of minifigures highlighted the work of combat medics and other women contributing to Ukraine’s defense. Many people asked me to create minifigs depicting the defenders of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, all of whom by then were being held in Russian captivity. These two groups of minifigures were then featured on Ukrainian TV, leading to messages from the wives of POWs, including the wife of the Azovstal garrison’s commander, Denys Prokopenko. But in addition to the families of these prominent officers, I heard from the wives of less-famous soldiers still held in captivity, asking if I’d create LEGO versions of their husbands, sometimes even sharing photos taken inside the Azovstal steel plant.

Unfortunately, sourcing unusual LEGO parts (including custom-printed pieces) ended up being a months-long process, and many of the figures were only completed quite recently. Over the months, some of the Ukrainian POWs have been exchanged, and I began chatting directly with the released soldiers. A young soldier with the call sign “Tayvaz” defended Azovstal until the last, and lost several of his brothers-in-arms during the battle. Before his exchange after nearly a year of captivity, his wife shared photos of her husband along with heartbreaking photos of the men who hadn’t made it out. On the day I was taking photographs of my minifigs depicting Tayvaz and his brothers, I’d been chatting with him to make sure I’d gotten the details correct. I love filtered natural light, and I was outside on our front lawn. The trees behind me shifted in the wind, and a sunbeam broke through and illuminated the minifigs of the three lost soldiers (photo above). I burst into tears, sent Tayvaz the photo, and we shared a moment of sorrow — my own emotions a mere shadow of his enormous loss — across the distance between Seattle and Kyiv.

That same evening, I attended an event hosted by the Ukrainian Association of Washington State, featuring Lt. Col. Prokopenko’s wife Kateryna (a talented artist in her own right), along with Azovstal defender Arseniy Fedosyuk and his wife Yulia. If you follow news about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, you may remember that Kateryna Prokopenko and Yulia Fedosyuk visited Pope Francis in Rome last May to plead for intercession to allow their husbands and more than two thousand soldiers to retreat from Mariupol. Although the Vatican, the UN, and International Red Cross all failed to broker a humanitarian retreat, the two Ukrainian women’s trip to Rome raised awareness of the horrific conditions of the men, women, and even children hunkering beneath the steel plant.

When I arrived at the event, I walked over to Kateryna, and called her name. She turned around, said “Andrew!” and gave me a huge hug. We’d been messaging about the event and her trip to the US, so that I could hand off all the minifigs I’d made of her husband, his fellow commanders, the combat medics, and all the POWs whose stories I’d learned about over the past year. But I never expected her to recognize me, and my brain nearly melted. This was a woman who’d received the Hero of Ukraine medal (the equivalent of the American Medal of Honor) from President Zelenskyy last year, on behalf of her imprisoned husband, and who’s been traveling the world advocating for POW release, Red Cross access to prisoners, war crimes investigations by the UN (such as the Olenivka massacre), and so much more. Both Kateryna and Yulia are global powerhouses of advocacy and awareness.

But Kateryna is also a 28-year-old artist who happened to fall in love with a young soldier way back in 2015. Those of us sitting at home in the west wax rhapsodic about “Ukrainian resiliency,” but one of the characteristics I’ve always most admired about Ukrainian culture is their sense of humor in the face of incalculable tragedy — humor as a form of active resistance against horrific tyranny. There is pure rage and bottomless sorrow under that humor, based in centuries of czarist oppression, the Bolshevik invasion of a newly free Ukraine, Stalin’s subsequent starvation of millions of Ukrainian peasants, the Holocaust (two of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust died in Ukraine), Gorbachov’s Chernobyl, the kleptocracy of the post-Soviet oligarchs, and now Putin’s invasion. But the jokes and the laughter say to oppressors, colonizers, and occupiers “You cannot kill our spirit.” Kateryna took a selfie of us after the event. Her smirk, the horns — after seeing her nearly break down as she described how she didn’t know whether Denys was alive or dead, this moment captures for me exactly that combination of determination and humor that I admire so much.

The next morning, I woke to the news that Kateryna’s husband Denys had been released from captivity in Türkiye (essentially house arrest that was supposed to last until the end of the war) and was headed home to Ukraine. The first image I saw was of Lt. Col. Prokopenko getting a huge hug from President Zelenskyy as they boarded the plane home. It’s a strange world we live in when a reformed pacifist LEGO builder like me is getting hugs from a Ukrainian officer’s wife the night before her husband gets hugs from a reformed TV comedian who’s now leading a country at war. This is not the timeline any of us expected.

Earlier during his presentation, Arseniy, a sergeant in the same unit as Lt. Col. Prokopenko, described skirmishes during the Siege of Mariupol and why they were so motivated to continue defending the steel plant in the face of overwhelming odds and constant aerial bombardment — many of the national guardsmen, marines, and police officers were local volunteers. They were defending their own city. The photo below shows Arseniy (on the right) and a fellow soldier amid the ruins of Azovstal.

Next Arseniy described his experience during Russian captivity as a prisoner of war for more than 6 months. The starvation, the daily beatings, the electroshock torture, the forced confessions to war crimes the Russians had committed themselves (like the airstrike on the Mariupol Drama Theatre that killed as many as 600 men, women, and children) — it was overwhelming to hear what life is still like for thousands of Ukrainian POWs. After the presentations ended, I handed Yulia minifigs I’d made of her and Arseniy. During dinner, she pulled them out to show Arseniy and he burst out giggling. He turned to me and said, “You made these?” I nodded, asked him if he liked them, and he laughed and said he loved them. Just a little while earlier, he’d been describing Russian torture. As much as I advocate for others’ LEGO creations as true art, I’ve always felt a little silly about the LEGO art I create myself — especially “just” minifigs made from mixed-and-matched parts, nothing special. But to hear a tortured POW giggle like a 10-year-old kid again makes what it all worthwhile.

I asked Arseniy if I’d gotten his weapon right (a custom piece from BrickArms), and he said, “Oh yes, AK-74 sniper rifle.” Strangeness overtook me again in that instant. I liken the defense of Mariupol to major moments in historical battles such as the initial waves of the Allied assault at Normandy on D-Day — the incredible sacrifice, the uncertainty of success. Here I was chatting with someone who had survived a last stand siege and 6 months in enemy captivity. The crowd thinned, conversations ebbed, and we all eventually left for homes and hotels. I opened my front door, started to tell my wife about the evening, and just started bawling. I’m not ashamed of this. I cry when I’m angry about something someone else has experienced, and beneath my own humor and silly minifig “art” is a shared sense of rage about Irpin, Bucha, Mariupol, Olenivka, Kramatorsk, and all the other places in Ukraine whose people have suffered unspeakable horror over the past 9 years. Every time Ukraine liberates a new city, more atrocities against civilians are uncovered. Ukraine doesn’t have any other option but to continue fighting.

Today, the war to liberate Ukraine’s occupied territories grinds on, and those of us with connections to Ukraine (and a wonderful many with none) do what we can to support the Ukrainian people. You can support Ukraine by donating to organizations like United24, Azovstal Families, World Central Kitchen, and many other reputable foundations. If you’re a builder, you can create LEGO art of your own to highlight what’s happening, whether that’s the refugee crisis, the challenges of the Ukrainian military against superior weapons and overwhelming manpower, or just the richness of the Ukrainian culture that’s under threat. If you want to show your support for Ukraine in a LEGO-centric way, you can also purchase custom LEGO kits from Brickmania — 100% of profits go directly to support Ukraine, and our friends at Brickmania have raised nearly $350,000 for Ukraine over the past 500+ days.

We live in very strange and often rather awful times. But we can try to make the time we live in better — a world with less tyranny, less colonialism, less genocide. A kinder world. One way we can make the world safer and kinder is to help Ukraine win.

A final note for commenters, especially the “Keep (your) politics out of (my) LEGO” crowd: This isn’t politics; this is history. There aren’t two equally valid sides here. And I do care deeply about what’s happening in Syria, South Sudan, Myanmar, Palestine, Xinjiang, and more. I’ve traveled to several of those places and love them too. But my friends are being killed in Ukraine. Please inform yourself, respect human life, and comment accordingly.

4 comments on “Engaging with Ukrainian POWs and their families via LEGO [Feature]

  1. hntrains

    The war in Ukraine will feed the LEGO community for generations to come. Sadly, that is the kind of scars the putrid has left on the face of mankind.

  2. Dmytro Karataiev

    I appreciate your support. It is not a pure coincidence that all forces for good united to fight against all odds and injustice. Thank you for the article, your creations, and your support. This means a lot to me and Ukraine.

  3. Dwalin Forkbeard

    There is interesting MiNiMisto project with several authors, that rebuilds Ukrainian architecture objects that were destroyed by russian orcs. Yeah they are mostly made in studio, but there you can find really interesting MOCs

    And yeah, big thanks for your support, and that you share the information about this war

Comments are closed.