Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Navigator of hope

The Day speaks to a representative of the new generation of seamen – Yevhen SIROSHENKO, a former Nakhimov Naval Academy student and now a cadet at the Odesa National Naval Academy
8 September, 2015 - 11:41
Photo by the author

Yevhen Siroshenko was born in Mykolaiv oblast. The young man is 20 and in two years he will become a navigator, fulfilling his cherished dream. We met at the naval port of Odesa where the frigate Hetman Sahaidachny, the flagship of the Ukrainian Navy, was at anchor. Yevhen was one of the cadets who made a risky but wholeheartedly patriotic decision to perform the National Anthem, contrary to the officers’ instructions, while the Ukrainian flag was being lowered and the Russian one raised on the campus of the Nakhimov Naval Academy in Sevastopol during the annexation of Crimea. He is currently enrolled in the naval faculty of the Odesa National Naval Academy, organized specially for cadets from Crimea. He left Sevastopol for Odesa a year and a half ago. Below he tells about what has changed in his life, how he feels about what happened in Crimea, and shares his plans.


Ukraine recently celebrated its Independence Day. One is reminded of your truly patriotic act – when you cadets sang the National Anthem in the enemy face. Was that someone’s initiative or your joint decision?

“We heard a voice from the crowd: ‘Let’s sing the Anthem!’ but never found out who had said it. Anyway, I believe it was a joint decision. Too bad there is no video with what actually happened. Before unfurling the Russian flag, the officers allowed us to say good-bye to our Ukrainian flag. The cadets, the young and senior ones, marched out on the parade ground but after the Ukrainian flag was lowered we broke ranks and returned to the barracks. There weren’t just 12 people singing as was shown on the video. There wasn’t enough room on the porch, so what you saw was just the first rank. There were some 40 cadets behind us who were also singing.”

What happened afterward?

“We realized that we’d spoiled their party and were getting nervous. We started hearing threats after the video appeared on the Internet. But they kept talking us into staying at the naval academy. I was ashamed to hear from officers that I’d have far better prospects as a navigator of the Russian Navy. Discipline went to hell. We practically did as we chose, spending most of the time packing. Before the so-called referendum I visited my landlady in Sevastopol and saw a Russian army uniform on a hanger I’d never seen before.”

How did you feel about leaving the peninsula?

“I’d made up my mind to keep my Oath of Allegiance to Ukraine, I’d obey my commander’s orders, but I realized that the best thing to do was leave Crimea because it was no longer part of Ukraine. Ironically, being a serviceman on what was now foreign territory meant being an aggressor, so I had to go while the going was good.”

What about your fellow cadets who stayed? Do you keep in touch with them?

“Come to think of it, they committed an act of treason. Many of them lived and had families in Crimea. They said they had no prospects in Ukraine, that they’d have better opportunities in Russia. When leaving Crimea, they were still my friends, we embraced, even cried and promised to keep in touch. Then, with each passing month, getting in touch with them, I could tell that their views were changing. Russian propaganda was at work. Finally, it got to open threats and promises like ‘We’ll come and strangle all of you!’ – they seriously believed we were fascists who were murdering peaceful civilians.”


What made those men and officers break their oath of loyalty to Ukraine?

“Brainwashing. Our military command didn’t seem to realize what was happening in Crimea, that our ground units and warships were being seized, that there were constant skirmishes. Thank God, there were no Ukrainian or Russian casualties. We were told, ‘You are men and you must carry out your duty.’ Meanwhile they [the commanding officers] were getting concerned about their own well-being, not their honor. They were promised mountains of gold, better pay and $500 monthly allowances in Russia. They were assured they’d have constant practice and posting after graduation. Of course, those who stayed [in Crimea] will never make good officers – swearing another oath is against the code of ethics. I was amazed to watch men from Kyiv and western Ukraine decide to stay. Some who couldn’t even speak Russian said they’d risk staying for that kind of money.”

Were you bullied before leaving for mainland Ukraine?

“They told us that after we leave we’ll end up in prison as traitors who let Crimea be taken over without firing a single round. The lesser threat was that we’d find out no one needs us in Ukraine, that we’d simply have to go home, that there would be no service, no training. The biggest threat was that Russia would seize Ukraine, sooner or later, so we had nowhere to go.”


Was there any objective way to defend the Nakhimov Naval Academy?

“We could’ve stood our ground, there were SBU Alpha and Ukrainian Seals units on the campus, so we had enough defense potential. The campus was very hard of access from the sea. It was an outpost that could be held against the enemy for months. There were emergency retreat tunnels and the Russkies were afraid of our Seals. Each time their warships approached they’d drop depth charges and grenades to fend off underwater attacks. Sevastopol had one of the best Soviet Seals training facilities. It still does. And the academy always kept a tight watch duty schedule (it was then discarded). We’d never surrender the academy, but there were no orders down the chain of command. We were first issued Kalashnikovs, flak jackets, helmets, and live ammunition. Then we were ordered to hand in the assault rifles and were given bayonets instead. That was quite a circus! What was there to do with bayonets against regular army men with Kalashnikovs? Then a convoy of empty trucks arrived. They were loaded with boxes with our weapons and left. Several days later, the flag-lowering-raising operetta was staged.”

Do you think Russia would occupy Crimea if there were no Euromaidan?

“Maidan and the war in the east of Ukraine have helped our people realize who they are, their duty toward their country. I believe that these events have served to rally our people much quicker than the previous two peaceful decades. On the Maidan we demonstrated that the government is the people, that it is a hallmark of a people that respects itself. From what I know, from what I’ve seen, the annexation of Crimea was a project prepared years in advance. It would be carried out sooner or later, in some or other way. The Russians had long been working on it, using propaganda and destroying our army from within. They struck when they thought the time was right.”

How can we return Crimea?

“Hardly likely by using force. I wish people in Crimea got around to realizing their mistake, that their living is worse than in Ukraine. Yes, their salaries were increased, almost as promised, but so were the prices. Practically nothing has changed save for the national colors. A tank offensive would be very hard to      carry out, we would sustain heavy losses – and even if we seized the peninsula, the populace would remain under the spell of Russian propaganda. Changing the situation will take a long time – it’s best to keep developing mainland Ukraine in every respect. Our apparent progress would impress the Crimean in the street and we would stand a better chance.”


Why did you decide on a naval career and training in Crimea, rather than Odesa or Mykolaiv?

“I’d dreamed of becoming a sailor since childhood. My father is an Army officer and I was brought up understanding that an army officer is a member of an elite. If I travel this road and become a career officer in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, I will be a real man capable of building and providing for his family. After Grade 11 I applied for enrollment in the Naval Academies of Sevastopol, Kherson, and Odesa. On my third day at the boot camp in Sevastopol I got a call from my father. He said I’d been enrolled in Kherson and would train as a navigator. Then he called again saying I was enrolled in Odesa and would train as a mechanic, but I decided to stay in Sevastopol.”

What happened after you moved to Odesa?

“I was touched by their sincere friendliness. I quickly made friends with civilians and fellow cadets. I feel at home here. Unlike Crimea – you can force people to take part in a referendum and rig the vote for joining the Russian Federation, but no one forced all those in Crimea who hanged Russian flags from their windows, attached tricolors to their license plates and shouted ‘Fascists!’ behind our backs. It was propaganda, of course, but at the time they did not want us to defend them. We did not feel at home there. In Odesa I and others like me found ourselves being affectionately treated as heroes. Of course, there were those who felt very differently. There are strong separatist moods in Odesa. Nothing was said to our face, but we could sense it.”

Could you compare your training in Odesa to that in Sevastopol?

“The Odesa Naval Academy has stronger material resources. They give you more practice and theory. I spent a month training with NATO during the Sea Shield 2015 naval exercise near Romania, on board the frigate Hetman Sahaidachny. Our task was to take over as officers on board a warship. I’m majoring in navigation, so I had to act as a navigator. We stayed in Constanta for several days while warships kept coming from Holland, Turkey, and Bulgaria, totaling ten plus one submarine that was the first to weigh anchor and then get ‘lost.’ She would then start searching for us and we for her. The naval exercise lasted for some five days. It was physically hard, but practice makes perfect. Most importantly, this year we’ve been undergoing a real kind of military training. Back in Sevastopol, with the army gradually falling apart, we felt more like odd-job men. We spent most of the time tidying up the campus and doing minor repair. We mostly handled brooms instead of assault rifles. In Odesa we finally felt being taken care of professionally. We regularly visited the shooting range practicing submachine guns, sniper rifles, and machineguns. In general, the public attitude to the army has improved since the war began in the east of Ukraine. They say the military is remembered only when a war breaks out. Before this war we were just a huge central budget expense item.”


You are known to have been supported by volunteers from the outset. Are they still helping you? If so, how exactly?

“Yes, they have. They are still helping us a great deal, especially Tonia [Antonina Naidis. – Ed.], she is like our mom. Men who were taken to the hospital were looked after with motherly care. We have received from volunteers lots of things one needs in one’s daily life: clothes (uniform and training suits), pieces of furniture, beds, night tables, chairs, televisions, washing machines. We had nothing at the time the faculty was organized. The state was supposed to provide us with everything, but it never did, either because there was no money (there is always no money) or because what money there was had vanished into thin air.”

How would you assess the current status of the Ukrainian Navy?

“It leaves much to be desired, considering that lots of materiel and vessels were left in Crimea. However, men defend their country, not just steel contraptions with springs and rounds. Our officers, men, sailors, petty officers and cadets who remain true to their Oath of Allegiance to Ukraine are showing a dramatically stronger morale. We know why we serve and what we’re fighting for. We love our country and will continue to serve and protect it. As for the Navy, quite a few lecturers at the academy say that Ukraine’s maritime boundary has narrowed considerably after losing Crimea. Currently it consists of several parts: Azov, Odesa coast, Kherson and Mykolaiv oblasts. Many refer to the Sea of Azov as a big and shallow lake. No submarine can enter it without being detected. On the other hand, we don’t need a big navy to secure this size of frontier. Good batteries with a 40-60 km fire range, properly deployed, would secure the national coast against invasion without support from warships. Very small 10-crew submarines are being developed. They are quiet all purpose combat vehicles that can be quickly repaired if damaged. I think we need a navy made up of compact battle units. They may be a far cry from the Russian cruiser Moskva that can annihilate an entire region with its ballistic missiles, but they are fast and maneuverable, they could come racing from behind and loose off a couple of salvos that would sink Moskva.”

Where do you plan to work after graduation?

“Where the state will send me. Of course, I’d like to be a navigator on board a warship. That’s what I was trained to do.”

By Natalia BEZVOZIUK, Ilya Mechnikov National University of Odesa