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I married the love of my life in a Ukrainian bunker. Two days later he was killed

In World
June 08, 2024

Mariupol was doomed. Relentless Russian bombing had turned streets into ruins and courtyards into graveyards.

But several metres underground in the south-eastern Ukrainian city, a romance was blooming.

Valeria Subotina, 33, had been sheltering in the enormous Azovstal steelworks, the final stronghold in the city, as it was surrounded by Russian forces in spring 2022.

She had taken cover in one of dozens of Soviet-era bomb shelters built to withstand nuclear war, deep beneath the industrial plant.

“You go down a semi-collapsed staircase, move through passages and tunnels, and go further and further down. Finally, you reach this concrete cube, a room,” Valeria says.

In the bunker – alongside soldiers and civilians – Valeria was working with the army’s Azov brigade as a press officer, communicating the horrors of Russia’s months-long siege to global media.

There, too, was her fiancé Andriy Subotin, a 34-year-old Ukrainian army officer, defending the plant.

Interior of a dark bunker in Mariupol

There are over 30 Soviet-era bunkers deep beneath the Azovstal steel plant [Dmytro Kozatsky]

The pair had found each other through work – Mariupol’s Border Guard Agency – around three years before the siege.

When Andriy met Valeria, it was love at first sight.

“He was special, it felt so warm to be around him,” Valeria says. “He was always kind and never refused to help anyone.”

Andriy was an optimist, she says. He knew how to be happy and found joy in small things: sunny weather, smiles, friends’ company.

“On the first day we met, I realised Andriy was very different to others.”

Within three months, they had moved in together, renting a small one-storey house in Mariupol with a garden. The couple started building a life together.

“We travelled a lot, went to the mountains, met friends,” Valeria says.

“We fished together and spent lots of time outdoors. We visited theatres, concerts and exhibitions. Life was full.”

They decided to get married and dreamed of a big church wedding with family and friends. They picked wedding rings.

Valeria quit her job and began to nurture her creative side, writing and publishing poems about the earlier years of fierce fighting with Russia in Mariupol.

“For a couple of years before the full-scale invasion, I was truly happy,” she recalls.

Everything changed in February 2022.

Spring had brought the sun to Valeria and Andriy’s garden, and the first flowers were appearing.

“I was starting to enjoy spring,” says Valeria. “We knew about Putin’s threats and realised there would be a war, but I didn’t want to think about it.“

A few days before 24 February, the day the full-scale invasion began, Andriy urged Valeria to leave the city. She refused.

“I knew that no matter what happened, I had to be in Mariupol, I had to defend my city.”

Weeks later, they were both underground, in the Azovstal bunkers.

They only got to see each other occasionally, but when they did those were moments of “pure happiness”.

Portrait picture of Valeria Subotina

[Valeria Subotina]

At this point, Mariupol was nearing a humanitarian catastrophe.

Strikes to infrastructure had cut water and power supplies to parts of the city, and there were food shortages. Civilian homes and buildings, too, had been destroyed.

On 15 April, a large bomb was dropped on the plant. Valeria narrowly escaped death.

“I was found among dead bodies, the only one alive. On the one hand, a miracle, but on the other, a terrible tragedy.”

She had to spend eight days in an underground hospital in the plant with severe concussion.

“The smell of blood and rot was everywhere,” she says.

“It was a very scary place where our wounded comrades, with amputated limbs, were lying everywhere. They couldn’t get proper help because there were very few medical supplies.”

Andriy was deeply worried for Valeria after her injury and started planning a wedding right there, in the bunker.

“It felt like he was in a hurry, like we wouldn’t have any more time,” says Valeria.

“He made a couple of wedding rings out of tin foil with his own hands, and asked me to marry him. Of course, I said yes.

“He was the love of my life. And our rings made of tin foil – they were perfect.”

Close of Andriy and Valeria's hands with tin-foil rings

Andriy and Valeria married in a makeshift underground ceremony in the bunker, with tin-foil rings [Valeria Subotina]

On 5 May, the couple were married by a commander stationed at the plant. They had a ceremony in the bunker, wearing their uniforms as wedding attire.

Andriy promised his wife that they would have a proper wedding when they returned home, with real rings and a white dress.

Two days later, on 7 May, he was killed in action at the steel plant, by Russian shelling.

Valeria didn’t find out about it straight away.

“People often say you feel something inside when a loved one dies. But I, on the contrary, was in a good mood. I was married and in love.”

One of the hardest things was having to hold in a “lump of grief”, as she was defending her city alongside “her boys” – comrades – at Azovstal.

“I was a bride, I was a wife, and now I am a widow. The scariest word,” she says.

“I could not react the way I wanted to at that moment.

“My boys were always around. They sat next to me, they slept next to me, they brought me food and supported me,” she says. “I could only cry when they weren’t watching.”

At one point, it felt like the fear of being in the war zone was blunted by her grief.

“I didn’t care any more… You just understand that there are many more people waiting for you in the next world, if it exists, than there are here with you.”

The Ukrainian soldiers at Azovstal finally surrendered on 20 May. Valeria found herself among the 900 prisoners of war forcibly taken by the Russian military out of Mariupol.

“We stared through the windows of the bus at those buildings we loved, at those streets we knew so well. They destroyed and killed everything I loved – my city, my friends, and my husband.”

Valeria survived 11 months of Russian captivity, and has told of torture and abuse. Andriy often appeared in her dreams.

In April last year, she was released as part of a prisoner exchange, and is now back in Ukraine.

It is difficult to to say how many people were killed as a result of the Russian shelling of Mariupol, but local authorities say the number exceeds 20,000.

According to the UN, 90% of residential buildings were damaged or destroyed, and bodies are still in the rubble.

As far as Valeria knows, her husband’s body remains at the Azovstal steel plant in the now-occupied city.

Sometimes, she says, she looks to the sky and speaks to him.

Andriy and Valeria in military uniform

[Dmytro Kozatsky]

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