The Diary of a Ukrainian Filmmaker-Turned-Soldier

A cinematographer reflects on his time on the battlefield in Europe’s biggest land war in decades

The Diary of a Ukrainian Filmmaker-Turned-Soldier
Artem Ryzhykov during the early days of the Russian invasion, in Irpin, Ukraine. (Artem Ryzhykov)

I was driving west out of Kyiv on the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2022, headed for my in-laws’ home in Lutsk, near the Polish border, when my American journalist friend, riding shotgun, asked how I thought the world would respond if Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the massive invasion U.S. officials had been warning of for weeks.

Some years before, I was the director of photography on a documentary that screened at major festivals around the world. I’d done enough traveling and talking to outsiders to have a decent idea how Ukraine was viewed internationally. When foreigners think of Ukraine, I explained, they don’t think of heroic achievements but about suffering — the Holodomor, the Holocaust, Chernobyl. “Nobody would come to help us,” I said.

Thankfully, I could not have been more wrong. Russian bombs began falling about 15 hours later, waking us up before dawn in Lutsk and turning Ukraine into the world’s beloved underdog, battling the evil empire to secure democracy and freedom. A 32-year-old cinematographer and filmmaker who had never held a gun, I would soon join the fight. Once I did, I decided it might be a good idea to talk to my journalist friend about my experiences. The following is based on a series of video calls I made to him.

April 12, 2022

In the first days, I helped friends and family, including my wife Irina, get out of the country. I spent a few weeks helping local men build a makeshift shelter in Lutsk, until a second round of Russian bombs struck. This was much bigger and closer than the first. I woke up from the sound and from the shaking of the house. I saw fire in the sky and realized I could be killed anywhere in Ukraine, even in the far west. It’s just a matter of luck.

So I decided not to be afraid anymore and to go see the front line with my own eyes, to learn the truth about war. My second thought was that I am a cinematographer and this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. I have to film everything. Luckily, a couple months before, I had researched Ukraine’s armed forces in preparation for a possible documentary about the conflict in the Donbas region. I knew about Kyiv’s best territorial defense battalion. They are civilian, not military, and said to have great camaraderie. I visited their commander in Kyiv and asked how I could join.

“What can you do?” he asked. I said I could make videos. “I don’t need a filmmaker,” he said. “Can you do anything else?” I told him I speak English — that got his attention, because the battalion has several foreign fighters. I told him I’m also a decent cook and an experienced long-distance runner.

Minutes later, I signed a contract as the battalion’s translator, courier and cook. The next day, without any training, I was sent to Irpin as part of the second wave against Russia’s assault on Kyiv. We stayed in a factory, which had a big basement that was an old Soviet fallout shelter, and stored our weapons next door.

We called the base Giraffe, after a nearby shopping mall. It was close to the Irpin River, with the Russians on the other side in Bucha, about 500 yards away. Right away, I was doing the cooking, and now and then I would run from one place to another delivering messages that were too important to risk on the radio. One day, I was in my little kitchen heating up some “vareniki” (dumplings) and everybody started coming in to eat. The Russians have drones everywhere, so they must have seen the movement. Suddenly, there was a blast nearby, then another and another. I didn’t even turn off the stove. I just ran as fast as I could to the shelter.

They were dropping mines that come down by parachute and don’t make any noise. You literally can’t hear a thing until they make contact with something and explode. The only way we knew in advance, sometimes, was because of the dogs. The stray dogs in Irpin, a few seconds before a mine would hit, would go inside the shelter, especially this big dog we called Black. Guys would be relaxing, having a smoke, and Black would run into the shelter and we would follow. This actually saved lives.

But on this day, there were no dogs, just one boom after another. I ran. Then came a lot more — the building was shaking so much I could barely stand. That’s when you know they’re hitting your building. I realized if I stayed another minute I’d die, so I ran up the stairs and outside. A minute later, the whole world exploded — the Russians hit our weapons depot next door. The factory was destroyed, along with my kitchen. Several soldiers were wounded and one died. This was my third day of war.

After this, they gave me a Kalashnikov and showed me how it works. It was like 15 minutes of training. I started running around with the Kalashnikov on my right shoulder and my camera on my left. I didn’t think I’d ever use the gun, but after the kitchen was blown up, my commander gave me permission to start filming.

Our battalion spread out to several locations and I was sent to the command center, which was on the seventh floor of an eight-story apartment building, so we were less exposed to bombs from above. It was a normal apartment, but with all the tech and maps and gadgets. I was assigned to help the communications and logistics guy. There was this American volunteer fighter — we called him Texas. He was a fat lazy guy, a war tourist — he would take selfies while we were out running around (he soon left the war and now makes OnlyFans videos with a young Ukrainian woman). He and I would be given assignments, like to go out and find food and water. Have you ever tried to find a reliable source of water during an artillery war? It’s not easy.

We were on the very front line, with Russians to the east, west and north. You never know where the Russians might be because it’s shifting every day. There are constant explosions, sometimes half a mile away, sometimes much closer. At night, it’s too dark to find anything and using a light gives away your location. During the day, you have to run everywhere because there might be a sniper shooting from who knows where, and Russian drones are always nearby. If you’re seen by a drone when you’re carrying food and water, it will follow you back to the base and then, boom, it’s over. Basically, you have to be a shadow.

Then came the final battle, with Russians pushing to cross the Irpin River (March 25 or 26). They bombed our command center — they hit almost every apartment in that building except ours. In the afternoon, Russian tanks started crossing the river. We shot at the lead tank but missed. But then we saw that it was on fire. This wasn’t our artillery. The Russians hit their own tank, their own position. It had to be. After that, their tanks couldn’t move; that was the last time they tried to cross the river.

Of course, we didn’t know this at the time. The next day, the Russians launched more strikes and injured six soldiers in my battalion. The day after that was silent, and the day after. We started seeing Ukrainian civilians crossing the river and entering Irpin. “The Russians left,” they told us. “They’re gone.” Our commander sent out a small team and they confirmed the Russians had pulled out. I was with the second group that went into Bucha after the Russians left. “Director, come with us,” they said, telling me to bring my camera. I saw many dead Russians and civilians. I saw our dog, Alexa, eating the body of a Russian soldier, and a taxi driver half inside his exploded car.

I’m happy I was there and took part in the Battle of Kyiv. I met Medic, the commander of another battalion, who’s a great soldier and really trusts his instincts. He says that he can sense where there is danger; he can feel it. He says the calmer you are, the better you handle dangerous situations.

My wife and family don’t even know that I’ve joined the military. I’m brave enough to go on the front line but not brave enough to tell my family what I’m doing. I told Ira I’ve been staying at a military base near Kyiv, helping out there, doing some filming while not allowed to use my phone. I don’t know how to explain to her or to my mom and my sister. Now, I’m waiting to hear about Kharkiv. If I go east to fight, I’ll tell them, because it will be the biggest fight of all time.

May 24, 2022

I came east with a very bad crew. I shouldn’t say this, but they were fucking morons, and I’m not sure how I survived. Two weeks after returning from Irpin, I was put with a big crew, but then the commander decided to leave behind civilians like me with little training or experience. He left with his group to fight in Kharkiv and said we could go east with whatever group would take us.

A week later, I was assigned to a commander called Hobbit. His crew was a nightmare — drug addicts, homeless people, crazy guys. There were also “war heroes” who talked big and thought they knew everything. They loved to put everybody down, and I was their favorite target. They called me a Russian spy because I was always shooting video. They made me clean toilets and said I didn’t even know how to use a gun, which was mostly true. They said I would get scared in battle and end up killing them, so when the first battle comes, they’ll shoot me in the back.

I wanted to make a short film about gay soldiers and women soldiers fighting in the army, so I told them I was looking for gay soldiers. “Oh, so you’re a fucking faggot?” they asked. Guys, I told them, it’s not cool to say this. But they weren’t ready to listen. I know it’s not nice to say this about the Ukrainian army because it’s not as beautiful as the media says — that we’re all great heroes and all that. But there are shit people in it too.

My gun was made the year I was born — 1989. I had no idea how to use it, but I was getting training, learning how to fight, and do moves and countermoves. We were staying in a school that was close to the action; we could hear the artillery in the distance. One day, the commander came to me and said I didn’t have to wear military clothes anymore, I could change into a civilian outfit and wait.

My whole unit went to join the fight and left me alone with a crazy junkie. He had shot himself in the ass to avoid fighting. There was no food there, only dirty water. But I couldn’t go back to normal life. On the third day, a special forces unit arrived at the school to take a rest. They fed me and introduced me to their commander, called Phantom, and we sat down to talk. I told him that I hadn’t used my gun yet but that I speak English and came to this war to be useful, to help the army and kill Russians, and maybe make a movie.

Phantom took me with his crew to the front line, and I started helping with communications. I had some experience shooting video with drones, so one day I gave some advice to the drone guys about their settings. These were simple drones, just for surveillance, no weapons. I shot some video and edited it and Phantom liked it, so we made a video of their drone operation. I started to gain Phantom’s respect, and when a French fighter showed up, a guy from Lyon who had fought for two years in Mali, the commander put him under my responsibility because we both spoke English. We called him Apo.

Around this time, my father died. He had a stroke while planting potatoes. He would’ve survived if somebody had been around, but he lay there alone in the field for a long time, probably in pain. Apo went with me to the funeral, and when we came back east I started getting messages from other international guys.

“Come join us,” I told them. “But don’t tell anybody I invited you. Just say you got lost after a battle and found our battalion.” The next guy I accepted was an Iraqi medic; we called him Baghdad. Then another guy, Miami, a computer genius. We welcomed a 19-year-old woman from Israel, a sniper named Mamba.

Our little foreign legion took on a few more volunteers, and after they had all been vetted we started building our own drones and flying them on missions to find Russians. We’d send the coordinates to the artillery, who would send the Russians some gifts. Now I have my own military vehicle and sometimes I’ll just make a suggestion to the commander — “Hey, I think I’ll take these guys and go find these Russian positions” — and he’ll give me a thumbs up.

Everything’s different when you have your commander’s respect. When I first joined the military, they called me Director, because I make movies. Phantom told me that when something bad happens it’s a good idea to make a change and start over. “Let’s give you a new life and a new name,” he said. “Let’s call you Canon.” I told him I always shoot video with a Sony camera. “No one fucking cares,” he said. “We’ll call you Canon, because [with a variant spelling] it also means ‘big gun.’”

So now I’m Canon the drone expert. I’m teaching other guys to use drones and working with Miami and the security services to upgrade the drones and make them invisible. Now we have to always be aware of Russian radars. Each time we send up a drone, the Russians geolocate the launch signal and shoot rockets at those coordinates. It’s very dangerous. When you push that button to send up the drone, you know the Russians will send gifts to the spot that’s home for the drone. So I put down the drone about 400 yards from the car, launched it and then ran, knowing the Russian artillery was coming. You’re running through the forest and feeling bombs explode behind you, sometimes just 20 yards away.

The worst bombardment we faced was in a village called Tsyrkuny. The town had been held by Russia for 70 days before we drove them out. Our mission was to go in, get the locals out of hiding and evacuate them fast, because we expected the Russians to bomb the village as they left the area. So we arrived, and these people were in a terrible state after more than two months in basements. The women had been raped. Elderly people could barely walk. Children hadn’t eaten anything. First, they thought we were Russians. Then we spoke Ukrainian, and I had so many hugs and kisses from the babushkas. They almost fell to their knees, saying, “thank you, thank you so much for saving us.”

That’s when Russia decided to throw all its artillery at Tsyrkuny. We had to grab civilians as fast as we could and get back to Kharkiv. The bombs were coming closer and closer to our location and we barely made it out of there. I did my best not to show any fear, but you never get used to that sound. The scariest part is actually not when an artillery strike explodes, it’s the sound it makes in the air.

It’s the scream of the devil. It lasts maybe two seconds — eeeeEEEEEERR! — and then it’s buh-BOOOM. And you never know where it will land. It could be right in front of you. All you can do is fall to the ground. I’ve hurt my arms and legs jumping away from bombs. Twice, I broke my camera. I’ve jumped into cow shit and broken glass. I shit my pants twice. I even jumped onto a grandma. You have to just dive as quickly as you can.

Facing all this, I finally told my wife what I was doing. I told her that I decided to join the military, that there was no other way. I told her I was working with drones, but I didn’t tell her how dangerous it was.

Sept. 15, 2022

There is a tiny village between Kharkiv city and the Russian border called Dementiivka. The name is like the Ukrainian word for devilish, and it always felt like hell to us, so we called it Devil Village. There’s a road running between two lakes there, and it’s the only way to cross heavy artillery from Russia to Kharkiv.

The Russians fighting there were super tough, really smart fighters, probably special forces. We held and lost Devil Village so many times. The Russians took it in March, soon after the invasion. In late April, we went on a night mission through the forest. Several guys in my group were injured — one was killed — but we took Dementiivka and held it for a couple months. Then the Russians took it back. They sent thousands of tons of grenades and artillery and destroyed the whole village. It was impossible for us to stay.

We took a one-month break to regroup, train and recruit more skilled fighters. I was told to find the worst soldiers in our 1,000-member battalion. I hired an IT soldier who gave me a report of the Facebook pages of our troops, showing those who criticize Ukraine, are unhappy, show our positions or dead soldiers. I gave my report to the commander and we sent the 100 worst guys back to Kyiv. We fired all of the crazy and unreliable guys and assembled a team of professional fighters. I also run the Facebook page of my battalion. Every day, I get tons of messages from young guys, “Please can we join you? What do we need to do?” But I only take the guys with fighting experience — not new guys, not amateurs. We don’t need many people. We need quality. One good fighter is better than 10 useless guys.

We prepared for our assault and, one morning, Phantom called and told my team where to go. We weren’t sent to Devil Village, but to another one nearby. We went and waited for the green light. … I got a message that we took back Devil Village, but one of our commanders had been killed, so we hurried over there to retrieve his body.

The Russians were gone and they left everything. They had pulled out in a few minutes — I even found hot soup. I found cats and dogs that had been shot. We also found an incredible amount of weapons. Happy soldiers’ faces were everywhere. We grabbed all these weapons and celebrated our trophies. We laughed and took photos. They left behind cars they’d stolen, refrigerators, washing machines. It was like a market in the middle of the forest.

That was when I understood that there had been a change in the war. Before, the Russians would send hundreds of artillery bombs every minute and we’d shoot a few back. Now, because of all our new weapons from the West, everything changed. Now we could send hundreds of “gifts,” and sometimes we’d only get a few back.

But Devil Village was destroyed. Grandmas, cats, dogs — all dead. The day after the Russians left, Phantom stepped on one of their mines in the woods and was badly injured. He had hundreds of tiny bits of metal in his body. I visited him in the hospital after his first surgery. They said he was very lucky — no brain damage and no amputations needed. We’re hoping we can recover and return. He’s the most important person in our battalion and can’t be replaced. (He returned to action in March 2023.)

We started using drones to help the mine guys, the sappers, find Russian mines and defuse them so we could enter these retaken areas. I’m also shooting video all the time, including a report for a Ukrainian news outlet. The guys now see the importance of what I’m doing — recording history as it’s happening. Basically, I’m carrying two weapons at once, my gun and my camera. I’ve got thousands of hours of footage. I feel like I’m a useful guy now. I still don’t feel like a professional soldier, but I keep training every day.

Feb. 21, 2023

Bakhmut has been a nightmare, reminding me of the Irpin-Bucha days. There are street fights, but much, much bigger than before. They have bigger weapons, we have bigger weapons. Every day, we’re feeling shelling from all directions, especially at night. We were there for about three months, then rotated out. There’s always fresh blood coming in, new battalions arriving to keep morale high. Volunteer fighters and media from around the world are here in Bakhmut. I’ve hosted some media visits, given them tours and answered questions. In the meantime, we see local girls coming and shooting their TikTok and Instagram next to damaged buildings. It’s crazy.

The front line is [about 60 miles] long, and I went on missions to deliver emergency food and supplies to towns in the area. One day a few weeks ago, we went to a village to give them bread and water. This was Siversk, which was cut off for months with no electricity. It’s 2,000 people, and hardly anybody can get there because the roads are dangerous. We drove through bombs to get there and brought them a Starlink. They had no communications for months, except for the few times their mayor used a generator to connect.

I saw people make their first phone call in months to their family, to their wives and children. It broke my heart. And everybody was saying thank you. We felt good about what we had done, but after we left, one of the locals told the Russians about our visit. The next day, some Ukrainian soldiers stationed nearby were killed. Luckily it wasn’t us. It was probably some pro-Russian local who betrayed us, or some drunk who needed money, or just some guy who was scared.

In one Bakhmut basement, I met an 80-year-old woman, who had worked in the fields her whole life. Her family had been killed in the war and she had been stuck in that basement for months. “Dear, what do you think,” she asked, “is there a god?” I told her I’d like to hear her thoughts on it. “I’ve gone to church every week my whole life,” she said. “But now I don’t believe in god. Because of what they have done to my people, to my land. There cannot be any god.” There was also a priest in the basement, and she nodded toward him. “Look at this priest,” she said. “Why is he still praying? Doesn’t he see that he’s a clown?”

Still, now I feel more confident, more relaxed. I don’t have an official title. Sometimes I’m a media officer, sometimes I’m working online, sometimes I go on missions. And I’ve decided to be more involved in the war and handed my filming duties to volunteers. I came to the war to make a movie, but now I think movies are shit. You can never be honest — even a documentary is a lie, a compilation of moments. And if my camera is telling me what to do, that’s not right. Should I save real lives or film them? It’s an easy choice.

I have found another truth. Everything I see here is an amazing movie: inside the military process, speaking to your commander, being at the base, building relationships, seeing bombings and bad things. But why film this? To win some stupid award? You can never see what I see and feel what I feel. … basically, it’s been the best year of my life. Of course, if I’d been injured or killed, I’d have a different view.

Unfortunately, many of them are now dead. I went to 36 funerals in the past year. At the last one, I decided this was enough, I will not go to any more. It was the funeral of my commander Medic — the one who taught me so much. I closed myself off from those emotions because I just can’t go through more death.

I said from the beginning that this war would last at least a decade and I still feel that way. My fellow soldiers see it differently — they think the war’s going to end soon. They read the news and see that we are winning. If you read the Ukrainian news, we are always winning. But we will win when Russia is destroyed and we control Russia. Or they control us. And this is why this war could last 10, 20, even 50 years. It’s already been going on for almost 10 years. They hate us, we hate them. There’s no way we could be friends again. My generation and the younger generation will remember this for a long time.

I haven’t had a chance to personally kill any Russians. They say it’s good luck to kill someone in front of you. But in this war you rarely see the enemy. If you’re stationed in a trench for a long time, you’ll probably see Russians. But mostly it’s bombs and shelling and drones. I was involved in one operation to catch a Russian, and he was alive and uninjured so I had a conversation with him. I gave him tea and treated him as a human being. I saw in front of me not an enemy, just a poor guy. We are all humans. We’re not fighting against orcs. We’re fighting people who look like us, who mostly speak the same language, who were our friends or even family before. They have their own truth and we have our truth.

Now I know what war is. It’s the smell of blood. It’s the smell of shit. It’s very dirty — you’re always dirty. It’s homeless dogs missing legs. It’s the cries of girls who were raped. It’s grandmas who can’t walk. It is tragedy everywhere. It is seeing brave civilians who took guns and stayed on the very front line. War often brings the worst out of people, but it also brings out the best.

Even if we win this war, even if Putin is dead, I will never stop fighting. Right now, I’m with the most beautiful people in the world. They are honest, they support and care for each other. We are family. That’s what Putin did in this war: He helped us, helped bring out this unity. Until the last moment, we will defend this democracy. We will fight to live the way we want until our last breath. I’m honored to be a part of it, to be Ukrainian.

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