No one knew how Oleksandr Matsievskiy died until a video showed his final seconds

By Isabel Coles and Ievgeniia Sivorka

March 31, 2023

The Wall Street Journal


NIZHYN, Ukraine—The Ukrainian platoon was digging in desperately along a tree line in this country’s east when grenades began exploding around it and Russian soldiers crept in from the left. The 16 Ukrainians fought back as best they could but couldn’t stop the Russians from overrunning a position held by five of their number, including Pvt. Oleksandr Matsievskiy, a 42-year-old electrician who lived with his mother and was new to front-line combat.  As darkness fell, the platoon withdrew to more secure positions, reluctantly leaving the five behind, said some of the soldiers who were there. What happened next remained a mystery for more than two months, even after Pvt. Matsievskiy’s dead body was recovered and buried.

Then, a video surfaced on Russian social media showing an unarmed Pvt. Matsievskiy standing knee-deep in a pit, taking a drag on a cigarette and saying, “Glory to Ukraine.” His apparent captors then open fire, strafing his body with bullets and sending it crumpling to the ground.

Pvt. Matsievskiy’s unassuming defiance struck a chord in this nation that has resisted invasion by its larger neighbor for more than a year.

Every war throws up heroes who display uncommon physical strength or mental acuity to overcome the enemy. Ukraine decorated nearly 200 people with the title of Hero of Ukraine, the state’s highest award, last year, the most in any year since declaring independence in 1991. But there are also everyman heroes who show courage and defiance in the face of certain death.

Pvt. Oleksandr Matsievskiy has been lauded as a hero since his killing by Russian soldiers was captured in a video. “He showed that Ukraine’s spirit is unbreakable,” said Pvt. Matsievskiy’s mother, Paraskoviya Demchuk, who received the medal on his behalf. Her son’s stance galvanized Ukrainian resolve at a critical moment in the war as Russia’s onslaught takes an ever-heavier toll. Pvt. Matsievskiy was born and raised in neighboring Moldova, then also part of the Soviet Union, where his mother was sent to work in a shoe factory. The young Oleksandr was a sportsman with a willful streak, said Ms. Demchuk. After qualifying as an electrician, he moved to Russia for work, marrying a woman there from his mother’s hometown of Nizhyn in Ukraine. After eight years in Russia, they moved to Nizhyn in 2008 with a young son.

When they split, Pvt. Matsievskiy went to live with his mother, who had also returned to Nizhyn, about 90 miles north of Kyiv. They were living together in a modest house on the edge of the city of some 70,000 inhabitants when Russia invaded Ukraine last year.

With Russian forces at the gates of Nizhyn, Pvt. Matsievskiy joined civilian volunteers in the Territorial Defense Force. “I tried to talk him out of it, but he was really determined,” said Ms. Demchuk.

How can the U.S. and Western allies continue to show support for Ukraine’s military? Join the conversation below. They were deployed to hold checkpoints and secure villages as Russian troops withdrew last spring.

The demand for fresh units to hold the line in the east of the country grew as the war ground on. Pvt. Matsievskiy brought his mother groceries and a bouquet of flowers before deploying in December, telling her he was heading to the front line.

By Dec. 8, Pvt. Matsievskiy was in Bakhmut, the eastern city that has become a focus of the war, taking the lives of thousands of soldiers on both sides. It was the first real taste of combat for him and many other members of his 163rd Battalion, said Lt. Oleksandr Galystskiy, Pvt. Matsievskiy’s platoon commander.

As an electrician, Pvt. Matsievskiy put his skills to use each time they moved to a new place, rigging up a generator so they could charge their devices.

In a photograph taken in Bakhmut, Pvt. Matsievskiy appears, hand on weapon, with a Band-Aid over his eyebrow covering a cut received when he struck his head while unloading a train. He was obstinate, according to four of the men who served with him, and a heavy smoker. Staff Sgt. Vasyl Zamola, a driver before the war, recalled him declaring he would never be taken captive. Like many Ukrainians brought up in the Soviet Union, he mostly spoke Russian, Sgt. Zamola said.

On the morning of Dec. 30, Pvt. Matsievskiy and 15 others headed for a line of trees near the village of Krasna Hora to support a tank brigade defending the north of Bakhmut. The men had been digging foxholes for cover for about 15 minutes when Russian forces attacked.

Branches began falling as mortars tore through the trees overhead. “It was getting more and more intense,” said Pvt. Vyacheslav Kovalyov, who took a bullet to the calf and was evacuated from the battlefield along with another soldier.

Russian forces were coming at them in waves, trampling over the bodies of those cut down in front of them, said Sgt. Zamola. Suddenly, he noticed Russian forces to his left, where Pvt. Matsievskiy and four others had been. They had been outflanked.

The men made several attempts to reach Pvt. Matsievskiy’s group as the battle raged through the day, but the gunfire was too intense.

Daylight was waning and their night-vision equipment wasn’t good enough to keep fighting in the dark. An order was given to fall back to better-fortified positions. “If not, we would all have died,” said Sgt. Zamola.

At home in Nizhyn, Ms. Demchuk had been trying to distract herself with housework. The last time she had spoken to her son on Dec. 29, he had seemed in good spirits.

He had previously told her not to worry if she didn’t hear from him because cellphone reception near the front lines is patchy. But as days went by without a word, Ms. Demchuk grew anxious. Pvt. Matsievskiy’s was out of service. She couldn’t get through to his company commander.

Rumors began swirling around Nizhyn that the 163rd Battalion had suffered heavy casualties. Ms. Demchuk went to the local enlistment office asking about her son. They didn’t provide any information. Nor did Pvt. Matsievskiy’s military base, nor the police.

The facts began to emerge after the 163rd Battalion returned to base in nearby Chernihiv in early January without Pvt. Matsievskiy. A member of his unit informed Ms. Demchuk her son was missing, likely dead. “How could you leave him there?” she recalled saying.

On Feb. 9, Ms. Demchuk received a call from the police. At a morgue in Kyiv, she was confronted with the bullet-ridden corpse of her only son, recovered as part of an exchange with Russian forces. Part of his head was missing, she said, but there was no mistaking the gash over his eyebrow or the birthmark on his foot.

Days later, Ms. Demchuk buried her son, but questions about how he had died continued to assail her. “A mother needs to know—no matter how painful,” she said.

The answer came to her in the form of a video that flashed up on her phone when she returned home from work one evening and sat down at the kitchen table. It showed a man she recognized instantly as her son standing knee-deep in a ditch with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. “Film him!” a male voice off-camera commands in Russian.

Staring directly at the camera, Pvt. Matsievskiy takes a deep drag from his cigarette before saying in a calm, steady voice: “Glory to Ukraine.” A barrage of automatic gunfire cuts him down.

The 12-second clip had surfaced on a Telegram channel affiliated with Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group and soon ripped across the internet, spawning memes and a hashtag that topped global Twitter trends. In Ukraine, it provoked an outcry.

In his address to the nation that night, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed to find the killers, rallying the nation with the man’s final words. “I want us all together, in unity, to respond: “Glory to the hero! Glory to heroes! Glory to Ukraine!”

Pvt. Matsievskiy’s fellow soldiers had also recognized him immediately and informed their commander, but it took Ukrainian security services nearly a week to confirm his identity. During that time, the Ukrainian military identified the man in the video as a different missing soldier, sowing confusion.  Within hours of the confirmation, Mr. Zelensky had conferred the “Hero of Ukraine” award on Pvt. Matsievskiy.

Russia didn’t comment on the video. Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin cast doubt on its authenticity and said there was no evidence his forces were involved.

For his mother, there is some solace in the phone calls, letters and poems she receives extolling Pvt. Matsievskiy’s bravery, and thanking her for raising a patriot. There are plans to rename a street in Nizhyn after him and erect a monument in his honor.

Despite the graphic certainty of his end, questions remain about the moments leading up to it: When and where exactly did it happen? Did Pvt. Matsievskiy’s words prompt his killers to open fire, or were they about to shoot him anyway? The fate of two of the soldiers who went missing with Pvt. Matsievskiy is also unknown.

The other two whose remains were recovered with Pvt. Matsievskiy’s are buried near him in Nizhyn, alongside 81 other men from the city who have been killed in action since Russia’s invasion. “Every fighter in the Ukrainian army has such a spirit,” said his mother. “Perhaps many others said such words, but they weren’t recorded.”


Isabel Coles is a reporter in London covering economics, with a focus on how changes in the economy impact lives and livelihoods. For a decade before that she reported from the Middle East. Beginning with the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprisings, her work tracked the upheavals across the region, from the early hopes for political change through the darker chapters of Islamic State’s takeover in Iraq and Syria. She covered the U.S.-backed military campaign against the organization and its aftermath, including the intensifying geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and Iran.