He had a chance to survive, but he chose his companions
2 September, 2022
Oleksandr Hrianyk during the war Photo: Oleksandr’s Instagram

After the war, he wanted to go to some inconspicuous American village — he couldn’t live with what he saw in Mariupol. 

He dreamed of being a photographer in hot spots; he could go to the jungles of Mexico without knowing the language; he would never drop litter on the ground. In January 2022, after 6 years in Azov, 28-year-old Oleksandr Hrianyk left the service. He didn’t manage to live a civilian life as planned: February 24 came. The path of defense that he took in Kyiv Oblast ended at Azovstal on May 8. Oleksandr’s body has not been found yet. His parents, sister, and friends grieve for him, but they know that he could not help but break through to his companions in Mariupol.

“A child but already a man”

For Anastasiia Hrianyk, Oleksandr’s sister, the day when her brother was brought from the maternity hospital was the happiest day of her life. The brother was 5-and-a-half-years younger than she and they were inseparable. If someone was giving him a treat, he did not accept it until his sister took one: “And what about Nastia, and Nastia?” If teenagers insulted her at school, he, still very young, rushed to protect her.

Family photo of Oleksandr with his sister and mother

Photo: hromadske


He didn’t tell her secrets to anyone, not even their parents: at the age of 13, the sister started smoking, it was considered cool back then. Their mother could tell it by the smell of her jacket and came to the children saying: “Nastia! How long have you been smoking?!” — “It’s been a while”. She looked at Oleksandr: “Did you know?!” — “I did” — “Why didn’t you tell me?! — “Why would I tell you?”

Anastasiia has been living in Cyprus for 7 years, working there as an office manager in an international company. Her brother came to see her only twice, they wandered in the mountains and talked about everything in the world.

“They were very close, recalls Olha, their mother. — She was like a mom to him.”

Oleksandr cared about his family, he used to make heartfelt gifts. On New Year’s Eve, he gave a bracelet with the names of the whole family as a present to his aunt. Last year, he gave his sister a T-shirt of her favorite color, pink, with the inscription of her favorite rock band, Aria. As a child, Nastia was a rocker, and though little Oleksandr laughed at her back then, he wanted to do something nice. A year earlier, he gave her a pink Zippo lighter with the “brother” inscription — Nastia dreamed of such a lighter as a child, but she had no money.

Anastasiia, Oleksandr’s sister

Photo: hromadske


The girl could not afford to buy bears of the Me to You brand — Nastia adored these toys and collected them. So, for her 19th birthday, Oleksandr saved up money. He still needed 600 UAH, so he made a bet with his friends that he would shave his head to buy his sister a gift. He bought it and went to congratulate her in Odesa, where his sister studied at the law academy.

He loved dogs because there was a dog in the family since his early childhood. When Olha was pregnant with her son, the family’s dog Filka got lost. Nastia cried for her pet, and her mother took her to the pet market to comfort her. There, people gave them a thoroughbred poodle Artamon as a gift. On the same day, their mother went into labor — Oleksandr was born. The dog lived for 17 years.

When Oleksandr was in the 5th grade, he asked a question that his mother still remembers. One day he looked at Artamon and suddenly said: “Mom, can you imagine that there are families that don’t have a dog?” It was a revelation for the boy. Later, the family took a York, Oleksandr named him Tyson and walked with him, although he wanted a big dog.

When Hrianyk was on the front line in 2016, a local dog started coming to him. He wanted to bring him home. His mother recalls: “And then he said to me, “What if I bring home a big dog?” I said, “Sasha, we have a small dog at home. There is no place for another one.” I didn’t support this initiative. Now I wish I did. I would have Ryzhyk now.”

Oleksandr with a dog

Photo: Oleksandr’s Instagram


Tyson is staying with Olha and Serhiy’s relatives, and Sasha’s parents themselves left Kyiv and went to Cyprus to visit their daughter. Olha says that she will return when there is information about Oleksandr’s body. In Kyiv, clients are waiting for her — she works as a groomer. But she doesn’t have the strength to go home, to enter her son’s room.

There will be a lot of things reminding her of him in the capital. He loved Kyiv, he loved sunsets and sunrises, he used to say: “Mom, how can you stay at home while it’s so beautiful outside?”

He went kayaking and skateboarding, he liked to put puzzles together with his parents and sister, and traveled around the cities of Ukraine for football matches — he was a Dynamo fan, says his friend Olha, his ex-girlfriend.

"In general, he enjoyed the atmosphere of travel. Not luxurious travels, but suddenly hit the road with a backpack. He was a fan of this sort of things. He often climbed the mountains, and he dreamed of climbing Mount Everest. We would all put “to see museums” in our to-do lists, but Sasha would write “to climb a mountain”. He liked connecting with nature,” says his friend Olha.

“I don’t like excursions — listening to someone telling me a story. I want to have my own impressions,” the mother retells her son’s words. He took pictures of everything on the way. His sister says they couldn’t even walk 50 meters without him seeing something beautiful. He took photos with different cameras, he had a lot of cameras: action, film, and professional digital one.

Once he came to his friend in Mexico, and then he hitchhiked into the jungle, without knowing the language and navigating with a map. Then he texted his family: “I’m proud of myself for doing this!”

His family was worried, and they were told there were a lot of bandits in Mexico. But Oleksandr was convinced that there are many good people in the world. You can rely on them in the jungle, too. He thought that if you are a kind soul, people also treat you with kindness.

“He was very wise, — his mother Olha recalls. — He could solve any issues, any problems. He used to say, “Mom, there are no problems in life at all. There is a task. If there is a task, you can fulfill it and forget about it. That’s it!”

On the day when the full-scale war began, he and his mother walked the dog in the morning — before he left for service. And Oleksandr shared with his mother the idea of writing a book when everything is over. When he was on the front line in Azov, he worked in the press service, making photos and short films, so a lot of impressions accumulated even before February 24: “I have so much interesting information in my head and so many interesting thoughts”.

Sasha, it’s a very good idea to write a book. Make notes every day. When you have some thoughts or feelings — write them down, because you will forget everything very quickly,” his mother advised. “I’m trying”.

Now the mother rereads her son’s letters to his friends when he was at Azovstal and notes that they are interesting and psychologically profound. His sister Nastia collects every memory, post, or chat.

Oleksandr with his mother

Photo: hromadske


“The guys are fighting there, and I’m sitting here eating strawberries and feeling like a jerk”

Oleksandr’s parents are from Luhansk Oblast. His friend Olha tells us: “This is another reason why he was fighting — he couldn’t stand the injustice, that there are places you have so many memories about, and you just can’t go there. And he wanted all Ukrainians to have the opportunity to return to their native places.”

Olha said that 9 years ago, Oleksandr made her think about the changes in Ukraine during the Revolution of Dignity: “When the Maidan started, I was not a very conscious person, rather “out of politics”, as they say. Oleksandr explained what was going on and why it was important. And since I was his girlfriend, I was also on the Maidan: I carried food, cooked... When the first victims occurred — a guy from Belarus was shot (Mykhaylo Zhyznevskyi died on January 22 — ed.) — we woke up, and Sasha said: “I’m going” — “I won’t let you” — “I don’t care anymore. I have to go there! What if everyone thinks that someone else should go, not me?”

Hrianyk was on Euromaidan from beginning to end, because he understood that this was the future of our country and most of all did not want Ukraine to return to the Soviet Union.

With the beginning of the war in Donbas, he wanted to go to the front, but his mother refused: "I almost laid down in front of the elevator with tears and begged him not to go there because I was very scared. That year, he barely communicated with us. He was immersed in his own world, gloomy. I asked, “Sasha, what’s going on?”— “Mom, look, I’m sitting here, the guys are fighting there, and I’m eating strawberries and feel like a jerk.”

At that time, he was studying to become an economist, although he wasn’t excited about it — he just needed a higher education document. After graduating from the university, he went to the Azov Boot Camp. He explained his choice by the fact that everyone in Azov is motivated, are eager to fight for the idea — and he did not regret it. For 6 years, he served in Hurzuf near Mariupol. And he couldn’t forgive himself for not going in 2014, at the beginning.

Then, Oleksandr broke up with his girlfriend Olha because she wanted a family and a peaceful life. When he realized that he was ready to combine family and warfare, it was too late: Olha was on her way to study in Japan.

Oleksandr’s sister later asked him: “Why don’t you have a permanent relationship?” — “Nastia, do you have any idea what this girl will get into, just waiting for me? And if I die, how will she feel?” 

During their last frank conversation in Cyprus, Nastia asked her brother to quit, saying it was time to live for himself: “For 5 years I have been living in a state where you wake up every day and don’t know if your brother is alive or not. I will not be able to live without you.”

He did not answer, and he sent Anastasiia a gift for the New Year 2022 — a letter of resignation.

Photos of Oleksandr Hrianyk and his sister at different periods

Photo: hromadske


“Maybe only the teeth are left”

After returning from Azov, he didn’t even unpack his backpack, he went straight to the Carpathians to clear his head. But on February 24, he went to defend Ukraine again. He was packing his things in the morning, his mother recalls, with fervor, with a spark in his eyes. He said: “Finally, I can make up for not going in 2014. Mom, mark my words: this abscess will break, and Ukraine will be different. Probably all of this was necessary for the country to be cleansed of all sorts of rubbish.” He left, believing in the best — elated, confident. Oleksandr’s parents walked him to the bus stop, and his mother said: “I look at the fire in your eyes and it makes me feel better. If you went with fear, I would also live with fear. I see that you are going to your guys as if you were going home.”

The family still has a video from the action camera that was fixed on Oleksandr’s head when they were seeing him off. He sang Vakarchuk’s song “Vse bude dobre”, and got on a trolley bus, first, he filmed his parents, then, pointed the camera at his face — the son had tears in his eyes, his mother recalls.

Later, he insisted that his parents go to visit his sister abroad. At first, he defended Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel. Then, he went to his fellow soldiers in the already surrounded Mariupol. He managed to break through in a helicopter. He didn’t tell his family where he was — he didn’t want them to worry. He even blocked his sister, but then admitted that he was on Azovstal.

“The first thing I thought was: thank God he’s not in Mariupol. Thank God! It is the Lord who helps me. I was sure that he was somewhere near Kyiv. He called, but not during some battles, of course, he would say that he was either sitting under a tree or stroking a cat. He said that everything was fine, that he was “in the flow,” that he was and always had been lucky. And I believed him,” his mother sighs.

On May 7, Oleksandr called his family for the last time, he told everyone that he loved them — as if saying goodbye. The next day, he was gone.

“We were told different things — there is a body, there is no body, someone saw it, nobody saw it. It burned down, leaving only ashes. Some people said they saw the skull on his bed, others said maybe, only the teeth were left. But no one will collect them. There are “DPR people there”.”

For several months, the family has not been able to get information from any institution. They really hope that the body will be found and exchanged. Living in the unknown is the worst. A psychologist advised Olha and Nastia to make a ritual of saying goodbye to Oleksandr and consider this day the day of his death. They went to the house that Nastia once rented with Oleksandr in Cyprus, and buried a Kinder Surprise under a cypress tree there — Oleksandr loved these toys as a child. Now the family is trying to move on with their lives.

Oleksandr on a hike

Photo: Oleksandr’s Instagram


His personal Everest

In memory of her brother, Nastia wants to make a photo exhibition of his works in Ukraine. And the defender’s father Serhii, on his birthday, August 3, took the mountain route that Oleksandr traveled last November in memory of his son. He fixed two photos of his son on the trees: now “Hrian” will always admire the sunrise from behind the slopes.

His friend Olha remembers his decency and tries to be like him herself: "My dad died half a year ago — I was depressed. I had thoughts that I was worthless. And with Oleksandr’s death, I want to be better in his memory. For example, when I am sitting in a cafe and I see that a napkin has fallen from my table. I think Oleksandr would pick it up. He carried each stub for a long time to through it in the trash. He used to say: “Olha Andriivna, we are not some swines.” Now, I try to be better doing such small things.”

Oleksandr could have tried to evacuate from besieged Mariupol because he was wounded in the fighting. However, he let a civilian fly instead of him — he would not abandon his guys. He texted his companions: “I’m not a rat.”

His friend Olha was in a panic when she found out that he was on Azovstal. She didn’t know how to help.

But Oleksandr texted her: “Relax. It’s like with the Maidan. I knew that I was doing the right thing back then. Now in Mariupol, I also feel that it is the best thing that I could do.”

This is his personal Everest.

This text is part of a special project “In a steel embrace” which collected 34 stories of different people brought together by Azovstal. All of these stories are about hope and struggle, and the desire for freedom and love for Ukraine.