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


Mariupol was doomed. Ruthless Russian bombing had turned streets into ruins and courtyards into cemeteries.

But a romance blossomed just meters underground in the southeastern Ukrainian city.

Valeria Subotina, 33, had sought shelter in the huge Azovstal steel plant, the last stronghold in the city, when it was surrounded by Russian troops in the spring of 2022.

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

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

In the bunker, Valeria – in addition to soldiers and civilians – worked with the army’s Azov Brigade as a press officer and conveyed the horrors of the months-long siege of Russia to the global media.

Also there was her fiancé Andriy Subotin, a 34-year-old Ukrainian army officer, who defended the factory.

There are more than 30 Soviet-era bunkers deep beneath the Azovstal steel mill (Dmytro Kozatsky)

The pair had found each other through work – the Mariupol Border Guard – about 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,” says Valeria. “He was always friendly and never refused to help anyone.”

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

“On the first day we met, I realized that Andriy was very different from others.”

Within three months they had moved in together, renting a small one-story house in Mariupol with a garden. The couple began to build a life together.

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

“We fished together and spent a lot of time outside. We visited theaters, concerts and exhibitions. Life was full.”

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

Valeria quit her job and began to nurture her creative side by writing and publishing poems about the early years of heavy fighting with Russia in Mariupol.

“A few years before the full-scale invasion, I was really happy,” she recalls.

Everything changed in February 2022.

Spring had brought the sun into Valeria and Andriy’s garden and the first flowers appeared.

“I started to enjoy spring,” says Valeria. “We knew about Putin’s threats and realized that a war would break out, but I didn’t want to think about it.”

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

“I knew that whatever happened, I had to be in Mariupol and defend my city.”

Weeks later they both found themselves underground, in the Azovstal bunkers.

They only saw each other occasionally, but when they did it was moments of ‘pure happiness’.

(Valeria Subotina)

At that time, Mariupol was approaching a humanitarian catastrophe.

Infrastructure strikes cut off water and power supplies to parts of the city, and there were food shortages. Civilian homes and buildings were also destroyed.

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

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

She had to spend eight days in an underground hospital at the factory with a 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 very worried about Valeria after her injury and started planning a wedding there, in the bunker.

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

“He made a pair of wedding rings from aluminum 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 aluminum foil rings were perfect.”

Andriy and Valeria got married in an impromptu underground ceremony in the bunker, with aluminum foil rings (Valeria Subotina)

On May 5, the couple was married by a commander stationed at the factory. They held a ceremony in the bunker, wearing their uniforms as wedding clothes.

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

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

Valeria didn’t find out right away.

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

One of the most difficult things was having to hold back a ‘lump of sadness’ while defending her city together with ‘her boys’ – comrades – in Azovstal.

‘I was a bride, I was a wife and now I’m a widow. The scariest word,” she says.

“I couldn’t react the way I wanted at that moment.

“My boys were always there. 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 looking.”

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

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

The Ukrainian soldiers at Azovstal finally surrendered on May 20. Valeria was among the 900 prisoners of war forcibly removed from Mariupol by the Russian army.

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

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

She was released in April last year as part of a prisoner swap and is now back in Ukraine.

It is difficult to say how many people have been 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 have been damaged or destroyed, and bodies still lie in the rubble.

As far as Valeria knows, her husband’s body lies in the Azovstal steel mill in the now occupied city.

Sometimes, she says, she looks up at the sky and talks to him.

(Dmytro Kozatsky)

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