One is a Nova Scotia lobsterman who delivers supplies to frontline towns. The other is a Toronto businessman who enlisted in the Ukrainian Foreign Legion.
Lex Brukovskiy and Igor Volzhanin may have different roles, but they are among the many Canadians helping Ukraine respond to the Russian invasion.
Canadians have evacuated civilians from areas under Russian attack, housed refugees and provided medicines to hospitals.
They have also served in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, both in combat roles and, like Volzhanin, as administrators.
Ukraine’s citizen-soldiers are “the last line of defense” against Russia
Not all are Ukrainian-Canadian but a good number are and said they felt compelled to defend the country after it was attacked.
“I’ve always loved Ukraine and seeing it from my home in Canada just drove me crazy,” Brukovskiy said in an interview with Global News.
Brukovskiy was drinking coffee at the kitchen table in his family’s Lviv apartment, looking exhausted and maybe a little haunted.
In just over a month he had gone from lugging lobster traps in the Atlantic to shelling in Ukraine while delivering relief supplies to those in need.
Brukovskiy grew up in western Ukraine before moving to Toronto in 1995. He lived in Calgary and eventually settled in Meteghan, NS. President of Local 9 of the Maritimes Fishermen’s Union, he fishes lobster during the winter season from November to May.
When President Vladimir Putin launched his attack on Ukraine on February 24, he was watching the news on TV. After three days he knew he had to be there.
He convinced a colleague to take over his fishing boat and began raising funds for Ukraine, although at first he was unsure how to donate.
His first plan was to support refugees arriving in Poland. But when he got there, he decided to take a bus across the border to Ukraine.
A youth volunteer organization in Lviv hired him as a driver. They gave him lists of supplies and he loaded his van.
The fisherman was traveling alone in a van so packed with bottled water, baby food, diapers and other necessities that even the passenger seat was full.
His first journey took him across Ukraine to the eastern cities of Poltava, Kharkiv and Dnipro. Instead of returning home empty, he picked up passengers along the way.
“We picked up a woman with her little daughter, a wounded soldier, from the hospital in Poltava,” he said. He returned with a total of five passengers.
As Russia retreats, life is slowly returning to Kyiv
It can get hairy. On a recent trip to Chernihiv, he arrived just as Russian forces began shelling the area with artillery.
He was able to offload his relief shipment and fill his van with passengers, but the shelling made it too dangerous to exit.
Buses trying to evacuate civilians were hit, as was a bridge that civilians were crossing as they tried to flee the fighting, he said.
“It was amazing; I couldn’t believe this was happening. I’ve heard of civilians being attacked, but until I saw it with my own eyes I felt…” he said, pausing.
“I can’t even find the words to describe what I felt.”
The Ukrainian soldiers noted that he was unfamiliar with shelling and told him to get out of his van and lie flat when he heard artillery coming.
He learned that when he roared the artillery guns, he had about five seconds before the shells hit – too fast to really do anything about it.
He was imprisoned there in Chernihiv for five days. The bodies of civilians were lying around, he said. Nobody collected them because of the shelling.
The sight of the dead and the Russian attack on buildings of no apparent military value was an eye opener for Brukovskiy.
“It kind of wakes you up a bit.”
Russian forces have now been driven out of the Chernihiv area, northeast of Kyiv, and Brukovskiy is planning a return trip to deliver supplies.
To make deliveries easier, the volunteers who prepare the boxes mark them with colored tape. Each color goes to a specific address.
“It’s organized through the volunteer center so they already know who needs what and where. They basically just give me an address, so the meds will go here and the food will go here,” he said.
“We also supply non-lethal military aid like bulletproof vests and stuff like that and night vision goggles.”
He said he wants to keep going until he runs out of money. He has raised about $35,000 so far. He also needs to get back to his boat for the fall fishing season.
“I don’t regret coming here,” he said. “I think what I’m doing, I hope it helps. And I know, for example, these guys there, they need people, they need drivers,” he said.
He said there was a lot of humanitarian aid coming in from Europe and elsewhere, but someone had to get it to the hot spots where it was needed.
“Well for me, you know, if that’s something I could do, then I will.”
Inside Kharkiv, a city that was once close to Russia, it is bombed daily
Global News met several Canadian volunteers who also had unofficial duties in Ukraine, but for others their involvement was more formal.
In downtown Lviv, a 34-year-old Canadian in a camouflage jacket and army green cap stood in front of the National Opera House.
“Actually, in a way, I was pleasantly surprised that so many Canadians came here,” Volzhanin said of joining the international legion.
“They came from all over Canada.”
Volzhanin attended Meadowvale Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario before studying at Queen’s University and the University of Victoria.
He worked for the government in Ottawa and at a start-up in the UK, but he was born in Ukraine and was in Kyiv when Russia invaded.
He wanted to help but wasn’t sure how until President Volodymyr Zelenskyy created the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine.
The branch of the Armed Forces of Ukraine was specifically for foreign volunteers, and Volzhanin “realized that this was the right place for me.”
The Canadian was actually the second person to join after Frenchman Damien Magrou, the unit’s official spokesman.
Despite having no military experience, Volzhanin spoke multiple languages and believed he had skills to offer.
“I felt that someone like me, who had a background in running businesses and was able to organize things, could bring something to the military,” he said.
After being called up, he was taken to a military base where he wasn’t sure what to expect, he said.
“I’ve never been to a military base. The whole ride I was afraid that I would actually just be handed a gun and told to go forward,” he said.
Instead, he was given a coordinating role that includes recruitment, logistics and procurement. He provides translation to enable members of the armed forces of different backgrounds to speak to one another.
“I’m the first face foreigners see when they’re inducted into the Legion, I make sure their lives are as comfortable as possible, I make sure they can go to the front as soon as possible, and that they know what to expect,” he said.
“In a way, I did a lot of the organizational activities that I did in my startup life,” he told Global News.
The war is not just about Ukraine, it is a global war between Russian rule and Western values, he said.
If the evidence of Russian war crimes that surfaced as Putin’s troops withdrew from cities like Bucha marked a turning point in the conflict, it saddened him.
“I find it horrible when we wait for atrocities to be committed,” he said, urging Canadians to help, if only by voicing their concerns to their lawmakers.
If he entered today, Volzhanin would be expelled from the international legion. Since joining, Ukraine has announced that it will only accept foreign volunteers with combat experience.
But he felt he was contributing.
“I think right now I’m probably in the best place to be able to help with my skills,” he said.
More international aid is coming as Ukraine prepares for the next major Russian attack