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The Photograph That Will Stop the War in Ukraine

Remembering Maks Levin, the photographer who was murdered by Russian soldiers after weeks capturing the front lines

Edward Serotta
October 13, 2022

“I never wanted to be a war photographer. When the war in Georgia started, lots of famous war photographers from Ukraine and Russia rushed over there to make stories. But I thought, ‘That has nothing to do with me, why should I go there and risk my life?’ These photographers have shot war for years, all over the world, but nothing really changes … war goes on. But when war came to Ukraine, it was not a matter of choice anymore—I became a war photographer.” —Maks Levin

Valentyna Levina at her son Maks Levin's grave in Boyarka
Valentyna Levina at her son Maks Levin’s grave in BoyarkaEdward Serotta

The town of Boyarka lies 20 kilometers southeast of Kyiv. Its residential streets are lined with prim houses guarded by gates, their yards filled with fruit trees. Several have summer gazebos in back where families sit under canopies and enjoy the bounty of late summer: peaches, pears, and plums.

I was sitting in one such gazebo with Valentyna Levina, who was serving blintzes stuffed with mushrooms and dolloped with sour cream, while she poured glasses of that staple of Ukrainian summers, a punch made from the berries that grew in everyone’s gardens.

I had come to pay my respects. Valentyna’s son Maks Levin had made his name as a war photographer, although he photographed teachers’ seminars for my educational institute since 2016. On March 13, 2022, 17 days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Maks was caught and executed by Russian soldiers.

Over the course of the afternoon, Valentyna clutched the hand of her doctor and our mutual friend Lena Kadyuk and from time to time, tears rolled down her cheeks. She shook her head and said, “Ever since he was a child, Maks always told me, ‘Don’t cry, Mom, your eyes change colors when you cry.’”

She sighed and added, “Maks was very fastidious. Very neat. On March 11th he stopped in Boyarka. I washed his clothes and gave him a fresh T-shirt to wear. And that is the T-shirt he was wearing when the Russians shot him.”

I had gotten to know Maks Levin in September 2016, when Vitali Chumak at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv recommended we use Maks to document our weekend teachers’ seminar and the premier showing of an exhibition we created, A Ukrainian Jewish Family Album.

I explained to Maks that the exhibition was based on the 260 oral history interviews Centropa’s Ukrainian team had conducted between 2000 and 2007, back when we digitized 3,000 family pictures.

Maks, who was writing, shooting stills and video for both the online Ukrainian/English news website, as well as others, was keen to learn how we combined oral histories with pictures. He had recently started his own oral history project after narrowly escaping one of the bloodiest battles in eastern Ukraine in the summer of 2014.

Maks and other Ukrainian journalists had been embedded with Ukrainian military forces and found themselves caught in the battle of Ilovaisk, described as a “meat grinder” by Ukrainian soldiers, and which Tim Judah described in gruesome detail in his book Wartime.

Maks and three friends got away by gunning the engine of their car and barely escaping with their lives. Other journalists were caught. Like the soldiers they were embedded with, they were slaughtered by local pro-Russian separatists and Russian soldiers.

Maks and another journalist, Markiyan Lyseiko, set up a documentary project, AFTER ILOVAISK, which recorded oral histories of those who survived, and stories about those who didn’t. While freelancing for various publications, Maks also organized a project to get divorced fathers, like himself, more involved with their children. He developed a project about documenting autistic children.

As Valentyna showed me snapshots of Maks and his friends on a skiing holiday a few weeks before the Russian invasion of 2022, she said, “Maks was incredibly kind, very sensitive. And he had only had two hobbies: his photography and his boys. You can ask anyone in Boyarka. Maks and his sons would tear through the streets on their bicycles.”

During that first showing of our exhibition in Kyiv in 2016, Maks took pictures of our teachers brainstorming with each other about how to use a Ukrainian Jewish exhibition in public schools. That afternoon, while he was packing up to leave, he told me he’d love to shoot the exhibition when school children viewed it.

And so he did. Maks photographed for us in schools, public libraries, and cultural centers in Priluki, Iprin, and Kyiv. Not only did he take pictures, Maks would chat with visitors at our exhibitions and fire me off emails telling me who they were and why they were important.

‘Hi, Ed! Here is Nina Kotelenets, from village Sukhopolova, near Priluki. She is Ukrainian, witness of Holocaust in Sukhopolova. She recalled the tragic events in her village. If you can, you should interview her. Flowers were given to Nina by pupils of Sukhopolova school. Feel free to share this with anyone you wish.’
‘Hi, Ed! Here is Nina Kotelenets, from village Sukhopolova, near Priluki. She is Ukrainian, witness of Holocaust in Sukhopolova. She recalled the tragic events in her village. If you can, you should interview her. Flowers were given to Nina by pupils of Sukhopolova school. Feel free to share this with anyone you wish.’Maks Levin

Over the years, Maks Levin sent us more than 2,500 photographs, all told.

Taking pictures of teachers talking with each other is one thing. It is what Maks did with children that stood out. Being a father surely had something to do with it. Maks zeroed in on kids as they took in our stories and pictures of Ukrainian Jewish life, some of which were grim. His last school assignment for us was in School 141 in Kyiv on Jan. 27, 2020, Holocaust Memorial Day. COVID arrived a few weeks later and we migrated our seminars online.

Valentyna told me that when Maks’ jobs dried up, he and his partner, Zoriana, moved into an upstairs room in her house that Maks completely refurbished. While waiting for assignments, Valenyna showed us wooden clocks that Maks was making and a treehouse he was building for his boys.

With some 200 active teachers in our Ukrainian network, and a seminar planned for Chernivtsi—one that COVID prevented us from holding—Fabian Ruehle on my staff came up with another idea: to create a video walking tour of this once fabled Jewish city. Czernowitz had been the Habsburg monarchy’s cultural outpost on the eastern edge of the empire. A local historian was keen to show us the town on video, and Fabian asked Maks if he’d like to shoot, edit, and produce it. Maks loved the idea and in October 2020, he booked his train tickets and brought along his drone.

That drone would be the death of Maks Levin.

Military historians will long study Vladimir Putin’s obsession with empire, of how he ranted in October 2021 that Ukraine was an artificial state, and sent well over 100,000 soldiers and military vehicles to crowd the border. Few of us following the media—media in every country—thought that Putin would actually invade a country of 44 million. If he did, few thought that the government of Ukraine, led by a Jewish comedian, could make much of a stand. Few of us proved to be right.

The breathtaking level of corruption and incompetence in the Russian army played a pivotal role in the war not going the way Putin planned, and most observers expected. On the other hand, the Ukrainian army had clearly learned from its earlier mistakes.

No one had counted on Volodymyr Zelensky turning into a determined and powerful leader, a man who in the first days of the invasion took his cellphone out to the street and spoke directly to the Ukrainian people, telling them that the government would make its stand in Kyiv. As we have all heard by now, he went back inside to answer the very public American offer of a quick evacuation, which would have likely precipitated the collapse of Ukraine’s army. He told the Americans that he didn’t need a ride. What he needed was ammunition.

On Feb. 28, four days into the war, I wrote to Maks, telling him I hoped he was safe. I heard back on March 6:

Ed, thanks very much for support.
it’s important for us Yes I’m working a lot, covering the war by photo and video. If u want u can share photos about war in Ukraine in Europe to help us defend our country.
I give a link to google album with my photos of war.

I looked through his pictures and my heart jumped. He was not near the front. He was on the front. Day and night, he was lying in trenches, crouching behind walls, standing only meters away from tanks that were trying to hold back the Russian onslaught. His partner, Zoriana, would later identify for me the places where he had been working: He began in the north in Kharkiv, which many people thought would fall immediately. Then he shot in Bucha, Marakiv, and throughout the Kyiv region.

As someone who spent 15 years as a freelance photographer, I immediately wired Maks some money to help out. I also asked his permission to share his pictures with our network of public schools in the U.S. I told Maks I would write that the people of Ukraine were heroes and that Maks was a hero.

Considering how Maks loathed being in the spotlight, he took the time out from photographing on the front line to write, “Due to what students will write I would like to ask you do not put me as a hero and without pathos words. Thank you. Also, please find below information to account where you can donate money. I’ll use it for gasoline, food and repairing of my car.”

Maks Levin

On March 10 Maks wrote: “Hi Edward! I got donation, thank you! And I added to album a lot of photos from yesterday: evacuation of civilians from Irpin, occupied by russian troops. Plz use it”

On March 12 I connected Maks with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, recommending him as a freelancer. Maks wrote back that he’d be glad to send them pictures and the next day, he went back to the front. Directly into the maelstrom.

We now know that Russian forces had been intent on taking Kyiv in the first days of the war and decapitating its government. To make that happen, the Russians would need to secure the military airport at Hostomel to resupply its troops, a facility less than 10 miles from Kyiv city limits and bordering the town of Bucha and near Irpin.

The Ukrainians then drove toward the bridge on the Iprin River. If the Russians had taken it, they would have had a clean path for barreling into Kyiv.

The Ukrainian army not only blew the bridge, it emptied dams along the Dnieper to flood the area. That meant that civilians trying to escape the Russians would have to make their way over planks and rubble. Maks was on hand with his camera.

Maks Levin

In Borodyanka, a suburb of tall apartment blocks that the Russians had mauled and destroyed with artillery fire, Maks used his drone to show a building from above while smoke was still rising from it. That photograph, which he provided to Reuters, made the cover of the German newsweekly Der Spiegel.

In the first days of March, the Russians made their way from the airport into the streets of neighboring Bucha. We have all read about the horrors Russian soldiers inflicted on the residents there: torture, rape, murder, much of it carried out by Russian teenagers who a week earlier had no idea they were even going to war.

Russian tanks started making their way toward Irpin and artillery shells slammed into the city. As families fled, Russian soldiers emptied their machine guns into cars filled with families. Those cars are now to be seen in a roadside memorial outside of Irpin. But one Russian tank after another was hit by the Ukrainian army and the Territorial Defense Forces. Those tanks, too, can be found alongside the road between Irpin and Dmitrovka where they were hit (or dragged). Dozens of other destroyed Russian tanks have been set up in city centers all over the country.

We know that Maks headed north into the battle zone on the morning of March 13, traveling with his friend Oleky Chernyshov. According to a detailed investigation by Reporters Without Borders, written by Patrick Chauvel and Arnaud Froger, Maks had lost his drone, which had a camera in it. Their report stated that Maks felt there were important pictures in the drone’s camera, so he headed into the forest just outside the village of Huta-Mezhyhirsk to retrieve it. The Russians were there.

The report tells us that Maks was driving his Ford Maverick down a dirt road. The car took several gunshots. The car was stopped. Oleky crawled away and was shot, then burned. The car was torched.

Maks was found lying on his back. He had been shot once in the chest and twice in the head. Reporers Without Borders guesses he might have been interrogated and tortured before he died.

Zoriana and Maks had agreed to stay in touch but as of noon that day, he did not pick up her messages. Editors, friends, colleagues all sent more messages. No reply. Days turned into weeks. Valentyna told me that she consulted a psychic on March 28, who told her that Maks was alive.

By this time the Russians were being driven back, inch by inch, mile by mile. As the tide rolled out, the horrors of Bucha surfaced, as Ukrainian soldiers, police, and investigators from the state prosecutor’s office came to search for evidence and take away the bodies. Three policemen, according to Reporters Without Borders, found Maks’ body on April 1.

The prosecutor’s office immediately opened a war crimes investigation and a public service was held for Maks in Saint Michael’s, one of Kyiv’s largest cathedrals. (I had assumed, ever since I first contacted Maks six years earlier, that he was Jewish. When I finally asked him a week before he died, he responded that no one in his family was Jewish. By coincidence, I started reading Anna Karenina that week; Tolstoy’s alter ego in that book is also named Levin).

On April 5, Valentyna Levina, Zoriana, and Maks’ former partner stepped into the office of President Volodymyr Zelensky, who presented them with an award in Maks’ name.

Edward Serotta

The cemetery of Boyarka lies just east of town, not far from a cement factory and where the forests begin. We drove down a dirt lane, swirling that August dust around us, and came to a halt. Valentyna led the way to the family plot. As she walked on ahead, she said, “They told me that Maks could be buried in the main cemetery in Kyiv, where writers, poets, and others are buried.” We reached two plots side by side and as Valentyna began pulling out the withered flowers from last week, she said, “I wanted Maks to be here, right next to my mother.”

Like cemeteries throughout Ukraine (I have to admit that until this war I have only visited Jewish ones), some of the family plots have benches and small tables where families gather after putting fresh flowers on their loved ones’ graves, to sit and talk. Valentyna brought along some of Maks’ favorite cookies, which she put on his grave.

I told the few stories I had on hand about Maks, that he had taken such lovely pictures for us, was always dependable and enthusiastic, while Valentyna countered with a wellspring of stories that only a 75-year-old mother could tell about a son who would always lie right there, in front of her, age 40. She spoke of the year her family spent in a small town in Vietnam, and how the whole school adored Maks. She talked about how her employer in the Russian city of Rostov had been incredibly kind to the family and how from his youngest days, Maks wanted to be helpful to everyone.

All the while, Dr. Lena Kadyuk held on to her arm. The two of them talked on as the sun finally started to sink, and the pine forest began to cool.

Edward Serotta

Aside from Dr. Lena Kadyuk, the author would like to thank Dr. Kadyuk’s husband, Volodymyr, and his fixer/translator, Evgenia Gotskaya.

Edward Serotta is a journalist, photographer and filmmaker specializing in Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. He is the head of the Vienna-based institute Centropa.