SEMUR-EN-AUXOIS, France – It all started with a harrowing photo of a man and his dog trying to board a train from Ukraine at the start of the Russian invasion.
The photo was posted on a Facebook group for Irish Setter lovers around the world.
“And there was really a crowd everywhere, so he was desperately trying to fit in [the train] and he was holding this big Irish setter,” says Macha Levitin, a Muscovite who has lived for 13 years in this small medieval village in the French region of Burgundy.
Since Russia launched its war against Ukraine in February, millions of Ukrainians have had to flee the country. Many bring their pets – on leashes, in cages or held in their arms. The world took notice and some went out of their way to help.
“I was just amazed by this attitude. It was absolutely out of the question for them to leave their cats and dogs in Ukraine,” says Levitin, 45, who lives with her husband, two daughters and an Irish setter named Safra .
She didn’t think she could help the man in the photo, but she wanted to help someone and his pets. Thus began his mission. Levitin managed to help several people and dogs from Ukraine to find safety in France.
There are no comprehensive data on the number of pets evacuated from Ukraine during the war, according to Humane Society International. But Yavor Gechev, an official with the charity’s European office, told NPR that in early May, veterinarians at a Polish-Ukrainian border crossing estimated that at least 30,000 cats and dogs were out of Ukraine. That number doesn’t include other pets or strays rescued by charities and refugees, Gechev says.
She searched her Facebook group for dog lovers in Ukraine
Levitin combed through the thousands of members of the Irish Setters Facebook group, looking for Russian and Ukrainian names.
“I saw Yuri Mazarenko, so for me it was obvious that he was Russian-speaking or Ukrainian,” she says. “So I just wrote to her. I said, ‘Hi, my name is Macha. I’m writing to you from France. If you need help, tell me how can I help you.'”
Mazurenko, 61 years old, remembers what was happening when he received that first message. “Oh yes,” he said with a smirk. “We were crouched next to a wall, bombarded.”
Mazurenko and his wife, Tanya Grigorieva, were sheltering next to a load-bearing wall in their home in the town of Chernihiv in northern Ukraine. His wife had recently suffered a stroke, which prevented him from going to the air-raid shelter.
They finally managed to get out of Chernihiv, which was surrounded by Russian troops. Grivorieva arrived in France first, in mid-April, and Mazurenko arrived on May 1. Today, the couple and their Irish setter Rolly and their cat Jan live with Levitin in this French village. He calls her their guardian angel.
Rolly fell very ill after fleeing but made it out
Mazurenko is an artist. Levitin helped him set up an exhibition of his paintings at the village tourist office. He says his life took such an unexpected turn.
“All artists dream of having an exhibition in France”, he says. “It’s just a shame that the circumstances that made this possible were a war.”
The day after his arrival, Rolly the dog fell seriously ill. Although he was “as calm as a samurai” during the bombardment, Mazurenko says, he believes the dog’s infection was caused by the stress he was under.
Levitin has his own theory. “I think he decided to die because he did his duty to get his owners to safety,” she says. “He did his job and was done.”
But thanks to veterinary services, Rolly is robust again and runs along a country lane with his tongue hanging out.
A charity program called Vets for Ukrainian Pets, launched by Humane Society International, paid for the dog’s medical care.
Levitin went out of his way to help and earned their trust
Soon Levitin and Mazurenko are joined by Vlada, and his big red setter Iris. Canids and their humans greet each other enthusiastically.
Vlada prefers not to use her last name because her family is still in Ukraine. She also traveled to Semur-en-Auxois thanks to Levitin and the Irish setter’s connection.
“I’m amazed at everything Macha has organized for us,” she says. “The bus ride from Warsaw to Paris and then picking us up when we arrived. I came with a suitcase, a dog and a cat. I could never have done this on my own.”
The irony of being rescued by a Russian is not lost on Vlada. She says the animal connection helped her trust.
Vlada, who arrived in March, has a new job with a local leather goods manufacturer that makes high-end handbags. She says it’s also thanks to Levitin and his “network.”
Levitin knows that the Ukrainians will not be able to forgive the Russians for what is happening. And although she left Moscow 30 years ago and long abandoned her country under President Vladimir Putin, she says this war still hurts a lot.
“From the start of the war in Ukraine, I had the feeling that right before my eyes I see a ship going out to sea and we all say goodbye, goodbye,” Levitin said. “It was a very sad feeling.”
She says this time the break with the West will last “a very, very long time”.
As the three dogs and their owners roam the bucolic country lanes in the spring sunshine, the war raging in Ukraine seems far away. But it’s still just below the surface for them. Vlada fears that her daughter, a newly trained army doctor, will be sent to the front.
Neither Vlada nor Mazurenko knows when they will be able to return home. But both say their dogs bring them a measure of calm and stability in the chaos and uncertainty of their lives.
As Rolly groans and watches his handler eagerly throw a ball at him, Mazurenko says one thing is certain: “In the extreme moments of life for which no one is ever prepared, the role of a pet is absolutely huge.”