Escape from Donbass: Nikita Krylov’s search for identity in the Ukrainian Crisis

Prologue A person might never really understand the depths of fear until they've plunged into the terrifying darkness of the coal mines in the…

By: Karim Zidan | 7 years ago
Escape from Donbass: Nikita Krylov’s search for identity in the Ukrainian Crisis
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena


A person might never really understand the depths of fear until they’ve plunged into the terrifying darkness of the coal mines in the Donbass.

The hellacious journey begins 600 metres below the surface. The only colours that accompany workers into the abyss are the metallic greys of the steel structures, the dim orange of their colleagues’ hard hats, and the pitch black of the coal. It is a recycled purgatory – frightened souls and hardened men collected together out of sheer necessity; each allowed back to the surface in the evening, each sent back down to the darkness the following dawn. For many, sleep and death are the only avenues of escape.

Nikita Krylov came from a family of miners. He, like many of them, knew too well the strenuous conditions of the mines.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

“I am from a miner family in the Donbass and I used to work in a mine. It is hard man’s job. It is associated with power and character.”

The power comes from each day survived, trapped 1000 metres below the surface; a feeling of invincibility. The character lies in the resolve of those who survive. If the mines did not break you, nothing would.

The years he spent in near-suffocation below the surface – the crippling anxiety of the unknown – have stayed strong in his memory while being forced further and further from his home, along with his splintered family, in a country divided by warfare. The poetic parallels have been cruel, yet necessary.

They remind Krylov of who he truly is.

January 23, 2015

On a snowy evening in Stockholm, Sweden, two buses loaded with fighters arrived at the Tele2 Arena. The bitter cold was expected but still practically unbearable for the foreign combatants. They stood gaunt and shivering behind a curtain separating them from the rowdy audience; their thoughts fixated on the food they would get to consume once they weighed in.

Nikita barely noticed the cold. His only concern was the statement he was about to make.

The 6′ 3″ light-heavyweight carried his lanky frame with a nonchalant strut that heavily contrasts his fighting style. He listened to Joe Rogan recite each fighter’s name and waited patiently for his own. Krylov took a deep breath, removed his sweater, and approached the stage as the UFC commentator bellowed his ‘Al Capone’ nickname – one he disliked vehemently – with characteristic shrillness.

Nikita pivoted around the corner and appeared on the Fox Sports 1 broadcast for the first time, a sly smirk creeping across his face. A plain black shirt with illegible writing – at least to the average English speaker – covering his upper body. It was a statement to the past six months that Krylov had endured; eight letters that epitomizes the hell at home.


Little did Nikita know, and despite his small gesture to a homeland engulfed in civil war, he had already completed his final training camp in Ukraine.

March 20, 2015

On the first day of spring, Nikita arrived in Moscow for his inaugural training session at Fight Club №1 (Клуба единоборств №1). The decision to conduct his training camps across the border was as uncomplicated as it was calculated. Winter had been terribly difficult in Kiev; war raged on in Krylov’s homeland of Donetsk, leaving layers of devastation in its path. The country had plunged into a civil conflict and few could escape its traumatic effects. It was a winter that left many Ukrainians looked for spring’s warmth and invigoration with desperate longing.

What Krylov looked for, however, was an opportunity.

The building was simple enough: a standard three-storey complex with a tiled green and white exterior. A single sign with the gym’s logo hung above the entrance. The inside provided a stark contrast: exposed brick and varnished wooden tables paved a well-worn path through the building back to the entrance of the gym.

The brickwork followed Nikita into the training room and lined the back wall of the massive space. A row of heavy bags hung menacingly from the ceiling and surrounded the boxing ring in the centre. It was pitch black with blue, white, and red ring ropes – the colours of the Russian flag.

For Nikita the setting was entirely comforting. It had been a while since he trained at a gym where the sound of gunshots and bombshells didn’t echo throughout the building.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Krylov had escaped the Donbass region of Ukraine shortly following the start of the conflict in mid-2014. Originally from Krasnyi Luch in Lugansk province, Nikita fled his home in Donetsk just a few weeks ahead of his scheduled fight against Cody Donovan in Dublin, Ireland. He won that fight by TKO, the very same week that the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down while flying over Ukrainian airspace.

For a long while, Nikita trained in Kiev and visited his home in Donetsk only occasionally. Miraculously, his hometown had avoided the worst of the devastation.

The neighbouring towns were not as lucky.

Debaltseve village was just 20 km away from where Krylov grew up. On January 16th, 2015 separatist forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) attempted to force Ukrainian troops out of the territory, which sparked the Battle of Debaltseve. The fighting lasted for a month, until the Ukrainian troops retreated. Hundreds of civilians perished from heavy artillery fire, while many others were wounded or reported missing. One of Krylov’s own childhood friends had his leg torn off amid the gunfire.

Every time Nikita passes through Debaltseve, a shiver crawls up his spine. Buildings crumbling and broken remains of roads highlight the grotesque aftermath of the fighting. He still can’t find a single tree that doesn’t bear the ugly lacerations of shrapnel.

“When I see this, I have mixed feelings,” Krylov said. “There is fear, confusion, hatred and contempt for those who did that.”

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The Donbas in the east had been divided into two self-proclaimed pro-Russian separatist states—Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) —which the Ukrainian government considered occupied territories, while Western Ukraine has remained under government control. The standoff between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government has led to only deeper conflict with Russia, eventually resulting in the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol.

And while the actual war on the ground has died down, the schism between the people has only widened. The conflict forced a shockingly deep and uncompromising divide between Pro-Russian Separatists and Ukrainian government backers. There has been little room for the Eastern Ukrainian citizens who, like Krylov, proudly embrace their homeland, but inevitably consider themselves a part of the Russian Federation.

“I feel that I am Russian,” Nikita explained. In the past, he believed the conflict would work out something like the annexation of Crimea. But, eventually it became clear that that was wishful thinking. Now, his firm allegiance to Russia has made him a target for Ukrainian media.

“We used to live on our land, but after events in Maidan in Kiev, they started calling us terrorists and separatists.”

It happened shortly after Nikita wore the inflammatory t-shirt to the UFC: Stockholm weigh-in. Ukrainian websites posted articles with emblazoned headlines that included keywords like ‘Prominent Separatists Athlete,’ while others called for him to be tried and punished for his beliefs.

Krylov did not make things any easier on himself. He was regularly spotted at gyms in Kiev sporting gear with the Russian flag, which always garnered unnecessary attention. He once sparred with a member of the Azov, a Ukrainian battalion unit, and the boiling pot all but spilled over. It was only a matter of time before it cost him.

His opinions, though level-headed and pragmatic by his own account, were controversial to the average Ukrainian in Kiev. He was raised to see the war as simply as the polarity between black and white, but all Nikita could see was grey. Krylov considered himself Russian, but would gladly fight for his Ukrainian homeland. He would apply for a passport in the LPR if it was ever officially formed, but he couldn’t condone the slaughter of his fellow countrymen.

“I feel the same that any resident of Donbas,” Nikita said when asked to summarize the essence of the conflict. “Unlike the rest of Ukraine, we didn’t seize a district or regional administration with guns. If our republic will be declared, I’ll be the first to stand in line for this passport.”

Because of his attachment to his homeland, Krylov was firmly committed to living in Ukraine, even if it was out east in Kiev. But as the conflict went on, he quickly realized that neither he, nor his growing family, were safe.

December 9, 2015

Nikita knew this day would come.

He scrolled angrily to the top of the website and saw the headline, one of many that had sprouted over the past few hours: “Prominent Separatist athlete trains in Kiev club.”

Not only had Krylov been labeled as a separatist, he had become a well-publicized target – an enemy in the capital of his own country.

It began when Nikita strolled into his gym in Kiev a few days earlier. He found his usual group of training partners and friends — relationships that withstood the segregating powers of war. He didn’t give it a second thought when he walked into the great hall wearing a compression shirt with the Russian flag emblazoned on it. This was his gym, he was comfortable here.

And nothing happened, at least not that day. Nikita went about his business; he got the same amount of attention as he always did when he, a UFC fighter, trained in a local gym. People approached him for autographs, pictures, and just to say hello. Then he woke up to find a picture of himself at the gym training with a Russian flag on his shirt under a slogan that labeled him a separatist.

“They called for action to be taken against me. They wanted to punish me.”

It was not long before Nikita was shunned from the gym. He wasn’t banished outright, but the passive-aggressive nudges towards the door began the following day. He was no longer invited to help with sparring sessions and training camps. He was told that he was no longer needed.

The war had seeped into his social life, his athletic career, and rotted it.

Nikita made the decision soon after: He was going to move to Moscow full-time. It was an easy decision; he had already been training there for the past nine months. He knew he could no longer stay in Kiev; he was not welcome, and nor was his family. With the birth of his son imminent, Krylov wanted to make sure that his child was born out of conflict.

Nikita packed belongings, prepared his family, and started the process of relocating for the second time in as many years.

May 1, 2016

Mining is particularly significant in the Donbass.

The occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk produced 30 percent of Ukraine’s exports prior to the war, mainly in the form of coal. 15-20 tonnes of coal were transported daily to Kiev. War in the region altered much of the country’s energy sources and highlighted the unequal exchange between the Eastern and Western regions of Ukraine. While Kiev reaped the benefits of the extractions with minimal costs, the Donbass is now engulfed in a permanent smog because of the intensive industrial activity. Waste material from the mines heaped into piles that eventually became spoil piles at the Kalmius river, and water supplies were contaminated from methane explosions and coal dust.

Over the last two years, as missiles hollowed buildings in mere seconds, the environmental devastation became an afterthought. No one considered the miners, toiling away in their deadly pits. Some took up arms, others fled. Nikita wanted to fight, but had to consider his family’s future. Why should his son be born to a fatherless home?

“I would have gladly fought at home if the necessary conditions were there. The Donbass lives more or less in relative peace. There are less hostilities right now.”

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Instead, Nikita has found other ways to identify with his homeland. He regularly visits Ukraine and recently decided to change his nickname to ‘Miner.’ It’s a show of solidarity to his people and the life he left in Eastern Ukraine.

“That is why I decided if I cannot make people forget the Al Capone nickname, I would change it. I never wanted this nickname but it was my first manager’s idea. In MMA we have dentist, cowboy but we don’t have a miner.”

Though now a resident of Moscow, Nikita tries to frequent his hometown as much as possible. Between training sessions at Fight Club №1 and intense preparation for his May 8 match-up against Francimar Barroso at UFC: Rotterdam, he no longer has much time to contemplate politics. He only wants to stay connected to his homeland. It appears the worst is behind the Krylov family.

“Compared with what happened a year ago, all is quiet. Now I am only interested in sport and what is happening directly in my home.”

For Nikita, the best way to honor his lost friends, relatives, and fellow miners in the Donbass wasn’t to stay, but to move on.

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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