‘It was a terrible situation – and they are still very difficult times’ – Serhii Monastyrov on Ukraine, the war and leaving for the UK

This time last year, Serhii Monastyrov was among the tens of millions of Ukrainians who saw life change immeasurably almost overnight.

This time last year, Serhii Monastyrov was among the tens of millions of Ukrainians who saw life change immeasurably almost overnight.

A former Ukraine rugby international who was living in Kyiv with his young family when Russia launched their attack, Monastyrov’s first mission was to ensure his wife and two children, aged 10 and three, could find safety.

They headed west to Poland, at which point the family were separated, with Monastyrov remaining in Ukraine for 10 months before reuniting in London late last year.

“It was a terrible situation and they very difficult times – they still are very difficult times,” he said.

“When I was in Ukraine, very often there were missile attacks, we did not have light or heating, transport was a very big problem.

“Children had to stay in underground subways and did not have a normal education. No business could work normally.

“We sometimes did not have heat or light for up to three days and we did not have electricity, internet or communications.

“It is a very difficult and dangerous situation and that is just in Kyiv. In other cities, in regions to the east, their situation is much worse.”

Amid such a context, rugby – along with so many other pastimes enjoyed and taken for granted in peacetime – appears trivial.

But one thing sport always retains is a power to unite and provide solace, even in the bleakest of times, and Monastyrov wants to use his passion for rugby to make a difference both in his original and adopted homelands.

Trying the sport as a 13-year-old was a lightbulb moment and, just five years later, he was representing his country at a Junior World Championships in Chile.

“From that first training session to this day, rugby has been present in my life in one way or another,” he said.

“When I was young, I wanted to be Jonah Lomu. We played in the same position and I was looking at this massive guy wondering how he could play in that position and be so fast, so strong and so good at tackling.

“We had a good rugby school, there were senior players who we looked up to and who we aspired to be. And at our level, we showed good results.

“Representing your country is the dream of every athlete and it was a huge source of pride for me.”

Monastyrov, who lined up at fly-half, full-back or on the wing, went on to represent Kyiv-based club Aviator and Odessa-based Credo 63 as well as playing for his country in both 7s and the 15-a-side game.

Since retiring in 2012, he has made it his mission to encourage more youngsters to play the game. He helped establish ‘Kyiv Rugby Union’, a charitable organisation for the development of rugby whose work has not stopped despite the ongoing conflict.

“We still have ambitions to develop grassroots rugby in Ukraine after the war,” said Monastyrov, who has joined Hackney RFC in East London since moving to the UK.

“Last week, a children’s tournament, organised by my friends for the children who have remained in Kyiv during the war, hosted about 200 children of different ages.

“Everyone was very happy that they could play their favourite sport, communicate with each other and not think about the war for a while.”

Such stoicism has exemplified the general attitude of the Ukrainian people, with Monastyrov fiercely proud of the resilience of his compatriots over the past year.

“What is happening now in Ukraine is an unequal struggle,” he said.

“But we have shown the world what we can do. We have shown our spirit, our courage and our bravery.

“My wife was alone with two children in two alien countries, Poland and then England, which is very difficult. When we spoke on video calls, I saw how hard it was for her.

“The older children understand what is happening and they support each other, so I am very proud of them.

“I am also proud of our soldiers and volunteers. A lot of rugby players are defending Ukraine with weapons in their hands and we are helping them as best we can.

“Some are fighting in different divisions, and some teams carry out combat missions.”

This weekend, Six Nations Rugby will continue to show its unwavering unity with the people of Ukraine.

All Round 3 matches will be preceded by a moment of silence while in stadia amplification of messages of support will be shown as a mark of respect.

“In Ukraine, we would always watch the Six Nations and see what we could learn from the teams,” he said. “To have their support is very important to us.

“When Russia launched the invasion, people were talking about it a lot but after that, people have not talked about it so much.

“This is now one year on and to have a big rugby championship like the Six Nations draw attention to it will make people think about it again.

“Maybe people will donate to Ukraine because of it, or offer a different kind of help. It helps keep it at the front of people’s minds.

“Rugby is not just a sport, it is a philosophy, and sport in general helps bring people together in difficult times.

“Every rugby player in Ukraine will feel the support of such a big and significant competition.”