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Who was Pavlo Petrychenko, the prominent activist recently killed in combat?

by Daria Shulzhenko April 20, 2024 5:28 PM 9 min read
Pavlo Petrychenko was a well-known activist and junior sergeant of the 59th Brigade. He was killed in combat on April 15, 2024, just a day before his 32nd birthday. (Courtesy of Prytula Foundation / Viktor Zalevskiy)
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In his battle for Ukraine, Pavlo Petrychenko used not only weapons but also his voice.

A renowned Kyiv activist, he fought for the prosecution of corrupt Ukrainian officials, demanding justice for his fellow activists, including Kateryna Handziuk, who was murdered in 2018.

As a team member of the Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation, Petrychenko helped establish a volunteer center in Kyiv to support the military until he decided to join the Armed Forces himself two months into the full-scale war.

Petrychenko was among the troops who had liberated part of southern Kherson Oblast in the fall of 2022 and participated in the heavy fighting in eastern Donetsk Oblast.

In late March, as he was fighting for Ukraine’s freedom at the front line, Petrychenko initiated another battle for the better future of his country — the one against online gambling and its negative influence on soldiers. He created a petition to ban gambling and access to online casinos for military personnel during martial law.

It gained all the necessary signatures shortly, prompting President Volodymyr Zelensky to sign a decree on April 20 to restrict online gambling in Ukraine, which includes banning it for the military until the end of martial law.

Petrychenko initiated the fight but did not witness its result.

On April 15, just a day before his 32nd birthday, he was killed in combat in Donetsk Oblast.

“Pavlo stood up to Russia in different roles. He wasn’t afraid to tell the truth and fought against the ‘fifth column’ as a civic activist. When it wasn't enough, he took up arms and defended the country and all of us,” Serhiy Prytula, Ukrainian volunteer, former TV host and politician, told the Kyiv Independent.

More than 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, according to Zelensky.

"Ukraine consists of the lives and dreams, the will and achievements of such men and women," Zelensky said on April 16 after expressing his condolences to Petrychenko’s family.

"We all need to remember that Ukraine is its people, the people who genuinely and truly care about its future."

Petrychenko was buried in Kyiv on April 19. Hundreds, both soldiers and civilians, gathered to pay their last respects.

‘People have influence’

Petrychenko’s fight for Ukraine’s independence started long before Russia launched the full-scale invasion.

He took an active part in the 2013-2014 EuroMaidan Revolution, one of the most pivotal events in modern Ukraine’s history when thousands took to the streets to topple pro-Russian then-President Viktor Yanukovych.

Although the revolution changed a lot in Petrychenko’s life, it was not a "turning point" for his beliefs, as he stood for the "ideals and values of the Maidan" even before it occurred, says his friend and Prytula Foundation team member Melaniya Podolyak.

Pavlo Petrychenko burns the poster with the Former Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Arsen Avakov's name on it at the rally in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs building protesting the inaction of the investigation in identifying the orderers of Kateryna Handziuk's murder in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 4, 2020. (Stas Yurchenko / Personal archive)
Pavlo Petrychenko(R) and numerous activists at the rally in the support of Serhiy Sternenko’s case near the residence of the President of Ukraine in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 8, 2021. (Herman Krieger / Watchers.Media)

"It (the revolution) helped him realize that regular people can influence things, and it introduced him to the community (of activists)," Podolyak says.

Petrychenko did a lot trying to make Kyiv and the Darnytskyi neighborhood where he lived a better place, "starting from organizing small public initiatives to clean local lakes and parks to leading protests against illegal construction," says his friend, war veteran Pavlo Yakimchuk.

“He was a very bright person, confident, determined, and with zero tolerance for corruption and anything illegal.”

When Petrychenko’s good friend, Kherson activist Kateryna Handziuk, was doused with acid in 2018, leading to her death of chemical burns three months later, he became one of the loudest voices calling for justice for her.

An advisor to the Kherson mayor and an acting head of affairs of the Kherson City Council's executive committee, Handziuk was attacked near her home after she had publicly accused top local officials of profiteering from the illicit wood trade in the region.

Pavlo Petrychenko and other activists and friends of Katia Handziuk on her birthday in Kyiv, Ukraine on June 17, 2020. (Herman Krieger / Watchers.Media)

Petrychenko was one of the leaders of the "Who ordered (the murder of) Kateryna Handziuk?" public initiative, demanding proper investigation and prosecution of the suspects.

The public pressure finally led to a Kyiv court finding former head of the Kherson Oblast Council Vladyslav Manher guilty of ordering the attack and his assistant Oleksii Levin of organizing it. They were sentenced to 10 years in prison each.

"This is a collective victory for the entire civil society in Ukraine. Thank you all," Petrychenko wrote on X following the court’s decision.

Podolyak says he had a "heightened sense of justice" and cared deeply for regular Ukrainians. At the same time, he never “boasted or talked about his own achievements.”

“Everything he did was truly driven by his steadfast belief that Ukraine could and should be changed for the better," she says.

Pavlo Petrychenko at the rally in support of Serhiy Sternenko’s case near the Shevchenkivskyi Court in Kyiv, Ukraine, on June 15, 2020. (Stas Yurchenko / Personal archive)

"He dedicated his entire life, his whole life, to consciously trying to change something in this country. Thanks to him, many important things happened."

“I don't know many like him, maybe one in 2 million, maybe one in 20 million," Yakimchuk says.

‘Truth on our side’

Just a few weeks before the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Petrychenko took charge of the Kyiv headquarters of Prytula’s new political party.

Prytula ran for parliament in 2019 with the Voice party, which brought together new-generation politicians in Ukraine. However, he left the party after it sank into internal disagreements and announced the creation of his own political project just a month before the invasion.

"We started collecting signatures for the party's registration, and we were supposed to go public in March. We were preparing for the formal convention. But somewhere deep down, I understood that by March, we would be occupied with something entirely different," Petrychenko said in an interview with in June 2022.

Instead of the political party, he helped Prytula build a volunteer center in Kyiv. Prytula Charity Foundation has eventually become one of the largest in Ukraine, crowdfunding millions of dollars for Ukrainian defenders.  

To help achieve that, Petrychenko worked non-stop until one day in April when he came to speak with Prytula.

"He told me: 'I think I did everything here, and it would be right for me to go and fight,'" Prytula recalls.

Petrychenko joined the 59th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade, specializing in aerial reconnaissance.

"He believed that drones were the future. He became a top figure in this area and knew everything about FPV (first-person-view) drones," says Yakimchuk.

Petrychenko was a very empathetic person who deeply cared about his fellow soldiers and struggled with the loss of his friends, says Podolyak. One of them was another prominent Kyiv activist, Roman Ratushnyi, 24, who was killed in combat in Kharkiv Oblast in June 2022.

Podolyak says Petrychenko often praised others for bravely fighting but never bragged about himself, even though he was awarded a number of military decorations, including the "Cross of the Brave," which is given "for a heroic act that involves danger to life."

(L-R) Activists Roman Sinitsyn, Roman Ratushnyi, and Pavlo Petrychenko in front of the Pechersk District Court, where the pre-trial restraint was imposed on the participants of the rally in support of another activist, Serhiy Sternenko, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 23, 2021. (Herman Krieger / Watchers.Media)

Petrychenko recognized the threat of online gambling before the full-scale war, according to Podolyak. Seeing its impact on the fellow soldiers, despite constantly being on the front line, he decided to act.

On March 29, he created a petition on the president’s website, asking to introduce a bill that, among other things, would ban gambling and access to online casinos for military personnel during martial law.

"For many of them (service personnel), gambling becomes the only way to cope with stress, and therefore quickly causes dopamine addiction and weakens their self-control," Petrychenko wrote. He also said that many Russian online casinos can "access personal data of the military and other Ukrainians, which threatens national security."

The petition collected a total of 26,042 votes, passing the required minimum to be reviewed by the president. Zelensky ordered the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and other law enforcement agencies to "gather data and find a solution."

"We are currently preparing an agenda for the National Security and Defense Council to discuss the threats to the security of our state and society posed by the proliferation of online casinos and the lack of control over this area," Zelensky said on April 16, the day after Petrychenko was killed.  

"All ways of manipulating people and harming the society's interests in this area must and will be stopped."

The fight against online gambling started by Petrychenko eventually resulted in a victory. On April 20, Zelensky signed a decree on counteracting the negative effects of online gambling, tasking the Commander-in-Chief and the leadership of military units to prohibit military personnel from accessing gambling facilities and online casinos.

Petrychenko's friends now hope he will be awarded the Hero of Ukraine title, he highest national honor issued by the president.

Honor guard carry a portrait while people light hand flares during funeral ceremony for serviceman Pavlo Petrychenko in Kyiv, Ukraine on April 19, 2024. Petrychenko, 31, was a participant in Euromaidan, an active participant in the initiative ‘Who ordered the murder of Katya Handziuk’ and organizer of actions in support of activist Serhii Sternenko. He died in the Donetsk Oblast during a combat mission. (Oleksii Samsonov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

"I would like (Ukraine’s Western allies) to understand that whenever they tell us to conduct reforms and change the country, with the loss of such people as Petrychenko, it would be increasingly difficult for us to do," says Prytula.

“He should have turned 32, and he should have lived a long life and had children who would follow in his footsteps,” he says. “But it will never happen because there is Russia, and it wants to destroy us.”

In one of his last interviews, Petrychenko said Ukrainians "can not back down" and that the spirit "plays a big role."

"We just need to push forward and push forward as much as we can, and they (Russian troops) will crumble. Because in this war, the truth is on our side."

Note from the author:

Hi! Daria Shulzhenko here. I wrote this piece for you. Since the first day of Russia's all-out war, I have been working almost non-stop to tell the stories of those affected by Russia’s brutal aggression. By telling all those painful stories, we are helping to keep the world informed about the reality of Russia’s war against Ukraine. By becoming the Kyiv Independent's member, you can help us continue telling the world the truth about this war.

Fallen activist Roman Ratushnyi and his battle for a better Ukraine
A crowd of dozens gathered near the highway in Kyiv’s historic Protasiv Yar neighborhood on June 16. Many of them knew each other well, united by past rallies against illegal construction in the area. But they were sadly quiet that day, hugging one another occasionally, and wiping off their
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