Photo Essay: Ukraine’s off-roaders report for duty

Ukrainian photographer Olga Ivashchenko documents how the country’s off-road driving enthusiasts and civilian mechanics are doing their part to keep defence efforts up and running, with words by Karyna Samokhvalova
Oleksiy Yablonsky inspects a Jeep at Vsyudokhid service station | Photo: Olga Ivashchenko

By Karyna Samokhvalova

Karyna Samokhvalova is a freelance journalist based in Kyiv

17 Nov 2022

Off-roading clubs, where people get together to enjoy a communal adrenaline kick by driving through mud and swamps, sometimes in competition with each other, have long been a popular pastime across Ukraine. Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, for example, has been a frequent participant in off-road competitions.

But since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, off-road clubs across the country have pivoted. What was previously a rowdy weekend hobby has become, for many, a channel through which to support their country’s defence efforts.

Now every Saturday, Krzysztof Kopala (off-road nickname Kriss) and his fellow Offroad Brothers club members hold classes for military volunteers and Ukrainian Armed Forces (AFU) soldiers at a track on the outskirts of Kyiv. They have organised a real off-road school, where it’s a matter of life and death, not just fun. Soldiers need skills to drive and operate off-road vehicles.

All photos by Olga Ivashchenko

On Saturday and Sunday, 8 and 9 October, long-time Offroad Brothers members and new participants came together for their first large-scale off-road competition since war broke out. The challenge? To come in first, and without damaging the car, on a track full of quarries, swamps, forests and loose sand. Day two saw a general ring race at the Pyrohovo Motor Track near Kyiv. Also in Kyiv, members of the Vsyudokhid Club, another community of off-road jeep-racing fans, maintain their own mechanic shop. They too have scaled up activities since the war broke out.

Because of the need to supply a steady stream of vehicles to the front, a whole logistics team is required: there are those who look for cars abroad, who buy them, who prepare documents for transportation, who repair the cars and who then take them directly to the front. These vehicles are for special support service units, snipers and air reconnaissance.

IT worker and Vsyudokhid Club member Sergiy Samedov (off-road nickname Squall) is now an old hand at delivering cars to the front. He says that about 80 per cent of the cars he imports come from the United Kingdom and are therefore right-hand drive. This means Ukrainian drivers have to become proficient in steering through swamps and forest from the other side of the vehicle.

The cars, which are imported into the country as humanitarian aid for military units, are old. In Europe and the UK, they would be scrapped. But cars for the front are expendable. For the time being, there will always be a need for more.