Ukranian co-driver opens up on life in Kyiv

Pavel Cherepin speaks exclusively to DirtFish from his basement in the Ukranian capital

Rallying is what we love most at DirtFish, but it’s been hard to focus on rallying and the World Rally Championship despite the second round, Rally Sweden, concluding just last weekend.

The current crisis in Ukraine is devastating and has shocked and angered many – and that’s how we all feel on the outside. What must it feel like to be on the inside?

DirtFish can bring you an exclusive interview with Pavel Cherepin – co-driver to former WRC2 driver Yuriy Protasov – who is currently hunkered down in Kyiv as Russia attacks Ukraine’s capital.

Colin Clark spoke to him on Thursday to deliver this revealing, passionate, worrying and inspiring interview:

Pavel I’ve got to ask, how are you and your family?

“Well I would love to say that we are in safety mode and speaking the language of rally, but actually it isn’t. Well I just realized I don’t know what day or what date it is today, I only know that it is the eighth day of Ukrainian resistance and the eighth day or Russian invasion into my country, and since four o’clock in the morning eight days ago we are in total danger.

“Actually I am staying with my family in Kyiv near the central railway station. On the second day of war, a rocket missile got into a civil building less than one kilometer from my house. Tonight a rocket missile, which was targeting the railway station where women and old people are trying to evacuate from Kyiv, the missile hit the parking of the central railway station. It is directly 700 meters from our house.

“But still we have energy, we have power, we have power in both ways. We have power in our apartments and we have internet to speak to you and give you this information, but at the same time we have power as a nation because Ukraine has proved that we are a proper part and proper members of the civilized community of this world.”

How are your children coping? What are you telling your children? How are they coping on a day-to-day basis?

“Well of course we explained to them that this is a war, that bad people came to take something not belonging to them. Something they want to have but something which is ours. They became older during this week, I don’t know… for how many years but sometimes they tell us something like grown-up children tell.

“We have two kids, seven and five, and our five year-old told me that he has a game now like all five-year-old that he is a kitten, and he told me two days ago ‘daddy, if bad people from Russia come to our apartment, I as a kitten will scratch them.’ So this is a five-year-old guy.”

Goodness me that is very difficult, it’s very difficult to hear and I’m sure it’s very difficult to actually have to face. What are you doing to stay safe? How much can you protect yourself?

“Thanks to the rally community and motorsport community, I have had huge support from all over the world and from different people from different countries except two countries. No-one from Russia or Belarus, no-one from people I was racing against made a proper, decent, big-balls decision. They all hide to their… I don’t know.

“Maybe they are in the queues for cash machines because they will have no money soon because of sanctions or something like this, but they are real cowards. I can tell it to everyone of the guys: [Alexey] Lukyanuk, [Nikolay] Gryazin – all those guys, they are not motorsport people. They are people who are afraid, who are cowards basically to take positions.

We need our sky to be closed. It is very important for saving our lives

“Even guys who are actors or some comedy actors in Russia made an official letter to the government. Russian motorsport it’s OK for them. Russian football players, it’s OK for them. They will soon have races on cows or horses I don’t know but it’s OK for them. So this is what is paining me.

“We arranged our everyday life and also I am pushing on the information front, I am making this information to spread it all over the world where I can spread it with your help as well, with the help of Maciej Szczepaniak, the help of Martin Järveoja, my good friends from Estonia and Poland, they are pushing FIA to stop, to cancel all Russians from world motorsports.

“We are trying to make the life of our neighbors a little bit easier. I am not a hunter, I am not a military man but if I will need to I will go to the street to stop Russian occupance. That’s 100%.”

I can’t imagine being put in that position where you have to take that choice and leave your children behind to defend your homeland, that will be the most difficult decision of your life.

“Unfortunately I cannot evacuate them from Kyiv now because roads are also dangerous and we are not sure if the road will be safe for us, and all the talents and all the experience in driving cars will not help now.”

You mentioned earlier on that you’d had some messages from fellow co-drivers, are you in touch with Yuriy [Protasov]? I know that Yuriy no longer lives in Kyiv, has he been able to give you any support?

“Yuriy called me yesterday, yeah he’s ready to help my family. He lives in Spain now so he is working also to support Ukraine, to support his family, my family etc but the point is as far as we have marshal law in Ukraine no man from the age of 18 to 60 can leave the general of Ukraine. And I would say, I have some legal opportunities to make it, I don’t want to give you some details because it’s boring but I have a legal opportunity to leave Ukraine now with my family, I will never. I will never leave.

“If I have a safe chance to put my family out of Ukraine I will try to make it but I have a problem, I have a wife. She said she would never leave. I can also make a quotation from our president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, when Americans ask him do you want us to pick you up from Kyiv and evacuate, he said ‘I don’t need a taxi I need armor.’ So yeah. A week ago, like eight days ago, he had support about 30% of Ukraine, now he has 90% of Ukraine.

“The idea of Ukranians now is that we don’t need a taxi. For sure we have people who need to be evacuated, about a million people in Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia and thanks to our friends from those countries who help our people there, but the normal position of people here in Kyiv who are suffering with the Russian missiles every hour – for the last hour here in Kyiv we had 10 raid alerts, 10. Ten times it’s like [siren noise] all over my city. We have these applications that show us the directions to shelter, it’s a completely new reality we are living in.”

And it’s a reality that nobody expected to have to live in, it’s wrong that the Russian have put you into that situation. We really appreciate your time, I don’t know what we can do to help. Anything we can do to help just ask.

“Well the only thing we need now is closing the sky. We demand it from NATO, like it was in Syria that there are no flights in our sky, because without aircraft Russian troops will be on the border. Today, one city near the Ukrainian border with Russia, they put Russian troops to the border so we are counter-attacking, counter-attacking now like Yuriy and I in Sardinia 2014, we are counter-attacking now.

“So this is very inspiring, but with a closed sky Russian troops will have no chance in Ukraine. They promised to take Kyiv in 48 hours. They will not take it in 48 centuries. So pushing NATO, pushing local authorities, reposting if you can repost, calling your fellow general and asking them, pushing on them to close the sky is our praying, is our demanding, is our call to the world.

“We need to help our sky close because missiles who target kindergartens or target schools or target civil buildings – it is not war it is genocide, it is not normal. It’s not legal. We need our sky to be closed. It is very important for saving our lives.”

You’re very much in our thoughts and prayers and we wish you all the very, very best. And if is at all possible please stay safe and look after your children.

“Thank you. Thank you Colin. I am happy to share our emotions with you and thank you for your support, and thank you to all the civilized motorsport world for your support, for your messages, for your reposting. We will win.”