Ukrainian who walked 140 miles to safety and used dog as distraction features in new exhibition

Igor Pedin with Zhu Zhu  (Kaupo Kikkas)
Igor Pedin with Zhu Zhu (Kaupo Kikkas)

A Ukrainian man who walked almost 140 miles to escape Russian bombing, using his dog to distract checkpoint soldiers, details his painful journey in a new London exhibition.

Construction worker Igor Pedin fled Mariupol in April last year with his dog Zhu-Zhu and walked the incredible 139-mile journey to Zaporizhzhi, stopping at 25 Russian checkpoints along the way.

He is one of 12 Ukrainians who have been photographed and will feature in an exhibition opening on June 1 at the European Parliament Liaison Office’s 12 Star Gallery in Europe House, Westminster.

Each person has detailed what precious item they chose to take with them as they fled their home towns and cities - including a violin and the Koran.

Mr Pedin told curators: “I left home and started to walk. I didn’t have a destination, it was impossible to know what was or wasn’t occupied  land. I just had to keep walking, sometimes  towards artillery fire in order to work out where  the enemy was.

“My strategy was to be invisible by being visible. If I took to back roads or tracks in the woods, I would look suspicious. Nobody in their right mind would be walking the main roads with a small dog, passing Russian military vehicles.”

Miraculously this method worked for Mr Pedin, who was greeted with food and cigarettes by Russian soldiers at checkpoints, keen to pat Zhu-Zhu.

“At the first checkpoint, the soldiers gave me an Easter bun and waved me through. It was surreal. At another checkpoint, they checked my phone and tried to put a Russian SIM in it but it was the wrong size,” he told curators.

“They petted Zhu-Zhu, stuffed cigarettes in my pockets, and let me through.

Construction worker Igor Pedin fled Mariupol in April last year (Kaupo Kikkas)
Construction worker Igor Pedin fled Mariupol in April last year (Kaupo Kikkas)

“Having ZhuZhu with me helped, it was a distraction. People love animals, often more than humans,” he said.

Eventually Mr Pedin reached a Ukrainian checkpoint and from there, volunteers drove him to Zaporizhzhia and took him to a community centre.

“It was two months since I’d eaten a proper meal,” he said.

“The woman sitting next to me literally choked on her soup when she heard that I had walked from Mariupol. I could have died at any point, but I never gave up.”

Mr Pedin’s story is one of many harrowing escape journeys, curator Frances Stonor Saunders said.

“Each story is evidence of a shocking loss. Every object speaks to other objects left behind, and every person represents other people who didn’t find their way out of the hellfire. But these stories are also an illuminating portrait of courage, of resilience and dignity, of continued lives.”

The exhibition What Would You Take, by Estonian photographer Kaupo Kikkas and curator Frances Stonor Saunders, opens on June 1 with a documentary screening and a panel discussion.

The short documentary was directed by Heilika Pikkov and produced by Ülo Pikkov / Silmviburlane this year. It accompanies the exhibition.

The photographs, interviews and the film were taken in December 2022 in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine and are on display for the first time at the 12 Star Gallery in London.

Photographer Kaupo Kikkas said: “Even though Estonia and Ukraine share a border and the collective memory of the Soviet period, they never had have much contact with Ukraine. But with the Russian invasion, I immediately understood that this was a common cause, so I started a project of solidarity.”

A series of events linked to the show have been organised, before the exhibition continues its tour to Europe.

The exhibition is supported and organised by the European Parliament Liaison Office in the UK.