Lev Ageyev and his grandmother Yulia reside in a modest two-bedroom home with two new bikes in the garage.
They are the envy of the other boys in Mariupol, the Ukrainian industrial city where their owners, 11-year-old Lev and his older brother Artyom, 13, live.
However, they value other possessions more than bikes. The boys’ bedroom-hung, hand-signed photo portraits deserve the honour. Their bicycles, given to them after an emotional two-hour meeting last year, bear the message “I Love You,” They are both signed by Sir Elton John.
Lev first met the singer when he was 14 months old in a Ukrainian orphanage, where he and Artyom were sent after their HIV-positive, drug- and alcohol-dependent mother, Marina, was deemed unfit to care for them.
Elton was mesmerised by the baby’s bright smile and blue eyes. At a press conference, he declared that he and his spouse, David Furnish, would adopt him because their bond was so strong. One of my most moving things is seeing kids like Lev smile,’ he said. She says, “He took my heart”.
This, however, was not to be. Sir Elton’s goal was defeated due to his advanced age (62 at the time) and President Viktor Yanukovych’s ban on gay adoption.
But the celebrity never forgot Lev, as evidenced by the publication of his autobiography, Me, last week. In it, the star writes movingly about how meeting Lev significantly impacted his life, solidifying his resolve to have children and leading to the surrogate birth of his oldest son Zachary in December 2010. Zachary Jackson Levon, he writes, was his name. “Everyone believes that his last name is derived from a song that Bernie [Taupin] and I wrote, but they are mistaken; he is named after Lev. There was nothing for him to do.
Lev was an angel and a messenger who showed me who I am. While holding our son in a hospital nursery, we knew Lev had permanently changed our lives’.
When Elijah, now six, arrived two years later, Elton’s happiness was complete as the sons of multi-millionaires Zachary and Elijah would have plenty of material luxuries. They only have to worry about attending school and spending vacations at their parents’ villa in the South of France, not to mention socialising with royalty and celebrities.
Lev and Artyom’s circumstances, however, could not be more dissimilar. Their futures were bleak after being abandoned in the Makiivka Children’s Home in a nation with a weak adoption culture and where infants born with HIV are stigmatised.
Lev is not HIV positive, but Artyom is, and he is receiving medication for his condition.
For the first time this week, Yulia, the brothers’ paternal grandmother and legal guardian, describes how the brothers are thriving in her care.
They have also kept in touch with Sir Elton, who has kept a close eye on them all, helping to temporarily rehome them in the wake of the 2014 Ukrainian uprising and meeting them at that heartfelt reunion.
The family is wealthy in other ways, despite Yulia and Lev’s refusal to say whether they ever consider how different the boys’ lives might have been if Elton and David had been permitted to adopt.
Lev may not live in luxury, but he is happy and surrounded by love, says Yulia. Even though it is a different happy ending than everyone had hoped for, it is still a happy one after much suffering.
When we first met Elton last year, there were tears. Instead of Elton, the celebrity, we met Elton, the man. The boys were overjoyed to see him, but they also realised how much they loved their own family.
“The guys are my rock; they help me out.”. They’re always there for me, trying to cheer me up despite my health. There’s love all over my house’.
Yulia is the first to admit that her residence is modest: a two-bedroom apartment in a building covered in graffiti in Mariupol, a city in southeast Ukraine close to the Russian border.
The boys share one bedroom, while Yulia, 66, and her 69-year-old husband Nikolai, who is bedridden due to his involvement in the cleanup after the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, use the other.
Money is in short supply. Despite receiving roughly £250 per month in state-funded childcare for the boys and modest pensions from Yulia, a former factory worker, and Nikolai, their combined monthly income is a pitiful £400.
They compensate for their lack of financial resources with their love. Lev sits on his grandmother’s knee, his arm around her neck, as Artyom stands nearby during our hour-long video chat.
Smiles, laughter, and tears fill the room as the family recalls the encounter that catapulted them into the spotlight.
Lev is the more animated of the two, disappearing at one point and reappearing to proudly show me the medals he won in a wrestling competition. Lev is still recognisable as the adorable child who won Elton’s heart.
Lev is animated and enthusiastic, in contrast to Artyom’s quiet demeanour. Because of Lev’s active and vocal nature, the teacher needs help keeping the class quiet. Both of them are performing well in school. Lev is an athletic natural, whereas Artyom speaks English with ease. They are typical boys’.
But these boys come from a family plagued by the twin tragedies of HIV and drug abuse in a nation where the former was on the rise when they were born.
Sergey, Yulia’s father, and their mother, Marina, both had the virus. Sergey was convicted of murder and given an 11-year sentence for killing a teenage girl. This led to the state taking custody of both boys and sending them to Makiivka, a unique home for children born to HIV-positive mothers near Donetsk. Marina’s alcohol and drug abuse and these circumstances led to the boys’ placement in this facility.
There, Lev and Elton first met. The Elena Pinchuk Foundation, a charity close to the artist, invited him, and his relationship with the toddler garnered widespread media attention.
Elton declared in his hometown newspaper that Lev had taken his heart, and Yulia still has a copy.
Unfortunately, because Marina insisted on taking the boys home, the boys’ future remained uncertain as it became clear that his desire for adoption would not be fulfilled.
That also did not pan out. At 26, she passed away from tuberculosis in a Ukrainian hospital. Around the same time, Sergey received a second sentence for theft, raising questions about Yulia’s attempts to obtain custody.
But the authorities didn’t realise how tenacious she was. After months of pleading, she finally became their guardian in 2011, when Lev was two and Artyom was four. She was then able to bring them both home from the orphanage. She remembers with tears in her eyes, “It was a happy day.”.
“I knew I could take care of them, even though I’m old, and I’ve shown that I can. The centre of my life and my husband’s life is our family. ‘.
That much is evident. Despite being in poor health, Nikolai still feels a strong emotional connection to his grandsons and even interrupted our interview to tease them.
Yulia explains that he must walk against the wall because of a heart condition. He visited Chornobyl in 1986, experienced extremely high radiation levels, and has struggled ever since. ‘.
There are medical issues with her grandchildren as well. Along with Artyom’s HIV, both have been identified as having heart arrhythmia, forcing them to discontinue their favorite pastimes temporarily.
Although Lev’s condition is significantly worse than Artyom’s, both patients are listed at the hospital and will undergo additional testing and a thorough examination at the end of this month. They can’t run around while they wait, which is problematic. Yulia reassured me, “It’s not severe and can be cured.
The family has experienced a variety of problems over the years. Insurgent separatists and local police engaged in skirmishes in 2014 with the help of Ukrainian government forces.
The Pinchuk Foundation led a rescue effort to evacuate them and other families to Kyiv until the fighting ceased after pro-Russian forces took control of Mariupol. In his memoir, Elton wrote, “When the Russians invaded Ukraine, we worked with a charity to get them to Kyiv.”.
Before it was determined that they could safely return home, the family spent three months residing in Kyiv.
We were happy to be safe because they found us a flat in Kyiv, Yulia continues. Since people believed that Russian tanks were about to attack the city, Mariupol was afraid’.
In addition to receiving financial aid from the group, Yulia relied on them to give her family extras.
She says, “There is a fund that helps us; they bought new furniture for our apartment and gave us air conditioning.”. “It’s plausible, but we’ve never been told it came straight from Elton. ‘.
The Ageyevs met Sir Elton and David in Kyiv last year and were moved by the experience, thanks to the charity. But disaster was coming. Sergey, the father of the boys, passed away from a brain haemorrhage just as Yulia was about to board a plane to meet her grandsons.
Yulia remembers, her voice quivering with emotion, “Sergey had a haemorrhage a few years ago and had lived with it, but it took his life.”. The boys found it difficult because they had grown close recently — he used to take them fishing, and you couldn’t tell them apart. They struggled to fall asleep for months.
Lev does not recall his mother because she died while he was still in the orphanage. They had now lost both of the people who had given them life’.
It gave a gloomy backdrop to what might have been a pleasant encounter with Sir Elton. He sobbed, and we hugged after I broke the news to him. He also gave the boys hugs, which were fatherly, Yulia recollects. Although he is well-known, I didn’t expect him to feel this way because I thought he was beautiful.
There were no reporters or observers, so that was entirely normal. There was just Elton, David, and the interpreter.
He urged the boys to pick up English, and when he asked if they had any needs, the boys admitted they shared a bicycle. He sent them two new sports bicycles after promising to fix them. These were something we could only afford. In light of this, we are grateful. ‘.
The boys had gifts for Elton, including pictures for him to return to the UK and a heart-shaped box covered in shells they had initially bought as a present for their grandmother while on vacation in Danzig.
Lev thought of the box because the seashells reminded him of his home near the water when they were unsure what to give Elton as a gift after learning they would be travelling to Kyiv. He liked it. ‘.
Lev’s eyes sparkled when I questioned him about how it felt to see Elton after so many years.
“Beforehand, I was a little nervous, but once we met, I realised everything was OK,” he says. He was a pleasant man. ‘.
Since then, they have not seen their well-known friend, but both boys hope that they will meet Elton’s family as their English skills advance.
I tell the kids that Lev has two half-brothers in England, and Lev wants to see them, Yulia says.
Both boys must focus on their schoolwork, but we have invited Elton over and hope he will do the same for us. Please take a look at what the future has in store’.
There is a brighter future ahead than anyone could have imagined all those years ago.