Former Dancing with the Stars pro Maksim Chmerkovskiy returned to Ukraine a few weeks ago to continue filming World of Dance.
But then last week, the unthinkable happened. Russia invaded Ukraine, making Kyiv, the city where he was staying a war zone. For five days he hid in a hotel room, a bomb shelter, any place safe he could find. Friends told him it was too dangerous to leave, so he stayed put. But earlier this week, after being arrested, the dancer decided that he had to get back to his wife, pro dancer Peta Murgatroyd and his five year old son in Los Angeles.
After a 23 hour train ride to Poland, Maks flew back to LA on Wednesday, where he had an emotional reunion with his wife.
Friday morning, Good Morning America spoke with Maks about his scary escape from war.
“This is a country,” said Maks, referring to Ukraine right now. “And the country’s on fire.” He added, “It was very, very difficult to process, because we’re used to [flying] out, do some stuff, experience some things and always fly back.” But this time, Maks was unable to fly home. “To me, that was the biggest moment of understanding, like ‘you’re in trouble’.”
Maks emigrated to the United States in the 90s with his parents and younger brother Valentin, also a DWTS pro dancer. Although born in Ukraine, he is an American citizen, traveling with an American passport, which is why he could leave the country while male Ukrainians between the ages of 18 and 60 could not.
“I felt embarrassed…I was the only man on the train amongst all women and children.”
“I’m still very much in that fight or flight. I’m a big boy. I know for a fact that I’m going through something mentally.” Maks described emotional moments where he cries uncontrollably. “I cried on the way from from the airport. I felt embarrassed the entire ride back because I was the only man on the train amongst all women and children.”
“Oh, that’s the judge from Dancing With the Stars, that’s Maks. I know him.”
Maks also felt guilty over how his celebrity saved him from experiencing a worse outcome. For instance, authorities arrested him for breaking a strict curfew in Kyiv. He pulled out his American passport. When Maks began speaking Russian, another guard next to him goes “Oh, that’s the judge from Dancing With the Stars, that’s Maks. I know him.”
At that point, the authorities let him go with a stern warning. “I felt like things got real,” Maks said about the arrest. “I don’t have all of the things needed to feel safe in this place at all. I’m not built for this at all.” In that moment, he realized that “I was not in the place I should be.”
He describes the train station as “horrible.” Maks agonized as he realized that people who didn’t make it on a car would have to sleep in the freezing cold train station. “There’s kids everywhere,” he said. “I’m dying inside, because this is still very emotional stuff.”
“I feel guilty. I feel bad. I feel shame. I feel upset”
Did he feel guilty getting out while others did not? “Yeah. I feel guilty. I feel bad. I feel shame. I feel upset.”
Maks realized he made a huge mistake returning to Ukraine even as war ramped up and US officials warned Americans to come home. But the people of Ukraine are so used to living within a heightened place of tension with Russia, that until the sirens go off and bombs begin to drop, they just think it’s the norm. The advice Maks got from Ukrainian friends led him to believe war would never happen.
Watch the GMA interview below
Opinions are split on whether Maks should have stayed in Ukraine
As an aside, go out onto the internets, and the reaction to Maks coming back to the US is very mixed. Reading through the comments in this Washington Post piece, for instance, there are people accusing Maks of being a coward, and the he should be ashamed taking up space on train car that could have gone to women and children. Some thought as a Ukrainian by birth he should have stayed to fight.
“This is so toned deaf”
“Big bad dancer man,” wrote Angela T. “He didn’t have the balls to fight, and whether or not he is still a citizen is moot. Crowded on a train, taking up space needed by women and children. Pathetic.”
Maks is a 42 year old. His Australian wife probably didn’t want him to go back in the first place. And at the end of it all, Maks has been in the United states for almost 30 years, and identifies more with America than the Ukraine. And what would be the point of him staying, maybe getting killed? He’s more useful using his celebrity to spread the message. Which he has been doing on his Instagram. Warning: Some of the images and videos he posts are extremely graphic. He also posts links to resources where folks can help.