Elton John kisses baby Lev at a hospital for HIV-positive children in the town of Makeyevka outside Donetsk, 2009
The garage of the modest two-bedroom flat little Lev Ageyev shares with his grandmother Yulia holds two shiny new bikes.
They are the pride and joy of their owners, 11-year-old Lev and his elder brother Artyom, 13, and the envy of the other boys in the run-down neighbourhood of Mariupol, the industrial Ukrainian city they both call home.
But the bikes are not their most prized possessions. That honour goes to the signed portrait photographs of the boys on display in their bedroom. Both bear the inscription: ‘I Love You’, and their signatory is none other than Sir Elton John — also the provider of their bicycles, and gifted following an emotional two-hour get-together last year.
In Lev’s case the word ‘reunion’ is more appropriate: he first met the singer a decade ago as a 14-month-old in a Ukrainian orphanage, where he and Artyom had been taken after their drug-and-alcohol-addicted, HIV-positive mother Marina was deemed unable to look after them.
Lev Ageev, 11, (left) with his older brother Atryom, 13, (right) pictured with their grandmother Yulia
Elton was smitten by the blue-eyed baby with the beaming smile. Their bond was so instant that he spoke at a press conference of his determination that he and husband David Furnish should adopt him. ‘To see children like little Lev . . . smiling . . . is one of the most moving things for me,’ he said. ‘He stole my heart.’
But it was not to be. Sir Elton’s age — then 62 — and now-ousted president Viktor Yanukovych’s ban on gay adoption meant his dream was thwarted.
Yet the superstar never forgot Lev, as he made plain last week with the release of his autobiography, Me, in which he writes movingly of the profound impact meeting Lev had on his life, cementing his determination to become a father and resulting in the birth, via surrogacy, of eldest son Zachary in December 2010. ‘We called him Zachary Jackson Levon’, he writes. ‘Everybody assumes the last name came from a song Bernie [Taupin] and I wrote, but they’re wrong: he’s named after Lev. He had to be.
‘Lev was like an angel, a messenger, who taught me something about myself. Lev was the reason we were there, on a maternity ward, holding our son, knowing our lives had changed for ever.’
Two years later, the arrival of Zachary’s brother Elijah, now six, completed Elton’s happiness. As the sons of multi-millionaire parents, Zachary and Elijah will never lack for material privileges; there are private schools and holidays in their parents’ villa in the South of France, not to mention mingling with celebs and royalty.
Meanwhile, Lev and Artyom’s circumstances could not provide more contrast. Left behind in Makeyevka children’s home, their prospects were bleak in a country where there was little culture of adoption and where babies born in the shadow of HIV remain stigmatised.
Elton John with David Furnish and their sons Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John and Elijah Joseph Daniel Furnish-John on holiday at Le Club 55 at Pampelonne Beach in St Tropez
While Lev is not HIV positive, Artyom is, his condition managed by medication.
Yet speaking for the first time, this week their paternal grandmother and legal guardian Yulia reveals how the brothers are thriving in her care.
What’s more, they retain links with Sir Elton, who has kept a watchful eye on all of them, assisting in temporarily rehoming them in the aftermath of the 2014 Ukrainian uprising, and meeting up with them at that emotional reunion.
While Yulia and Lev are too discreet to say whether they ever wonder how materially different the boys’ lives might be if Elton and David had been able to adopt, it’s clear the family feel rich in other ways.
‘Lev may not have a lavish life, but he has a very happy one surrounded by family and love,’ Yulia tells me. ‘It is perhaps not the happy ending the world was waiting for but it is still a happy ending, just a different one after a lot of sadness.
‘When we met Elton last year there were tears. We didn’t meet Elton the celebrity, but Elton the man. The boys were very happy to see him, but they still understood how much they love their own family.
‘The boys are my saviours — they help me a lot. My health is not good, but whenever I feel bad they are by my side trying to help me feel better. There is a lot of love in my home.’
As Yulia would be the first to admit, that home is modest: a two-bedroom flat in a graffiti-strewn block in Mariupol, a city by the Azov sea and close to the Russian border in south-eastern Ukraine.
The boys share bunk beds in one bedroom, while the other is shared by Yulia, 66, and her 69-year-old husband Nikolai, himself bedridden as a legacy of his role in the clean-up after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Money is tight. Yulia, a former factory worker, and Nikolai have modest pensions, and even though they receive state childcare of around £250 a month for the boys, their total monthly income is a paltry £400.
Yet what they lack in money they make up for in love. During our hour-long video call, Lev perches on his gran’s knee, his arm around her neck, while Artyom hovers beside him.
There are smiles, laughter and tears in turn as the family recall the meeting which thrust all of them into the spotlight.
Of the two, Lev — still recognisable as the adorable toddler that melted Elton’s heart — is the more ebullient, disappearing at one point and re-emerging to show me proudly the medals he won in a wrestling competition.
‘Artyom is very shy and modest but Lev is very active and energetic — the teacher cannot keep him calm in lessons as he is very talkative and active,’ laughs Yulia. ‘Both are doing well at school. Artyom is good at English and Lev is naturally very good at sports. They are just normal boys.’
But they are boys whose family history is blighted by the twin traumas of HIV and drug use in a country which, when they were born, was facing escalating rates of the former.
Their mother Marina and father Sergey — Yulia’s son — both had HIV. Marina’s alcohol and drug addiction combined with Sergey’s conviction for murder — he was jailed for 11 years for killing a teenage girl — led to both boys being put in the care of the state and taken to Makeyevka, a specialist home near Donetsk for children born to mothers with HIV.
It was there that Elton met Lev. He had been invited by the Elena Pinchuk Foundation, an Aids charity with close links to the singer — and his bond with the toddler made global news.
Yulia still has a copy of her local paper, its headline featuring Elton’s declaration that Lev had stolen his heart.
Sadly, when it became clear that his dream of adoption would not be realised, the boys’ future remained uncertain, not least because Marina remained insistent that she wanted to bring her boys home.
Again that was not to be. Less than a year later, she died of TB in a Ukrainian hospital, aged just 26. Around the same time Sergey was sent to prison again, for theft, leaving a question mark over Yulia’s attempts to seek custody.
Yet the state did not reckon with her fierce determination and, in 2011, when Lev was two and Artyom four, she became their guardian following months of campaigning, finally able to take them both home from the orphanage. ‘It was a very happy day,’ she says, her eyes filling with tears at the memory.
‘Even though I am an elderly person I knew I was able to look after them — and I have proved I can. The kids are the centre of my life and my husband’s.’
That much is evident. While Nikolai is blighted by ill health, he retains an affectionate relationship with his grandsons, appearing briefly during our interview to tease them about our chat.
‘He has a heart condition and has to lean against the wall to walk,’ Yulia tells me. ‘He went to Chernobyl in 1986 and afterwards he had very high radioactivity levels and he’s had problems ever since.’
Nor are her grandsons without their own medical issues. Apart from Artyom’s HIV, both have been diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia, which, poignantly, has led to them having to give up the sports they love for the time being.
‘It is not very serious and it is curable,’ Yulia tells me. ‘Lev has it slightly worse than Artyom, but they are both registered at the hospital and at the end of this month they are both getting a full examination and more tests. While they are waiting, it is just harder for them to run around.’
They are not the only problems the family has had to face. In 2014, skirmishes broke out between Ukrainian government forces, local police and separatist militants.
With Mariupol besieged by pro-Russian forces, the Pinchuk Foundation mounted a rescue mission, transporting them and other families to Kiev until the fighting had abated. ‘When the Russians invaded Ukraine, we worked with the charity to evacuate them to Kiev,’ Elton wrote in his memoir.
The family stayed in Kiev for three months until it was deemed safe for them to return home.
‘They rented us a flat in Kiev and we were very happy to be safe,’ says Yulia. ‘We got really scared in Mariupol as people said Russian tanks would attack the city soon.’
It is not the only help that Yulia has received from the foundation — with little money of her own, she has relied on them to provide extras for her family.
‘There is a fund which helps us —they bought new furniture for our flat and gave us air conditioning,’ she says. ‘We have never been told it comes directly from Elton, but it is possible.’
It was through the foundation that, last year, the Ageyevs had that emotional meeting with Sir Elton and David in Kiev. Yet even then tragedy hovered. As Yulia prepared to board a plane to the meeting with her grandsons, she received a message telling her that the boys’ father Sergey had died of a brain haemorrhage.
‘Sergey had a haemorrhage a few years earlier and he had lived with it but then it took his life,’ says Yulia, her voice breaking at the memory. ‘It was very hard for the boys as they had become very close in the last few years — he used to take them fishing and you could not separate them. For months it was hard for them to sleep.
‘They lost their mother while they were still in the orphanage, so Lev doesn’t remember his mum at all. Now they had lost both the people who gave them life.’
It provided a sombre backdrop to what might otherwise have been a joyous meeting with Sir Elton. ‘I told him the news and he cried and we hugged. He also hugged the boys — and he hugged them like a father,’ remembers Yulia. ‘I didn’t think he would have these feelings because he’s a star, but I admired him for how he was and his warmth.
‘It was very natural — there were no journalists there and no one was watching. It was just Elton, David and the interpreter.
‘He told the boys to study English and he asked do we need anything, are we lacking in anything, which is when the children said they were sharing one bicycle. He said he would sort it and later he sent them two new sports bicycles. We could never afford to get them so we are very grateful.’
The boys, in turn, had their own gifts for Elton; photos for him to take back to the UK, along with a keepsake of their meeting — a heart-shaped box covered with shells which they originally bought as a gift for their gran while on holiday in Gdansk.
Proud Yulia adds: ‘When they heard they were going to Kiev they worried about what to give Elton as a gift, then Lev thought of the box as the seashells were a reminder of where he came from, which is close to the sea. He liked it very much.’
I ask Lev what it was like to meet Elton again all these years later and his eyes light up.
‘Before I was kind of nervous but then when we got to meet I understood it was fine,’ he says. ‘He was very nice.’
They have not been able to see their famous friend since, but both boys harbour hopes that when their English is good enough, they will get to meet Elton’s family.
‘I tell them they have two half-brothers in England and it is Lev’s dream to go there to meet them,’ says Yulia.
‘For now both boys need to concentrate on their studies, but we have invited Elton to our home and we hope one time he can come and that he can invite us as well. Let’s see what the future brings.’
It is a future that, happily, looks brighter than could have been imagined all those years ago.