Dhorzhi Batomunkuev, a tank operator in the Russian military, was admitted to a hospital in Donetsk with serious burns to his face and hands. Batomunkuev, a Buryat from Siberia, was fighting on the side of the separatists in eastern Ukraine, when a Ukrainian artillery shell struck his tank. Twenty-years-old, he came to Ukraine as a contracted soldier in the Russian Army. He says he was stationed in Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, as recently as October 2014, when he was transferred to the Rostov region for training exercises. From there, on February 8, his tank unit was deployed to fight in Ukraine. In an interview with Novaya Gazeta’s Yelena Kostyuchenko, Batomunkuev explained why he didn’t refuse the order to go fight in Ukraine, sharing his thoughts about the war, and talking about meeting Russian crooner Iosif Kobzon, a vocal support of the rebels and a persona non grata in Ukraine, for the second time in his life.
Novaya Gazeta’s report discloses all Batomunkuev’s personal information, including his military identification badge and his unit number. Batomunkuev was injured in battle in the city of Lohvynove, at the chokepoint of the so-called “Debaltseve pocket,” where Novaya Gazeta says a Russian tank battalion was sent to engage Ukrainian troops trying to break out of the encirclement.
Batomunkuev says he had no doubt that he’d eventually end up in Ukraine, after being assigned to training exercises in Rostov, and the prospect didn’t especially worry him. He says he fought in Ukraine as an active Russian military personnel, not as a soldier “on rest and recuperation.” Batomunkuev told Kostyuchenko that he believes he fought for peace and for eastern Ukraine’s civilians. In early February, Batomunkuev says he was sent into Ukraine with another 300 Russian soldiers, most of them fellow Buryats. “A backpack and an automatic weapon, and it was into the tank,” he remembers.
While in the hospital, Batomunkuev had a visit from musician Joseph Kobzon, who was in Donetsk to visit wounded soldiers. A video of the encounter is widely popular online, in part because it turns out to have been the second time Batomunkuev ever met the famous crooner. (When Batomunkuev was still in grade school, Kobzon once visited his classroom.)
“It’s terrifying. You’re afraid. Subconsciously, you know the guy on the other side—in a tank, or in the infantry, or using some kind of equipment—is the same as you, made of flesh and blood. But you also know he’s your enemy. He’s killed people who weren’t guilty of anything. Civilians. They’ve killed children. There he sits, shaking all over and praying that he isn’t killed. Then he starts to beg. God will be your judge.”