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‘You could say we proved ourselves’ War stories from Russians returned from fighting in eastern Ukraine

Meduza
20:12, 19 february 2016

Photo: Dan Levi / Sputnik / Scanpix

The armed conflict in eastern Ukraine effectively ended in the autumn of 2015. Most of the Russian citizens who poured into the Donbas as volunteers have since returned home. Officially, there's no one to thank them for their service. These returned former combatants of Ukraine's two self-proclaimed separatist republics are more and more often falling into a life of crime, and their past deeds haven't proved to be much help. There's only one record of a Russian court finding someone's service in Donetsk to qualify as a mitigating circumstance. (He'd been caught driving under the influence of alcohol.) For many of these former volunteers, it does not even cross their minds that they were, in fact, part of illegal militias fighting in a foreign country. In a special report for Meduza, journalist Georgy Pereborshchikov has collected stories from some of the Russians who fought in the Donbas. 

Alexander Nelyubin

Code name: “Cross,” from St. Petersburg

Before the war, I rented a small grocery store outside St. Petersburg with another guy. I ran a business there.

I went to the Donbas in July 2014—to defend our Russian world from attacks by the West, of course. It was necessary to meet the enemy at our borders. My blood began to boil after the events at the House of Trade Unions in Odessa. It brought to mind the words of Vladimir Vysotsky's “Ballad of Struggle”: “If you don't fight the villain, or the executioner, then in life you stood for nothing, and were about nothing.”

In August 2014, I swore an oath to the Donetsk People's Republic [DNR]. I served in a reconnaissance and sabotage team, the “Kalmius” special detachment. [The Kalmius is a one of two rivers flowing through the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. This suggests that his team was part of the coordinated separatist effort to capture Mariupol.] Then I was stationed elsewhere. I was together with several other soldiers. They said they were from the GRU [Russian Military Intelligence]. The commander of my reconnaissance team said he was from there, too.

There was support from Russia, certainly. First, it was from volunteers and patriotic organizations. Later, of course, a fair amount supplies began to come in. At first, weapons had to be seized. Then, brand new ones began to arrive, even still coated in [protective] grease.

In the DNR, there were very big problems in terms of organization and coordination. Many were killed due to stupidity and incompetence.

On August 24, 2014, there was an attack on a small town called Yelenovka. For two days, we were on full alert. Then they told us we had to breakthrough to the south. Eighty percent of our guys had never been under fire—they had no experience. Only our group and two others were equipped with automatic weapons and adequate supplies. The rest of the men were left with carbines [short-barrelled rifles] practically from the second world war. There were even people in tracksuits.

Our commander asked us to conduct a preliminary sweep first, and that's how it should it have been done. But the guy there on the ground rudely ordered us to advance “head-on” along the highway.

Up ahead was the enemy: the 51st Mechanized Brigade and the Dnepr Special Battalion, which included 32 tanks and other heavy equipment. When I looked around at our guys, I saw this kid carrying a carbine loaded with just a single bullet. Before we even reached the first checkpoint, we were pounded with mortar fire. We suffered heavy losses, but we managed to destroy the checkpoint. Next we were ordered us to carry on further, to capture the village. And then it began. They started slaughtering us.

The battle was only just underway when the local staff officers reported that the village had been successfully taken. Even on the Internet, there was already a summary [of the victory]. It was all lies. We were supposed to have gun preparations and technical support. All I saw were three tanks, and they didn't even join the fight. Their turrets jammed. A third of the division was killed in this attack owing to the negligence of the staff officers.

Those of us still alive—all wounded and shell-shocked—shot our way out from that cauldron. The same commander who'd ordered us “head-on” into battle wanted us executed for retreating. But afterwards, I was made the DNR's deputy defense minister.

Russia gave out funds to bury these children, for their families. Big money. But the kids were buried quickly, and the money was parcelled out. Everyone is still silent about this part of the war

I received shrapnel wounds and a severe concussion. Then I was sent along with two busloads full of wounded soldiers for medical treatment in Russia, in Sevastopol.

Alexander Nelyubin
Photo: submitted from his personal archive

Then I returned home, and we became irrelevant. The local command headquarters and I disagreed on a lot of issues. Also, my wife is sick and she needs care.

Almost all my comrades left the field a while back. The killings of [Aleksei] Mozgovoy and other worthy commanders contributed to their decisions [to return]. Everyone knows who killed them—the authorities of the “People's Republic.” Because of money and disobeying orders. All the goods from those humanitarian convoys? The very next day they were being sold off in the markets. Aid and medicine from Russia were mercilessly plundered by Cossacks and other entities under the control of the republic's leaders.

Now, many of the guys are furious about how there's only silence about it on TV. It's as if someone is deliberately ignoring the reality of the situation. It's still out there. Less may be going on [today], but people are still dying.

After my service, it's been very difficult to get back into civilian life. My wife was worried about my state of mind. I'm not used to all the silence. I wake with a start during the nights. When I drink, I remember my comrades and the war rushes back. I've been taking corvalol [a mild tranquilizer].

The store I had before the war, the one I rented with a friend—after coming back from the war, I lost control of it. My friend drove us into debt, and I sold off all the goods and now everything's gone.

Svetlana

Code name: “Karma,” from Solikamsk

Before I left for the war, I was a manager in publishing. In my spare time, I rock-climbed, did “sports tourism,” and mountaineering. In March 2014, I was awarded a “Mountaineer of Russia” badge, having passed all the training standards.

Starting July 2014, all the more often I saw news on TV about the events in the Donbas. All that was happening touched me to the depths of my soul—resurgent fascism, the genocide of the Russian population, attacks on civilian towns—I could not remain indifferent. In early autumn, I gathered together and mailed off humanitarian aid packages. By November, however, I understood I needed to go myself. I let my office know that I'd be taking a vacation. On December 1, 2014, I arrived in Donetsk and immediately fell in with the international brigade, which they called the “15” Brigade, and I still call them that now.

Before arriving to the Donbas, I had no experience handling weapons, let alone experience in combat operations. It was all new and I needed to learn quickly. The commander and guys in the group helped me with the training and instruction. January 23, 2015, was the first time we took up positions. It was at Donetsk airport. I was part of the cover for an assault team and, if necessary, I had to provide medical care to the wounded. In April, our brigade was posted to the front lines in Marinka. It was close-quarters combat, and the enemy artillery aimed at us seemingly for practice. I was stationed there for a month, and, perhaps, these are the most memorable days of my service.

Svetlana
Photo: submitted from her personal archive

I continue my service to this day. They say there is a ceasefire now. In reality, there isn't. The shelling continues. Ukraine will not withdraw its troops from the border and at any moment they could go on the offensive. Yeah, I've gotten used to it all now. It's just hard simply to pick up and leave.

Most recently, many Russians are returning home. This is probably is due to the fact that active hostilities have ceased. The “militia” is gradually turning into a regular republican army. Only now, talk about “Putin surrendering the Donbas” is becoming more frequent.

Life in the republics has still not fully come together, yet. I would like to believe corruption and lawlessness will not flourish here.

The Donbas has changed me dramatically. It has revised my outlook on life. Now I know its value. My character has hardened, too. I have become hardier, I pay less attention to small distractions, I judge people more accurately now, and I know the true meaning of the word friendship. I don't simply have friends, either. At any moment, my life could depend on the people around me here.

Not for a moment do I regret that I came here.

Alexander Fomichenko

Code name: “Laplander,” from Murmansk

Before the journey to the Donbas, I served in the Army. I wore officers' epaulettes. Then I retired, and worked in the security business. Each year, I traveled to the hero-city of Odessa. I have relatives there. I generally liked Ukraine.

I was very affected by what happened at the House of Trade Unions. So I went in the summer of 2014, to help people. I had not taken part in active operation during my prior army service. All the same, my army experience proved useful.

When I finally reached the Donbas, I realized there is a big difference between what they show in the media and what is actually going on. Everything wasn't so rose-colored. I expected there to be military discipline—some kind of training. But there was not. And the media made everything look so colorful.

We had no training. They taught us the following rule: “If you hear a shot, fall to the ground.” We did just that, and it saved our lives. Initially, we were given SKS carbines [standard issue rifles for the Soviet Army in 1949]. We were only given automatics after our first battles—that is, after people didn't run away or change their minds. A uniform was your own concern, and you got one at your own expense.

For a time, we had to boil this big pot of pasta and mix it with cured pork fat. There wasn't anything else to eat. Sometimes, local Cossacks helped out, feeding us bread. Every now and then, they made borscht. There were many abandoned vegetable gardens. We dug up what had not yet been taken. This was in no way looting, though. It was just hard times.

There were many cases when our unit (in those times, Igor Plotnitsky was both Head of the Lugansk People's Republic and of the Defense Ministry) was sent on the offensive without any kind of proper weapons. But I was luck. We wound up with a good commander, a Cossack hetman, and he protected us and did not treat our lives carelessly. For this, he was even arrested a couple of times.

Our relations with the people were good. I remember when we were in the town of Krasny Luch, I went to sit in a yard. A granddad approached us and asked how he could join the militia. We told him he could appeal to the local commandant. But he said, “No, I want to join the Russian unit!”

Then they began to pay us for our militia service. By local standards, it was good money. Many Russians refused it, though, so as not to be liable for acting as a mercenary. But the locals immediately reached for the cash.

Head of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, Igor Plotnitsky
Photo: Taras Dudnik / TASS / Scanpix

Local ranking commanders did as they saw fit. I saw this little squirt of a 22-year-old, a boy really, who they gave the rank of major. It was because his mother was a business woman. I guess it didn't really matter.

In one case, two of my comrades were killed by the glorious [separatist] Dawn Battalion, which is made up of locals. They were drunk and shot at our car. Maybe they were already blackout drunk and delirious—I don't know.

It also came to pass that all the lists of our military personnel wound up in the hands of the enemy. Two of our guys had been captured, and it became clear one of them gave up the lists. Treachery. Not too long ago, one of the senior officers simply changed sides. It was not the enemy we began to fear, but our own people.

After I returned from the Donbas, for a time I worked in security again. Now everywhere is closing up and cutting back. Businesses have no money; they're economizing. As a result, I now work as a freight loader. But this is more so I have something to do.

Of the other militiamen, many have been able to return to their previous jobs, but some want to return to the Donbas. I also caught myself thinking that if things start to get seriously messed up, then I'll head back.

I'm sorry for the guys who got injured. All of us in varying degrees have received psychological trauma, and many got concussions. But that's just how it goes. If you've got arms and legs, then you can work. Those who found themselves disabled need to be supported by the state.

For many of the people I know, life has changed greatly. After what they've seen there, some people turn to heavy drinking. For some, their shot nerves exacerbated other diseases. Some are already dead.

“New Russia” was a good idea, all the same. But it somehow didn't come to be. When I arrived there, we were all waiting to go farther and farther west. But the head of the republic told us to stop.

After all of this, my views on life have changed. I value life more. I have no regrets. I can say I proved myself. For centuries Russia has been at war, right?

Daria

Code name: “Phoenix,” from Moscow

I joined the ranks of the militia in early December 2014. Before that, I was working at a real estate firm. It was just a job to earn money. My labor of love is tattoos; it's long been my hobby.

From the very beginning of this whole mess in Ukraine, I anxiously watched the situation get worse and worse. I had no idea it would turn out like this. When the fighting broke out, I couldn't just sit on the sidelines. Slavs killing Slavs—how could it be!?

At the start, I worked on sending humanitarian aid. My friends from the Emergencies Ministry and hospitals helped me with that in a big way. Then I gave everything a long, hard think. I received a blessing from the spiritual father [at my church] and went [to eastern Ukraine]. Such a decision cannot be made at random. The deciding factor was direction from above.

I got my things together, I made some inquiries, and decided I had to join the “Phantom” Brigade, under [commander Alexei] Mozgovoi. Those in the know said that he protects you. As it turned out, they were right. I'm not military staff. the garrison life with its routine was not for me. I went there to fight.

Phantom Brigade Commander Alexei Mozgovoi
Photo: Information Center for the People's Militia for Alexei Mozgovoi / TASS

When I first arrived, things were very different. Of those coming for “schooling” from our group, half of them were already battle-tested and had served in the army and participated in various types of military exercises. The rest, like me, had only gone to shooting galleries and held paintball guns. We were the “teddy-bear partisans.” The “schooling” lasted a month, after which about one-third dropped out, thank God. Otherwise, those killed in action—the corpses—there'd be a third more of them.

In January 2015, we were transferred to the front. The fighting was happening only a few miles from our location. The shelling was constant, but we already didn't pay the roaring noise any mind. On the contrary, it was the silence that was alarming.

The turning point came on February 8. We were one of the divisions that were caught in the “Debaltseve Caldron.” A heavy storm of shelling began from the well-fortified enemy positions. Me, together with another medical orderly, we pulled a heavily wounded scout from the battlefield. We were shelled with mortars, and then a tank took aim at us. Three in our group were killed on the spot—one of my friends among them. The rest had heavy wounds, traumatically amputated limbs and contusions. I didn't have a scratch on me, although, literally a meter away from me, people had been blown to pieces. I can't find any way of explaining it other than protection by a higher power.

When we passed through Debaltseve, the situation there even made some experienced men lose their heads. I just looked on. Someone frowned and said, “You're inhuman if this doesn't get to you.” That's totally not the case. I simply turned my emotions off. I had to.

About the current situation in the ranks of the Donbas militia, I won't say anything. Everything is very complicated, and only those in the know can understand it. The mood there now is mixed. Yes, [Moscow] is giving up the Donbas. It's so obvious now that it's almost boring to say.

Now I have a series of deeply personal, domestic problems that require my presence at home [in Russia]. At the moment, these are more important to me. But if a new stage in this brutal war suddenly begins, I will drop everything and join my brothers.

By the time active hostilities ceased in the Donbas region in the summer of 2015, both sides had sustained nearly 7,000 deaths and more than 17,000 wounded, according to the United Nations. Another 2.3 million people had become refugees. Today, both sides comply in theory with the second and most recent ceasefire, which was agreed to in Minsk (often referred to as Minsk II). However, reports of skirmishes continue to come from both sides.

Georgii Pereborshchikov