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‘It was hard to watch’ How Ukrainian journalists turned footage from a Russian soldier’s phone into a short documentary

Source: Meduza

On May 11, the online newspaper Ukrayinska Pravda released a short documentary called “The Occupant” (“Okupant,” in Ukrainian), which tells the story of a Russian lieutenant named Yury Shalaev. According to the newspaper, 24-year-old Shalaev served as the commander of a motorized rifle platoon in a military unit based in Shali, Chechnya. He was deployed to Ukraine on March 3, as part of Russia’s full-scale invasion — and he recorded his wartime experiences on his phone. Shalaev was taken prisoner in early April and the videos he recorded ended up in the hands of Ukrayinska Pravda. The newspaper’s journalists turned the recordings into a 24-minute documentary that offers a window into Shalaev’s life before and after his arrival in Ukraine. To find out more about the making of the film, Meduza sat down with journalist Mykhailo Tkach, the head of Ukrayinska Pravda’s investigations department.

Mykhailo Tkach, journalist

How did you obtain this footage?

I can’t say. Any respectable journalist won’t reveal their sources.

How did you get the idea to make a film out of these videos?

There are actually more videos than we showed. Reviewing this footage turned out to be more difficult than I expected. I thought about these videos for some time and couldn’t come up with anything better than to show them as they are. The story of an invader, as he himself filmed it.

Is that to say that in some sense Lieutenant Shalaev is your co-author?

I wouldn’t like to be associated with an invader, but in general we set ourselves the task of not influencing the content in any way: not adding anything, not putting music in the background. We only did the editing. 

You said that watching these videos turned out to be more difficult than you expected. Why is that?

It’s not very pleasant to watch a video when you know that this is really an invader. A person who came to your country, walked around it, took pictures against the backdrop of buildings destroyed by the Russian army. It was hard to watch on a human level. 

Ukrayinska Pravda

What was left on the cutting room floor? Were there some moments that you couldn’t work in? 

No. We put in everything we wanted, although this isn’t really the right word here. There were a lot of repetitive moments, since this guy’s life was mostly monotonous, as you could see. For example, there were repeated scenes from benders. I didn’t see the point in showing ten such scenes instead of just a few.

What idea did you want to get across? On the one hand, we see a person who, before the war, gives his daughter a bicycle, gets drunk with his uncle, and goes on vacation with friends. And it’s like an attempt to humanize him. On the other, the title of the film and the final scenes [filmed during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine] speak for themselves.

First and foremost, my task, like all Ukrainian journalists, was to tell the truth about the war.

The main goal was to show this person. The story took shape that way because the videos were like that. This is another face of the Russian army, Putin’s army. A “Kremlin cadet” — an officer. This is his story. We showed it like it is. We didn’t set ourselves any goals or tasks to humanize the occupiers or discredit the Russian army. Moreover, no one discredits the Russian army more than it discredits itself.

It’s important that Russian soldiers look at themselves in the mirror more often, and it’s important for them to see themselves from the outside. One gets the impression that these people don’t think, they don’t analyze. They don’t do everything a person is capable of and what distinguishes a person from an animal. 

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Did you discover anything new in the process of making this film? Did it somehow change your views?

Everyone has long understood everything about the Russian army, so there are no discoveries for me here personally. Russian soldiers are drunkards or drunken, uneducated, impoverished people who came here — to paraphrase Churchill — to trample and eradicate those freedoms and benefits they’ll never have [in their own country]. I didn’t discover anything here at all. 

Your next article was based on leaked messages from a group chat of Russian soldiers, which Shalaev was also a part of. Did anything about [these messages] surprise you? 

Good question, I wasn’t counting on finding anything. My job is to show it as it is. I can’t say that I had any expectations. All of us in Ukraine and, I think, in the entire civilized world, have long understood what the Russian army is. And this correspondence, it seems to me, is another confirmation of this. And those moments from this correspondence that we published are too. There were no surprises — just an affirmation of what we already knew. Specifically, in this article, Russian soldiers say this themselves.

This group chat is a mirror of Russian propaganda. There was one episode that didn’t make it into the text. In it, a soldier boasts to his “colleagues” that was declared a criminal in Ukraine in an official [government] report. And then he sends a screenshot of his correspondence with his former teacher, who encourages him and says: They say we crushed the Nazis in 1941–1945 and we’re crushing them now. 

In other words, they really believe that there are fascists and mythical labs in Ukraine. They absolutely do not question the fictitious NATO threat and they justify their actions as “following order[s].” And at the same time they talk about how they’ll personally destroy our cities.

It was interesting to hear them moaning about the failure of the operation and the deplorable state of the Russian army. And it was completely absurd to realize that many of them became invaders and war criminals because they have mortgages. In other words, they’re going to their death to buy a house for life. 

But the fact that [judging by the messages in the chat] they’re afraid of their personal information being published is a good thing. The sooner they come to the realization that they’ll have to answer for their crimes personally, and not collectively, the more often they’ll refuse to commit the crime. 

Did your newsroom have a discussion about the ethics of publishing these materials? 

Of course, as in any normal newsroom, we discussed it and agreed that this is definitely information of public importance. Apparently, it also matters to the Russian public, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now. This is exactly why we published it.

Plus, we must not forget that this isn’t just a video that features a person, it’s a video that features an invader. 

What kind of reaction did the film evoke?

There isn’t much time to monitor the response, since events in our country are developing very rapidly. I see that people watched it and continue to watch it. I see that apparently people are viewing it both in Russia and in the rest of the world. There were reviews from various authoritative figures. We’ve already been invited to several festivals with this film, I won’t say which ones yet. 

Have you tracked where it was viewed more? In Russia or in Ukraine?

Not yet, but it seems to me that it’s difficult to say for whom this film is more important. I hope that as many people as possible will watch it in Russia. I hope so, because I want people to draw some conclusions of their own. Perhaps someone will see themselves from the outside. Perhaps [that person] will make a different decision in an important moment of their life.

What do we know about the later fate of the main character?

I wasn’t interested in that.

Do you plan on interviewing him?

Firstly, interviewing prisoners of war isn’t a very good idea from an ethical point of view. Secondly, I have no interest in speaking with such people, because they’re nobodies, they can’t explain the motivation for their actions. They don’t know or they say they don't know why they’re doing this. These are just servants of Putin’s fascist idea. I don’t think an interview with this person would be interesting. 

Ukraine is being defended by lawyers, journalists, teachers, professors, and politicians… These people make up the elite of our society. And who is fighting on the side of the occupier? I think you yourself know the answer to this question perfectly well. It’s unlikely that these are people who are capable and able to speak, analyze, and be interesting. 


Interview by Gleb Golod

Translation by Eilish Hart 

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