‘We had no moral right to attack another country’ Russian paratrooper pens memoir condemning February invasion of Ukraine
On the morning of February 24, thousands of Russian troops poured into Ukraine in a full-blown invasion. Pavel Filatiev was one of them. The 33-year-old paratroop spent two months on the front line before resigning from the army for health reasons. Now, he openly opposes the war. In a new book titled “ZOV” (after the symbols painted on Russian military vehicles), Filatiev offers an inside look at the state of the Russian army in the lead-up to the war and details his experience in the early days of the invasion. The following translated excerpts from his book were first published (in Russian) by the investigative journalism outlet iStories.
On the Russian army in the lead-up to the war
After unsuccessfully rambling and moonlighting in various places, I decided to return to the army [in August of last year]. I received an order to report to a unit [in Crimea]. Ten days later, I was given a uniform, but only a summer one. There were no berets of the right size, so I went and bought berets for myself.
In mid-October, they started handing out demi-season and winter uniforms, but only used ones — and there were no sizes. I refused to accept a used uniform that didn’t fit, which is why my relationship with the command began to deteriorate. After arguing with my company commander, I went and bought myself a pea coat.
We went to the [training] ground for [parachute] jumping. At night, it was below zero and we were driving in uncovered KamAZ trucks. Many of the servicemen didn’t have warm clothes: some hadn’t received any, others refused to accept them. Within a week, about 30 servicemen from my unit were admitted to the infectious diseases unit. Everyone was present at the jumps.
On the ‘military exercises’ before the full-scale invasion
In mid-February, my company was at a training ground in Staryi Krym. I realized that something was definitely brewing — everyone who had been discharged or fallen ill was rounded up and sent to the training ground.
Over the next few days we went to the firing range, where I finally picked up my machine gun. It turned out that my machine gun had a broken belt and was just rusty. On the very first night of shooting, the [cartridge] jammed.
At some point on February 20, the order came for everyone to urgently pack up and move out; there was about to be a forced march to an unknown destination. At that point, everyone was already dirty and exhausted. Some had been living at the training ground for almost a month without any preconditions, everyone’s nerves were on edge, and the atmosphere became increasingly serious and incomprehensible.
On February 23, the division commander arrived and, congratulating us on the holiday [Defender of the Fatherland Day], announced that as of tomorrow the daily wage would be $69. It was a clear sign that something serious was about to happen.
On the first days of the invasion
[On February 24], I woke up at 2:00 in the morning [in the back of a KamAZ truck]. The column was lined up somewhere in the wilderness, and everyone had turned off their engines and headlights. Rocket artillery was operating to the right and left of our column. I couldn’t understand: are we firing at advancing Ukrainians? Or maybe at NATO [forces]? Or are we attacking? Who is this hellish shelling aimed at?
The column slowly began to move. I heard gunfire and explosions from the direction we were going. Where we were going and why wasn’t clear. [But] it was clear that a real war had begun. I [later] found out that [we had] orders to go to Kherson. It became clear that we had attacked Ukraine…We already had wounded and dead [servicemen]. The command had no communications. The commander didn’t understand what was happening.
[On February 28], I learned that someone fired on a civilian vehicle from a BMD cannon. There was a mother and several children in the car. Only one child survived.
On the attack on Kherson
All of our training was only on paper, our technique was hopelessly outdated. We still have the same tactics as our grandfathers! Those who broke through first were destroyed. The guys tell me that there are 50 people left in their brigade.
[When] it started to get dark, the entire team hunkered down. It was very cold. No one had sleeping bags, the frost got into your bones. We didn’t even need the enemy, the command had put us in such conditions — homeless people live better.
[The next day] we arrived at the Kherson seaport. Everyone started to search the buildings for food, water, showers, and a place to sleep. Some began pilfering computers and everything valuable that they could find. I was no exception: I found a hat in a broken down truck and took it.
The offices had a canteen with a kitchen and refrigerators. We, like savages, ate everything that was in there. During the night, we turned everything upside down.
On returning from the front
By mid-April, I had dirt in my eyes due to artillery fire and keratitis had set in. After five days of suffering, at which point [one] eye had already closed shut, I was evacuated. The paramedic who sent me to be evacuated asked me to tell the medical detachment that he didn’t have syringes or painkillers.
We were taken to one of the barracks that was set aside for those who had been discharged from the hospital. There were a hundred people there who had returned from the war and were coming undone after what they had experienced. One stuttered a lot, I saw two people with memory loss, [and] many people there drank heavily, drinking away the money they had earned.
I had to get treatment and buy medicines on my own dime. For two months I tried to get treatment from the army: I went to the prosecutor’s office, I went to the command, to the head of the hospital, and I wrote to the president.
I decided to go through the military-medical board and leave [the army] for health reasons. The command said that I was evading service, and sent documents to the prosecutor’s office to initiate a criminal case. They’re using this bluff to try and send a lot of people back.
On morale in the Russian army
We had no moral right to attack another country, especially the people closest to us. When all of this started, I knew few people who believed in Nazis and, moreover, wanted to fight against Ukraine. We didn’t have hatred and we didn’t think of Ukrainians as enemies.
Most of the army is dissatisfied with what is happening there. [They’re] dissatisfied with the government and their commander, with Putin and his policies, [and] with the defense minister, who isn’t serving in the army.
We have all become hostages of many forces and I believe that we got carried away. We started a terrible war. A war in which cities are destroyed and which leads to the deaths of children, women, and the elderly.