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‘My soul is in my own hands’ The case of the first Russian officer charged with a felony for refusing to kill in Ukraine
When 27-year-old Senior Lieutenant Dmitry Vasilets was sent to Ukraine last February, his superiors only told him that he was going to take part in some training maneuvers. He says he was shocked to learn the truth — that Russia was launching a full-scale invasion — but it would take five months for him to get a 15-day leave of absence. Deeply satisfied that he hadn’t killed anyone in his months of service, Vasilets considered his future and refused to return to the combat zone. “I had a choice,” he says, “and I made it.” He now faces felony charges and the prospect of prison time in Russia under a new law that criminalizes disobedience in the Russian military. Meduza summarizes the case against Dmitry Vasilets, based on a longer story published by Novaya Gazeta.
Dmitry Vasilets is an orphan. His mother died when he was three. Ten years later, he also lost his father. “While my father was alive,” he says,
he taught me to do good and to help other people. He really was a role model for me. We had our own house with a vegetable garden and farm animals. Sometimes, I’d be running around with my friends, and he’d show up from the market with a whole lot of watermelons: “Come and bring everybody for a treat!” He gave me so much, and I’m really grateful to him.
Dmitry’s father was a policeman. Dmitry himself graduated from the Suvorov military academy. Later, he went to a military college, graduating with a “red” cum laude diploma that enabled him to choose his own place of future service. Vasilets chose Pechenga, an urban settlement in the north of the Murmansk region and served there for the next four years without a single reprimand. His fellow servicemen in Pechenga still remember him as a person who “followed any order without delay,” always placing service above personal business.
Vasilets was deployed to Ukraine at the very start of Russia’s invasion. His superiors only told him that he would take part in some “training maneuvers,” but he realized what was really happening when he arrived. He was in shock:
I think lots of us imagined that it would be just like Crimea — that everything would happen peacefully. At first, I had this unreal feeling, as if trapped in a video game or a movie.
He says he felt that he couldn’t leave while his fellow troops remained in the combat zone. Still, he was deeply conflicted about where he was and why:
I think of myself as a patriot. I love my country, where I was born and raised. And so, it turned out that the first time I ever went abroad was February, when I went to Ukraine. We have so many wonderful people in Russia, and such an immense history, but these combat operations came to me as a complete shock. I started to ask myself: Why is all this happening?
Vasilets is very firm on the point that he never shot a person in his five months while in Ukraine. Serving at the headquarters, he was sometimes under fire, but never saw actual combat. For the first few months, he says he feared for his life. In May, he learned that two of his close friends in the army had been killed. Both Maxim Belanchik and Aldar Soktoev had been his friends since the very start of his military service four years ago. They died on the same day. After that, Vasilets “stopped thinking about himself” but still wasn’t ready to leave the army.
Instead, he says, he “simply stopped wearing a bulletproof vest.”
Dmitry hoped to be rotated out of the combat zone after a few months, but it took him five months to get a leave of absence. In the 15 days he was given, he visited the graves of his deceased friends, and he met with their families. One of his friends had come from Buryatia, and his parents gave Dmitry a string of mala beads. As he reflected on their present, he realized:
There’s no sense in killing people. This won’t help anything, but will only multiply suffering and destruction, making the situation worse. We should fight the anger within ourselves, instead of the enemy.
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In August, Vasilets signed a report stating his refusal to return to the combat zone. At that time, such an act was only punishable by dishonorable discharge from the army. While his letter made its way through the military bureaucracy, however, President Putin reinstituted the draft, which took away the contract servicemen’s right of discharge at will. Vasilets was once again told to return to the front. On September 28, he repeated his refusal in a new written report. He also filed a lawsuit disputing the order for his return but lost the case in court.
Eight days before Vasilets signed his second report, the State Duma approved legislation criminalizing the refusal to obey military orders. In October, Vasilets faced felony charges and the prospect of three years in prison. One of the key exhibits in the case was his second report, opening with the words: “I, Senior Lieutenant Dmitry Vasilets, am a serviceman in the armed forces of the Russian Federation.” “I would like to draw attention to the fact,” his statement went on, “that I am also a human being and a citizen.”
Dmitry Vasilets became the first Russian citizen to be charged under the amended criminal Article 332, which criminalizes military disobedience in a time of combat operations. The court is yet to consider his case, but another serviceman, prosecuted on the same charges in Kamchatka, was recently sentenced to a year and eight months in a penal colony. Vasilets himself is getting ready for a prison term: “I know I’ll end up in prison. I had a choice, and I made it,” he says, adding:
It’s better to go to prison than to betray yourself and your own humanity. I wouldn’t be able to say to myself, “I was only following orders” because it wouldn’t justify anything. My soul is in my own hands.
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