‘My case is far from unique’ How Russian activist Pyotr Verzilov left filmmaking behind and joined the Ukrainian army
Pyotr Verzilov, a member of Pussy Riot and one of the founders of Mediazona, went to Ukraine at the beginning of the full-scale invasion to shoot a documentary. He ended up joining the army and fighting for Ukraine. Verzilov recently gave an interview to Russian YouTuber Yuri Dud in which he talked about his personal experiences, his relationship with the Ukrainian army, and what he’s seen in Ukraine. Meduza is publishing excerpts of the interview, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Verzilov on how he ended up in the war
Probably from the first day, my close friend Beau Willimon, the creator of “House of Cards” on Netflix, and I were calling each other and talking about the fact that, of course, we needed to be in Ukraine as soon as possible. Because, first of all, we wanted to understand how we could make ourselves useful in the unfolding tragedy, what we could do in this situation. We thought it was very important [to be able] to document what was happening. And I think somewhere around the fourth or fifth day after the full-scale invasion began, we were already in Poland, and a day later we were in Ukraine, in the west.
When asked if it's true that he’s now in Ukraine not as a documentary filmmaker, but as a soldier, Verzilov replied, "It’s true.”
We’re still working on the film; most of the work is finished. About 60-70%. We’re still going to finish it, but, of course, it’s now a side task for me, it’s very much on the back burner. And it’s clear that now my role, my contribution, is of a completely different nature.
On how he ended up in the Ukrainian army
My case is far from unique. There are a lot of Russian citizens in the Ukrainian army who fight on Ukraine’s side and perform different functions within Ukraine’s various defense forces. For security reasons, each case is unique. A decision is made regarding each person on whether or not he can do the role he is applying for. My personal history was very well known to the commanders, to the political leadership of Ukraine, so they had no such doubts about me. And as for the inspections that took place, their purpose was to make sure that the tasks that we discussed would be set and carried out.
On how many times he could have died
A fairly infinite number of times. In the summer of 2022, when there were still things to do for the film, I’d already had lots [of near-death experiences]. There was an operation to defend one small village to the south of Bakhmut, and, while moving through this village, there was a particularly intense shelling. One of the missiles hit a house next to the cellar where we were sheltering. Since the cellar we were in was very rickety, it was [clear] that if the shell had hit a meter and a half (about five feet) to the right, there would’ve hardly been anything left of us. We would’ve simply been buried under a mixture of concrete, canned cucumbers, compotes, shelves, wood, stones, shrapnel, and whatever else would have fallen from above. The shell hit the house next door — there was a very strong blast wave, and everything fell to the ground, the cabinets collapsed, but the ceiling of the cellar remained intact.
We were coming out of a multi-story residential building in Bakhmut at the end of Tchaikovsky Street. About 150 meters (about 500 feet) away from where the Wagner [Group] positions were. We were doing reconnaissance in this building, trying to figure out Wagner’s movements. Urban development gives you the advantage of different buildings for surveillance and operations like this. We’d finished, and it was clear that Wagner had started another offensive operation at that moment because there was increased artillery fire from different sides, as well as mortars and indications that they would try to cross the railroad and end up not 150 meters but more like 60 meters (about 200 feet) away from our guys.
We went down to the first floor of this building, came out the entrance, began to head far down Tchaikovsky Street, and I heard a strange sound — shh, shh, shh — and a deafening explosion. I turned around — it was a very cinematic moment — and I saw a shell hit the entrance we were in about three or four seconds ago, and part of the entrance fell down. We sped up, started moving faster.
We switched to running, and in three seconds, the next projectile arrived exactly where we’d been three seconds ago. After another three seconds, exactly the same thing happened again. On the third hit, we all realized the chain of events: a Russian reconnaissance drone saw our group moving, saw us leaving this entranceway, and was now trying to adjust its fire on us in real time. That lasted another 15 seconds, there were another two, three, four, probably, such hits with a clear interval of three seconds. After that, we hid behind the corner of a big building, and apparently, the spotter lost us. And this particular shelling stopped. It was a very interesting feeling.
On if he’s killed people in the war
War is one big slaughter by both sides. That’s not a personal question. If I answer in a personal capacity, no. Killing people is when you walk up and shoot them in the head or some part of their body.
Military action involves killing. One army kills the other army, and vice versa. It's all one thing, if you can use the word “killing” in relation to that... I guess you can. Because that’s exactly what happens. In modern warfare, if you’re not involved in assault or defense within a specific trench, where you’ve reached a particular trench on foot or gotten out of armored vehicles and are moving forward to take a particular position… And when advancing on a particular position or, conversely, defending the position from soldiers who are advancing, you will shoot. But in general, this happens very rarely, because it’s just a type of engagement that is quite rare in modern warfare. You can take an active part in combat and use small arms quite rarely. And a lot of people who take part in combat operations, they have a large number of other functions — they’re mortar operators, artillerymen, recon and intelligence, headquarters coordinators on the line of contact.
On whether people with far-right views are fighting for Ukraine
They are, yes. During a war, different ideological views and disagreements become secondary; they simply become irrelevant if they don’t come up in war and don’t get in the way of your relationships and combat operations. More important than that is what a person thinks about a war of aggression, about Russia’s role in it, about how and who one should be in this situation, and in general, what’s human in the situation of this war. The answers to these questions are much more important than what ideological bent you have — right or left.
On the Azov regiment
I don’t consider it important or interesting to examine history and everything that happened before the big war. It’s simply irrelevant to what’s happening now. In any case, we saw that Azov turned out to be one of the worthiest and best [regiments] in terms of heroism, in terms of the ability to organize a defense, in terms of personal courage in the Ukrainian army.
What Azov did during the defense of Mariupol from March to May 2022 is really such a great military feat that people of very great human courage and heroism were able to accomplish. What kind of tattoos someone has, how they look… this all recedes far into the background.
On the Bucha massacres
Probably the most important pictures of this war are the pictures of Bucha, of murdered civilians on the main streets — with their hands tied. They’re already some of the most important shots in world history, not only of this war. And the photos showing Russia, the Russian state, the Russian army. At that moment, the bodies had already been removed from the streets, but the investigators were digging up new mass graves every day in different parts of Bucha. And on the day we arrived there, yet another new mass grave was being exhumed near the church.
At first, we found one mass grave — a giant pit, which the Russian soldiers dug and where they then dumped all the bodies of people killed during the occupation of Bucha. And then it turned out that with that pit, there was another giant pit that was also filled with bodies. These were such huge pits that they needed machinery to excavate them. Excavators removed the first layer of dirt from these pits, and there were so many bodies in there that it took machines to pull the bodies out of the pit and lay them in the clearing in front of the church for identification. When we got there, they were pulling the bodies out. And because there were hundreds of bodies, the smell of decomposing flesh just filled that whole neighborhood.