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A Russian soldier in Ukraine

Between the enemy and a pit One Russian soldier talks about life on the front lines in Ukraine

Source: iStories
A Russian soldier in Ukraine
A Russian soldier in Ukraine
Stanislav Krasilnikov / Sputnik Russia / Scanpix / LETA

A volunteer Russian soldier, who spent a year at war in Ukraine, spoke to the independent news outlet iStories about his experiences on condition of anonymity. He told the publication why he joined the army, what kinds of punishments disobedient soldiers face on the front lines, how he lost acquaintances to friendly fire, and what life is like for him after war. Meduza is publishing an English translation of his account

On ending up in the war

I volunteered to join the [Russian] army in August 2022 and signed a short-term [four-month] contract. In the end, I served for almost a year: 11 months, seven of which I spent in combat positions, where the enemy’s close and there’s constant shelling.

I didn’t go to war for any ideological reasons; I’d just wanted to see military action since I was a kid. I grew up on cool books about special forces and war, and I wanted to experience it firsthand. So that if someone was boasting about his own exploits, I could say, “Listen bro, why are you telling me? I’ve seen it all too.”

I knew this war had started all because one Botoxed-up guy felt like an emperor. You might wonder how I can call myself a liberal and still go to war, how it fits with my views. But 99 percent of the people I was with were volunteers, and they easily called Putin a fucking cunt. The blindly patriotic sentiments are only really somewhere in the rear. On the front lines, [they only last] until the first shell hits. Those who spent months at the front all wished each other the chance to get out of there and never return.

On learning from Azov

I knew that the Russian army was a pretty stupid place, but at the time, I thought that once there was military action, once there was mobilization, things would somehow improve. It turned out that the Defense Ministry likes to talk a good talk about our powerful army, but in reality, [the people there] fucked up royally.

I hadn’t served in the army before. We got two weeks of training before they sent us to the front. I had some theoretical knowledge: I’d read manuals, studied mine warfare operations, how to shoot, how to dig trenches. One day, the commander asked me, “You say you weren’t in the army, so how do you know about explosives?” Well, you can read about it in a book, and there’s the Internet now. The main stuff, about various weapon types, I learned from the Ukrainian Azov YouTube channel; they explained everything very well, and they had instructional materials. There’s nothing like that on Russian YouTube.

On September 2, we crossed the border [into Ukraine] and immediately ended up near Kherson. When we got there, the commander asked us, “Do you have sleeping bags?” We said, “No.” “Why not? Didn't you know where you were going?” “Should we have brought our own guns too?” I asked. At first, they laughed. But when they issued us jackets, they were nearly size 60 [XXL], and two of us could easily fit in one. Five of us spent the first night huddled together on these jackets in the cold. I saw it all with my own eyes and I was horrified. I can’t fathom how this can be the second greatest army in the world. So, what does the third greatest army in the world look like then? Do they use bows and spears and throw rocks at each other while running around in sweatpants?

Bribes in the Russian army

‘We bought our lives’ Russian soldiers are reportedly bribing their superiors to avoid combat

Bribes in the Russian army

‘We bought our lives’ Russian soldiers are reportedly bribing their superiors to avoid combat

On losses from friendly fire

The first death I saw was that of my good friend, who arrived with me — and he was killed by our own. Our unit was split in half, and one part went to storm a Ukrainian stronghold. They seemed to have captured it, but they took a really bad fucking beating: two people died, and the rest came back either wounded or concussed. They were returning, it was early morning, still dark, and my friend was running towards us across the field, shouting, “Chebarkul! Chebarkul!” [to indicate his affiliation with the unit], and the guy on guard just panicked and shot him. He died from stupid wounds: one in the thigh and another in the bladder.

There was also a guy with us who kept asking all the time, “How do you fire a grenade launcher?” In the end, he fired it, the blast ripped his arm off, and he died. At one point, our fellow soldiers were throwing grenades nearby, and the fragments were flying into our dugout, into our observation post.

And there was one sniper who came to us and said, “I’m turning 24 today, [so] I’ll kill 24 khokhols [a derogatory Russian term for Ukrainians].” We were like, “What are you talking about? As soon as they realize there’s a sniper here, they’ll just rain down mortars and artillery on us and level this place to the ground.” But he felt so confident, like he was at a shooting range. These idiots, this overconfidence, incompetence, and lack of professional skills led to many deaths.

One draftee died in a very odd way. He dug a mega-trench — so large you could hold a dance party in it. Of course, they spotted him and started shelling. We ran to pull him out. He was covered in blood, completely mangled. He didn’t make it. Several guys also died because they simply couldn’t be bothered to dig trenches or dug some fancy, wide ones that were easy to hit. That kind of thing accounts for most of the losses — just stupidity.

On retreating from the Dnipro River’s western bank

We stayed on the Kherson front until November [in fall 2022, Russian forces withdrew from the western bank of the Dnipro River after a major Ukrainian offensive]. We were some of the last to leave the western bank. Of course we were running away. When they announced that we were “regrouping,” we were relieved to finally get out. We were already exhausted after a month and a half there, and they couldn't deliver any ammunition to us because all the bridges and pontoons were being shelled.

During the retreat, we lost equipment [Russia’s Defense Ministry denied this] — we destroyed it ourselves. When we were retreating, some of our guys lost a Kornet [anti-tank missile system], and we blew up one damaged tank [to prevent it from falling into Ukrainian hands]. Basically, the retreat went like this: We sat in our vehicles waiting for them to tell us we could go. Not in trenches, not in bunkers. We sat for about 40 minutes — and time moves very slowly in moments like this. Can you imagine what risks they exposed us to?

substance abuse in the Russian army

Bath salts, overdoses, and drug mules The prevalence of substance abuse among Russian soldiers on the front lines

substance abuse in the Russian army

Bath salts, overdoses, and drug mules The prevalence of substance abuse among Russian soldiers on the front lines

On ‘torture pits’ and violence in the military

Then, they transferred us to the Luhansk region. My contract expired in December. When I went to find out what was happening with my discharge, the commander started berating me, saying, “What leave? What discharge? Go fight, son!” I was so disgusted by this inhumane treatment that I just went into the woods without a sleeping bag, bought some vodka, salo [cured pork fat], and spent two nights out there. That’s when I started having thoughts: “I'll go on leave and never return. I’d rather live in the woods, dig a shelter, it’s nothing new to me.”

In the rear camp in Shulhynka [a village in the Luhansk region], there was a pit where they put soldiers for various offenses: being drunk, disobeying orders, being rude to officers. Everyone drank there; you don’t need to be smart to come up with something interesting — just go to town, buy a few kilograms of sugar, water, and yeast, and you can make alcohol.

Three people I know ended up in this pit. They usually kept them there for a day or two. They beat them based on how they acted. If they were drunk, they’d just be led away, unable to resist, maybe given a kick in the knee. But if someone made a scene, they’d be severely beaten: in the face and kidneys.

These pits in the rear camps are somewhat tolerable; in the army, there’s something called a “punishment cell,” which is comparable. But on the front lines, there’s lawlessness. When we were relocated to a position near Dibrova [another village in the Luhansk region], a large group of us refused to fight. Personally, I wasn’t granted leave, and also my legs started seizing up because of too much alcohol consumption and I wasn't given any medication. Our commander called us in and asked us, “What’s the deal, what are you unhappy with?” Then he just fed us a load of crap and promised to fix everything, but as punishment, he sent us to the very front lines — where the enemy was just 150 meters (about 500 feet) away. You could see all their movements with the naked eye. And literally 150 meters behind us, there was a pit — right on the line of contact. Sitting in it, you could hear the explosions. People who completely refused to obey orders were dealt with harshly. I went to get water and saw them leading a guy to the pit, his eyes were covered with tape and his hands were tied behind his back — not a Ukrainian prisoner of war, but one of our own soldiers. About seven people were sent to this pit while I was there.

A sort of internal military police force developed there, made up of servicemen who regulated everything. In war, there are always those rat-like people who know that if they do whatever the commander says, they’ll get privileges for it. They’d run to get food for the officers, some officers shit in buckets in the dugouts, and they’d carry it out. They beat people, tied them to trees. One of these guys was in charge of this pit, and he would throw anyone disobedient in there (mainly when they’d disobeyed officers’ high-handed orders). Naturally, people were severely beaten. My good friend, pardon the expression, even shit himself, that’s how badly he was beaten. He ended up there because he started protesting: he’d served for over a year and had never been granted leave. After all of this, he became disillusioned. He said, “It's better not to join the army, it’s better not to have anything to do with the government at all.”

They’d throw a grenade fuse into the pit — it’s what you screw into a grenade, it makes a loud pop, like a big firecracker. But if you're in the pit, it’s very scary: you’re already beaten and mentally broken.

More on the ‘torture pits’

On spending a year at war

When I first got my leave, I decided to make a run for it and left the country through Go by the Forest [an organization that helps Russians avoid participating in the war]. The first reason was because of the inhumane treatment from the leadership. The second reason was that I’d been under artillery fire for 11 months, and while I’d stayed alive and intact with just a couple of concussions, I understood that my luck might run out one day. And the third reason was that I realized that the war was wrong.

While I was still in Russia, my ex-wife called me and asked, “Why are you drinking all day long?” Honestly, that's exactly what I was doing; I didn't go anywhere, just rented an apartment, sat there, and drank. In response, I simply sent her a photo: “Out of these six, only two are alive.” At first, she wrote, “Do you mean sober?” Then she immediately deleted the message; she understood everything.

I have the phone of a Ukrainian soldier. I didn't kill him; he died from artillery fire. And when I came home, I called his daughter and said, “Unfortunately, your father passed away.” She kept asking why I was doing this. You know, there are people who find the phone numbers of Ukrainian soldiers and say all kinds of nasty things to their relatives. That’s disgusting. But I have soldierly solidarity; you can’t fight death. We even buried them, put up crosses. A Russian paratrooper is buried there too; for some reason, his body was left behind during the retreat.

When I came back [from the war], the fear stayed. There are psychological problems after all that. At first, when I walked around the city, I was constantly looking for a place to take cover if something happened or a building nearby where I could run. Or unevenness on the road, like a wheel rut where you could hide in case of shelling. I walked around thinking, “I could run here… I could take up a position here…”

Back in the war, when it was New Year’s, one guy [a fellow soldier] was sitting drunk and watching the movie Chistilishche [“Purgatory,” a Russian war drama with brutal scenes of violence, based on the events of the First Chechen War]. I saw it out of the corner of my eye and asked, “Didn’t you get enough of this here?” I don’t watch war movies now. I play World of Tanks, but I don’t watch war movies. Everything starts coming back to me.

I don’t even feel like talking to friends from the front anymore because it’s always just bad news — this one died, that one died. Recently, I couldn't take it and just got completely drunk. I drank for three days, and I was fired from my job.

Go by the Forest provided me with a free psychologist, and things got easier. I’ve come to terms with it: I wanted [to experience war], and I got to, so there’s no need to cry about it. I’ve always had this attitude about it: “I went there myself, signed the contract myself, got myself into this situation. I understand [it’s different for] draftees — they were sitting at home, eating pelmeni, got a summons, and were sent to the front, so I feel sorry for them. But I chose this myself.”

Now, of course, I wouldn’t go [to war] again. At first, I would think to myself, “I should go back.” Especially when things are difficult in a new country — not knowing where to live, where to work — you sit there and think: “Everything is easy [at war]. They give you a shovel, you dig a trench, and you sit there.” But then you get this image in your head: the first incoming mortar shell. You know, there are coaches who teach you about life. Well, mortar shelling’s the best coach.

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Interview by Sonya Savina for iStories

Translation by Emily ShawRuss

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