“We have no right to lose”: Russian volunteers in Donbass refuse to give up


October 10, 2016 – Fort Russ – 

Anna Dolgareva, SP – translated by J. Arnoldski –

In 2014, Donbass was filled with Russian volunteers. This evoked enormous enthusiasm among people. Officially, in August 2014, the number of 3,000-4,000 such volunteers was named. In reality, around 10 times more Russian volunteers have come through Novorossiya.

Volunteer militiamen. Doctors. Humanitarian workers. And not only Russians. Anti-fascists from all over the world came to Donbass. This formed a motley and heterogenous militia including everyone from marginals and desperate tattooed lads who had nothing to lose to intellectuals from St. Petersburg…Most were young and forged the date of birth in their passports so as to not be kicked out, but there were also retirees. There were communists and monarchists. All kinds of different people.

They all probably had one thing in common: a passionate spark and anxiety in the soul that doesn’t allow one to live with violence and injustice. This anxiety drove them into the war, into the thick of it all. 

Then things got complicated when the war gave way to a nasty world. The external, clear, and absolute enemy opted for a second plan. Meanwhile, other problems appeared which were not so clear. Many had left their families behind in Russia and these families called them home. Some considered their work done while some got bored with the new military bureaucracy that replaced the field mess that they had gotten used to. Overall, there were many reasons why people went back. Many, however, returned. But not all. 

Many remained. If you ask why, you hear the most different answers. Some say that things aren’t over. Some say that if they leave, then Kiev will snatch them or kill them. Some say that they can’t go back to civilian life, where there isn’t enough adrenaline. 

For some, it just so happens that their homelands went down the same path as Donbass. For them, leaving Donbass means going back to the past and betraying their own homeland.

I met one such person after a funeral during which a 19-year-old boy, and orphan from Vladivostok, was buried. No one was waiting for him back home, so the battalion buried him. 

He looked young, almost the same age as the buried boy, so I was surprised when he said that he had fought in Transnistria. His call name is “Executioner.” Why? “Because I’m very good,” he said. His smile wasn’t too nice.

He serves as a scout-sapper. He picked up the second speciality during this war in the Debaltsevo operation. He learned on the go. He is from the city of Bendery. 

“Bendery, not Bandera,” he said just in case with the same smile.

We talked about the two wars, how they’re similar, and how they differ. Executioner believes that they are generally similar.

“The difference is probably borders. Here we share a border with Russia and this, of course, strongly reflects itself in the economy and politics. But this is the only difference. All the rest is one and the same.”

Here we can’t help but recall how the Russian singer and novelist Evgeny Lukin came to Donetsk after the war in Transnistria. The people of Donbass cried upon hearing his songs. Not a single word lost its relevance.

Executioner recounted: “Here they also hit the civilian population. Here they also let criminals out of prisons and drove them into the army, just as it was in Moldova. They’re also killing civilians here. I remember when they killed a woman in front of me on the street. They shot her. 

I ask: “But why? In war, it is easy to imagine how they can ‘accidentally’ light up a home or garden with a Grad, but to just shoot someone? A civilian? Purposefully? Why?”

He shrugged his shoulders and said: “Probably to show their strength. Force decides everything. Here it’s the same. They show their strength by shooting civilians.” He says this firmly with no posturing, no demonstrative expressions. His voice is calm, quiet. He has very beautiful dark eyes, like cherries.

He continues: “Here it’s been the same, especially at the end of 2014 and in early 2015. Two months ago in Granitny, for example, they hanged people. Just hanged them on trees. I don’t know if with a show or not. In Debaltsevo, they poisoned the wells. A man in civilian clothes came to the well and dumped poison down there. Well, then they were already retreating. He was captured later and, of course, he turned out to be no civilian.”

I ask if this is true. He says yes, that the man had got himself poisoned too.

“Another difference is that there were no Grad’s there [in Transnistria].” Only in the end when General Lebed came in did they shoot Grad’s…and that’s it. And then peace. But here it’s right up and personal – Grad’s, mortars. In Transnistria, we immediately took control over some factories, including military ones. We didn’t really use them, sure, because we couldn’t fight. But then the Russians helped,” Executioner said.

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I say: “But here in the beginning there were also people who couldn’t fight.”

He replied: Yes. Same situation. Russian volunteers helped, showed, and taught us.”

Executioner is also such a volunteer, but not from Russia. He’s from another unrecognized republic. He arrived at the end of 2014, first in Lugansk.

He went on: “They asked me where I wanted to go. I said: where the real heat is! And they sent me first to Donetsk, and then to a distribution point. They put me through drills, asked questions, and then took me into intelligence.” 

Then they sent him to Debaltsevo. It was fun he says, not boring. The connection was blurry, as units were often on their own without any contact with other forces. But they still pulled through those fights and won.

He recalls: “Oh, how the civilians greeted us!…I didn’t have time to move before people hugged me on the streets. Seriously, there was great joy.”

He says that Donbass also has a future, as does Transnistria. So it seems.

“Yes, there will be [a future] like we have one. There [in Transnistria], of course, it’s very peaceful, but there are serious troops there. In Moldova there stand NATO troops with relevant weapons. For example: powerful missiles with a range of up to thousands of kilometers. But it’s quiet, there is no war.”

Here all sorts of people are fighting. And they fight for different things.

For example, Executioner, with his soft voice, beautiful eyes, and eerie codename, came to fight because he couldn’t resist doing otherwise, because he had already seen what they do to Russians according to might makes right, asserting their strength.

But this force is opposed now by another, living force made up of such people as this volunteer.

The militia has changed a lot compared to 2014. The days of Cossack freemen has passed, and now there’s an army. Some approve of this, other’s don’t. In the beginning, they fought almost on naked enthusiasm. They spent their savings on weapons, like Lesha Chekist, the commander of the Patriot battalion, a successful businessman who spent 3 million on his men in 2014. And he is not the only one.

Many people did humanitarian work – many people in Russia who are also sometimes the ones to make sacrifices. The army didn’t have another source of funding, because there was virtually no army. There were passionate people, a popular wave, who exploded and changed the course of history.

Now there’s a different situation here. State-building is underway. There are virtually no “free” units left. All of them are now subjugated to the command of the People’s Militia, and are funded by this command. 

Ordinary fighters receive on average around 15,000 rubles a month, while officers receive 30,000-40,000. This, in fact, is a lot for the DPR and especially for the LPR. In 2015, there was an influx of local volunteers who joined the armed forces because of a lack of money. Then they dropped out. First it turned out that the army is not a passive job. Secondly, the situation in the civilian sector began to rectify itself. For volunteers from Russia, we can say frankly, the numbers were not very high. Ukrainian media articles that paint things like Russians went to Donbass for big money evoke chuckles here.

As before, the main driving force is enthusiasm. 

Sure, a lot has changed. The initial wave, of course, has subsided. This is the nature of such waves. They simply don’t last too long. And more than a few are unhappy that Donbass didn’t join Russia and that the authorities are trying to observe the Minsk Agreements, which almost no one accepts. There are a lot of controversial processes, hence all the dismay. Those who can’t handle this, of course, go back home.

But some understand: if not them, then who else?

They’ve already lost hope for the magic wand to be waved and Russian soldiers to enter Donbass. The main resource of this war is people – enthusiasts, passionate people, revolutionaries. These people are not giving up, are not leaving, but are hanging in there. And this is very difficult, first and foremost psychologically, in such circumstances as now in which there is no peace, but no war. But they are hanging there.

This means that we have no right to lose. 

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