Children of a dictator
I’ve written this text while still on the frontline somewhere in the Kyiv region. For military purposes, I have not mentioned where exactly the Russians were captured and in what unit they served. Also, I don’t know their further fate. Anyway, all this is quite irrelevant; our interaction is the real story I want to share.
For the first time in 19 days of the war so far, a Ukrainian army unit brought prisoners to us. Two Russian privates were taken by Territorial Defense fighters in a nearby village.
(The Territorial Defence Forces are the military reserve component of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. In some cases, we may consider their servicemen an armed militia. We serve in another military unit within the Armed Forces, not the Territorial Defence.)
Two wounded boys wearing “gorka” (typical Russian military suit. First produced for Soviet Troops in Afghanistan) with red identification bands on their arms and legs were brought in. These “aliens from outer space” were not the notorious Buryats (ethnic minority fighters, especially well-known for their participation in the Debaltsevo battle in 2015), but quite “Slavic”-looking young men of 19 years old (born in 2002, according to their passports).
It was necessary to render them first aid, because one young man had arrived with a wound in his buttocks, and the second with shell shock and severe blood loss. I don’t know how they got injured. Our paramedic, a 25-year-old woman, was hard at work bandaging them and jokingly lamenting that she was already sick of them.
She spoke in Ukrainian, so the captives didn’t understand her jokes. (For the readers outside Ukraine – we, Ukrainians, understand and speak both languages, but Russians don’t speak Ukrainian. This is a legacy of the colonial status of Ukraine in the Russian Empire and semi-colonial in the USSR).
The paramedic was dealing with the wounded for about half an hour – we had to give one of them an IV infusion.
In the end, we spent three of our ten blood-stopping agents in short supply on the “denazifiers” (this is how Putin calls the Russian army). We also applied our unique know-how, which you will see only in the Armed Forces of Ukraine – we attached an IV system to a machine gun turret.
The guys were dazed with shock. We asked both of them if they were hungry. The shell-shocked one smoked a cigarette that we gave him. My comrade poured milk into his mouth from a cup, like a humane act, since the Russian soldier said he could not even chew food.
The one with the wounded buttocks named Sasha came to his senses quicker. He chewed on a sandwich and started a lively conversation with us.
I remembered the numerous videos of such “lost soldiers” interrogations by the Ukrainian State Security Service officers. I began to ask (at first, the shell-shocked soldier) a standard set of questions in front of the camera. The shell-shocked fighter told me his full name, where he came from, the name of the unit, when he was drafted, when he entered Ukraine.
So, their hometowns are Yekaterinburg and Novouralsk cities. Their permanent deployment location is Chebarkul’ city in Chelyabinsk region. This is remote, mostly rural Russia with a few industrialized cities. The acting commander of their unit remained there.
This sounded strange to us because in the Ukrainian army the commander will always stay with his unit; he does not hide in a safe place and send his troops to fight on his behalf. But we were not surprised because the Russian leader, Putin, himself is hiding in his bunker 80m underground. The fish rots from the head, as they say.
The picture at first seemed familiar – prisoners kept saying, “we were told that we were deployed to military exercises,” similar to numerous videos of interrogations made by Ukrainian intelligence officers.
By the way, their statement is similar to official claims of Russian authorities, that from April 2021 until February 24, 2022 they’ve been just doing “exercises” lose to Ukrainian borders. After the start of the invasion, Russian TV calls the war a “special military operation” (but not war). Even more, Russian authorities, in an Orwellian manner, prohibited calling war by its name.
Then we asked the soldiers why one of them had a Pecheneg machine gun, and the other had an AK-12 (modern Russian rifle) with live 5.45 rounds. And for more than two weeks, after heavy shellings from the Ukrainian side, they’ve been engaged only in “exercises”? Something was wrong in the first version. So, the more vocal Sasha offered the following (more realistic) version: “We were told that we were here unofficially and that after five days, we would go home. But in the end, we did not go home.”
Just to compare, I can’t imagine the Ukrainian soldiers being sent away for military exercises and then told by commanders to kill in some foreign country. This is because we have no dictatorship in Ukraine.
Then the details of their stay in Ukraine followed. They said they were traveling in an armored troop carrier for about 200 km. In Ukraine, they got under fire, the regiment commander was killed, and the battalion commander was wounded.
They said they had not had direct cell phone contact with their relatives since February 24.
Their commander, a senior platoon sergeant, sent them… to a store to buy bread in the nearby village, providing them with hryvnias (local currency).
This story sounded ridiculous from the very beginning. We didn’t get the answer to why did commanders have local currency or could they have looted it.
“We are not looters! We are not rapists!” the prisoners insisted. And Sasha told a pity-provoking story on how he advised the locals to hide in the basements. I can’t prove if he was honest telling this.
It was on their quest for bread that they had been “captured” by the Territorial Defense.
The guys had their full package of documents with “bonuses” right down to insurance, one U.S. dollar, a flash drive, and a photo of a girlfriend. They never explained in any reasonable way why they had taken all their valuables to the “bread store” (taking one’s valuables and ID docs is a crime punishable in the Russian army by imprisonment). Sasha explained that he stole his documents from the commander and that he was later punished for this.
Why did he still have his documents? Something was wrong with Sasha’s explanation.
With each new phrase, the interrogation spiraled into some kind of extravaganza of black humor.
For example, the more perky Sasha asked me, “How far is it from here to America?”
I asked if he was joking (I couldn’t believe that soldier is so uneducated). Sasha began to explain that his girlfriend was a Russian living in the USA. While staying in Ukraine, he could only communicate with his parents through her, via text message. And that he had had no other connection to his parents since February 24. And he said that “after all this” he wanted to go to his girlfriend in America.
This sounded ridiculous to us.
The second guy also surprised us.
He said, “My wife is from Ukraine.”
“I don’t know.”
“You are married and didn’t ask your wife where she’s from?”
This was yet another very ridiculous and unrealistic story.
The guys are from the middle-of-nowhere in deepest, darkest Russia, and, let me remind you, they weren’t even twenty years old. As a joke, we began to ask the prisoners who Lenin was and on what square in Moscow he was buried. By the way, they didn’t answer the first question, even didn’t try.
They also couldn’t pronounce the correct Ukrainian word “palyanytsya” (bread), which we commonly use to identify Ukrainian native speakers. Russians just pronounce it as a kind of “pa-lya-ni-tsa.” (We asked them just for fun, not to prove they are Russians and not Ukrainians).
Then the conversation turned to propaganda stereotypes.
“Why are you wearing sneakers? Why do you have such crappy foot support in the army?” we asked.
“Because this is Russia, damn it. Your feet will rot in the berets (military Soviet-style shoes)”, Sasha answered. “Everything is fucked up in Russia.” Sasha repeated this maxim several times during the conversation.
“And is the Russian army also fucked up?”
(The point here is that no money reaches the Russian army because of corruption, so all the equipment and everything is shitty).
“We didn’t even have a replacement rifle,” the captive continues. And, looking at the medic’s work: “Wow! We don’t even have a paramedic at our unit. We only have bandages, that’s all.”
“What do you want to tell your loved ones?” I asked.
“That I love them.”
I had the slightest hope that Russian soldiers might want to tell their relatives that the war is not what it seems, Putin had lied to them, they have realized it now. But I could not get the expected call to protest or repent from the young men.
We asked if they were conscripts. It turned out that everything was more complicated – according to their documents, the soldiers were contract soldiers for two years, with a probationary period of 4 months. That is, they could either go to war or to prison if they refused. They had no military ID as such, only an A4 certificate from their unit.
Let me explain the context: before the start of the “special operation” in Ukraine (this is how Russian authorities call total war), the military officials reported to Russian President Vladimir Putin that they would not engage conscripts in combat operations. All this sounds like lies within another lies, because actually, they did and Russian opposition media proved it. By one magic turn, Russian conscripts became contract servicemen, ordered to go to the hell of war.
Conscript soldiers who have been in the service for less than four months can serve on the territory of “other states” (Ukraine too), but their participation in any hostilities is prohibited by the decree of the President of Russia.
Prisoners even compared the salaries in the Russian and Ukrainian armies. Their salary was about $200. Not much at all, compared to the salaries of an ordinary Ukrainian serviceman of around $400.
Next are the quotes that should have been announced to the music of the “Maski Show” (a Russian comedy show from the 90s).
“I am in the same groups as Ukrainians in social media, we used to communicate so normally!” told Sasha. (It appeared like a famous Russian meme about ex-lovers or “lovers in the friendzone” that “used to communicate so normally”).
“You live so luxuriously here! You have asphalted roads in the villages, starting from the very border! We can immediately see the difference! In contrast, just one truck passes along the road in Russia, and the asphalt is wrecked.”
(The context why their statement is so ridiculous: since March 2014, Kremlin propaganda told Russians that Ukraine is in deep crisis, Ukrainians live in poverty and Russia has to “liberate” “the brotherly nation” from the “nationalistic junta” that led to this situation. But in reality, it’s the Russian army that has been leading Ukraine to an economic crisis since February 24, 2022. And simple asphalt on the streets is “luxury” for the guys from remote regions of Russia that came to “liberate” Ukrainians … from whom?).
When asked what Sasha thinks about Putin, he only answered that for his leader “it’s time to retire.”
So we spent time trying to understand the brainwashed Russians, until they were taken away by the intelligence officers. I do not know the further fate of the “brothers.”
(Soviet leaders and Putin used to call Ukrainians and Russians “brother nations.” Of course, as imperialists and colonizers, meaning that Russians are “elder brothers”. All the state politics in the USSR was based on hypocritical and deeply flawed concepts of the “friendship of the nations,” which meant only economic slavery, destruction of Ukrainian culture and language, and the permanent Cheka–GPU–OGPU–NKGB–NKVD–KGB oppressions for Ukrainians).
The ISIS fighters, 95% of whom are brainwashed peasants from Syria and Iraq, and only 5% are fundamentalist maniacs, are an obvious analogy. At least that’s the second-hand accounts I’ve from members of the Kurdistan secret service.
And the Strugatsky brothers, amazing science fiction writers, lived in the homeland of the guys described above. They predicted and described the modern war in two works at once – “Inhabited Island” and “The Kid from Hell.” The latter is about the attempt of the benign people of the future to understand and humanize such descendants of the dictatorship, so accustomed to killing.
Talking to Russian boys, I felt practically inside this outstanding science fiction.
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