Anna Goes Ukraine: The Soldier

9 April 2023

Anna Bowles is a pro-Ukrainian activist from the UK, and from 23 March to 6 April she is in East and South Ukraine, with her friends from the Freefilmers NGO, interviewing local people – especially women in rural communities – about their experiences and survival strategies. Anna is blogging about her trip here – we are also republishing some of her blogs on Rights in Russia, but please also visit Anna’s site. You can donate here to support the people Anna meets.

The Soldier

This post contains potentially distressing content.

The last interview I conducted was with Veta, a friend of Maria and Denys and a dobrovolytsia (masculine: dobrovolets), or military volunteer. This is distinct from a regular volunteer, who does civilian work such as driving supplies to frontline communities, and a soldier, who is a paid member of the army. Dobrovoltsi do support work, away from the front lines and immediate danger, but explicitly military in nature.

I’d arrived in Kyiv that morning on the sleeper train from Zaporizhzhia, where I was predictably woken up by a soldier doing his best to enter the coupe and climbing onto his bunk when we stopped at who-knows-where around 2 a.m. He did his best to be quiet, but I hadn’t managed to get back to sleep. So I was glad to park my gently ageing Western self on the sofa Maria and Denys’ flat and let them make me coffee.

The concept of a friend’s flat is often more complicated in wartime Ukraine than in the West. Maria and Denys were able to rent their Kyiv flat due to a grant they had received from a previous job, and it was beautifully furnished, with heavy oak wardrobes, comfortable chairs, a gleaming kitchen and a huge wall TV. But it wasn’t not their style at all. There were few signs of their artistic identity except for Maria’s work desk in the bedroom and Denys’ digital editing set-up on the dining table.

They were set to move back to Zaporizhzhia in two days’ time, which was why they had been there the previous week, to check out a new place. The east is home, and Maria prefers a town with fewer crowds and larger open spaces. But ‘new place’ doesn’t mean a fresh rental. People fleeing the occupied territories are homeless, and their friends in the safer parts of Ukraine who have gone abroad or to the sleepier corners of the country have left their city flats unoccupied but full of belongings. So the way to make the best of a bad job is often to give your flat over to your friends from the east, who will look after it. Maria and Denys’ latest home is the flat of Kseniya, the artist I met in Uzhgorod, who moved there because it’s one of the safest places in the country. Maria hopes she and Denys will be happier in an artist’s flat, which is smaller but full of Kseniya’s creations, than in a larger flat in the capital.

I sat at one end of the sofa with my laptop, and Veta sat cross-legged at the other. It was clear right away that I’d encountered my most fiercely determined Ukrainian yet. She was small, steely, sometimes smiley, and dressed in the most in-your-face ‘Russian warship fuck off’ top I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen quite a few now): the Moskva printed on it was foundering in a sea of blood. She was very keen to be interviewed, as she wants to increase awareness of women in the army and the sexism they still encounter.

Veta’s heart and soul are in the fight against Russia, like all the Ukrainians I’ve met, but she has even more reason than most. Until 2014, when she was twenty years old, she lived peacefully in the town of Avdiivka in Donetsk oblast. ‘I lived with my mother and grandmother, and we had a comfortable flat. I wanted to stay,’ she explained. ‘There was nowhere to work except the coke plant, but the town was quietly growing because of EU money for repairs. And we were just half an hour from the centre of Donetsk. I went there in the morning to study and work, then came home in the evening. Almost all young people did that.’

Veta showed me the location of Avdiivka on a map on her phone. Then she slashed across the screen with her finger, a line between her hometown and Donetsk. ‘And then in 2014 this became the border of free Ukraine and the DPR. For nine years, it was the front line. Without Donetsk, Avdiivka was just a little town that was fading away.’ And there were worse problems, too. ‘In 2015 there was very serious shelling in Avdiivka. There was a quiet period after the signing of the Minsk accords. But civilians like tractor drivers were getting blown up by mines in the fields all the time. People kept dying.’

So Veta moved to the coastal town of Mariupol, which she loved. ‘A lot of immigrants from Donetsk ended up there. It was small, but growing fast. The transport was good, there were parks. I especially loved living by the sea.’

Those words reminded me of something Maria had told me about life in Mariupol: that the locals used to say they loved their town, only it would be better if the huge, ugly Azovstal steelworks was bombed out. Mariupol people often appreciate black humour, especially now.

Everyone knows what happened in February 2022 now. At least some locals were able to psychologically prepare this time. ‘The attack on Avdiivka was a surprise to everyone. But two months before 24 February the Americans had been telling us that Russia was getting ready to attack, and there were lots of soldiers at the border. But we thought about different ways things might unfold. And the worst possibility was the one that happened.’

Veta held out for a while. ‘During the siege I lived in one of the less dangerous – well, they were all dangerous – but the less shelled areas. We didn’t have a cellar but our flat was on the ground floor and we slept in the corridor. The centre was shelled most. But then it started on my street. It was mostly planes flying along, bombers. The day we left, we came under air bombardment.’

Veta left Mariupol on 17 March. Unusually, her flat there is still intact, though it’s almost certainly been looted by this point. As for Avdiivka, though: ‘My flat there was bombed out, not long ago. Since 24 February, Avdiivka has been almost entirely destroyed.’

At the age of 29, Veta has lost her home twice. All her adult life, she has been doing what she can to oppose the war. ‘When this started in 2014, Ukrainians split into those who support Russia, and those who support Ukraine. I was already working as a journalist in Donetsk. I went to all the pro-Russian meetings there, and I saw with my own eyes how Donetsk became Russia.

‘Russians and Ukrainians are very different kinds of people, mentally. Russians have learned to put up with suffering: Orthodoxy tells you you just have to bear things all your life, and all will be well. They value stability, having enough things; freedom isn’t on the list. But Ukrainians value that most of all. We have a lot of bad politicians, but as a result of that we value freedom.’

So Veta became a dobrovolytsia, but how did she go about it? ‘You have to have contacts!’ she laughed. ‘Well, it’s illegal to do it that way, but it constantly happens because people are needed. In Ukraine, we’re used to the idea that everyone fights in some way. Everyone wants to take part in the war, to do our bit. It’s a shared grief for the entire country.’

But she explained that dobrovoltsi don’t go to the front line. ‘In any case, my work needs to be done in the safe zone – that’s the area as far as you can get from the front line while still technically fighting – because I’m constantly on the phone. I work at a command post for drone pilots, sitting at a computer following what’s going on and where. Say a pilot’s flying over a hill, we’re in touch on the phone and I tell him where to fly, what to look at. For example, we look together for military supplies, to see what roads the Russians are using, where there are build-ups of enemy troops. Or if we find enemy tech, it’s my job to find free artillery who can get to that place. We direct their fire – and off they go.’

However, this sedentary work, of the kind to which women are usually assigned, isn’t what Veta really wants. ‘I’m in the process of looking for a battalion [i.e. a fighting group such as Azov or Kara-Dag]. But it’s harder for a woman to get in. If they’ve got medical education they are allocated to work as medics – there’s a lot of them – but the battalions are reluctant to take women on. I have female friends in the army, but they are in staff buildings working with documents, or they’re medics. There are female soldiers at the front, but very few of them.’ A recent report from Reuters states that only 2.5% of battalion soldiers are female.

‘It’s sexism. The idea is that if a woman dies in the infantry people will be sadder about it than they are about a man. I find this strange! But that’s how the army look at it. When people say there’s a large proportion of women in our army, that’s true, but women sit in offices in the safe zone. I want to get into a battalion.’

Do the men around her accept this? To a degree. ‘They regard women as part of the structure. If a woman does her job they respect her and behave like gentlemen. When a woman turns up she gets a lot of attention. Everyone invites her to drink coffee with them, and hang out. But they don’t overstep boundaries. It’s chivalry, though. They all look after the women: you mustn’t carry heavy things, like a normal pack, and they don’t want women to join battalions.

‘One reason I want to join the army is to change attitudes. To get people used to women in the field and the barracks, so men just see us as soldiers. I think the full-scale invasion is speeding up the changes; for example since 2014 there’s been an organisation that helps you get uniforms which are tailored for women. There are more of us in the intelligence service. And women in the army talk about it on social media. Still, men are called up, and women aren’t. We have to go of our own accord: say, take me, I want to do it.’

Not all men want to go, of course. In the West there’s a lot of coverage of Russia’s huge mobilisation. Ukraine has always had conscription for men, but now there’s mobilisation as well, just not on quite the same scale. Sometimes the process can be almost random; there are reports of soldiers boarding urban buses and serving conscription papers to all the male passengers of eligible age. But people tend to accept this as a harsh necessity.

Veta said, ‘There are a lot of people who are scared, who don’t want to fight. I know men who wanted to go to the war, and some who were conscripted involuntarily. A lot of men, including some of my friends, don’t even go out because they’re so afraid to be conscripted. I don’t judge anyone, but I tell them, teach yourself not to be scared. Russia’s population is three times bigger than ours so it will come to you anyway, at some point, because we have to win the war. Better to learn how not to be afraid now.

‘Even if a man is in poor shape he might be called up for work other than fighting. For example, you can’t drink in a military unit, but alcoholics might be called up to dig trenches. That’s work they can do without harming anyone. Everyone is called up because everyone is needed.’

Unlike the British army, the Ukrainian army includes battalions with individual identities, for example the famous Azov regiment which held out against the invaders in Azovstal steelworks for many weeks during spring 2022. Veta elaborated, ‘Each battalion has its own name, and they advertise, to motivate people to join them. If you want to join up as a full soldier, you go to the military recruitment office (MRO), or if you have friends or contacts in a particular battalion, you can sign a contract direct.’

And that’s what Veta hoped to do. ‘My current work is interesting. It’s very important. I like to watch Russian soldiers die.’ She grinned. ‘It lifts my mood. But dobrovoltsi don’t go to the front line. And, to put it bluntly, that’s where I’m going.

‘There are a lot of people who want to join the army but are afraid to shoot. I want to free up my place in front of the screen in the bunker for one of them. I’ll go on ahead, because I’m not afraid to do so.’

So she’s not afraid to die? ‘Well, probably everyone is afraid to die. I just, I already have a lot of experience of living with all kinds of shelling. I was in the siege of Mariupol, and in 2014 I was in Avdiivka under shelling for a few days before our army chased the DPR out.’

‘I want to kill Russians.’ she stated, matter-of-fact. ‘Russia has ruined my life twice. In 2014, when I had to move and start from scratch, and in 2022. I had to come here with nothing, and start over once again. I have my health, I have no family, my parents live somewhere safe, so I can allow myself to go and fight Russia.

‘I worked as a civilian journalist for nine years and we published a lot of articles combating Russian propaganda, about the life of IDPs, about the effects of the war. But that didn’t make me happy, or achieve much, because full-scale war started anyway. Physical unity is important now, to win the war. To win the war, you need lots of soldiers.’

How do her family feel about this? ‘Of course, my mother worries. So far I’ve only told her I’m a dobrovolytsia. Obviously she won’t say, “Yes, yes, go to the war!” But she knows me and my character, and it’s not up to her whether I go or not.’

If Veta is killed while fighting as a full-scale soldier, at least her family will receive financial compensation; the families of dobrovoltsi don’t.

Ukrainians don’t talk about what will happen ‘if we win’, they say ‘after the victory’. Veta is just as convinced and yet pragmatic about the future as the rest. ‘It’s absolutely possible to beat Russia. Ukrainians fight so hard, and are so motivated. If we felt it was an unrealistic idea, we wouldn’t win.

‘Then there will still be a lot of problems in Ukraine, not just with mental health but with a political crisis. Anything and everything. Well, first we’ll win and then we’ll deal with the rest. For myself, I probably won’t go back to being a journalist. I think it will still be necessary to defend the country so I want a military career.

‘Russia needs to break up into small pieces, and I think that might happen. For example, there could be national republics in the Caucasus. People there have a different religion, and they don’t like what the Russians are doing. And the Russians don’t like them. Sooner or later, there will be nationalist movements inside Russia. We’ll see what happens to the Russian regime when we win.’

Britain has been among Ukraine’s first and strongest supporters, causing me to feel twinges of national pride, which as a left-leaning Brit is not something I’m accustomed to. Around Zaporizhzhia I saw a lot of appeals to finance the supply of military drones (often in the form of businesses who would contribute a portion of the profit towards military drones if you shopped or ate there, so there was a tiny bit of self-interest, but mostly public spirit). So I thought drones must be what the army needed most from allies, but Veta disagreed. ‘It’s ammo! Drones are needed, and it’s easy to lose them, but ammo is in first place. But we need everything. Guns, howitzers.’

To Westerners who think we should supply humanitarian aid but not weaponry, Veta had a familiar, clear message: ‘Without weapons, the war will never end… Well, it will end, but badly for Ukraine! Humanitarian aid doesn’t help us fix the main problem. Russia is an imperialist engine and it needs a smack in the teeth. After Ukraine wins wins, we can go back to the question of, for example, stabilising the territory of Georgia. To do that, Ukraine needs weapons.’

After the interview, Veta excused herself and went into the next room for a workout. The next morning she went out to the MRO.

When she returned a couple of hours later, I was sitting on the sofa editing the video for my post about military recruitment posters while ‘Paint It Black’ played via YouTube on the big TV. With the same upbeat, determined expression she’d worn the previous day, Veta spoke to her friends in Ukrainian. Then Maria turned to me and gave a thumbs up. Veta had been accepted by the recruiters. She will soon be assigned to a battalion, and sent to the front line.

All Ukrainians are enraged and grieving, and some are willing to talk to outsiders about it, but Veta was the first one I’ve encountered who was both so blunt and eager to be quoted. Some Westerners will probably find it hard to accept an intelligent young woman so eager to kill, and speaking about it without any softening of the message.

The same day, in the course of a regular conversation, Maria told me about a friend who was captured by the Russians in 2017. She was repeatedly tortured, raped and became pregnant. When she was eventually released her boyfriend killed himself and she gave the baby away because she couldn’t bear to look at it. ‘The Russians regard rape as the ultimate act of domination,’ Maria said.

Thousands of crimes like this have taken place since the full-scale invasion, and been widely documented in the media and by human rights groups. They are almost certainly hugely underreported. Everyone in Ukraine, especially the east, knows somebody who’s had a similar experience; or they are themselves that person. It happens to soldiers and civilians alike.

A Ukrainian woman saying ‘I want to kill Russians’ is also saying ‘I want to stop all that. And I’m willing to risk it happening to me to protect other people.’

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