Ukraine’s other Russians
Meet the Russians fighting for Ukraine.
Arteyom Shirobokov – “I see this war to be an aggression by Russia, and I am strongly against this”
“I guess I can never return home,” Arteyom Shirobokov says looking down at the ground, kicking his foot into the dusty east Ukrainian soil. “The Russian regime knows I am here. They know my name.”
Shirobokov, from Samara in southern Russia, has been fighting in the war in eastern Ukraine for over a year now – but not for the Russian-backed separatists. The 21-year-old Russian, unlike other Russian volunteer fighters in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, has instead picked up arms with the Azov, a pro-Ukrainian, ultra-nationalist volunteer unit that is battling the separatists in the east.
“The whole of my adult life, I have always thought of Vladimir Putin’s regime to be an anti-Russian regime, an anti-people regime,” Shirobokov explains from the Azov’s Mariupol barracks, his home for the past year. He speaks slowly with tired eyes that don’t suit his youth. On his left forearm he sports a black and white skeleton tattoo adorned with words by his favourite writer, the twentieth century Russian lyrical poet, Sergei Yesenin. “He was a great Russian,” he says tracing his fingers over the ink.
“It seems to be that those people who come to power in Russia, they come to power just to get money, to steal money,” Shirobokov continues, as he works his thoughts back to politics. “But their job should be to help the people. Here [in Ukraine] at least I can show my opposition, I can demonstrate action. I act as an opposition here. I see this war to be an aggression by Russia, and I am strongly against this.”
Shirobokov had previously tried to join anti-Putin organisations in his home city – he found none. “It’s almost impossible to be a real activist and show opposition in Russia,” he laments, “that’s why I felt like I had to come to Ukraine.”
The makeshift barracks Shirobokov now stands in were once a holiday complex owned by former President Viktor Yanukovich, who was ousted during Ukraine’s Euromaiden protests in February 2014 and subsequently fled to Russia. It has been completely transformed.
Heavily armed men roam the grounds, stubbing cigarette butts out on sawed-down, overturned grad rockets that have been turned into rubbish bins that dot the dusty paths. BMP Soviet-made tanks sit beside the main building alongside camouflage painted vans used for carrying equipment and injured soldiers. Bullet holes and shrapnel marks scar the vehicles, the rusted reddish-brown of old blood on used bandages sits snug in the corner where windowpane meets dashboard in a makeshift ambulance.
The Azov has seen its fair share of controversy. Routinely accused of being a neo-Nazi unit, some of its members have been caught sporting swastikas in the past. “The Azov is a regiment not a political movement,” Shirobokov says when questioned about the neo-Nazi links, “there are people here with very different political beliefs, and because of this, unfortunately people have come across soldiers here with swastikas, but they are a minority.”
As for Shirobokov’s political beliefs, he says all he wants is the fall of Putin’s government, the beginning of a democratic Russia and an end to aggression against neighbouring states. As a Russian he cannot join the Ukrainian army – only citizens of the state are allowed – so he joined a volunteer unit. The majority of the volunteers he came across in the Azov were from east Ukraine, where Russian rather than Ukrainian is the primary language, and so shared his mother tongue. Joining the Azov, he explains, felt like the natural choice.
He laughs when asked how he feels about fighting against Russian volunteers on the other side. “Any Russians fighting for the separatists aren’t Russian; they’re Soviets, with a Soviet mindset. I do not feel I am fighting my own people,” he says.
Shirobokov’s parents died shortly after he arrived in Ukraine. Now, his only remaining relative in Russia is his elderly grandmother. She’s got a Soviet mindset, he remarks. “Some guys from the secret service have visited her before and asked about me,” he continues, “so she suspects I am doing something illegal.”
No longer having to fear for his parents’ lives, Shirobokov says he finally feels able to speak freely about his activities in Ukraine.
But, with the Ukrainian government making moves to reduce the power of volunteer battalions, like the Azov, and to subsume volunteers into the army,Shirobokov admits he is worried – if he can’t gain Ukrainian citizenship, he fears he could be deported back to Russia. And that, he says, would bring about swift and certain retribution by the government.
“I want to become a Ukrainian citizen, I need it, but the government seems to be preventing me,” he explains, a forlorn look on his boyish face. “They keep telling me ‘it’s okay, you’re welcome here’, but then nothing actually happens. But here I am risking my life for this country, at the frontlines of this war. I’m risking my life here fighting, and now after all I’ve done, all I’m asking is to be granted citizenship. I need it.”
Spuk – “It was like a calling of my heart. I feel the justice is on this side”
Shirobokov isn’t the only Russian fighting with the Azov. Spuk, a Russian citizen from Stavropol, sports an ageing Kalashnikov as he guards the entrance to a concrete plant turned military compound. To the left of him, several metres away, an old Soviet slogan in Russian remains etched and untouched on an exterior concrete wall, “We’re still working even on our days off,” it reads, a tangible reminder of Ukraine’s not so distant Soviet past.
“Be nice to him,” an armed man shouts from a watchtower as Spuk – a nom de guerre – warily begins to speak, “he may be Russian, but he’s our Russian.”
Thirty-year-old Spuk speaks in short bursts, but with clear conviction. “There is nothing strange about me being here,” he remarks, swinging his gun from in front of him and letting it settle against his back. “It was like a calling of my heart,” he continues, letting his guard down a little and starting to speak with more confidence. “For me I feel the justice is on this side. Putin has made the people of Russia his servants, and now he is looking to make servants out of Ukrainians.”
Spuk’s family continues to live in Stavropol with no idea that he is in Ukraine. Instead, they believe he is working in Moscow, picking up odd jobs. “And I don’t want them to find out,” he says lowering his tone, “I don’t want my parents to know or to worry.”
But Spuk admits that he is torn. He is willing to speak about why he is fighting in Ukraine – Russia has to change, he insists – but he knows speaking out could have dire consequences. “Just look at what happened to Nemtsov,” he says as a way of justifying the use of his nom de guerre, and the wearing of a dark green balaclava tucked tightly around his face. Boris Nemtsov, an outspoken critic of the Putin government and a prominent opposition figure, was assassinated earlier this year, just weeks after he had expressed a fear that Putin would have him killed for his continued opposition and criticism.
“You see, there is no way to be opposition in Russia,” Spuk continues. “But being here, seems like my only way of showing opposition. Fighting here is how I oppose the Putin regime. The truth is you cannot be active in opposition in Russia; they just won’t allow you to do this.”
Like Shirobokov, Spuk now fears for the future. He says he can’t return to Russia in case his activities in Ukraine are discovered. “Getting it [Ukrainian citizenship], is my only choice, I have to get it,” he explains, “but the government is making it hard. I feel like getting deported is a possibility, anything can happen.”
Spuk wishes one day to return to Russia, a country he says he loves. “But I fear this will only happen when Putin is overthrown, when he disappears,” he says looking downwards, “and that could be a long time away.”
Anton – “You don’t steal the land of your brother”
“The Russian government put me on a list saying I’m an extremist,” Anton exclaims. “And that was before I even came to Ukraine, after that I had no choice but to come here.”
Anton, from Sakhalin Island in the far north-east of Russia, speaks excitedly about his home country. His knowledge of Russian and Ukrainian history is impeccable, his enthusiasm as unwavering as it is infectious. He speaks in depth about Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, before suddenly spinning off to discuss the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. With a skinny frame and wiry moustache that seems out of place draped in military attire, along with his constant stream of historical facts and dates, Anton seems more of a teacher figure than an AK-toting soldier. But, at the age of 26, he hasn’t lived a quiet life; Anton has already served six years in the Russian navy.
He is wary about sharing his surname, but says: “You’re welcome to take a picture of me. I have nothing to hide.” The omission of his surname appears to be a tactic to give his family some form of deniability back home if needed.
Anton fled to Ukraine 15 months ago. The annexation of Crimea by Russia, an internationally recognised Ukrainian territory that was seized in March 2014, was the catalyst, starting his journey from Russian navy officer to volunteer fighter in Ukraine. “I couldn’t believe that happened,” he says, with an incredulous look on his face. “From that, I started to make social media groups and postings about what was happening there and all around Ukraine, giving different information from what the Russian news media was saying and reporting.”
It was this social media activism that got Anton noticed by the Kremlin. Then, he says, the government froze his bank account and said he would be tried in court as an extremist acting against the country and its interests.
With what money he could gather, Anton fled from Sakhalin Island to Vladivostok. From there he made his way to Moscow, and then boarded a bus to take him over the open border to Belarus. From Belarus he crossed into Ukraine.
“I have always been opposed to Putin,” he says, making sure his political views are well understood. “And I am a Russian nationalist. But Russian nationalism for me is seeing Ukrainian people as our brothers, you don’t steal the land of your brother.”
After fleeing to Ukraine, Anton felt that the best way to oppose Putin would be to pick up arms and fight against the Russian-backed separatists in the east. At first he attempted to create a Russian battalion, but later resorted to joining the Azov after discovering the battalion was mainly Russian speaking, and that there were already Russians fighting with the group.
He admits that his family back home has, in essence, disowned him. “My mother walks within the system,” Anton says, his set smile disappearing for a few seconds. “She is part of the system Putin has created.”
“But I don’t feel like I am fighting for Ukraine here,” he says quickly, then repeating the words again, attempting to accentuate their importance. “I feel I am fighting for Russia, for the people of Russia, against a regime that is damaging our country. My wish is for Russia to be a free democratic republic, like a free European country.”
Like Shirobokov and Spuk, Anton fears returning to Russia, and is now attempting to seek citizenship in Ukraine. He admits that the process is hard and he is worried about the lack of progress. And yet he remains upbeat about his decision to fight in Ukraine.
“I feel I’ve always been ready to fight this regime,” he says standing upright, “but it is only now that I am here, in Ukraine, that I finally feel I’m in the position to do so.”
This article first appeared in the latest issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine. For more compelling human stories, download it here for iPads and iPhones and here for Android devices.