At around four in the morning on February 24, 33-year-old Russian paratrooper Pavel Filatyev woke up next to his fellow soldiers in their ammunition-laden truck to the sound of rockets being fired at Ukrainian positions.
“My first thought was something insane was happening. There were rockets being fired, heavy artillery,” he told Al Jazeera in a WhatsApp video call, speaking from France, where he is seeking asylum. “When you’re crossing the [Crimea-Ukraine] border and you see 10 warplanes launching missiles overhead, there are 10 helicopters flying in another direction, and tanks riding up alongside you, you know it’s a very serious thing.”
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In the days leading to the invasion, Filatyev’s unit was moved closer to the Ukrainian border and ordered to hand in their phones, so they had no way to check the internet or call friends to ask what was really going on. All he knew was he was part of a vast contingent of troops moving towards the Ukrainian mainland.
“I understood this was a real, full-scale war, but for the first few days I didn’t know what exactly was happening. I thought maybe NATO really is attacking us?” he pondered.
After more than six months of war, firsthand accounts from front-line Russian soldiers are trickling out. The most detailed comes from Filatyev, who hastily typed up a 104-page memoir of two months’ combat, titled Zov, which he then uploaded on the Russian social networking site VK.
“I couldn’t just drop my weapons and run away, because for a warrior that’s cowardice. Not everyone understands this, but we’re held hostage by our own patriotism,” he said.
“I decided if I get out of this alive, I’ll do everything in my power to stop it. I decided the best I could do was write everything down – what I thought, what I felt, when I was afraid – without any exaggerated heroism.”
Filatyev wanted to show Russian readers what he says is the truth, compared to what they might have seen on TV.
Filatyev hails from a military family.
His father served in Chechnya, where he would later be posted himself during his first stint in the airborne forces from 2007 to 2010.
Last year, searching for a dependable salary, he re-enlisted in his father’s old unit. Stationed in Crimea, he saw firsthand a chronic shortage of equipment, the result of widespread corruption in the supply chain.
The equipment that was there was old and worn out.
“I only received a bulletproof vest at the very last moment before crossing the border,” he said. “Everyone knows such incidents when 10 men are sent out with two helmets and bulletproof vests, and told to sort it out between themselves. The situation is so absurd that a lot of people are buying their own clothing, equipment, boots, before being sent to war.”
After crossing from Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland in late February, Filatyev’s unit occupied Kherson with little resistance.
The paratroopers were then ordered to march on Mykolaiv, where they took position in the woods, which were being bombarded by Ukrainian artillery, killing several of Pavel’s comrades. Over the following month, there was a stalemate as Russian forces attempting to take Mykolaiv were held back in their trenches by fierce Ukrainian resistance.
“We were waiting for a week with nowhere to sleep or wash, constantly coming under fire, and couldn’t understand why we weren’t being rotated,” Filatyev recounted. “You have to live and sleep in the ground, under constant bombardment. But you get used to it. You even slept through when there was a blast a hundred metres away.”
He ended up spending a month in the trenches.
The war ended for him after an artillery blast led to an eye infection, and he was evacuated to a hospital in Crimea. There, he finally got the chance to watch TV and compare how he experienced the war to how it was being portrayed on the news.
“In the hospital there was a television, and I still didn’t have a phone with internet, so I watched TV,” he said. “I couldn’t understand what the hell they were talking about. All I’d seen is war, war, war, and they’re telling me it was a ‘special operation’? Something about Nazis … Yes, the Ukrainians were our enemies at that moment, but they weren’t fascists. I knew none of the reports were coming from the front line because where we were, there wasn’t a journalist in sight. So between what I’d experienced and what I saw on TV, it was complete nonsense.”
Russia’s defence ministry has been tight-lipped about casualties in Ukraine.
According to the latest official figures from March, 1,351 servicemen had lost their lives, but the true death toll is likely to be much higher.
One conscript who told his story to the website Cherta, which reports on violence and inequality in Russia, claimed out of 3,000 men in his regiment, only 15 percent returned alive and uninjured.
“I don’t just think they’re covering up losses, I know,” Filatyev said. “I don’t want to comment on rumours but one specific case I know, the first of my friends to die in my unit is still only listed as missing.”
So how have Filatyev’s fellow soldiers reacted to his tell-all account?
“We don’t agree on everything, but they completely understand me and none of them can call me a coward, since we were at war together and I’d already expressed my feelings then, without running away,” he said.
“Even Ukrainians wrote to me. [They said, ‘Although you are my enemy, I respect you’. I’ve received many threats, but I have the impression most of these people have never been to war. They’re like football fans. It’s easy for them to talk about war or judge someone from their safety in Moscow.”
Understandably, Ukrainians who have suffered from the invasion may not look at him so kindly, either.
There have been many horrific tales of abuses and war crimes from the Russian invasion, including from the invaders themselves.
During the occupation of the village of Andriivka, on the outskirts of Kyiv, one soldier, 21-year-old corporal Daniil Frolkin, admitted to executing a civilian with a shot to the head. The victim was “suspected” of relaying information back to Ukrainian authorities.
His confession was published in the investigative outlet IStories, an independent Russian website.
Frolkin also admitted to stealing from villagers’ homes and implicated his commanders in more organised looting by the truckful.
Filatyev distanced his brothers-in-arms from such grievous felonies.
“Many in Ukraine don’t believe me and try to portray all of us paratroopers as ‘orcs‘, but I’ll pass a lie detector test. No one in my unit, for the two months I was there, took part in any crimes,” he said. “No one raped anyone, shot anyone, or anything like that. [But] because we had nothing to eat or drink, when we came across abandoned shops we did take water, cigarettes and food.”
Oleksandra Romantsova, head of the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties, says her organisation is monitoring Russian soldiers’ stories with interest.
“If we’re speaking about justice in the future, it’s important for us because each [Russian] soldier who’s talked about that, it’s not only a matter of him being accused – but [also] his commanders [and the] generals who made the decision to put this soldier in the territory of Ukraine,” she told Al Jazeera by phone. “It’s not only about personal responsibility, but also about the responsibility of people who make these decisions. So we collect all such evidence.”
As for individual responsibility, Romantsova said soldiers must answer for any crimes against Ukrainian citizens, and called on men to refuse deployment to Ukraine where possible.
Filatyev, for his part, believes Russians should be doing more to end the war.
“No matter if it breaks the law, I think Russian society should demonstrate against the war by all possible means,” he said. “Every day, lives are lost on either side, and they’re not coming back.”