Great piece at The Economist. The training diary of a 30-something Ukrainian guy, who used to be into art and good food. Now he’s into Air Assault.
It’s behind the paywall, so I grabbed some of the better bits for you.
The morning begins with a sludge of rice porridge, plastic cheese, carrots, sausage and an apple that has seen better decades. Good food is for when the war is over. In the meantime, I have other things to think about. First, I have to pick a specialisation: forward reconnaissance or assault forces – not a great choice. Reconnaissance sounds just a bit too scary, so I choose the assault forces like everyone else.
I bump into another soldier from the neighbouring bunker. He’s being sent to his unit in a few days and has been drinking. He asks me what my specialisation will be. “Assault forces?” he says. “You’re gonna DIE.”
I’m told half of the first intake has already been killed in action.
After lunch, we dismantle a vintage dshk heavy machinegun. The first of these things were produced in the 1930s, but they say it isn’t a bad piece of equipment. I find it hard to accept we’re still using weapons that require a hammer to dismantle. Some trainees are quick on the uptake and can do the job in no time. The more tender of us find it harder. At least one person breaks a finger.
We aren’t allowed outside after 10pm, so we make chit-chat in the dugout. Sanya, a smart, cheery fellow with a story for any situation, suggests we make memorial shot glasses out of our cartridge cases. The idea is that we all engrave our names on them, then swap with each other. After the war, we’ll meet up and return the glasses to their proper owners. I almost cry. I can tell I’m not the only one.
The stink of boots is especially strong in the morning. During the day the boots are either on people’s feet or drying outside the entrance. At night they’re brought inside and the foot-smell of an entire airborne platoon wafts around the dugout in the heavy, humid air.
In the afternoon an instructor treats us to a lecture on how great the Soviet Union was. How cheap the petrol was. How happy people were. I can’t stand any of this bullshit. We still have to clean up the mess that dictatorship left us. We still suffer from the rot that permeates our state structures. The army. People’s brains. It makes me angry when some of the cadets here sing Soviet army songs. As far as I’m concerned, the Soviet military songbook is full of contempt for the value of human life.
I’m surprised when I realise most of my fellow trainee troops actually think the same.
The skinny colonel teaching us how to survive a chemical attack tells us he is certain his lesson will come in handy during this war. Russia will not only use chemical weapons, he says, but tactical nuclear ones too. “People were saying on February 20th that there would be no war. And I kept telling my wife: trust me, there will be.” He tells us there is no point looking up survival statistics for a nuclear attack nearby. But we do have a chance of surviving if we are one and a half kilometres away. Reassuring.
We pull on the protective gear: green elephant suits. In a battle situation we will have to do it quickly, without breathing and with our eyes closed to prevent toxins entering the body. None of this is pleasant in the sweltering heat. The rubber gas masks drip with sweat from their last use. But the worst thing is putting on the gloves. The sweat of previous cadets drips down your fingers off the black, thick, moist rubber.
I catch my reflection in a mirror hanging in the hallway. Some bearded brute in uniform is looking back at me.
A combat officer gives some advice about taking defensive positions in the field. “Dig deeper,” he says. “That’s the way to keep your men alive.” We’re told to dig using anything we have: spades, knives, whatever. When our hands are tired, we should use our feet. “Trust me. It’s easier than looking parents in the eye when you have their son in a body bag.”
I haven’t opened a proper book in weeks. My vocabulary is down to about 30 words, most of them military commands. I’m reading, but it’s not what you’d call literature. I want to survive and I want to keep the people under my command alive. So I take in anything I can get my hands on: combat manuals, technical documentation for military equipment and books on tactics. Just before bed, I take a look from the dugout. A full moon hovers over the barracks. An owl flies past, slowly, about a metre away from me. It sees me, but it doesn’t want to change direction. It’s a big, beautiful thing.
I take in the strong smell of wormwood as we sit outside: relaxed, dreamy and talking about the American rockets that have been destroying Russian supply lines in Kherson. If only the whole war could be like this. Lying on the grass with good people, taking in the sunshine. If a missile had my name on it, I’d like this to be the way I go.
After a 10km run, I call home. It will be difficult for them to understand what comes next. I’ll be on the front lines within weeks. Perhaps even a few days. But I believe in what I’m doing. This isn’t a war that can be fought with military professionals alone. The thought I have is simple: Russian tanks at one point in March were less than 60km from my parents’ home. You might need more arguments. That’s enough for me.
This is our last Monday as trainees. Next Monday we’ll be real soldiers.
What a great read, it is always important to put a soul into the statistics we are used to see, each one is a person, with dreams and hopes; there is no expendable life (even if Mr. Putin tries his damnest to prove otherwise on his particular case).
"....real soldiers." I hope this guy lives through his first taste of the wine.
If anyone is still interested the second part of the journal has been published by The Economist:
The citizen soldier finishes training and is send to the front with this encouragement: “I hope you will survive. [...] The enemy will judge just how good you are.” I would say typical Eastern European. :-D
He has to buy his own equipment - which I am told by a Russian friend it is done on both sides of the conflict.
The narrative is very strong and very touching, with statements like "“I had to pick up two men from my village today. One of them was a corpse and the other crippled." The men weren’t just fellow soldiers. Lyonya knew their families well, and their relatives had asked him to look after them personally. You can tell the big guy is really hurting. He’s actually wounded himself.”
The reading is not for the faint hearted.
The war in Ukraine has degenerated into hatred and immutable convictions on both sides. The Ukrainians will not stand down, as long as they have ammunitions and food. Getting back to my Russian friend, who has friends split half and half on both sides, it is a huge human tragedy with brother killing brother. He is broken into pieces over this war.
Also he cannot say anything about what he really thinks, as he has close relatives in the Russian occupied zone. Others are in Ukraine. Old reflexes are coming back, which is the greatest tragedy of this war.
love that sense of humour/sarcasm he imparts in those short posts.
War is a mere continuation of policy by other means. Thus spoke Carl von Clausewitz, in the early 1800s, thus showing the durability of the darkest party of the human soul. The hubris of the notion of the superiority of human intelligence is lauded by those who are cloaked in a miasma of cognitive dissonance.
Our media thrive on the events that show the basic elements of this conflict, with the copious use of pontificating pundits whose mouths parrot the same old schtick, to accompany the sensational scenes of human misery. They get paid handsomely, for their desk-bound expertise.
As the war goes on a dehumanising element creeps into the populace, war weariness.
The narrative never expands beyond the tabloid lens, only some of the less quoted publications, stress the need for a logical conclusion to these affairs.
The two sides MUST sit down at a table in a neutral country, and engage in a practice as old as war, COMPROMISE.
When our poor soldier spoke to his parents, he knows what will probably happen to himself, as millions of soldiers before him on the field of battle, when they fell mortally wounded, their last word is a plea for his mother.
This article shows why humanity must be bought to the fore. Thank you, John.
Have to admit I'm confused by the 'it was great in the soviet union' bit - can't imagine why you'd say that to recruits on the Ukrainian side. Crusty old dudes reminiscing transcends national lines, I guess.
This story could be from any war in the past and sadly likely from the future as well. We need to be reminded of the horror of it . And in this latest chapter we add the possibility of Armageddon. It would be refreshing to hear someone talk about negotiating a peaceful end before something unimaginable happens