In spite of our frequent trips to the war zone, we are not in contact with any fighters. We usually work with “civilians”, administration services, social services, etc. Although, if LPR becomes Ukraine and the reunification our liberals want takes place, all of these civilian workers will be lumped together with the militiamen and charged with “separatism” and “treason.” Whether you just helped the elderly or sat in the trenches, you aided terrorists.
But we do have friends among the militia. I briefly mentioned one of them, a fellow student from MGU, wounded near Debaltsevo.
There is also Kolya. We met in Chernukhino in the spring of ’15. Zhenya invited Kolya to be our escort. I wanted to write about him then, but it didn’t happen.
Kolya is from Barnaul, in other words, from Russia.
In ’14 he like everyone else sat on the internet and worried about what was happening to the Donbass. Then he read about the Aidar Battalion raping a 14-year-old girl, then injected construction foam into her entrails. It was a big story, much has been written about it, some claim it’s fake. But it’s a fact there were very many rapes, and I heard about this in person from the people here. The foam story was the proverbial last straw which forced Kolya to go off to war.
He left his family behind–he was in the midst of a divorce anyway and had no kids. He hitchhiked to the LPR border. Crossed the border on foot and approached the first militiamen he saw and asked how to sign up.
Then lots of other things happened.
He suffered wounds, multiple ones.
In one situation, Kolya managed to capture from the “Ukrs” a Niva with a ZU-23 antiaircraft gun during a fight in Debaltsevo. It was at night, he was nearly shot by his fellow soldiers.
“Crazy, simply crazy” is one way to react to this. His commanders did not know how to deal with such madness. The commander summoned him in front of the formation and said, “I’ll be damned if I know what to do with you. Give you an award or send before a court martial.” He separated from his own unit, so they decided that deed nullified the second one.
I also remember well how we drive around Chernukhino with aid. We came in May, long after the winter fighting. Kolya was looking around and could not recognize anything, the greenery hid the bombed-out houses.
Kolya fought for Chernukhino. He and his tractor (how he refers to his APC) evacuated civilians. He hit mines twice. One time a wheel was blown up, the second time it exploded under the hatch, which broke out and struck his knee. His knee-pads saved him, but the leg swelled up. He was sent to a trauma ward and was told he needed surgery, since there was a huge hematoma under the knee. But he said “I won’t abandon my guys” and ran back to the front.
And as we were driving with him in May of ’15 in Chernukhino, he asked us to stop by a house.
–I took down booby-traps here.
We knock, and a woman appears. She recognized Kolya right away, cried, and they hugged.
When the ukrs left, they set up booby-traps. And poisoned wells.
Kolya is a man of few words, and I can’t imagine him making stuff up. We only just met, and he was always quiet, helping carry food packets. He was shy around a young girl from Moscow. And I didn’t know how to talk to him. I could have tried the journalistic approach. Get him to spill his guts, but for some reason I decided I had no right. I had no strength left, either–we visited dozens of families on that day, and they said things that shocked even Kolya. I don’t know how to talk to soldiers, to be honest. We are at different coordinates. Although it seems that I understand them better now than my own friends and acquaintances…
We became friends after that trip even though we hardly see each other. He served in various units, in different locations. He sometimes sees Zhenya and invariably sends his greetings. Sometimes he uses VOIP. And he always calls me “Dunyasha, Dunechka”. And smiles from ear to ear.
It so happened during this December visit that due to the snow and ice all of our plans to visit other LPR cities were off. Zhenya therefore took me to Kolya’s checkpoint, since we were nearby.
They are close to Lugansk, but on the very front line, from where one can see “foreign territory.” The war is less than an hour’s drive from a shopping center with coffee, shops, and sushi bars.
And ordinary checkpoint. Bunkers, dugouts, wind, cold, and stoves. Terrible wind, penetrating to the bones, so that one doesn’t want to leave the trenches. There is not much shooting, but one never knows what will happen.
We drank tea in one of the dugouts, with all kids of people at the table. A former pilot from Russia, a lovely girl named Lena and her husband. They serve together. One can see that from time to time, spouses serving together. I’ve seen that more than once.
Furniture found here and there. Car seats, old stools, broken chairs. Soldered together pots, chains. Icons, horseshoes, and other good luck charms everywhere.
The door is covered with blankets and felt to retain heat. Field conditions, minimum of comfort.
They ask us:
“Could you give us a lift to the bath?”
They bathe rarely, the bath is several kilometers over snow.
Kolya sits and only smiles:
–This is Dunechka, you simply have no idea who Dunechka is.
In civilian life, Kolya could not find a spot. He worked in construction, a car shop, and as a driver. But it didn’t work out. There was a love, but it ended too–no kids were born, and in the end they divorced. He speaks plainly, with no artifice.
A simple and honest working stiff. But he couldn’t ignore the story about a girl raped by the nationalists.
There are all kinds of people in the militia. I’ve met remarkable assholes in LPR too. I met them in various places. They make one nauseous, and sometimes ashamed.
But there are also these guys, like Kolya, freezing in frontline trenches. With heavy, tired eyes.
If there is an offensive by Ukraine, they are all condemned men. With their AKs, RPGs, and BTRs they won’t hold out for more than 15 minutes. They are “bellflowers”, “canaries in the mine”, a tripwire that signals something has started, and that’s how they often refer to themselves.
But bellflowers are disposable.
And they serve, sometimes without any hope, with gritted teeth, frozen in prolonged expectation.