“Slava Ukraini” means “Glory to Ukraine.” It’s a nationalistic phrase, and almost impossible to avoid in the country, especially as one approaches the front lines of the conflict with Russia. Here is a heavy-metal cover of the Ukrainian national anthem played by Ukrainian Kenny Powers. The drummer gets really into it, as does the small audience. Encouraging everyone to watch is the purest way of voicing my approval for the sentiment.
On the second night in Mariupol we go drinking with two members of Azov Battalion. One, a Swedish sniper named Mikael “Mike” Skillt, is famous, as these things go. Mike is an extraordinary storyteller. He talks about episodes and events that are deadly serious, and this gives his humor an irresistible, hilarious energy. Then, he shows us the usual photos – rows of burned bodies lying by blasted Armored Personnel Carriers and tanks savaged by artillery, separatists’ heads canoed by thick faraway bullets, some of which were fired by Mike’s own finger, lonely dirt roads that lead deep into uninhabited forests. He does not boast or beat his chest. When he hears my military past, Mike mentions Chris Kyle.
Here’s what I find most compelling about Mike, the Swedish sniper: when Mike came to Ukraine, before countless clashes with Russians and separatists, he was an ardent Nazi. He does not deny this history or soften it, and will tell you that he used to believe in the Seig Heil. Somewhere in the heat of war, among the deaths of his comrades, and the souls reaped by his hand, he lost his enthusiasm for radical political ideology. He describes himself, now, as a moderate, and dismisses the neo-Nazis he occasionally sees in Russia, Sweden, or Ukraine as delusional caricatures.
That’s not the kind of revelation I read in Chris Kyle’s autobiography, nor is it the revelation I watched when I saw Clint Eastwood’s movie version of Kyle’s life. On the contrary, war seems to have justified every extremist notion Kyle ever entertained. Now, the war between Ukraine and Russia is a bit more intense than the war America tasted in Iraq or Afghanistan, especially from the Ukrainian perspective. They are fighting World War I against a superior force that has modern tanks and artillery. Russian regulars can execute a call for fire mission accurately within a few minutes, according to the front-line soldiers, and have a decisive advantage in artillery. So maybe the difference between Mike and Chris is that Mike really saw war, and Chris saw – the fantasy that many Americans have confused with war these past fifteen years. In this case, American Sniper is the perfect title for Chris Kyle’s memoir, and Combat Sniper would be the perfect title for Mike’s.
Most of the reporting that comes out of Ukraine, which is published by the mainstream Western media, is quite inaccurate. Some of the reporting that comes out of Ukraine, which is published by the mainstream Western media, is totally inaccurate. Very little is true in an epistemologically defensible sense, and a substantial amount of the true reporting is produced by Nolan Peterson. Others will dispute this claim, for various self-interested reasons – it should go without saying that these people traffic in baser metals and are, essentially, not to be trusted.
Nolan and I first meet over lunch with two members of the United States Embassy. After, Nolan and I spend the next eight hours drinking and talking about our experiences in the military, as well as literature and movies. Nolan writes for The Daily Signal and Newsweek and reading his reporting is like drinking clean, cold water any way you prefer: from the tap, from a bottle of your favorite brand, on the surface of an expertly-mixed craft cocktail, or frozen in blocks with cheap blended scotch. Before meeting Nolan, I had been uniformly unimpressed with the writing that emerged from Ukraine. After making his acquaintance, I feel a sense of confidence and optimism that someone understands what is at stake, here.
Two other journalists I have met and endorse are Luke Johnson and Geraldine Cremin. Luke’s analysis of the situation in Ukraine is intuitive, even-handed, and unemotional. Geraldine writes powerfully and honestly, and has clear eyes about the war here.
When we leave Mariupol for the front, all the confusion of modern life melts away. The flat simplicity of life at war has returned. Associations are strange – I remember the anxiety of patrolling in Afghanistan, then the intellectual inadequacy I felt as an undergraduate in university. Finally, dipping down a dirt road that has been turned into a roller-coaster by artillery craters, I remember running into a former lover in Starbucks, of all places, and the unexpected appearance of her recollected visage twists at my gut.
And that’s because the battlefield is an evocative place, haunted so powerfully that the ghosts themselves become unmoored in space and time. Memories arrive unbidden from the past – memories of yourself. Smells, postures, relationships, like a hot piece of metal, or the feeling of body armor chafing your neck. You remember, too, things that never belonged to you – bizarre occasions with no business in the present. This one firefight in Afghanistan, we bounded through indirect and suppressing fire across three rice paddies and landed in a dry irrigation ditch about five feet wide and five to six feet deep. “Trenches, man, like World War I,” someone yelled. “Bad ass!” As I follow the Azov Battalion guide deep into their trench line in the hills east of Mariupol, I’m recalling Afghanistan, the wet earthy smell of that ditch, the way the bullets zipped overhead and tore down leaves and branches, covering my head in wood chips. The Azov guide brings me back to the present: before us in a narrow valley lies the destroyed town of Shyrokine. I’m breathing methodically, keeping my head down, feeling the hot earth walls of the trench, my hands passing boxes of ammunition and grenades stashed to the left and right every five meters or so. We pass dwellings reinforced by wood ceilings, hide-outs, and machine-gun nests. Sniper points and anti-tank weapons. Like World War I, someone might have yelled, but nobody was yelling, just muted laughter and guarded glances around corners, over the top for a moment or two before ducking down to safety. Bad ass.
Looking down from Azov / Donbas trench line at Russians, separatists. Destroyed village of Shyrokine, empty save for small groups from both sides working to kill one another in the night
The hills outside Mariupol seem designed for static warfare. Two sides could glare across the no-man’s land for months or years.
One of the guards is smoking cigarettes by an observation point, cupping them in his hand to avoid detection. We used to smoke cigarettes like that, too, holding them pinched between our fingers, exhausted eyes staring out from hollow sockets. What, the Azov platoon commander asks me, his English broken but understandable, what did you say? I offer him his binoculars. No, he says, waving them back at me, you keep. You see.
The Platoon Commander was a Chemical Engineer in another lifetime, and has a rare, colorful sense of humor. What’s the difference between the Russian soldiers and the Ukrainian soldiers, he says. I have no idea. Average Ukrainian soldier has two higher education degrees. Average Russian soldier has been in two prisons. This type of joke is puerile and pointless, but I find myself enjoying it, anyway.
Down the coastline, Russia
Shyrokine has been contested since January of this year. From afar it looks like it’s been hit by a hurricane of violence. Stillness lies over the place, but not peacefully, like you get at the Grand Canyon or in the mountains. This stillness is pregnant with disaster, an ill-omened moment waiting for gunshots, or for a faraway series of blasts, soon followed by that desperate cry I know so well in its English-language form: INCOMING!
A nearby shot interrupts an interview with one of the Azov soldiers, and Roman and I crouch, instinctively, continuing the talk on our haunches. When no gunshots follow, after a few minutes we return to our natural upright, flexing our legs and backs, burdened by the heavy body armor and helmet that are required in these parts.
All the craters I see have impacted from the east, fired from beyond the town – from separatist positions.
As bad as the village looks from the trenches, it’s much worse walking through the streets, up close. Monsters have walked this land. I look at the dirty, grizzled men of Azov and wonder how they have managed to survive. Not just survive – win. They beat the Russians, they beat the separatists, until those groups pulled back to the hills, to the East.
Tourist dachas litter the landscape, resting forlorn, empty in the summer heat, memorials to a former way of life. Now these buildings and the lives of the inhabitants who once vacationed here, frolicking on the beach, enjoying a summer day, they are a collective monument to human greed and the absolutely redemptive power of violent disagreement. Shyrokine wears its new, awful beauty proudly, inhabited by the men who have made it over in this new image. The only Azov member I see openly and obviously wearing neo-Nazi gear pokes at a piece of corrugated tin roof with his combat boot. This town is a madman’s tapestry, the masterpiece of a psychopathic animal impulse toward destruction.
“Some men, you can talk with them,” says one of the Azov fighters. “The Russians are like dogs, you have to kick them until they understand.” He gestures at the broken buildings around us. “We kicked them, and now they understand.”
Confessions: Seeing the military, seeing war again, caused me to reflect more deeply on my own experiences. For example, with space and distance, I can admit it: I was not a great commander in the Army. I understand the various ways in which I failed individual enlisted soldiers, sergeants, and junior officers under my authority – ways in which I failed the unit, collectively. The Afghan people. There was a promise implicit in service which I was unable to fully keep – with others, with myself. So when I left the military and discovered writing, I reconnected with a part of myself that was essentially optimistic. Unsurprisingly, I wanted to nurture it. But these stories I’m writing in Ukraine, the things I’m seeing, the people with whom I’m speaking, they aren’t reaching a large audience, they aren’t having any effect. If you’re reading this, for whatever reason, that means you’re a witness, now, to my second grand failure: this time, unlike in the military, it’s broader, it has bigger consequences. What happens when the thing you love, the thing you’re doing to the utmost of your ability, that thing just isn’t good enough?
A patrol has returned. The Azov soldiers made it back alive, and are casual with their confidence – they grin and banter, conversational threads punctuated by the sharp staccato of laughter. The bounty of having hazarded one’s life, and won.
Into the trenches
A hand-woven camouflage net draped between trees announces the entrance to one set of trenches. I ask where Azov gets this type of equipment, and am told that it is donated by civilians, who make the camouflage netting from discarded rags and clothes. I’ve seen Ukrainians weaving these nets in Odessa and Lviv and Kyiv, but seeing them in action is something different. What’s the difference between an American care package and a Ukrainian care package, I think. Small joke.
According to one of their logisticians, 90% of Azov’s equipment, ammunition, food, clothes, vehicles and fuel are donated by Ukrainian citizens.
I’m remembering what it was like to walk up to that line in Afghanistan where I no longer cared about life. When it happened I got reckless – stopped making serious decisions seriously, and became a danger to myself and to others. That was the promise I broke, and, having broken it, why I left the military. Conveniently, I had that choice – one of many privileges available to Americans. Now, what keeps a person moving forward when there is no choice – when there is only kill or be killed? When your feet are on the earth of your own country? The Azov men’s eyes smolder ominously. They are rumored to be Nazis, although among the fifty or so soldiers and officers I meet, only one – a soldier – could reasonably be said to conform to that type – anti-Semitic, nihilistic, brutal in his attitude toward life and beauty. What I see is much more dangerous – optimism, hope, desire based on justice, and transparency, and that age-old utopian vision of real equal opportunity. Unsupervised, this could lead to a serious Russian defeat, and another world war.
One of Azov’s press people, a 45-year-old volunteer named Ruslan, escorts Roman and me to and from the front lines in a battered Land Rover. A sticker on the back window attests to the vehicle’s origins: Crump Ltd., Stokley-on-Trent. Ruslan’s documentary, Two Days in Ilovaisk, has won awards in Ukraine. His sister works in New York City in an art museum. His beard looks like my beard, and his face looks like my face. He’s from the Carpathian region. A distant ancestor of mine is Czech.
Two days earlier, we run into a problem at one of the checkpoints. Ukraine guards its front lines jealously. The Ministry of Interior, which runs them, refuses passage to Roman and me. Ruslan is frustrated. A squad has just returned from an ambush somewhere to the north, and many soldiers carry silenced AK-47s and scoped, well-kitted Dragunov sniper rifles. Tensions are high, and we’re told we need to head back to Mariupol. The ride is mostly silent, until I ask Ruslan whether he has seen Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors, the movie I mentioned in a previous dispatch. The love story of Ivanko and Marichka opens new conversational vistas, and film accomplishes what bureaucracy could not.
That evening I watch a disturbing Soviet-era horror film set in Ukraine called Viy. The movie has no moral center, is one of those unsettling movies where the efforts of its protagonist amount to nothing. Viy is based on a story by Gogol, whom Ukrainians claim as one of their own.
A 19-year old soldier named Runa takes a half hour to speak with me. He has been part of Azov for over a year, and talks about how hard it is to relate to his peers.
The regional train from Mariupol to Kyiv takes about 20 hours. The air conditioner does not work for much of that time. It feels intimate, speaking with strangers while lying in bed, like confessing secrets to a lover. Waiting at stations for ten minutes, or a half hour. Sweating in the summer heat.
I am back in Kyiv, preparing for one last trip to Lviv. Before leaving, I visit two of the first people with whom I spent time in Kyiv – Yuriy and Lodomyr, my Right Sector contacts on the front lines of the anti-corruption fight. They invite me to come with them to the east, to watch them distribute copies of Total Resistance, a Swiss manual developed in the 1950s to instruct the population on how to organize cells and combat intruders in the event of an attack from the Warsaw Pact.
That evening I arrive in Lviv, and learn that Right Sector was involved in a shootout with police officers in Trans-Carpathia. Not the people I know – a different group. A different cell, far in the West, three hours south of Lviv, ten or more hours from Kyiv.
Days later two blasts in Lviv injure two police officers. Western media blames Right Sector without any proof or evidence of their involvement, basically echoing Russian propaganda. Is the revolution unravelling, or simply evolving? I remember the eyes of Azov’s soldiers, grim warnings I’d heard from Right Sector transparency advocates about Ukraine’s true enemy, and begin to indulge the theories as probabilities. I’m seeing things from their perspective, now, filled with contempt for my journalism peers. I’m sliding toward advocacy.
Some of the Right Sector Facebook accounts have gone silent. Clouds gather, summer grows short. It’s time to move on – as bad as things are, they can get much, much worse. Ominous signs and portents are aligning. Blood reaches a certain temperature and it must be spilled, it desires an outlet from artery to earth: more specifically, to dusty, sunbaked trenches.
When I arrive in Lviv, I hear that Right Sector attempted to cut the road from Lviv to Kyiv, and is staging a protest outside the provincial administrative headquarters. Here, too, is the feeling one gets on the front lines. By the time I arrive, the protest has already been broken up by uniformed and plains-clothed police officers. The Right Sector spokesperson with whom I speak says that the people are on their side, and that the truth is on their side, and at least one of those claims seems likely, but a massive, popular uprising is nowhere to be seen.
The night is cool, and festive – a religious holiday. On my way back to the hotel, ten Leopolitans drink and sing patriotic songs beside a tall, aged statue. A couple, hugging one another, slowly sway along with the music. The bars are full of young men and women. Amidst a group of revelers, one young man proposes a toast and shouts “Slava Ukraini,” echoed by the people in his party and those around them.