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Voices from the front: Russian anarchist fights for Ukraine

Repost from DOXA

Ilya Leshiy (not his real name) has been participating in hostilities as part of various Ukrainian formations for a year now and is fighting against Russian military aggression. DOXA talked to him about everyday life at the front, the difficult status of a volunteer and participation in an anti-authoritarian platoon, as well as the crimes of the Russian army.

How old are you, where are you from and how long have you been living in Ukraine?

I’m about 30, I’m from the central region of Russia. I moved to Ukraine a little less than five years ago. I avoided leaving the country as best I could, but I left when I found out about the interest of the security forces in my modest person.

What political activities did you do in Russia?

By my convictions, I am an anarcho-communist: a supporter of a society based on the principles of freedom, equality, solidarity and environmental friendliness with the most developed structures of direct self-government.

I came to my convictions more than 15 years ago and for a long time participated in the anarchist movement in Russia. Year after year, like-minded people and I tried to introduce organization, radicalism and an element of healthy pragmatism into the practice of modern Russian anarchism.

I would keep the details to myself, I can only say that my comrades and I believe that it is important for a successful struggle to have an organizational structure, and direct action, including guerrilla methods, is one of the most important tools for confronting the regime and the state.

Did you somehow continue your political activities in Ukraine?

In Ukraine, we had initiatives among anarchist emigrants from Russia and Belarus, a kind of diaspora. And so it was a lot of different things: from the cinema club and discussions to street actions. But the main thing was to establish ties and an attempt to form systematically operating structures.

Did you expect a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine?

No, I did not expect, and I perceived the preparation of our movement for war rather as a safety net and an opportunity to once again work out organizational and mobilization mechanisms, rehearse them.

Until the last moment, it seemed to me that what was happening was negotiation blackmail.

I believed that the Putin regime would continue to manoeuvrer and manoeuvrer in the wilds of hybrid actions.

Tell us how the movement prepared for the invasion?

The anarchist community in Kyiv worked out a plan of action in advance in case of a war. We had groups formed: one planned to join, to the unit of our comrade Yuri Samoylenko, who later died heroically in battle, and the other was going to develop civilian volunteer activities: for example, to supply those comrades who joined the defence forces. Subsequently, an anti-authoritarian platoon and “Operation Solidarity”, and later – “Solidarity Collectives” grew out of these plans.

Can you remember February 24, 2022?

On February 24, I was in Kyiv, outside the window of my apartment on the first floor there was already a commotion, and in the distance the roar of explosions was heard. I contacted my comrades and went to a predetermined collection point at the agreed time.

On the way, I saw long queues at ATMs, people with suitcases rushing to the station or onto the highways that lead to the exit from the city. All this filled the soul with excitement, but at the same time with excitement from the feeling that fateful events were unfolding.

I spent the first day with our volunteer initiative, mostly doing communication tasks: we gave interviews and connected with comrades in different cities and countries. And by the evening of the second day he was already in the ranks of the TRO. Yura Samoilenko and other comrades picked us up from the metro and took us to the region, to the location of the unit.

Did you have military experience?

I didn’t, but for quite a long time, even before moving to Ukraine, I was engaged in initial military training.

Like many of my comrades, I believed that the struggle for social change was closely related to armed confrontation.

What was in the defence? Were you given a uniform and outfit and began to learn something, or were you immediately given a task?

At first, there was confusion in the TPO due to the huge number of people who wanted to join. Foreigners who arrived on the first day were given weapons after some bickering. We were the second batch [of volunteers] and we had to wait several days until they signed a contract with us and issued weapons and uniforms.

After that, we formed a squad of people who knew how to shoot and had some basic military training skills. This department began to work as a rapid response group: they checked the reports of local residents about saboteurs or spies.

There were trainings from the TRO command, but quite rarely. We organized the training process ourselves. In March, several Western comrades with combat and army experience joined us, and the training became systematic and sensible. For example, we learned to move around at night, trying not to give ourselves away, and listen to the actions of the opposing team, mastered the thermal imager – looked out for conditional counterparts.

How did you get used to a new role for yourself? What difficulties did you have to face, what did you have to get used to?

I had to stay for days in a helmet and body armour, – I had to get used to it. I had to learn to build healthy relationships in the team, to find a common language with very different people, to adapt to the hierarchy without losing a human face. And when it came directly to the fighting, I had to adapt to them.

Can you remember what your first combat duty was like?

Our conditional combat duty began at the end of February in the defence as part of a rapid response group. However, in reality, we were more concerned with the presence of Ukrainian defence forces in the area. My first real combat situation was already in the fall.

We took part in assault actions, followed the main attacking group to the captured positions of the enemy. Everything was new back then. I remember how we were walking through a forest plantation, and in front, about two hundred meters, clouds of earth and smoke flew up into the sky, and a few seconds later there was a roar. I thought: “Christmas tree-sticks, but we are going exactly where this is happening.”

On the same day, for the first time, I hid from shelling in a trench and for the first time saw the dead bodies of enemy soldiers.

I thought it would be scarier, but in reality they looked like mannequins that someone folded on the ground

Then I realized how much more difficult it is to move around in military equipment. Before the invasion, I went hiking and sometimes with a twenty-kilogram backpack I could walk a hundred kilometres in a few days or ten kilometres without a halt. But in full armour, with a machine gun, a not very heavy backpack and, for example, some kind of anti-tank weapon, after a kilometre you literally fall.

Tell us how the relationship in the unit works: after all, anarchism is about horizontality, and army service is about verticality. How did you solve this dilemma?

The anti-authoritarian platoon followed the usual military hierarchy, but we introduced some additions. For example, in the platoon squads, every few days, a session of criticism and self-criticism, during which the decisions of the command and the training process were discussed.

Squad leaders were appointed by the platoon command, but squads elected deputies who were responsible, in part, for reporting criticism at the platoon level. Also, a media committee was elected by general vote, which regulated media activity in the platoon. In general, at the informal level, the unit had a fairly democratic culture of communication.

In my new unit, it’s a little different. Most people here are not politicized, and there are no special democratic institutions. However, in the past this is a volunteer unit, which then became part of, and the commander is very close in his views to anarchism. Therefore, more democratic customs prevail here than one can imagine in an ordinary army.

How did you end up in the new unit and what happened to the anti-authoritarian platoon?

The new command of the battalion cancelled our contracts. We were in the defence outside the state, and after the disbandment of the platoon, through acquaintances, we found a new unit, where we were accepted as volunteers. Now I am in the airborne assault troops.

The anti-authoritarian platoon ceased to exist partly because of the army bureaucracy: the backbone of the platoon was transferred from the Troop to a unit in which they saw more prospects. Some of the people remained in the defence, and foreign citizens who were never registered had to be sent home.

How did you become a volunteer and what is this status?

The procedure is simple: you find a volunteer unit or regular ZSU unit ready to accept you as a volunteer and join it. The most difficult thing is to find an adequate unit that works with volunteers. We were helped by personal connections.

A volunteer in Ukrainian realities is a special, not fully legally regulated, military status.

They do not receive a salary from the state, formally they have the right to the same medical care as an ordinary soldier, but in practice there are difficulties with this. At the same time, a volunteer can leave their unit at almost any time of their own free will.

What are your front-line everyday life like?

We are operating in the Svatovsky direction, which appeared after the autumn offensive of the Ukrainian defence forces and the liberation of vast territories in the Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk regions.

For the division of our profile, combat everyday life is a series of combat missions and respite. Combat missions take from several hours to several days. At these moments, concentration of forces and concentration, caution, attentiveness, speed of reactions, susceptibility to information, the ability to control one’s fear are required. And, finally, the ability to exert physical strength: to carry weights a certain distance, to live in an ice trench for several days and not really sleep.

There is also a “rest”, which can last either a few hours or ten or fourteen days. But we are not talking about rotations with a withdrawal to the rear, but about activities in the combat zone. Such a “rest” takes place in settlements a few kilometres from the front line and is also filled with worries: you need to prepare firewood, do laundry, and devote time to training.

But this, of course, is also an opportunity to kick back: to clean up, get enough sleep, contact loved ones, or just stick to the phone.

During these pauses, I try to conduct political media work: I communicate with journalists, I write for the social networks of the Resistance Committee .

What do you miss the most at the front? Are you tired of front-line everyday life?

At the front, there is a great lack of the opportunity to see loved ones, choose a circle of friends, the opportunity to be alone and relax, to think in detail about issues abstracted from military life, the usual free way of life and freedom of movement.

In the end, I quickly began to miss such small mundane pleasures as an unlimited warm shower or a glass of beer.

A year later, I can say that war is an extremely tedious task. The last months have been especially exhausting: since December, we have been intensively involved in hostilities and are subjected to increased loads. But I am encouraged by the conviction that our cause is right and by the example of revolutionary organizations whose partisans have been fighting not only for a year, but for decades.

How do your Ukrainian comrades in arms feel about you: were they surprised that a Russian is fighting alongside them?

While we were in a circle of like-minded people, in an anti-authoritarian platoon, there were no questions about the origin. First, I knew many of them even before the full-scale war. Secondly, anarchism is an international movement, and we are not surprised when a person fights against “his” state. After all, the state is the oppressor of the people.

When we then joined another unit, there were more questions, but not much. There were Russians in the unit before us, and they even performed leadership functions. In addition, since you are on the right side, you are treated in a comradely manner, not really separating you from the rest of the team.

However, there are also acute issues that revolve mainly around the theme of the collective responsibility of Russians for what is happening. For some Russians on the side of Ukraine, it is easy to break the mental and social connection with Russia, simply disown the rest of the country’s inhabitants, stop associating themselves with them.

For me, this is not an option. I feel a connection with my homeland, with the society and culture in which I was born and raised.

For me, this is a painful topic, and therefore it is very important for me that the situation in Russia changes radically.

You are at war against your fellow citizens: is it harder for you from this?

The nationality of a person does not affect my attitude towards him. I sincerely pity those who were dragged to Ukraine by force, and even those who, having once concluded a contract, did not think or did not assume that the situation would turn out this way. But I have no particular pity for ideological volunteers or people with mercantile motivation on the side of Putin: they chose evil of their own free will.

At the same time, even those who were forcibly mobilized, who took up arms with the occupying army, become an inevitable and legitimate target for me. They are invaders. There’s nothing to be done, it is necessary to fight against tyranny and its armed servants – this is a priority.

Why does the Russian army commit so many terrible war crimes?

The army of the Russian state in Ukraine is invaders, against whom the majority of the population of the occupied territories is opposed. This fact turns them into punishers and, in fact, executioners. I think everything here is very similar to the situation with Putin’s cops and Fsinovtsy. An authoritarian state, on the one hand, humiliates you by including you in a rigid militarized hierarchy, it also risks your life and at the same time gives you the green light to use unpunished violence against your enemies. This very situation and the institutional function of the occupying army pushes a person to a criminal sadistic attitude towards both prisoners and civilians who find themselves in the zone of his power and are perceived by him as prey.

Has your attitude towards Russia and Russians changed since the invasion?

In relation to Russia, I have more nagging pain, as if now an even stronger wall separates me from it than before. Although, it is quite possible that this crazy adventure will bury the Putin regime and give a chance for changes for the better, and hence for my return.

In general, my attitude towards people living in Russia has not changed much. I used to be burdened by humility, friability and our society. Although sometimes I involuntarily ask a rhetorical question to my compatriots: “Guys, how is it? The brutal dictatorship is committing terrible, bloody crimes on an unprecedented scale on your behalf, and you are all silent or, worse, nodding approvingly. What else do we need to see the light and take steps? However, this is rather an emotional note, nothing more, I do not look at every Russian as an accomplice in crime.

How do you think, when and how this war can end?

It’s very hard for me to guess. The bitterness and intensity of hostilities, as well as the lack of a clear advantage for either side, indicates that the war will not end tomorrow. Even the intensive phase will probably last a few more months – six months to a year or even longer. It is possible that the war will turn into a protracted conflict with successive sluggish periods and exacerbations.

As for the results of the war, one of the most negative options could be the “pupation” of the Putin regime in the Russian Federation, that is, the stabilization of the current state of the country.

In such a scenario, Russia will become ossified in reaction itself and will generate reaction and social negativity in Ukraine which risks turning into a militarized buffer zone of “containment” with growing militarization and nationalism, coupled with the curtailment of the state’s social programs. We are already seeing, for example, very troubling moves in the area of ​​labour law: strikes are prohibited, and in some cases the employer can choose which employees to give draft reservations, which becomes a powerful lever of power.

A more optimistic scenario seems to me an imminent military defeat of the Russian state or an over strain of the regime’s forces with its subsequent collapse. This process may be extremely painful, but only it will give our Russian society a chance to get out of the deepest, stinking abyss in which it has found itself. It will give you a chance to radically renew your institutions and embark on the path of building a decent, free and just life.

Where do you see your future: in Russia or Ukraine?

I deeply felt and loved Ukraine, but still I would like to return to Russia, contribute to its rescue and then live in it, free from dictatorship and oppression.

Image: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, CC BY-SA 2.0

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