The shabby, creaking, rattling night train from Kyiv to Slavyansk is full of Ukrainian soldiers on leave, getting drunk. They roam the carriages until three a.m, maudlin and aggressive and teary-eyed and tired.
One of them is on his way home to Donetsk. He’s been with the Ukrainian special forces for two years, and based in East Ukraine for the last few months with the army, fighting militants from the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic – the DNR. Now he’s on his way home to his family.
“My family is the only reason I’m fighting,” says Andriy – let’s call him that.
His family lives in Donetsk, which flies the DNR flag. Donetsk is full of his enemies: men he’s been fighting during the last few months. Men he grew up with. From Slavyansk he will get on a crowded, rattling bus and pass the checkpoints on the road to Donetsk, first the Ukrainian and then the DNR checkpoints although it is not always clear which is which when everyone speaks the same language and grew up in the same towns; pass them hopefully anonymously, because as a Ukrainian soldier going home to DNR-held Donetsk, he is a traitor to both sides.
“It’ll be ok,” he says slurrily. “They all know me; I have relatives everywhere.”
Next day in Donetsk, a militant from the DNR’s Vostok Battalion tells me he is local. Ostap – let’s call him that – thinks I am wondering if he is a Russian mercenary, because he adds: “I’m not just from Donetsk, I served for 20 years in the Ukrainian army.”
Ostap says he’s fighting against that army now because “the Ukrainian army is a crock of shit,” – and he and his fellow militants guffaw. Unlike Andriy, unarmed, out of uniform, and travelling in the cheapest platzkart railway carriage, Ostap is driving a shiny jeep full of weapons; along with the rifles he and all the others carry there’s a grenade, a knife and a pistol stuffed in the pocket of the door next to me.
Ostap says he knows personally some of the people he is fighting against. “Lots of them want to kill me, they say they want my head.” There is a pause. “But I’ve still got my head.”
Later he says, “It wasn’t an easy decision.” He was loyal to the Ukrainian army til February this year, when he was on Maidan and saw special forces officers get shot in the head. After that, when his commander said “Let’s go and kill the separatists in East Ukraine,” he said, “fuck you”, deserted, and joined the rebels.
His family is in Donetsk, his mother and wife and children. “If my dad knew what I was doing he’d kill me. Like Taras Bulba – you know that story?”
I do; it’s a famous Gogol story about the 18th century Cossack-Polish wars, and about a man with two sons.
Taras Bulba the Ukrainian Cossack took his two sons to war, and lost them both. He killed his traitor son Andriy, who fell in love with a Polish girl caught in a Cossack siege. When the siege was lost, Taras watched his loyal son Ostap be tortured and killed by the victorious Poles.
I wonder which son this militant I’ve called Ostap really identifies with. I wonder if the soldier on the train, the one I’ve called Andriy, knows this story. Andriy wouldn’t say what his father thinks about what his son is doing; whether his father would kill him, or would watch him die.
I tell Ostap the militant about Andriy the soldier coming home to Donetsk. “Oh, we know about them, there are lots of them,” says Ostap. “We hate them.”
It has gone very quiet in the jeep. Not far away, explosions boom. “Civil war,” says Andriy or Ostap. “This is civil war. And it is hell.”
Taras Bulba, 2014 style