‘I will do my best not to kill’: Russian soldier tells of life in occupied Ukraine

Servicemen guard on a street, as Russia's military operation in Ukraine continues, in Russian-controlled Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia region on 20 April 2022. (Credit: Keystone/Sputnik)

Sergei is a lieutenant in the Russian-controlled city of Melitopol, in the region of Zaporizhzhya, in southeastern Ukraine. Speaking under a pseudonym to protect his identity, he depicts life in an underfunded Russian military, living in close quarters with fellow soldiers and stealing food rations from civilians. He explains why he stays: he dreams of leaving the army and buying a house in Ukraine one day.

On 25 February, I received a phone call from my commanding officer saying that I would soon be going on a business trip. He didn't tell me where, but I immediately understood that it was Ukraine. Before leaving, I signed a contract stating that once I crossed the border, everything would be top secret. But I think it is important to tell some things.

When the lists of soldiers were drawn up, I learned that half of those who were supposed to leave had refused. They were replaced by “troublemakers”, those who drink and do their job poorly, who volunteered because they were threatened with being fired and wanted to rehabilitate themselves before the military command.

I wished up until the last minute that the trip would be cancelled. Then I learnt that we would be in the rear troops. I bought a ticket that the military would pay back upon my return, but no one knows when because deployment for “special missions” is indefinite.

Each serviceman gets $53 a day on top of his salary, whether stationed at the front or the rear. My paycheck comes as scheduled but I haven’t seen this extra money for the past month and a half. I'm thinking of buying dollars at the current exchange rate and saving up for a down payment on a house.

‘I have to sacrifice my freedom or my conscience’

When I arrived in Melitopol, I decided not to do anything I would regret later, like shooting Ukrainians. I haven’t thought about what would happen if I killed someone. On the first day, I called my Ukrainian relatives and told them that I was here, that I didn't support the war, and they said: “There's only one person to condemn – Putin.”

My mother told me that if I crossed the front line in a tank, I would be given political asylum in Ukraine and a million dollars. But I don't have a tank. If there is absolutely no way out, I will consider surrendering. Right now, of course, I'm not going to do that. Anyway, I would like to live in Russia, to be free and have a clear conscience. But in this situation, I have to either sacrifice my freedom or my conscience.

I hoped that there would be no internet connection, and I would take a break here. I took some books with me, but the connection works and I end up going on Telegram every two days. Everyone asks me how I'm doing, and I say “everything's fine”. They probably think I'm saying that so they don't worry, but I really am ok.

Stew every day

Where we’re staying looks like a cheap hotel. There’s a kettle, an electric stove, a shower, even wifi and a washing machine, but it is almost always occupied. There are several of us per room. One of our neighbours even has a TV.

But there aren’t enough rations for everyone. Sometimes we eat the food brought by humanitarian aid for civilians. I once helped the members of the food service team and now I have unlimited access to the supplies. I eat stew every day – more than in my whole life.

We captured a Ukrainian unit, and we took a pot and pan from them. I also traded my military iron cup for a nicer container, which I found in a building. One of us also stole a vacuum cleaner so that we don't live like pigs. We only take what we need.  I don't see the point of breaking into a house, stealing and sending things home.

‘Come on, occupiers, let's get dinner!’

Our group often calls Ukrainian servicemen “Khokhols” or “Ukrops” [Editor’s note: ethnic slur referring to traditional Ukrainian hairstyle, or to Ukrainians supporting the Euromaidan revolution]. The word “Ukrainian” is rarely uttered. We call the locals “locals” or “civilians”, and it makes us laugh when they call us “occupier”" or “Russian orcs”. Sometimes I tell my fellow soldiers, “Come on, occupiers, let's go to dinner!”

In my unit, the guys talk a lot, they say: “Khokhols are faggots, they kill civilians.” And sometimes I can't take it anymore, so I answer:

“Our soldiers also shoot at civilians. Do you realise that we have declared war on them?

– These Nazis have lost their minds, they are trying to join NATO.

– It’s a sovereign country, they can do what they want.

– These Nazis have no rights.”

But which Nazis are they talking about? Honestly, I haven't seen any of them here. Blaming Ukraine for wanting to join NATO is like blaming a friend for dating a girl.

‘Ukrainians will live better after the war’

In eight years of conflict in the Donbas, the Khokhols have had time to strengthen their army. Ours has not been very successful. They are fully of confidence and consider the Russians as occupiers, which I fully agree with.

At the beginning of 2021, I went to rallies in Moscow – without a uniform of course. I was prepared to be detained and had made a list of people to whom I would leave my dog. I had prepared my documents, food and water, and withdrew money. But I wasn’t arrested. None of my unit mates know that I participated in the protests.

When I heard about Bucha, I recalled the police officers who had thrown their uniforms in the garbage after the rallies. I wanted to do the same, but to my shame, I didn’t. The financial issue came up and my contract held me back. I joined the army directly after school – I'm used to living in a service apartment and getting paid no matter what.

I am sure that Ukrainians will live better after the war because Ukraine is receiving a lot of European and American funding. Ukraine used to be an ordinary country, but now it has the attention of the whole world. While it will remain free and democratic, repression will increase in Russia.

Even before the war, I was thinking of moving. If I could choose, I would go to Ukraine because the Ukrainian mentality is similar to ours. But it is true that I have not yet thought about how I would hide the fact that I used to be a Russian soldier.

The unabridged version of this article was first published in Russian by independent media Holod, a partner of Geneva Solutions on its project Ukraine Stories.