“I have no special pity for ideological volunteers or people with mercantile motivation on Putin’s side”
How an anarchist from Russia fights on the side of Ukraine
Ilya Leshiy (name changed) has been participating in combat operations as part of various Ukrainian formations and fighting Russian military aggression for a year now. DOXA talked to him about his everyday life at the front, his difficult volunteer status 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 lived in Ukraine?
I am in my early 30s, from the central region of Russia. I moved to Ukraine just under five years ago. I avoided leaving the country as much as I could, but I left when I learned about the interest of the security services in my modest persona.
What political activities did you engage in in Russia?
I am an anarcho-communist in my beliefs: a supporter of a society based on the principles of freedom, equality, solidarity and ecology with maximally developed structures of direct self-government.
I came to my convictions more than 15 years ago and have been involved in the anarchist movement in Russia for a long time. Year after year, like-minded people and I have tried to bring organization, radicalism and an element of healthy pragmatism to the practice of modern Russian anarchism.
I would keep the details to myself, I can only say that I and my comrades believe that an organizational structure is important for a successful struggle, and direct action, which includes guerrilla methods, is one of the most important tools for confronting the regime and the state.
Did you somehow continue your political activity in Ukraine?
In Ukraine we had initiatives among anarcho-emigrants from Russia and Belarus, a kind of diaspora. And so there was a lot of different things: from a film club and discussions to street actions. But the main thing was networking and trying to form systematic structures.
Did you expect a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine?
No, I did not expect it, and I perceived the preparation of our movement for war more as a safety net and an opportunity to work out organizational and mobilization mechanisms once again, to rehearse them.
It seemed to me, until the last moment, that what was going on was negotiation blackmail
Tell us how the movement prepared for the invasion?
The anarchist community in Kiev had worked out a plan of action in advance in case war broke out. We formed groups: one planned to join the TRO, the unit of our comrade Yuriy Samoilenko, who later died heroically in the battle in Bakaleya, and the other was going to start civilian volunteer activities: for example, to supply those comrades who joined the defense forces. Subsequently, from these plans grew the anti-authoritarian platoon and the “Operation Solidarity” and later the “Collectives of Solidarity”.
Can you remember February 24, 2022?
On February 24, I was in Kiev, outside the window of my apartment on the first floor I could already feel the commotion, and the rumble of explosions could be heard in the distance. I wrote to my comrades and went to a predetermined meeting point by the agreed time.
On the way, I saw long lines at ATMs, people with suitcases hurrying to the station or to the highways that lead to the exit from the city. All this filled my soul with excitement, but at the same time with the thrill of feeling that momentous events were unfolding.
I spent the first day with our volunteer initiative, mainly performing communication tasks: we gave interviews and established contacts with comrades in different cities and countries. And by the evening of the second day, I was already in the ranks of TRO. Yura Samoilenko and other comrades picked us up at the metro station and took us to the region, to the location of the unit.
Did you have any military experience?
I didn’t, but I did primary military training for quite a long time, even before I moved to Ukraine.
Like many of my comrades, I believed that the struggle for social change was closely linked to armed confrontation
What was it like in the defense? Were you given a uniform and uniforms and taught something or were you given a task straight away?
There was confusion at the TRO at first because of the huge number of people who wanted to join. The foreigners who arrived on the first day were given weapons after some bickering. We were the second batch [of volunteers] and had to wait several days for a contract to be signed and weapons and uniforms to be issued.
After that, we formed a unit of people who knew how to shoot and had some basic military training. This squad began to work as a rapid reaction group: they checked local residents’ reports of 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 at night, trying not to give ourselves away, and to listen to the actions of the opposing team, and we mastered thermal imaging – to look out for conditional visions.
Как ты осваивался в новой для себя роли? С какими сложностями тебе приходилось сталкиваться, к чему приходилось привыкать?
Приходилось сутками находиться в каске, бронежилете, РПС — к этому приходилось привыкать. Приходилось и учиться выстраивать здоровые отношения в коллективе, искать общий язык с очень разными людьми, адаптироваться к иерархии, не теряя при этом человеческое лицо. А когда уже дело дошло непосредственно до боевых действий, пришлось адаптироваться и к ним.
Can you remember what your first tour of duty was like?
Our conditional combat duty began back in late February in thero-defense as part of the rapid reaction group. However, in reality, we were more of an indication of the presence of Ukrainian defense forces in the area. My first real combat situation was already in the fall.
We took part in assault operations, followed the main attacking group into captured enemy positions. Everything was new then. I remember how we were walking through a wooded area, and ahead of us, about two hundred meters away, clouds of earth and smoke flew up into the sky, and a few seconds later there was a rumble. I thought, “Holy crap, we’re walking right where this is happening.
That same day I hid from shelling in a trench for the first time and saw the dead bodies of enemy soldiers for the first time.
I thought it would be scarier, and in fact they looked like mannequins that someone had stacked on the ground
It was then that I realized how much more difficult it was to move around in military gear. Before the invasion, I used to go hiking, and sometimes I could walk with a twenty-kilogram rucksack a hundred kilometers in a few days or ten kilometers without a break. But in full armor, with an automatic rifle, not a particularly heavy rucksack and, say, some anti-tank weapons, after a kilometer you literally fall down.
Tell us how the relationships in the unit are organized: anarchism is about horizontality, but army service is about verticality. How did you solve this dilemma?
The anti-authoritarian platoon had the usual military hierarchy, but we introduced some additions. For example, every few days the platoon had a “takmil,” a session of criticism and self-criticism, during which command decisions and the training process were discussed.
Squad leaders were appointed by the platoon command, but squads elected deputy commanders who were responsible, among other things, for reporting criticism at the platoon level. A media committee was also elected by general vote to regulate media activity in the platoon. Overall, at the informal level, the unit had a fairly democratic culture of communication.
It’s a little different in my new unit. Most people here are not politicized, and there are no special democratic institutions. However, in the past it was a volunteer unit, which then became part of the ZSU, and the commander is very close in his views to anarchism. Therefore, more democratic mores reign here than one can imagine in a regular army.
How did you end up in the new unit and what happened to the anti-authoritarian platoon?
The new battalion command canceled our contracts. We were out of state in terodorone, and after the platoon was disbanded we found a new unit through acquaintances, where we were accepted as volunteers. Now I am in the airborne assault troops.
The anti-authoritarian platoon ceased to exist partly because of army bureaucracy: the core of the platoon transferred from the TRO to a unit where they saw more prospects. Some people remained in the TRO, while foreign nationals who had never been processed had to go home.
How did you become a volunteer and what is that status?
The procedure is simple: you find a volunteer unit or a regular USO unit that is willing to accept you as a volunteer and join it. The hardest part is finding an adequate unit that works with volunteers. Personal connections helped us.
Volunteer in Ukrainian realities is a special, not fully regulated legally, military status
He does not receive a salary from the state, formally he is entitled to the same medical care as a regular serviceman, but in practice there are difficulties with this. At the same time, a volunteer can leave his unit almost at any time at his own will.
What does your life on the front lines look like?
We are operating in the Svatovsk direction, which appeared after the autumn offensive of the Ukrainian defense forces and the liberation of vast territories in Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
For a unit of our profile, a combat day is a succession of combat tasks and respites. Combat tasks take from several hours to several days. These moments require focus and concentration, caution, attentiveness, quick reactions, sensitivity to information, and the ability to control one’s fear. And, finally, the ability to exert physical strength: to carry heavy loads for a certain distance, to live in an icy trench for several days and not sleep.
There is also “rest”, which can last either a few hours or ten to fourteen days. But we are not talking about rotations with withdrawal to the rear, but about activities in the combat zone. Such “rest” takes place in settlements a few kilometers from the front line and is also filled with worries: we have to prepare firewood, do laundry, and take time to train.
But it’s also, of course, an opportunity to kick back: get cleaned up, get some sleep, connect with loved ones, or just stare at your phone.
During these same pauses, I try to do political media work: I talk to journalists and write for the social networks of the Resistance Committee.
What do you miss most of all at the front? Do you get tired of everyday life at the front?
At the front, the opportunity to see close people, to choose one’s own circle of socialization, the opportunity to be alone and relax, to think thoroughly about issues distracted from the military life, the usual free way of life and freedom of movement are severely lacking.
After all, I pretty quickly began to miss small mundane pleasures like an unlimited warm shower or a mug of beer
A year later, I can say that war is an extremely tiring occupation. The last few months have been particularly exhausting: since December we have been intensely involved in the fighting and have been subjected to increased stress. But I am encouraged by the conviction in the rightness of our cause and by the example of revolutionary organizations, whose partisans have been fighting not just for a year, but for decades.
How do your Ukrainian comrades-in-arms treat you: were they surprised that a Russian was fighting alongside them?
As long as we were among like-minded people, in an anti-authoritarian platoon, there were no questions of origin. First, I knew many of them 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 by much. There were Russians in the unit before us, and they even had leadership roles. Besides, if you are on the right side, you are treated as a comrade, without being separated from the rest of the team.
However, there are also sharp questions that revolve mainly around the theme of Russians’ collective responsibility for what is happening. It is easy for some Russians on the side of Ukraine to break their mental and social ties with Russia, to simply disassociate themselves from the rest of the country’s inhabitants, to stop associating themselves with them.
This is not an option for me. I feel connected to my homeland, to the society and culture in which I was born and grew up.
This is a painful topic for me, and that is why it is very important to me that the situation in Russia fundamentally changes
You are at war against your fellow citizens: does it make it harder for you?
A person’s nationality does not affect my attitude towards him. I sincerely feel sorry for those who were dragged to Ukraine by force, and even for those who, having once signed a contract, did not think or did not suppose that the situation would turn out this way. But I have no special pity for the ideological volunteers or people with mercantile motivation on Putin’s side: they chose evil of their own free will.
That said, even the forcibly mobilized who have taken up arms of the occupying army become an inevitable and legitimate target for me. They are invaders. There is nothing to be done, tyranny and its armed servants must be fought – that is the priority.
Why does the Russian army commit so many gruesome war crimes?
The army of the Russian state in Ukraine are invaders, against whom the majority of the population of the captured territories is set against. This fact turns them into punishers and, in fact, executioners. I think here everything is very similar to the situation with Putin’s cops and fsinovtsy. The authoritarian state, on the one hand, humiliates you by including you in a rigid militarized hierarchy, on the other hand, it risks your life and at the same time gives you the green light for unpunished violence against your enemies. This very situation and the institutional function of the army of occupation pushes a man into 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.
Did your attitude towards Russia and Russians change after the invasion?
There is more of a pinching pain in my attitude towards Russia, as if I am now separated from it by an even stronger wall than before. Although it is quite possible that this crazy adventure will bury the Putin regime and give a chance for change for the better, and thus for my return.
In general, my attitude towards people living in Russia has not changed much. I have been weighed down by the submissiveness, laxity, and bourgeoisness of our society before. Although sometimes I sometimes find myself asking my compatriots a rhetorical question: “Guys, how can this be? A furious dictatorship is committing terrible, bloody crimes of unprecedented scale on your behalf, and you all remain silent or, worse, nod approvingly. What more do we need to wake up and take action?”. However, this is more of an emotional note, nothing more; I do not look at any Russian as an accomplice to a crime.
When and how do you think this war might end?
It is very difficult for me to assume that. The ferocity and intensity of the fighting, as well as the lack of a clear advantage for either side, indicates that the war will not end tomorrow. Even the intense phase will probably last for several more months – six months to a year or even longer. It is not excluded that the war will turn into a protracted conflict with successive sluggish periods and aggravations.
As for the results of the war, one of the most negative options could be the “pupation” of Putin’s regime in the Russian Federation, that is, the stabilization of the current state of the country.
In such a scenario, Russia will harden its own reaction 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 worrying steps in the area of labor law: strikes are banned, and in some cases employers can choose which employees to give a draft exemption, which is becoming a powerful lever of power.
A more optimistic scenario seems to me to be the imminent military defeat of the Russian state or the overstretching of the regime’s forces, followed by its collapse. This process may be extremely painful, but it is the only one that will give our Russian society a chance to climb out of the deepest stinking abyss in which it finds itself. It will give a chance to fundamentally renew its institutions and embark on the path of building a decent, free and fair life.
Where do you see your future: in Russia or Ukraine?
I deeply felt and loved Ukraine, but I would still like to return to Russia, contribute to its recovery and then live there, free from dictatorship and oppression.