At around four in the morning on February 24, 33-year-old Russian paratrooper Pavel Filatyev woke up next to his fellow soldiers in their ammunition-laden truck to the sound of rockets being fired at Ukrainian positions.
In the days leading to the invasion, Filatyev’s unit was moved closer to the Ukrainian border and ordered to hand in their phones, so they had no way to check the internet or call friends to ask what was really going on. All he knew was he was part of a vast contingent of troops moving towards the Ukrainian mainland.
“I understood this was a real, full-scale war, but for the first few days I didn’t know what exactly was happening. I thought maybe NATO really is attacking us?” he pondered.
After more than six months of war, firsthand accounts from front-line Russian soldiers are trickling out. The most detailed comes from Filatyev, who hastily typed up a 104-page memoir of two months’ combat, titled Zov, which he then uploaded on the Russian social networking site VK.
“I couldn’t just drop my weapons and run away, because for a warrior that’s cowardice. Not everyone understands this, but we’re held hostage by our own patriotism,” he said.
“I decided if I get out of this alive, I’ll do everything in my power to stop it. I decided the best I could do was write everything down – what I thought, what I felt, when I was afraid – without any exaggerated heroism.”
Filatyev wanted to show Russian readers what he says is the truth, compared to what they might have seen on TV.
Filatyev hails from a military family.
His father served in Chechnya, where he would later be posted himself during his first stint in the airborne forces from 2007 to 2010.
Last year, searching for a dependable salary, he re-enlisted in his father’s old unit. Stationed in Crimea, he saw firsthand a chronic shortage of equipment, the result of widespread corruption in the supply chain.
The equipment that was there was old and worn out.
“I only received a bulletproof vest at the very last moment before crossing the border,” he said. “Everyone knows such incidents when 10 men are sent out with two helmets and bulletproof vests, and told to sort it out between themselves. The situation is so absurd that a lot of people are buying their own clothing, equipment, boots, before being sent to war.”