With the conflict in Donbass no longer at its peak, many Russian volunteers have come back home. I met some of them in St Petersburg and discovered a very peculiar concept of war which might be explained through the Russian identity.
The museum of “Novorossiya” is in the center of St. Petersburg, at the same address as the Alexander Blok apartment museum. The entrance to the latter is signaled and easily recognizable from the street, while the former is not so easy to find. Situated at the very end of a gloomy courtyard, the museum is a monument to Russian patriotism and military pride. It is dedicated to the civil war that for almost two years has been raging on in Donbass, southeast Ukraine. Russian nationalists call this territory “Novorossiya” as it was known at the time of the Russian Empire.
The main part of the exhibition is a collection of pictures showing men in military suits with rifles and guns in their hands. They are the Russian volunteers who have been fighting alongside the separatists in Donbass. The “Wall of Memory” is entirely dedicated to those who lost their lives in the conflict. Next to it, the “wall of pride” celebrates the victories achieved by the United Armed Forces of Novorossiya. Another section of the museum displays war trophies: Passports, emblems and other items taken from dead Ukrainian soldiers. Among them the red and black flag of the Ukrainian Right Sector, meant to be juxtaposed soon with a flag of ISIS.
“The two banners represent the same kind of evil” explains Konstantin, veteran and curator of the exhibition. When asked about the possibility of an interview, he politely declined. Konstantin doesn’t trust journalists ever since a foreign correspondent once manipulated his words to promote anti-Russian propaganda. He told me though that many other volunteers are back in town and would be glad to share their experiences.
Ruslan Aleksandrovich is a member of the nationalist movement “Russkoe Imperskoe Dvizhenie” (Russian Imperial Movement). In Donbass he was appointed commander of the “Russian Imperial Legion” in light of his long-term background in the military. Ruslan was seriously injured in the battle of Starobeshovo and he is now disabled. Nevertheless, when recalling the time spent fighting for Novorossiya, his voice still shakes with enthusiasm. “Being a volunteer is not a choice, a profession or a point of view: it is a state of the soul. (…) There are just two options: either you are a man, a warrior, a protector, a brother, or you are just scum”.
Many Russian patriots believe their identity to be closely linked to the image of war and conflict. Yan served in the Armed Forces of Novorossiya from the summer of 2014 to the summer of 2015. He is interested in ancient history and ethnology and even his looks remind you of a modern Viking. “War is a familiar concept for Russian people. We have been at war all along our history, fighting for our independence and for resources for the generations to come” he says.
War is a familiar concept for Russian people. We have been at war all along our history, fighting for our independence, for resources, for the generations to come
Russian lands have been threatened many times by foreign invaders. In ancient times, the Mongols occupied them for more than two centuries until their defeat by the princes of Moscow in the battle of Kulikovo. In more recent history the threat has often come from the west. Both Napoleon and Hitler tried to subjugate Russia but their attempts ended in catastrophe. Russian patriots fighting in Donbass often draw inspiration from the Russian military past.
Evgenyj is a young activist in the nationalistic left wing party “Drugaya Rossiya”. Before leaving for Donbass he had no military background. Nevertheless, remembrance of the wars and sacrifices his ancestors had to make awakened patriotic feelings in him. “After hearing from the news that innocent people were suffering in Ukraine, I looked at the picture of my grandfather hanging on the wall. He was a veteran of World War Two. In that moment I realized I had to do something.”
The Orthodox religion is a fundamental part of Russian national identity and volunteers take it quite seriously by on the front. Ruslan boasts the military proudness of the “Imperial Legion” explaining its military success as the expression of God’s will. “We are Russians – God is with us” he says.
Pavel and Andrey were also members of the “Imperial Legion” and both argue that some kind of supernatural power was fighting on the side of Russian volunteers. “Andrej stepped on a landmine and the explosion tore off his leg. He lost four liters of blood. After that the chance of survival is next to nothing. Nevertheless he is still alive!” When describing these sorts of miraculous events, Ruslan uses the folkloristic expression “chuda bogatyryj”. In the medieval Russian tradition, bogatyri were legendary protectors of the Russian land, capable of extraordinary deeds.
Yan believes in the ancient gods venerated by the Slavic people before the adoption of Orthodoxy. Perun, the god of war, has an important place in his pantheon. Both his arms are fully covered by tattoos depicting Scandinavian and Slavic history and mythology. One of the main figures represents Prince Sviatoslav Igorovich, who defeated the Casarsky Kaganat, expanding the Russian state in the tenth century.
“Every educated person should learn about his ancestors. Who they were, where they used to live, what they were fighting for, and what they died for” says Yan. In Donbass he was a member of the volunteer squad “Rusich”, named after the cradle of Slavic civilization, Ancient Rus. Most of the territories originally belonging to Ancient Rus are now part of Ukraine. “Ukraine has been always populated by Russians, Russians spilled their blood for it, fought for it, it belonged to the USSR and before that to the Russian Empire” claims Yan, giving voice to what most of his comrades think.
Every educated person should learn about his own ancestors. Who they were, where they used to live, what they were fighting for, what they died for
After the conflict in Donbass stabilized, Yan came back home. In St Petersburg he carries on his duty as a Russian patriot, introducing young nationalists to the basics of warfare.
“We teach young people why they should love their motherland. We introduce them to the basics of military strategy and combat, hoping one day they will become worthy reserves.”
Still, the war in Ukraine is not taking place only on the battlefield. It also reflects the old cultural clash between Eurasia led by Russia and the West represented by the USA. Russian nationalists considers the latter to be materialistic and morally corrupted, therefore the “Russian world” needs to stand up for its traditional values.
“When I say that a Russian man must be a warrior, I mean it in a broad sense. One can fight battles in many ways, through diplomacy and law as well” clarifies Yan.