With a truck, the siding now securely placed on and the brakes working (thanks to the handiwork of the Ukrainian Army), we moved on towards Donetsk. It was almost dusk when we linked up with the guys who would give us shelter for the evening – the infamous men of the Pravy Sektor.
The Pravy Sektor, as a political party, can be compared to the french Front Nationale, or the american Neo-Nazi Party. Born as the paramilitary force during the EuroMaidan protests in 2014, they have contributed to the legendary reputation of the Ukrainian soldiers at the Donetsk Airport which gave them the nickname “cyborgs”. They trace the flag, and their political influences, back to Stepan Bandera, a man who sided with Nazi Germany over Soviet Russia. Though their flags and graffiti can be seen all over Maiden Square, their politics are still deemed largely unpopular.
All this made me more nervous than the fact that we had driven down a narrow corridor, through the last Ukrainian check point into their patrol base which was surrounded on three sides by pro-Russian rebels.
I am generally cautious around militants and radicals. I’m very suburban that way.
They live in a wrecked shell of a neighborhood, in the basement of a three story home that had once been under construction; they have luxury items such as a stove, mattress-less bunk beds that they constructed themselves, and a doorless outhouse.
Still, this place has a well-lived-in feel, pleasantly comfortable and relaxed, with the flags of Ukraine and the Pravy Sektor on the far wall, and the drawings from small children hanging on the door.
First, one of the men offered me a seat. When I went looking around for something to use as an ashtray so I could light my cigarette, someone stood up and brought one to me, and said “We are gentlemen.”
I found them to be as jovial as any soldiers that make it back to their patrol base and was eventually comfortable enough to ask if they knew their own reputation as nazis.
One burst into laughter, then screamed “Hitler kaput!” and followed up with “Putin kaput!”
Another, subsequently more patient man explained that there are two very different entities that exists with the Pravy Sektor – the political, and the militant. It was clear that I was with the latter. While they all had great respect for Dmytro Yarosh as a military leader, some were more ambivalent about his politics.
“If a country has a Bill of Rights, something protecting individual rights, it has a future,” one of them said. Hardly the words of a xenophobic nationalist.
The evening progressed to a discussion on politics – which happened in Russian. Some were passionate, some were passive, some were completely apolitical because they had no faith in Ukraine’s infamously corrupt Parliament. I found that I could no more subscribe a single ideology within this unit than I could assume that every American soldier was a Bible-thumping farm boy fighting for an America of bacon, beer and mom’s apple pie.
I found them to be generally critical of a lot of things – they want to completely dissolve parliament, as the institutionalized corruption was so embedded that it was tearing the country apart from the inside. Generally, they seem to think that President Petro Poroshenko was “adequate” at best, but substandard in leading a war. They also feel that the regular Ukrainian Army lacked the military aggression to defeat the Kremlin-backed rebels.
One of them confided that he had no idea if he would ever vote for the Pravy Sektor. But politics were something to be concerned about later… not right now while the sound of artillery crashed outside.
The first concern was defeating the rebels and preventing people from suffering the same fate as the Crimea, where some of the soldiers are from.
“Things in Crimea are horrible,” said one man, “And there wasn’t even a war there!”
Their only common thread was the belief that an Independent Ukraine, one with it’s own agency without the manipulation of either east or west, must be won by sacrifice and blood.
Before each team goes out, their commander leads them in prayer. Gathered with their body armor and their kalashnakovs at their sides, they bow their heads and pray for protection. It’s a touchingly somber moment; those few instances shared among soldiers, where they admit that their fate is not so thoroughly in their hands. But it passes and they go outside with a renewed bravado.
When I prodded for a more personal reason for why they fight they admitted to a familiar mentality that has been the cornerstone of so many soldiers that came before them.
“My friends are here. We are like a family. Like brothers.”
Politics aside, for soldiers, thats often more than enough reason to keep going.