How the Russian Servicemen Are Deserting and Escaping Russia so as Not to Kill in the War

IStories found military officers who fled Russia — they told us about the war crimes they have witnessed and why it is almost impossible to leave the Russian army

Date
15 Aug 2023
How the Russian Servicemen Are Deserting and Escaping Russia so as Not to Kill in the War
Photo: IStories

Under the new Russian laws, deserters face up to 15 years in prison. And while some sign contracts and go to war, others are ready to do anything to escape from it. 

IStories talked to three military officers who fled Russia so as not to kill. They told about the war crimes they witnessed, why it is almost impossible to leave the Russian army, and why no one is advised to sign a contract. 

The servicemen shared their stories on condition of anonymity, and their names are known to the editorial staff of IStories.

“I heard how three Ukrainian citizens were shot”

Alexander, a military officer

“The army is a lifesaver”

After high school, I enrolled in a military academy. I can't say it was my decision — my parents insisted on it. Perhaps so that I wouldn't become some kind of bad guy. There aren't many ways to earn money in the [Russian] provinces. For a region in Russia, 40,000 rubles [≈$400 at the rate of exchange as of August 15, 2023] is a big salary. If you have no education, if you are muddle-headed, the army is a lifesaver.

On the one hand, I didn't want to serve at all, on the other — I was interested in what I was capable of. So I decided it was a good option since I'm not from a rich family — they feed me, and they clothe me.

I joined the army in 2016. I remember well the first days when I crossed the checkpoint. I began to have doubts immediately: the people there, I apologize, are illiterate, mostly idiots. 

On the second day I wrote a resignation letter and took it to the commander. My relatives told me: “How could you? You betrayed our family!” They started brainwashing me: “The army is your path of life. You have to, you have to, you have no other choice.” My immediate commander also picked up on this: “Everything is great in the army, we have medical care, we’ll give you a good education, you’ll wear a uniform, you’ll have a salary, stability.” I wrote a few more [resignation] letters, but I stayed because of my mother, because she insisted.

“I despised such commanders”

Since the fourth year, I tried to resign: I failed the course sessions, did not go to the formations, and lay on the bed for a month. Then the head of a faculty, a colonel, came to me and said: “Get out of bed, go to work. We’ll send you to the brig [military prison] now. You’ll sit there, come to your senses, then you’ll do everything like clockwork.” I despised such commanders. 

I signed a service contract in my second year of study — it was a necessary measure for further education. After all, I finished the academy. But I had a big fight with my commanding officers because they didn’t fire me, and so after graduation I was sent to the Russian countryside, to a motorized infantry unit, even though it wasn’t my specialty. I arrived at the unit and a month later, after receiving some payments, I submitted another resignation letter.

It was back in 2021, I tried to quit six months before the war started. I didn’t go on service, left the garrison, committed all sorts of violations. Then I just took a plane ticket and flew home for a week. I was writing resignation letters every day, giving them to the commander, and he was tearing them up in front of me. In a normal job, you come, write a letter, and within two weeks you have to be released. This is not the case in the army.

When I got to the superior officer, he said: “You took over your affairs and your position in the army a month ago. Are you aware that you have a shortage of material assets?” I knew about the shortage, but I didn’t look into it because I thought I was going to quit. It turned out that the shortage amounted to 46 million rubles: a few defective autos, equipment, military vehicles. From that moment on, I had to go on service and cover the shortfall, pay something out of my own pocket, and make repairs.

I couldn’t quit my job with a shortage like that! If the shortage is more than 1.5 million, I should be prosecuted for negligence. How could I spend 46 million in a month in the army? But I couldn’t prove it. When I tried to get justice, I was told: “Everyone [in the army] serves like that, they don’t swear, they sit on their asses.”

I was offered a payoff. I agreed that I would find equipment that my predecessor had given away without any markings in the documents. I ran around the unit, collecting it all. Sometimes I offered money to get the equipment back. I tried to collect at least something of what I should have according to the documents.

“The commander drew a large penis on the report”

After the New Year holidays [in the beginning of 2022] we were told that we were all going on an exercise trip to the annexed Republic of Crimea. The commander of the unit gathered us on the formation and told us that no one was going to fight, but we were going to the same exercises as were held six months ago. This is standard procedure for a soldier of a combat unit: several times a year he goes for an exercise, where he drinks vodka, has fun and after two months he goes back. In 90% of cases, these exercises are a fake; everything is done for the sake of pro forma, for the bosses.

The speech of the unit commander influenced most of the servicemen. Some believed that we were really going on exercises, others suspected that there would be some clashes, but no one thought that war would start. Nobody believed that. But I didn’t believe the commanders, according to the old Russian precept: “Don’t trust the state.” There was a bad feeling.

The lawyers advised me to write a report refusing the duty journey. We understood perfectly well that this report would have no effect on anything, just like all the previous ones. But I tried. The commander drew a large penis on this report.

“I did not realize who we were going to fight against”

In early February, we went to Crimea. I realized that this was not a training exercise closer to February 15–16, when combat orders began to arrive allowing tracked vehicles to move on the asphalt road. That’s when I realized something big was going down. 

Well, how do you get off? If you’re a regular soldier, you can fake something, like illness... But if you’re an officer, you’re in charge of men and machines. You be like, “Sorry, I’m sick, can I not go?” or “I refuse to take part in this, it’s a criminal war.” And you will be taken away with the military police and be charged with the criminal offense. 

When we entered Crimea, my subordinates did not ask questions. They were contract soldiers, not the first year in the army, and they understood perfectly well that a word against them would result in penalties.

Sometime on February 23, we were ditched closer to the border. We stopped in a wooded area. The order came to refuel all the vehicles. We were given ammunition, weapons and two magazines each. And so on February 24th we crossed the border by a shattered checkpoint. At the first stop, I approached my immediate commander and asked: “Did we attack Ukraine? Why did we go outside the Russian Federation? What’s going on?” To which I received an answer: “Wait 10 days, we will stand here for a while and go back home. Everyone will earn the veteran certificates and receive payments.” No one expressed dissatisfaction. But there were dissatisfied people. The mood was “sit down and keep quiet.”

What could I do? Get out of the vehicle and say, “I’m going home?” Desert, flee somewhere in the forests of Ukraine? Also a hopeless situation. I realized one thing then: I had to look for some legal way out of the situation. I had to return to Russia under some pretext.

No one explained to us what was going on. Everyone was in a complete panic. The units were in chaos: no one knew what to do, everyone was trying to call somewhere, to find out something from someone. The command planned to move on, the commanders ordered to take up defenses at every stopping point. And I was trying to get to the bottom of it, and figure out how to survive — that was the main question.

I did not realize who we were going to fight against. I did not believe that there were fascists in Ukraine or any of this bullshit, and neither did most of those around me. But the answer was — against the army, which is defending its home, its country, its state, its sovereignty.

Why couldn’t we revolt if there were many dissenters? Interesting question, everyone can shoot the breeze, but to move to real actions.... The army isn’t about ideological people. They’re paid to kill, to follow orders. Like, some major has already 10–12 years of service, he has a military mortgage, everything is good in his life, he does not need to change anything. This person is already rooted to the army system, he is already “part of the ship.”

Russian military equipment enters the Kherson region of Ukraine from Crimea through the Kalanchak border checkpoint (February 24, 2022)
Russian military equipment enters the Kherson region of Ukraine from Crimea through the Kalanchak border checkpoint (February 24, 2022)
Photo: State Border Guard Service of Ukraine / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

“I had a gun, but I did not shoot”

I stayed on the territory of Ukraine from February to the end of summer [2022]. I did not take part in any combat. My task was to provide supplies. Quite often we came under fire, hiding in cellars and trenches.

I had a gun, but I did not shoot. Now some can say that I am just another “Russian who didn’t shoot.” But this war is primarily an artillery war, that is, the enemies may not even see each other, be in different villages, inflict fire damage, and then go directly into a populated area. Only in this case you can see the enemy. I traveled mostly through villages, urban-type settlements. I did not see any fighting, but I was on the front line.

Nothing good on the front line — constant shelling, fear. Deaths on both sides. I saw the first wounded from our side already on February 25, when we were still traveling in columns. Before that, in normal life I had never seen corpses. But in war it does not excite you so much. There is a dead comrade next to you, but you can’t do anything about it. You get over yourself and realize that you have to act to avoid becoming like him. 

“For what reason they were shot, I don’t know”

We were moving in a column to one of the settlements. The vehicle of the unit commander was in the lead, and he was accompanied by two cars of special forces units. On the way we met a car with three men in it. They were stopped by special forces on the order of the unit commander. Further on I heard a radio broadcast of the brigade commander’s negotiations with these special forces. 

I was passing by when the special forces with weapons stripped these men — three citizens of Ukraine — to the waist, they were all in civilian clothes. The special forces were talking to the brigade commander: he said to check for tattoos, to take documents, and then ordered to shoot the three people, I heard it on the radio. I had already passed the place and heard three shots. It could hardly have been anything else. For what reason they were shot, I don’t know. But I can be sure that they were not interrogated to find out anything — only two minutes had passed. 

It happened in the first days of the war. Somewhere around the end of April, I got on the Internet, saw Bucha, read what was being tweeted.... I realized that we were not treated very well, but I did not expect this.

I have been talking to civilians myself. The problem is that in one village you can be greeted as a hero, and in another — as an occupant. And you do not know where the truth is and where the lies are. Some people say: “We were really shelled by the Ukrainians here.” This is closer to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Russian TV channels are broadcast there, I think people say that because they are zombified. Now I can look at the situation reasonably, but back then, after talking to some people, you realize that you are an occupant, and after talking to others, you realize that you are a hero. And you have a dissonance.

“My relatives said I am a betrayer”

Around mid-summer we started being sent on vacation to Russia. I was sent with the second group. After that, I refused to perform any duties and wrote a resignation letter. I was told at the time that everyone who refused would be dismissed, and here was my chance.

Everything was in order. At the beginning of September, an attestation commission took place, at which they made a unanimous decision to dismiss me. The documents went to Moscow, because officers should be dismissed by the Minister of Defense, who signs the orders. And then mobilization began. I was told: “Pack your bags, you’re going back.” And at that moment I realized that I couldn’t go back. My morals would not allow me to go back. 

I only had a Russian internal passport [in Russia a regular, so-called internal passport and a travel passport are different documents; in 2023 one can use an internal Russian passport to visit Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and also occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia which are internationally recognised as parts of Georgia]. This meant that I had to choose between Armenia and Kazakhstan for my escape. I went for Kazakhstan because it was closer and cheaper.

My relatives did not support me. They said that I was a betrayer, that if necessary, they would take up arms themselves and go to war. I replied: “Well, you are idiots, I have nothing more to say to you. I have been trying to explain to you all these years how bad things are in the army. I came from the war, told you all this, showed you videos, showed you photos. You didn’t believe me.” I gave up on it. We are not in touch to this day. 

To those who want to sign a contract with the Russian army, I would like to say: under no circumstances should you do so. It endangers your life, health and freedom. This is not your war. If you have a [travel] passport, you can try to get a visa to another country. It’s stressful, tense, it’s paperwork problems. It’s unclear what will happen next. But it’s much better than being at war. Yes, I did that and I am now a betrayer to my country, let them think so. Time will sort things out.

“I don’t consider myself a betrayer. How can you be a criminal in the eyes of criminals?”

Dmitri, a military officer

“Deal with the devil”

I am from a small village far from Moscow, but I decided to enter a Moscow technical university to study design engineering. I did not have any plans for the future: I just did what I had to do. You have to enter, you have to study, you have to get a good education. I did not have enough points for a dormitory. I did not want to ask my parents [for help], and it would have been impossible: salaries in our village are small. Going to work to the detriment of my education did not suit me. 

The university advised me to apply to a military training center — something like a military department at a civilian university. But those who study at the military center sign a contract and [after graduation] go to serve for at least three years. You pay back the debt for being helped during your studies with a dormitory and given a small scholarship — such a deal with the devil. 

For the first couple of years you are almost untouched. From the third to the fifth year, military training already begins — four or five classes, various military subjects. We were trained as officers. They organized trips to military units, where we had practical training, that is, where it should have been. They had to show us the equipment, tell us how to operate it and all that. But in the end we were put with conscripts and we were just laborers: digging trenches, cleaning the territory. They would not even let us near the equipment. 

Photo: IStories

Did I think much when I was 20? Not at all. I came in, signed this piece of paper, really without looking at it: “It’s no big deal — I’ll serve three years.” But when I finished studying, I already had some idea of life and realized that the army was not a place where I wanted to spend three years, and even with the possibility of leaving and not returning.

There was a clause in the contract that if you stopped studying (you were expelled or left on your own), you would pay three times the amount that the Ministry of Defense had paid for you. In fact, you are held hostage by the Ministry. For me, this amount was 2 million rubles.

Create Important Stories with us
Together we can tell more stories from Russia

February 24th [2022] I had a terrible experience. At that time I was finishing my diploma and was to become a military officer in a few months. I was on my way to work and learned that war had broken out. Horror, panic. What’s going to happen next? What to do?

But the debt to the Ministry of Defense was huge, I could not hang it on myself. And my parents said: “Serve for a while, then you’ll think about it.”

“You need to squeeze your balls in a fist like a man and go serve!”

My contract started in July 2022. I arrived at the unit and was introduced to my immediate commander. He told me that I would be charged with a bunch of broken equipment that had been sitting around for years. No one had taken care of it, and I was obliged to restore it and take material responsibility for it.

A few years in a military training center gave me nothing. At university, we received the absolute minimum: we only learned how to march in formation. After such training, what kind of qualified specialist am I?

The military lawyer explained to me briefly what to do to quit. The day after my arrival, I went to the unit commander. I said that I was not a military man, knew nothing about my specialty and did not want to serve: please dismiss me.

Nobody liked it. They told me how bad I was, how I was a betrayer, how I was not a man. They said: “You gave your word, you signed a contract. You need to squeeze your balls in a fist like a man and go serve!”

I started to sabotage the service: I went away for a few days, brought my cell phone to the unit. They started threatening me with a criminal case, promising that they would put me in jail, but it did not work on me. My immediate commander, when he once again took me to the unit commander for a talk, said: “It would be easier for me to take you to the forest and shoot you.” When I once again went away and then returned, my commanders said: “Next time we’ll handcuff you to the radiator here, and you won’t go anywhere.”

Many of the officers I’ve talked to have not a nice attitude toward the army. They are, of course, pro-government people. But if they had the opportunity to quit without consequences, they would do it. If you start the dismissal process and do not make it, you’re screwed. Everyone is against you: they deprive you of bonuses, shove you into things you do not need. They do not let you live a bearable life. Most people are not ready to make such sacrifices, it’s easier for them to serve a contract. 

“I said I am suicidal and asked to go to a psych ward”

Since February, I kept thinking that I might end up in the war. Until September I managed to avoid it, but my commander suggested to me: “Why don’t we send you to Karabakh?” I said: “No, any military action is unacceptable for me.” And he said to me: “Don’t you dare say that to me when martial law is declared in Russia. I will take you outside the barracks and shoot you.”

They took me around for a couple weeks. Then they gave up and said, “Let’s compromise. We will dismiss you in about six months, but you will not interfere with anyone. You’ll do your paperwork, we’ll transfer you to the unit command, and there you’ll help a person to whom we’ll assign you.” It was a good option for me. I am just an office worker: sitting in front of the computer, dealing with documents. The plan was for me to quit by the end of 2022. But that did not happen: September, Putin’s decree [on mobilization] — and that’s it. It is no longer possible to quit. 

I realized that I would be sent back to my commander, who threatened me with execution. I decided to say that I am suicidal and ask to go to a psych ward. I made arrangements with the [right] people. But they told me right away that no one would fire me for health reasons, I would just stall for time. I agreed.

In the hospital I met several officers who also did not want to serve. They were promised to be sent to Ukraine when they returned to the unit. There were many mobilized men who did not want to fight, but they were sent [to the front] almost immediately. Everyone stalled, but in the end they were all taken.

When I came out of the hospital, I asked the unit commander to transfer me. I gave him a bottle [of alcohol], as is traditional. He was indignant, but he took the bottle and transferred me to another place. I served there for another four months.

“The only thing left to do was to flee Russia”

All this dragged on until February [2023]. In February, they started recruiting officers to be sent to war. I talked to those who had returned from Ukraine, and they said they were cannon fodder. 

I was lucky: first they were looking for warrant officers and contractors who would agree to become officers, given that they would be sent to war. They were summoned for talks, persuaded, but there were no fools. This gave me time to prepare to escape from Russia. 

I realized that if I was sent to war, I would be forced to kill people. And I would probably not come back from there. With the beginning of mobilization, all military men were given sheets to sign - whether or not they agreed to participate in the hostilities. I just went home when I got that sheet. I talked to a lawyer, and we found no way out of this situation, except escape. 

How can you plan anything when the state changes the laws as it wants? You’re always gonna lose. The only option is to go to jail. Do two or three years, same contract. At least I am out of the war. But then I found out that from prison they can also send you to the war via PMC Wagner. The only thing left to do was to flee Russia. 

It was hard. I realized that I was a criminal now. Most likely, I would never be able to return. Desertion and AWOL are crimes with no statute of limitations [formally, the statute of limitations is 10–15 years, but it is counted from the moment of the end of the crime which in this situation is the limiting age of service: 50, 55 and 60 years for junior officers, the Supreme Court also clarified that as long as a person has not surrendered to the investigation, the statute of limitations is not calculated, so from a worldly point of view, Dmitri is right]. 

But what could I do? I was afraid whether I would be able to escape at all, because it is not easy for a serviceman to get across the border. What would be waiting for me abroad? Would I get a job? Would I be able to legalize myself?

“You’re not wanted there or thereabouts. The outlaw man”

When I made the decision to escape, I found the organization Get Lost. We spent a couple of weeks preparing for our escape, developing a plan, thinking through everything: how to answer questions at the border, what stuff to take, how to buy tickets, how to use communications.

I have been living in Georgia for a couple of months now. I spend all my time at the computer, retraining as a programmer, and I have slowly started to earn money. I need a large amount of money to go somewhere else. Georgia is not safe for me either.

European countries now consider any Russian as a potential security threat. And if the person was also in the military, i.e. a deserter, this is a more serious reason to fear for security. It’s hard: you’re not wanted there or thereabouts. The outlaw man. I’m saving up money to legally move to another country and seek asylum. 

A month after I escaped, they opened a criminal case against me. But I don’t consider myself a betrayer. How can you be a criminal in the eyes of criminals? If there really was a war in which we were defending someone, maybe I wouldn’t have escaped. Although I am still not in favor of violence.

But what is happening now is an act of terrorism. It is just that Putin and his bandit buddies have decided to privatize Ukraine. The only thing I can do to somehow bring the war to an end is to tell my story. It might convince someone, for example, to break off relations with the army. 

“When we were sent on another suicide mission, we intentionally crippled ourselves”

Yevgeny, a military officer

“I thought Putin was a thief, but not a fanatic to start a war”

I studied at a military boarding school, which influenced my choice. When I was 17, I decided to go to the military academy. I was worried that I would not be able to enter a civilian university, and afterwards I would not be able to find a good job. I have no connections, my parents are not rich. And service in the army is a sure way to achieve something in life. I finished the academy well enough. I should have been in the army for 10 years in total, but I did not serve long enough.

Photo: IStories

I remember that there was tension between Russia and Ukraine, but no one believed that there would be anything serious. We all traveled to the border with Ukraine in the format of exercises. On February 10, our commander arrived and said that there was no need to worry, there would be no war — just power play and maneuvers along the border.

We’ve calmed down. A general commanding an army will not make up. Moreover, I thought Putin was a thief, but not a fanatic. The war could have been started by Napoleon, Hitler, but not him. He could have sat quietly, stole for the rest of his life, and everyone would have been happy — we have such a social contract with the government. But everything turned around within a few days.

We realized that it was going to be serious when they gathered all the brigades before the march. They were agitating, but [talking] not about the Nazis, but about the order of the commander-in-chief. I remember the phrases that later became a joke among us: “You shouldn’t worry, everything will be over in three days. Some of you won’t even realize what happened.”

“The closer we got to Kyiv, the more and more destruction there was”

We realized that we had crossed the border when we started seeing signs in Ukrainian. It was impossible to ask right away — you are moving in a column, APCs and other vehicles are rolling. This is how it happens in the army: you have an order — carry it out, and then discuss it. You have been preparing for this for years. Moreover, when we came in, there was no war. All the border settlements were intact. But the closer we got to Kyiv, the more and more destruction there was.

We came in from the east between Chernigov and Sumy. Our way passed through Konotop, north of Ichnya, Nizhyn, and further east. We bypassed large settlements and stopped in small ones. We reached the border of Brovary, there were small villages, already occupied.

My tasks first included reconnaissance and then escorting the columns. I knew the routes, where to go. There were quite a large number of casualties because people simply got lost on the road, did not get from point A to point B. And I was able to cope with that.

When the three days were up [and victory had not happened], the command said nothing. The main thing was to survive every day. A soldier is not given the task, “Your platoon must take Kyiv.” He is told, “You have to sit behind this tree and watch.” An officer is told: “Your line is over there, you have to get there.” We are small people, we are given small tasks.

“There were people who agreed to become executioners”

In the settlements we were met in different ways. But the closer to Kyiv, the more hostile. In the border areas, people lived their own lives, the war was not felt. We seemed to be in Ukraine, and nothing was happening. But the farther away, the worse it got. And the longer the war went on, the worse it became. 

When we were near Kyiv, there was no certain line of contact between the sides, there was no front, we just rushed in columns to the capital, and these columns were being shelled, shelled, shelled.

Partisans from the local population appeared. Every day they had more and more modern weapons, they were slowly gaining experience. This is the reason why they left Kyiv: it became impossible to stay there. The whole contingent would have been surrounded. 

We saw how partisans were caught. I remember one man who was captured by us personally. There was an ambush, we were shot at, but we managed to get out. And when we flanked the group that was attacking us, they all scattered, dropped their weapons, and one of them ran right at us. We took him prisoner and gave him to the FSB. People are different, they have different attitudes — some want to kill, some do not. Personally, my position is that if you can take a person prisoner, it is better to take him, because someone will come back alive from captivity. 

I know that there were cases of shooting without trial. I did not approach them myself, I did not say, “May I look at it?” There were people who agreed to become executioners. And no one would ever punish them. They died: I know someone who was an executioner [from my brigade], and he died.

The commanders had a dilemma: in theory they could not kill the prisoners, but there was nowhere to put them. We could not take them back to Russia, and no one wanted to organize any places for their detention. So they were shot.

It’s been quite a while, I do not suffer from any PTSD or anything else, because I am starting to forget all the bad things. But there were times when my fellow soldiers beat someone up, interrogated them.

This is not my first war. I was in Syria for five months, but compared to Ukraine, it was a children’s camp there. It is one thing to fight some illegal armed groups with a half-broken tank and a machine gun. And it is another thing to fight an army with aviation, artillery, and communications. Moreover, Western arms are being supplied to Ukraine, and Russian arms are critically inferior to Western models. 

I will not say that I saw the Ukrainian military directly, but they shot at us and we shot back. Other guys had incidents: they were walking somewhere at night, came face to face with Ukrainians, talked, moved away and started shooting. Stories for movies, but they’re real.

When we were already leaving from near Kyiv, we suffered heavy losses, and two guys fell behind, lost. They went to a local resident to surrender as prisoners: he washed and fed them. The AFU came. They shot one of them in the leg and videotaped how they rendered first aid, to show how they helped a wounded Russian taken prisoner. He says in the video: “Thanks, guys, for not killing me.” A lot depends on the person personally. War is such a place where laws take a back seat and in the end only the human factor matters.

Burned Russian tanks in the Kyiv Oblast (April 2022)
Burned Russian tanks in the Kyiv Oblast (April 2022)
Photo: Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

“Special operation to leave Ukraine”

I stayed “behind the [front] line” until May [2022] with wounds. Well, as for the wounds... There was a whole special operation to leave Ukraine.

Even before the war, I realized that I had to leave the army. You know: people go to work in the police, serve in the army, work as teachers for a good cause. But it does not work out the way they wanted. Many are disappointed, and I am among them. In fact, there are many who do not agree with what is happening. And this is evidenced by the mobilization: it was announced not only to recruit new people, but also to prevent contract workers from quitting. Contracts have become indefinite, you can’t quit. 

I was planning to quit when my contract was over — I was being treated at the hospital at the time, and after that I wanted to take the unused vacation days and leave with further dismissal. But in September, the rules of the game changed. We realized that we had to leave by any means necessary. One could leave Ukraine either killed or wounded. When I already had few people left, we were sent on another suicide mission, we crippled ourselves. Intentionally.

It is not an easy thing to do. But everyone knew that we were in close proximity to Ukrainian positions, and we were able to do it in such a way that everyone believed us and no one had any questions. We were shooting at each other.

Then there was evacuation, hospitalization, and rehabilitation. During the rehabilitation period, I tried various ways not to go back [to Ukraine]. It did not work. I, desperate, went for a full checkup in a private clinic for a significant amount of money to have me fully screened. Unfortunately, I am completely healthy.

I started thinking it would be easier to die. At least this would all be over. But I did not dream of dying in a trench for the ambitions of one crazy man. I am ready to die for Russia, defending it from enemies who would attack it. But I don’t want to die for bandits, criminals and thieves.

“Yes, I killed someone”

The screws continued to tighten. There was no way out. At first I wanted to go to prison, but prison was not the answer either, because in Russia they send you [to war] from prison.

I realized that I had to escape. At first I planned everything on my own. I was in Russia, hiding, but then I came across the organization Get Lost and they helped me leave.

Yes, I killed someone. I didn’t go up and shoot the person at point-blank range, but I was shot at — I shot back. That is war. I want to live, too. If I had not fired, if I had raised my hands, I would have been shot. But I did not maraud, I did not mock anyone, did not torture, did not execute. 

There was a case: a car crashed into an APC, and a man who was riding in a passenger car was injured. We started to help him. The senior officer said: “Finish him off.” Everyone refused. We left him nearby for the locals to pick him up.

I came back from the war broken, but my relatives helped me. They are all on my side — both friends and relatives. They are in Russia, some want to move, but it is very difficult — because of finances, language, fear that they won’t be able to adapt. To be honest, even if the regime changes, I don’t really want to go back to Russia. The regime will change, but there will be an insane increase in crime, an uncontrolled flow of weapons, a large number of poor people, a lot of people returning from the war who nobody cares about. And the events of the 1990s will seem like a walk in the park.

What would I say to those who are now thinking of signing a contract [with the Russian army]? Have enough courage for your own opinion. Do not think you can sit on the sidelines. You’re sitting there, seemingly quiet, calm, and then you’re dead.

If you are sent to the front, you have to act decisively and quickly, because the further you go, the less chance you have of staying alive or at least undamaged. There are organizations that help [to get out], they will help financially and guide you. Especially young guys, men, in the prime of life — they will find work anywhere and can live on it. You should not be afraid of moving. Saving your life and living as a student is better than dying. Then no one will remember you. We do not care about the veterans of WW2. What conditions do they live in? And the veterans of Chechnya and Afghanistan? What will happen to war veterans in Ukraine? It is clear to everyone.