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A discarded military uniform remains by trenches that Russian soldiers dug to defend their position outside Vynohradivka, Ukraine, in late March.

A discarded military uniform remains by trenches that Russian soldiers dug to defend their position outside Vynohradivka, Ukraine, in late March. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

RIGA, Latvia — Russian paratrooper Pavel Filatyev spent more than a month fighting in Ukraine after his poorly equipped unit was ordered to march from its base in Crimea for what commanders called a routine exercise.

In early April, the 34-year-old Filatyev was evacuated after being wounded. Over the next five weeks, deeply troubled by the devastation caused by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bloody invasion, he wrote down his recollections in hopes that telling his country the truth about the war could help stop it.

His damning 141-page journal, posted this month on Vkontakte, Russia’s equivalent of Facebook, is the most detailed day-by-day account to date of the attacks on Kherson and Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine as seen through the eyes of a Russian soldier.

The document describes an army in disarray: commanders clueless and terrified, equipment old and rusty, troops pillaging occupied areas in search of food because of a lack of provisions, morale plummeting as the campaign stalled. He tells of soldiers shooting themselves in the legs to collect the $50,000 promised by the government to injured service members. He describes units being wiped out by friendly fire. He blasts Russian state media for trying to justify a war that the Kremlin had no “moral right” to wage.

“They simply decided to shower Ukraine with our corpses in this war,” he wrote.

In an exchange of messages on Telegram this week with The Washington Post, Filatyev said he knew that posting his views carried risks. Though technically still in the army, he left Russia this week with the help of the human rights organization Gulagu.net. He declined to give his location because of security concerns.

With his permission, The Post is publishing excerpts of his writings; they have been edited only for conciseness and clarity. The Post has not been able to independently verify his account. But Filatyev provided his military ID as proof that he served in the 56th Guards Air Assault Regiment based in Crimea, as well as documents showing that he was treated for an eye injury after his return from the front.

“It may not change anything,” he wrote, “but I will not participate in this madness.”

1. Feb. 15: Gearing up before the invasion

I arrived to the training ground [in Stary Krym, Crimea]. Our entire squadron, about 40 people, all lived in one tent with plank boards and one makeshift stove. Even in Chechnya, where we only lived in tents or mud huts, our living conditions were organized better. Here we had nowhere to wash up and the food was horrible. For those who arrived later than the rest, me and about five other people, there was neither a sleeping bag, nor camo, armor, or helmets left.

I finally received my rifle. It turned out that it had a broken belt, was rusty and kept getting stuck, so I cleaned it in oil for a long time trying to put it in order.

Around Feb. 20, an order came for everyone to urgently gather and move out, packing lightly. We were supposed to perform a forced march to some unknown location. Some people joked that now we would attack Ukraine and capture Kyiv in three days. But already then I thought it is no time for laughter. I said that if something like this were to happen, we would not capture anything in three days.

2. Feb. 23: Bracing for something serious

The division commander arrived and, congratulating us on the [Defender of the Fatherland] holiday, announced that starting from tomorrow, our salary per day would be $69. It was a clear sign that something serious is about to happen. Rumors began spreading that we are about to go storm Kherson, which seemed to be nonsense to me.

Everything changed that day. I noticed how people began to change, some were nervous and tried not to communicate with anyone, some frankly seemed scared, some, on the contrary, were unusually cheerful.

3. Feb. 24: Rolling into war with no plan

At about 4 a.m. I opened my eyes again and heard a roar, a rumble, a vibration of the earth. I sensed an acrid smell of gunpowder in the air. I look out of the truck and see that the sky is lit bright from volleys.

It was not clear what is happening, who was shooting from where and at whom, but the weariness from lack of food, water and sleep disappeared. A minute later, I lit up a cigarette to wake up, and realized that the fire is coming 10-20 kilometers ahead of our convoy. Everyone around me also began to wake up and smoke and there was a quiet murmur: ‘It’s started.’ We must have a plan.

The convoy became animated and started to slowly move forward. I saw the lights switch on in the houses and people looking out the windows and balconies of five-story buildings.

It was already dawn, perhaps 6 a.m., the sun went up and I saw a dozen helicopters, a dozen planes, armored assault vehicles drove across the field. Then tanks appeared, hundreds of pieces of equipment under Russian flags.

By 1 p.m. we drove to a huge field where our trucks got bogged down in the mud. I got nervous. A huge column standing in the middle of an open field for half an hour is just an ideal target. If the enemy notices us and is nearby, we are f---ed.

Many began to climb out of the trucks and smoke, turning to one from another. The order is to go to Kherson and capture the bridge across the Dnieper.

I understood that something global was happening, but I did not know what exactly. Many thoughts were spinning in my head. I thought that we couldn’t just attack Ukraine, maybe NATO really got in the way and we intervened. Maybe there are also battles going on in Russia, maybe the Ukrainians attacked together with NATO. Maybe there is something going on in the Far East if America also started a war against us. Then the scale will be huge, and nuclear weapons, then surely someone will use it, damn it.

The commander tried to cheer everyone up. We are going ahead, leaving the stuck equipment behind, he said, and everyone should be ready for battle. He said it with feigned courage, but in his eyes I saw that he was also freaking out.

It was quite dark and we got word that we are staying here until dawn. We climbed into sleeping bags without taking off our shoes, laying on boxes with mines, embracing our rifles.

4. Feb. 25: Collecting corpses from the road

Somewhere around 5 in the morning they wake everyone up, telling us to get ready to move out.

I lit a cigarette and walked around. Our principal medical officer was looking for a place to put a wounded soldier. He constantly said that he was cold, and we covered him with our sleeping bags. I was told later that this guy had died.

We drove on terrible roads, through some dachas, greenhouses, villages. In settlements we met occasional civilians who saw us off with a sullen look. Ukrainian flags were fluttering over some houses, evoking mixed feelings of respect for the brave patriotism of these people and a sense that these colors now somehow belong to an enemy.

We reached a highway at around 8 a.m. and ... I noticed the trucks of the guys from my squadron. They look kind of crazy. I walk from car to car, asking about how things are. Everyone answers me incomprehensibly: “Damn, this is f---ed up,” “We got wrecked all night,” “I collected corpses from the road, one had his brains all out on the pavement.”

We are approaching a fork and signs point to Kherson and Odesa. I am thinking about how we will storm Kherson. I don’t think the mayor of the city will come out with bread and salt, raise the Russian flag over the administration building, and we’ll enter the city in a parade column.

At around 4 p.m. our convoy takes a turn and settles in the forest. Commanders tell us the news that Ukrainian GRAD rocket launchers were seen ahead, so everyone must prepare for shelling, urgently dig in as deep as possible, and also that our cars almost ran out of fuel and we have communication problems.

I stand and talk with the guys, they tell me that they are from the 11th brigade, that there are 50 of them left. The rest are probably dead.

5. Feb. 26-28: Advancing on Kherson

Filatyev’s convoy made its way to Kherson and surrounded the local airport, looting stores in villages along the way. On the third day, the convoy received the order to enter Kherson. Filatyev was told to stay behind and cover the front-line units with mortar fire if necessary. He recounted hearing distant fighting all day. The southern port city would become the first major Ukrainian city that Russia captured in its invasion.

6. March 1: Acting like savages

We marched to the city on foot ... [around 5:30 p.m.] we arrived at the Kherson seaport. It was already dark, the units marching ahead of us had already occupied it.

Everyone looked exhausted and ran wild. We searched the buildings for food, water, showers and a place to sleep, someone began to take out computers and anything else of value.

Walking through the building, I found an office with a TV. Several people sat there and watching the news, they found a bottle of champagne in the office. Seeing the cold champagne, I took a few sips from the bottle, sat down with them and began to watch the news intently. The channel was in Ukrainian, I didn’t understand half of it. All I understood there was that Russian troops were advancing from all directions, Odesa, Kharkov, Kyiv were occupied, they began to show footage of broken buildings and injured women and children.

We ate everything like savages, all that was there was, cereal, oatmeal, jam, honey, coffee. ... Nobody cared about anything, we were already pushed to the limit.

7. March 2-6: Wandering in the woods

Filatyev’s exhausted convoy was ordered to push ahead to storm Mykolaiv and Odesa, though the Russian campaign had already begun to stall. Filatyev described how his unit wandered in the woods trying to reach Mykolaiv, about 40 miles away. He recalled asking a senior officer about their next movements. The commander said he had no clue what to do.

The first reinforcements arrived: separatist forces from Donetsk, mostly men over 45 in shabby fatigues. According to Filatyev, they were forced to go to the front lines when many regular Russian army soldiers refused.

8. Into mid-April: Holding from front-line trenches

From now on and for more than a month it was Groundhog Day. We were digging in, artillery was shelling us, our aviation was almost nowhere to be seen. We just held positions in the trenches on the front line, we could not shower, eat, or sleep properly. Everyone had overgrown beards and were covered in dirt, uniforms and shoes began to fray.

[Ukrainian forces] could clearly see us from the drones and kept shelling us so almost all of the equipment soon went out of order. We got a couple of boxes with the so-called humanitarian aid, containing cheap socks, T-shirts, shorts and soap.

Some soldiers began to shoot themselves ... to get [the government money] and get out of this hell. Our prisoner had his fingers and genitals cut off. Dead Ukrainians at one of the posts were plopped on seats, given names and cigarettes.

Due to artillery shelling, some villages nearby practically ceased to exist. Everyone was getting angrier and angrier. Some grandmother poisoned our pies. Almost everyone got a fungus, someone’s teeth fell out, the skin was peeling off. Many discussed how, when they return, they will hold the command accountable for lack of provision and incompetent leadership. Some began to sleep on duty because of fatigue. Sometimes we managed to catch a wave of the Ukrainian radio, where they poured dirt on us and called us orcs, which only embittered us even more. My legs and back hurt terribly, but an order came not to evacuate anyone due to illness.

I kept saying, “God, I will do everything to change this if I survive.” ... I decided that I would describe the last year of my life, so that as many people as possible would know what our army is now.

By mid-April, earth got into my eyes due to artillery shelling. After five days of torment, with the threat of losing an eye looming over me, they evacuated me.

9. Aftermath: Remaining silent no longer

I survived, unlike many others. My conscience tells me that I must try to stop this madness. ... We did not have the moral right to attack another country, especially the people closest to us.

This is an army that bullies its own soldiers, those who have already been in the war, those who do not want to return there and die for something they don’t even understand.

I will tell you a secret. The majority in the army, they are dissatisfied with what is happening there, they are dissatisfied with the government and their command, they are dissatisfied with Putin and his policies, they are dissatisfied with the Minister of Defense who did not serve in the army.

The main enemy of all Russians and Ukrainians is propaganda, which just further fuels hatred in people.

I can no longer watch all this happen and remain silent.


Stripes in 7



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