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Letters from Donbass: Number 8 - Wardaddy

Zakhar Prilepin
Zakhar Prilepin

By: Zakhar Prilepin​ Translated by Vladimir Samarin from the RT Russia version ... 

Letter 8. Wardaddy

July 28, 2016.

Sometimes Zakharchenko may seem severe, even morose. Digging into one’s soul is the last thing to do, but it seems to me that for Zakharchenko his imaginary gloominess is just an attempt to avoid yet another disappointment. Should you let a person get close — then you’d start to believe him. Should you start to believe — once again it will hurt to be deceived. What for? It is better not even to begin: and to just keep everyone at a distance?

From here he comes friendly, with warm human feelings toward his men, to his security team, to the military — even to those he was at war with. Here everything is simpler. Here, there is no necessity to settle matters of tranches, divisions, calculations where some interests, someone’s importunate lobby, someone’s self-interest looms inevitably.

These guys were around when there was shooting, when there was heavy shooting, when there was such a shooting that it seemed there was no chance to survive.

… It is the same story with war correspondents.

Alexander ZakharchenkoSeveral times I saw Zakharchenko talking to Evgeny Poddubny in a brotherly, familiar way. Quite a while later, chuckling — and when Zakharchenko laughs, his face becomes at once open, almost childlike — and so, chuckling, he told how he and Poddubny came under a terrible fire. At night, in the mud, at full speed they nearly crashed into a knocked down car. (Then Zakharchenko, having jumped out on the street, stepped on a mine — “I closed eyes, am counting: one, two, three, four… Opened — it hasn’t exploded”.) But even under terrible fire all his team oriented quickly, men calculated from where the shooting came, and giving coordinates to their artillery. ... When everything ended and they reached their destination, Poddubny came with eight bottles of cognac (reducing stress, the team was choking with one bottle of fake vodka, and here came such a treasure). Poddubny said toasts: “You, fellows, are too much. I saw things in Chechnya (and everywhere afterwards— a note by Z.P.), but so an accurate work under such a heavy shooting...” When in a minute of complacency Zakharchenko tells about such moments, it seems he tells about the happiest minutes of his life.

Perhaps, so it is.

And, in a minute of revelation, he admits suddenly: “Well, what a soldier am I? — I’m not a soldier at all. I had to take up the job for the occasion”.

Other people with better expertise tell another story: Zakharchenko is pure military to such an extent that you cannot even guess. Later you learn somehow.

Well, it doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter yet. It’s up to historians.

* * *

The sun comes through the heated haze in Donetsk, heat as if on a brazier, feeling of peace and clemency on streets, and that all is so deceptive.

In the last month there were continuous attempts on the nearest circle of Zakharchenko, on the most noticeable people from the legendary militiamen.

A short while ago there was an attempt on Zakharchenko's life. A short while ago they almost blew up Motorola (together with his pregnant wife — and they saw with whom he was, when putting the explosive device in action). A short while ago they blew up a colonel, a native of Russia — by a land mine. A short while ago they fired at a top-ranked officer — he managed to fall onto the floor and survived, but his wife sitting in the same car was wounded. A short while ago one of the very first militiamen, who was with Zakharchenko from the very beginning, went out to buy some bread and didn’t take any weapon — and was kidnapped. His body was planted a week later; he suffered terribly tortures, his head was cut off professionally.

(Is Donetsk able to answer with actions of its diversionary teams? Of course, yes. But it doesn’t. Recently, sometimes, the war between Donbass and Kiev reminds me of the Soviet movies about the Civil War [here, the Russian Civil War of 1917—1922 is mentioned — — Note of the translator.] where the Whites are capable of any meanness and any atrocity, and the Reds are honest, pure, stubborn and high-toned. And let the comparison with the Whites not flatter them. Destroyers of monuments, unruly screeners, night thieves, owners of shaven-headed battalions, relentlessly shooting at civil neighborhoods — they are not the Whites at all.)

The very fact that at the same time no “witch-hunt” is even expected in Donetsk, nobody pushes people in trash cans, there are no marches of crazy thugs on the streets, and whistleblowers do not write one million of reports every month, — just shakes.

All that is absent to such an extent that nobody is able to assess situation.

I don’t quite understand how they manage to maintain such a balance in Donetsk, in spite of, and of, and of...

Every evening when I go to bed I hear a severe cannonade. I can ask in my blog: “Donetsk residents, where is it?” They quietly answer: “There, in that place”. And can reply: “At our place”.

And there are no cries, no hysterics.

Sabotage and reconnaissance groups work in the city, its suburbs are under continuous shelling — and at the same time there’s an absolute self-possession.

... Though, maybe, I know one of explanations.

We are riding through the streets of Donetsk — I am in Zakharchenko’s car.

Zakharchenko is at the wheel.

His door window is open. All along our way.

We go for half an hour or more, Donetsk is huge — but we cross it almost completely.

Hundreds of people see the man: the man is at the wheel, the leader doesn’t hide.

Many are smiling. Some are waving hands. Without any exaltation, in the purely Donetsk way: restrained and dignified.

The tranquility is not defined, surely, by this elementary fact: the man is at the wheel and shows that the Donetsk people are owners of their city, and there is nothing to be afraid of here. No, it is necessary to use a wider approach: the behavior of the leader dictates a behavior model to all his environment.

But all begins, as always, with personal attitude.

... Though I, I have to admit, do not like very much that he behaves so.

That is, according to my consciences an unpleasantry, but rationally I understand: he’d better not do that.

* * *

Music is always on in Zakharchenko’s car.

Someone makes musical sets for the leader.

I noticed, for Motorola they collect nice songs from Basta, 25/17 and Rem Digga.

For Zakharchenko play Cossack songs, Gradsky, Rosenbaum... and songs about this war written by men from his personal security group, and even musical compositions of one high ranked manager from the Donetsk administration, who has already fought for his part.

Actually, all te songs are very worthy: I was surprised.

They let Iosif Kobzon hear those — he became "off his rocker": was it really written here?

And where else.

I remember an occasion when Zakharchenko and Alexander Sklyar were singing military and folk songs at a table. And for the classical texts of many songs Zakharchenko had specials variations — long and infinite couplets, and he remembered all by heart.

He sang, however, a bit off the notes, but it did not matter at all. It was Sklyar who sang to the notes.

For some reason I have affection toward this friendly pursuit of warring people and people singing to each other.

The expected jams of Motorola and Rem Digga, his friendship with Gleb Kornilov, his invariable presence at all concerts of glorious representatives of rock’n’roll in Donetsk — from 7B band to Chicherina and Vadim Samoylov (by the way, Motorola went to Rostov specially to attend a 25/17 performance). And Zakharchenko with Kobzon on one stage, and their friendship, and that nice moment when they were singing, hugging with Sklyar, “The tanks were rattling like a thunder... ” — I always feel in such minutes that right things go on.

That the world is on its place.

* * *

The young folk of Donetsk ask to call off the curfew.

They say: “What about the birth rate? We have to meet.”

Zakharchenko laughs: everything is vice versa.

The last year the birth rate skyrocketed in Donetsk, to everyone’s surprise.

And surely the curfew has its nice effect here.

Motorola Victory Day“Hey, Ann (Sveta, Olga, Oksana, Kristina), listen — ten minutes left. You won’t be in time. Stay with me. I’ll shake down on the floor. Or they will detain you, interrogations, and all that. Do not be afraid, everything will be OK.”

“Hey, Evgeny (Nikolay, Petr, Grigory, Aleksey), listen — five minutes left. You won’t be in time. You’d better stay with me. I’ll shake down on the floor for you. But, bagsy, without all those tricks.”

Should there be no curfew, they would go to a club. Would dance till the morning. Would get drunk. They would have no power for anything.

It seems it is necessary to write a contribution to a demographic collection: “The positive influence of a curfew on the birth rate dynamics: experiences in Donetsk”.

However, if agreed, it is possible to stay in clubs and restaurants all night long, till the end of the curfew. The main thing is not to go outside.

Once we were with the leader stopped in in one of such restaurants at 1 a.m., we ordered pork ears and stayed till 4.

My acquainted militiamen drove up to us, it was necessary to discuss one matter. It turned out the men waited so long for an audience that they afforded a little.

Within the first five minutes I was sure the leader would immediately expel them from the table for coming to talk in such a state.

But something surprising happened.

He just asked them where they had fought, specified some details and began to discuss matters right there, despite the somewhat defocused condition of the interlocutors.

For me, it was a manifestation of both democratism, and professionalism at the same time.

"Well, they have afforded, and what of it. There is a matter — we will solve it. Fighters are sitting in front of me — fighters are good to talk to".

He didn’t make any further remark.

Being crystal sober himself.

* * *

Then there came an idea to celebrate my birthday on the frontline.

Daddy liked it very much.

I am not sure his security guards liked it that much, but he doesn’t get out from the frontline all the same (as I understand, he calms down there) so I didn’t feel any special guilt for my part.

“... In sight of the opponent. We will cover white cloths”, Zakharchenko laughed and immediately remembered a quote from “The Three Musketeers” about that breakfast on Saint-Gervais bastion.

Sure, I remember this excellent moment in the book as well.

“I will bet you,” said Athos, “that my three companions, Messieurs Porthos, Aramis, and d’Artagnan, and myself, will go and breakfast in the bastion St. Gervais, and we will remain there an hour…”

And after a page or two:

“Where are we going?” asked he, by a gesture.

Athos pointed to the bastion.

“But,” said Grimaud, in the same silent dialect, “we shall leave our skins there.”

Athos raised his eyes and his finger toward heaven.

By the way, Zakharchenko had not watched, but read “The Musketeers” and about half a dozen other Dumas’ novels; as well as the “War and peace”, the “And Quiet Flows Don” and the “Dead and Alive”, which he remembers to the miniscule details, and sometimes in quotes.

It turns out that literary allusions work, and in the lair of separatists especially.

Here you are.

The Kiev Orangemen will be secretly surprised. However, the Kiev Orangemen are brought up on other books.

* * *

There were slightly more than four of us, but the company was nice.

Dmitry, Viktor, Konstantin, Sergey, Alexander.

We watched in a field-glass the frontline positions of our enemy, which became a true pain in the neck.

Zakharchenko presented me a Cossack sabre — and right there he showed how to use it, cleaving a naked trunk from an unfortunate tree. He works with a sabre professionally, and with a wounded hand, by the way.

We laid on the wooden tables we brought with us, in a soldier’s way — tinned meat, bread, pickles, vodka — and started.

All said their toasts, and I did one to finish.

We discussed all matters and came to agreements on every one.

We enjoyed the sights once again.

In half an hour they started to shell this place too.

Our tables turned into wood chips, the shaved tree was uprooted.

But we had left already.

Sorry, for those who were late. Thanks for the salute.

* * *

I’ve been sick and tired of those “serious people” for a long time.

The people who are unable of a free gesture. The people who are counting all pluses and minuses so often that their face muscles start dying off — in the place of human beings speaking dummies remain.

Sometimes these dummies are even able to smile.

But they will betray any idea, any near and far ones for “practicability” and other “policies”.

I got tired of empty pathos, and got tired of mockery over any pathos.

I’m tired of the people with “their opinion”, who have nothing except “their opinion” — no act to their names.

And I like it very much when air is saturated with live life, with pathos and truth has: cut and eat it.

We cut and eat it.

There is plenty of that here.

That entire story with the Donetsk Republic, with free Donbass, with Novorossia, and with all other incoming and outgoing things was thought up by various people, and all of them did great job, may some of them rest in peace, and God grant health to the other.

But now one person is at the head of this story. I feel all the time how he got awfully tired to be “serious”, to stick to their “rules”, to be in the “system of coordinates”.

To the frontline, and forget about that all.

But he bears responsibility. He is charged with a mission. Sometimes they call it a cross, the mission he bears.

I have a dream: I want him to be a success in everything.

Children will be born here. The Russian world will go on here. People do remember the things, that were bequeathed, by the right Russian books and songs.

Some people are fussing around, and keep saying: “You will be disappointed, you will lose.”

You cranks! My illusions of today are higher than all your disappointments.

We are sitting on the very edge, breaking bread, drinking and talking. And you are looking at us.

That’s the difference.

Post Sciptum

On July 23 the head of the DNR came under fire during his regular inspection of the frontline. Howitzer and mortar shells of 120mm caliber came from the side of the Ukrainian Army.

“In this regard I would like to raise a question myself: from where is this equipment on the demarcation line?” Zakharchenko asked a rhetorical question.

The head of the DNR was easily wounded by a splinter (around his temple).

The Ukrainian mass media reported immediately that Zakharchenko was taken to hospital, severely wounded.

But the next day the head of DNR participated in some events.

Concerning the traditional haste of Ukrainian bloggers and journalists he said briefly: “In your dreams only!”.

Editor's Note: Chechen War Veteran Zahar Prilepin is an unabashed nationalist and critic of the Kremlin. He is also, arguably, Russia's most talented young novelist. No story or recollection I have read, captures the essence of valor and courage of the people under the gun in Donbass better.