The little-seen world of Russian volunteers fighting in Ukrainian rebel provinces.
Nick Holdsworth
Journalist, writer, author, filmmaker and film and TV industry expert – Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.
Published date: February 20, 2019

As the fifth anniversary of the Ukrainian civil war’s outbreak approaches mid February, a little seen side of the conflict – largely documented for Western audiences by the country’s government – deserves more attention.

Oleg’s Choice, the 2016 documentary from directors Elena Volichine and James Keogh, is one of a handful of films seeking to understand the motivations behind ordinary Russian men travelling to the breakaway republics of Eastern Ukraine; a region where the ragged frontlines of a war all but gone from Western news reports continues to grind on, claiming the lives of combatants and civilians alike.

Unlike Aliona Polunina’s Their Own Republic, recently reviewed by Modern Times Review’s Carmen Grey, Volochine and Keogh do not take sides. There is no lionising or propagandising for Russia and the Kremlin-backed rebels. Rather, the filmmakers present a gently persistent impulse teasing the emotional and psychological contradictions driving its subjects.

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The mother at the grave

The film pivots around 32 year old Oleg Doubinine, commander of a unit of 60 Russian (and some Ukrainian) volunteers, and his younger comrade, Max. Both have left family, friends and – in Max’s case «a well paid job» – behind, putting their lives at risk fighting, until 2014, those who most Russians would consider indistinguishable from themselves.

One of a handful of films seeking to understand the motivations  behind ordinary Russian men travelling to the breakaway republics of Eastern Ukraine.

The irony of the war that has split so much and so many is highlighted when Oleg’s unit captures a Ukrainian scout. Taken in for the interrogation by a brigade commander to a lavish Donetsk – capital of the self-styled DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic/Донецкая Народная Республика) – staff HQ, the clearly terrified young man gives monosyllabic answers in a dull, leaden voice. When asked if he knows what will happen to him, he shrugs. When pushed further, he …

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