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.
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 suggests he might be beaten, shot or «something else.» «What else?» asks the commander, a smug smile fixed on his handsome face. «Exchanged for your guys?» the young prisoner asks, not daring to inject an ounce of hope into his answer. Told that he will indeed be exchanged, he is then handed bread and soup. Sitting across from the commander, the dazed young man eats with nervous gusto. Off – camera a voice sneers: «You’re a regular hamster, aren’t you?»
Later, the prisoner is bundled into the back of a 4X4 and driven to a city mortuary. There, he sees a grieving Donetsk mother asked to identify the remains of her son, killed in a frontline Ukrainian ambush a week or so prior – one where Oleg’s unit also lost many men. Oleg and his comrades seek a way for the mother to see her dead son without actually seeing him – the body, left in no-man’s land, was eventually recovered after a week lying in the mid-summer heat.
The initially composed mother swiftly falls apart, her primal screams echoing around the nearby concrete prefabs as the truth hits her. The commotion does nothing to assuage the fears of the pathetic Ukrainian hostage, that the whole thing is a set-up or that he too may never see his mother again.
The BARS Battalion
As Volochine and Keogh turn their cameras on Oleg and his unit, the BARS Battalion, a year has past. By this time, they are stationed in a maze of old Soviet garages and are one of the closest battalions to the frontlines – just a few hundred metres away.
«You’re a regular hamster, aren’t you?»
Oleg – nomme de guerre Doubina – is a leanly handsome man from the Russian frontier city, Tyumen in Western Siberia, an oil-rich region bordering Kazakhstan. In 2014, after Kiev’s Maiden protest forced Ukraine’s Russophile president Viktor Yanukovych to flee, he took «a two-week holiday in Donetsk», staying to fight for those he identified as victims – compatriots who needed protection.
Oleg is tired of the war; tired of being responsible for men, many of whom have died. This responsibility lies heavily on him as he confesses his profound disappointment with a war fought in a «lawless zone.» He adds, «I’m no fanatic who can either love or hate. I am an officer… I treat my enemy as an enemy. War is war. But during war you can either be a true sadist or you can be a fighter, with principles and a sense of justice.»
For Max, who nearly died when a gang on a Donetsk street shot him early in his DNR stint, the fear and loathing of war is evident in a close-up interview. Wearing just a pair of boxer shorts, the muscular and slender young man repeatedly grins as he mentally bats away the kind if trauma that takes a lifetime to process. «After such sad and hard events, everything seems funny. We got out [alive from an ambush], but it is not funny at all. There is no romanticism in it. It is all meat and guts. It gives the feeling,» he pauses to laugh nervously, «that death with her scythe is lurking behind our back, but she must be afraid to come closer.»
For Oleg – whose mother and stepfather eventually arrive to see how he is faring after having been told he volunteers as a non-combatant medic – the process of hiding the truth has long been part of a charade; he completed a first aid course before leaving to Donetsk in order to provide «cover». During his parents visit, he maintains that he is not a fighting man.
As he says, «Here I cannot be Oleg Doubinine because he does not see corpses torn to pieces, does not shoot with a Kalash [AK47 automatic rifle], doesn’t make war.» He continues, «Oleg Doubinine is the one to whom mummy and daddy gave birth, who has a sister, even two… That Oleg is not here, he’s not allowed to be here: Because one day I shall go back to where I came from. My war name is Doubina. I’m on service. Oleg Doubinine is for over there, for a future wife and children. Oleg Doubinine will not keep war memories. For him, war doesn’t exist.»
How propaganda works
The young Ukrainian prisoner lives to be handed back in a nocturnal exchange for the bodies of men from Oleg’s unit, delivered in a Red Cross truck marked with a «200» – Russian shorthand for kilogram weight of a dead, zinc-coffin encased military corpse. Before being handed over, he is forced to record an interview for Russian state television. When asked «who shot first?» he answers, «The Ukrainian army.» Watching the broadcast, Oleg snorts derisively: «Do you see how propaganda works?»