War In Ukraine

A Soldier’s Life: Conversations Inside Ukraine’s Defense Force

Some of those stepping up to battle the Russian invasion come from unlikely backgrounds.

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Kydrava did not expect to be stationed on the frontlines of the war. She did not expect that, for five months, she and her unit would be facing constant combat, or that she would never have a chance to catch her breath. The idea of Russia launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in the 21st century did not seem to her like something that could really happen. But then that unthinkable scenario became reality—Kydrava has spent the time since the first attacks living at the forefront of Russia’s war on Ukraine.  

Before the war began, Ukraine’s military was estimated to consist of 500,000 total military personnel, according to data collected by Statista. That number included 200,000 active soldiers, 250,000 reserve forces, and 50,000 paramilitary units. Over the past five months, that total has continued to grow, as Ukrainians continue to enlist. And as the war goes on, with no end in sight, Ukrainian soldiers feel the strain. Several spoke to the Voice about feeling as if their life before the war was a past life, a time long gone, in its place constant updates on wartime tactics and a collective understanding that one’s life outside the war means less than protecting Ukraine as a nation. 

Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force is made up of both senior soldiers and those who have no previous experience in the military but who want to join the fight. Before the war, a 32-year-old Kyiv-based DJ, who asked to be referred to by his stage name, “Detcom,” spent his time hosting parties at Kyiv’s popular venues. Detcom spoke with the Voice over a WhatsApp call, talking about his life before the war, and how it had begun to feel normal again. He had plans to travel after two years of Covid-19, and wanted to play international gigs in Norway and Berlin. However, his “normal” life before the war is, as he says, a “past life now.” 

 

On New Year’s Eve, 2021, Ozerov’s drag queen persona, Aura, made her first appearance in public, which he called a “complete reincarnation.” Now, one task Ozerov has been assigned is building coffins for soldiers who have died in battle, which he refers to as “the last thing they will ever see.” 

 

Detcom woke up at 8 a.m. on February 24, three hours after Russia’s invasion had begun. He was initially unaware of the events transpiring around him, but in the hours that followed, it became evident that Kyiv was the main target of hostilities. Reports of missiles striking Ukraine’s capital came in, President Zelensky sought refuge in a bunker, and Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted, “Last time our capital experienced anything like this was in 1941 when it was attacked by Nazi Germany.” Detcom and his friends decided to meet to figure out what they should do next. “We met up, we spoke, what are we going to do?” he recalls. “Then we rushed to a recruitment station. We waited too much, so we went to look for other places, and then we eventually found the station of 206 Territorial Defense in Kyiv, and we joined.”

As Russia’s invasion intensified, Detcom and his friends were given guns by the Territorial Defense Force and told to guard the city’s perimeter. “Kyiv was under constant danger,” he says. “We were building fortifications, helping guard outposts,” as well as enforcing curfew and supporting the rest of their unit. Five months into the war, Detcom says that his troop is now considered “experienced.” They have been in Southern Ukraine, between Mykolaiv and Kherson, where the DJ learned how to be a private in the military. Each day, he says, he learns something new—it is his new “normal.” Detcom’s unit is now leaving their base, partly because they are being pushed out but also because they have handed the work over to local forces. The troop is now hoping to drive their enemy further south.

While some are at the forefront of the battles, constantly engaged in combat, other members of the Territorial Defense work administrative jobs, because they couldn’t bear sitting at home, doing nothing. Before the war came, some of the younger people were just beginning to express themselves through creative outlets, and exploring who they wanted to be. The world of these artists and performers has changed dramatically since the invasion began. Gone are the days of dancing and singing in front of crowds—in its place are the protection of Ukraine and a sense of camaraderie. As in all wars, people put their own lives aside to focus solely on victory. 

Some serving in the Territorial Defense, such as Arthur Ozerov, 33, had only just begun to express themselves fully through their craft. Ozerov lived a quiet life before the war began. He worked in environmental protection with Kyiv’s government; on the side, he grew vegetables and ran an apiary, where his bees make honey that smells and tastes like cherry jam. Ozerov says he lived “to his heart’s content,” gathering with friends and working a job he loved, but he also wanted something else from his life. For five years, he “lived with the idea” of performing in drag, but did not know where to start. Ozerov is quiet and reserved—becoming a drag queen would mean drawing attention to himself in front of an audience. But, he says, a voice inside him told him it was time. He wanted to make his queen special. He bought her the best wigs and dresses; she lived a lavish life, while Ozerov was more frugal. 

On New Year’s Eve, 2021, Ozerov’s drag queen persona, Aura, made her first appearance in public, which Ozerov refers to as a “complete reincarnation and life in another role.” Aura was bold and flourished in the spotlight. She sang and told jokes. She was the life of the party, and audiences loved her. “Aura is a queen, a warrior. A little vulgar and funny. She is like a bird of free flights. She is not hindered by anything, no barriers,” recalls Ozerov, in messages sent through the Telegram app. 

Aura’s personality was in its early stages, youthful and eager to explore. But she was forced to recede back into Ozerov’s mind after only a month of living in the spotlight. She has been replaced with a daunting sense of responsibility and duty.From the beginning of the war, on February 24, a few days later I started working in the military administration of Kyiv. Assist the military and civilians by providing them with everything they need. I will not leave my city,” he states. 

One task Ozerov has been assigned is building coffins for soldiers who have died in battle, which he refers to as “the last thing they will ever see.” He says he has built at least 100 coffins to date. According to an adviser to President Zelensky, as of June, up to 200 soldiers were dying in Ukraine each day. Some soldiers are buried in haste, in mass grave sites. When others are able to be given a proper burial, families crowd the wooden box that Ozerov has made, saying goodbye to a life cut short because of war.

 “There were times when I wanted to cry from what I saw in the news,” says Ozerov. “I convinced myself that it would soon be over, and we could all return to normal life. However, the war lasts … and it is unknown how long it will be. And people continue to die.”

Other members of the Territorial Defense have spent years preparing to defend Ukraine. Kydrava, 29, is a lieutenant officer and has been in Eastern Ukraine since the beginning of the war. (She requested that her full name and location be withheld to protect herself and her troops.) Kydrava enlisted in the military in 2013, and says she has not regretted it. While attending the military academy, she spent her time advocating for gender equality, as there were very few women in the Ukrainian armed forces. When she graduated, in 2020, Kydrava and her fellow soldiers kept in mind the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, but they were not prepared for a full-scale Russian invasion in 2022. Now, “female and male soldiers are fighting shoulder to shoulder. Everyone realizes that a lot of lives of females and males who are close to them are depending on the quality of the executed tasks,” she says.

Kydrava first spoke with the Voice through Telegram on June 17. At the time, her troop was based in the Luhansk Oblast region, which is now under complete Russian occupation. She writes, “Since the first day of the full-scale invasion, my unit has been engaged in combat. The warfare intensity has never decreased.” Each day, Kydrava’s unit has had to change their methods, protecting themselves while also learning to master equipment sent from the West and coming up with new ways to keep Russian soldiers away. They sustained casualties, while also causing them. Kydrava’s unit has now been forced to retreat, because they need more artillery, leaving the city that they were protecting under Russian control. 

“These months have been surreal. It is beyond comprehension. I am not only carrying out my duties, but I also accept collateral damage, injured civilians,” says Kydrava. “When you see corpses scattered around the street, when you differentiate between friendly or enemy forces just by looking at the color of their armband—that’s very hard to explain or reflect upon. Seems to me I will reflect on and process everything overall after our victory. For now, all of us have been living one day at a time.”  ❖

 

Anna Conkling is a freelance journalist based in New York City whose writing focuses on human interest stories and environmental issues. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, she has been corresponding with Ukrainian students, soldiers, and civilians and writing about them for the Voice.

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