Oleg’s Choice: A Personal Look at the Conflict in Ukraine (Java Films, 2016) is an insightful profile of two young Russian men, Oleg and Max, who volunteered to fight without pay in the Donbas after conflict erupted there in 2014. It is directed by Elena Volochine, France 24’s Moscow Bureau Chief (now no longer in Moscow), and James Keogh. The film is in Russian and Ukrainian, with English subtitles.
Oleg is an intense-eyed, skinny man of 32, apparently a former Russian marine. Oleg is from western Siberia and went to Donetsk originally on a two-week vacation to see “how it is”—it being the nationalist fighting whipped up by Russian propaganda—and has stayed, at this point, for almost a year. He calls it “complete disorder.”
He has been made a “deputy battalion commander” of a Russia-sympathetic paramilitary of the kind deemed terrorist groups by the government of Ukraine after the Revolution of Dignity. He is more like the First Sergeant of the group, looking out for troops while the commander hangs out in a Ferrari T-shirt and dark shades. Volochine has said that the war in eastern Ukraine “wouldn’t be happening without people like Oleg…and she couldn’t convey the truth of the war without telling his story.”
A battalion in US military terms can mean 1,000 soldiers, but in this case is just 60 men. At the start of the documentary, in June 2015, Oleg is leading them when many are killed. The wounded go to hospitals, and others quit to go home, so the ragtag group numbers about a dozen men of all ages, in mixed, off-the-shelf uniforms. They have personal weapons, a machine gun or two, and some RPGs. Oleh himself says there is no organization in theater, and that promises for tanks and armored transport went unfulfilled.
“Honestly, after two weeks, I was disappointed by this war,” he says, but his affection for his commander will keep him there “’til the end.”
Oleg cannot escape the fact that, “Here, there are only Russians left. The whole…‘local company’ fled.”
I take this to mean that the ethnic Russians whom the Russian government said wanted their freedom from Ukraine did not feel fighting was necessary or worth it.
“I told my boys that we wouldn’t leave until each of them has avenged those who are not here anymore,” Oleg says.
One of his soldiers is young Max, from Tatarstan, who claims he is there only because he got into a “mix-up” with his girlfriend. He looks like he goes to a Midwestern college. He seems to say he has traumatic brain injury, that he cannot sleep and his head hurts. But he will do his “job,” he says. “Someone has to do it.”
As the film alternates between the two young men, their attitudes change.
“What am I doing here?” Max asks later. “[I]t’s hard explaining it to myself, answering certain questions. To be honest, I’d like to know what’s going on in Russia. So many dead and injured just got sent over there. What? What can they say to the mothers about that? What? Fuck, they won’t say anything. Silently. ‘Here’s the corpse of your son.’ No matter what happened, they’ll just say: ‘He died as a hero. Everything’s fine.’ That’s it. Why? For what cause? No one will ever explain it to anyone. Even though I am standing here, I can’t manage to explain it to myself. Because, as always in Russia, we start for glory, we end with loss.”
At one point he hitches all the way home on leave. He says to the camera that the war is for nothing, that he was deceived. Then he goes back early.
Oleg’s mother and stepfather come from Russia to see for themselves what he is doing there. He lies and says he is never in danger, but they sense deception. His mother had tried to stop him from going but, she says, “if all the mothers brought their sons home from war, who would defend the people and the homeland?”
“It’s an incomprehensible, dirty, fratricidal war! A dirty war!” his stepfather says.
Oleg replies, “There are no values! People don’t know why they fight!”
“Of course, if there is no cause,” mom says.
The small family goes to a funeral for a young Russian killed in fighting.
“Right now there must be other burials such as this one in Kiev and elsewhere,” Oleg’s mother says. She does not know how mothers will stand it if it goes on; something must be done.
“We’d need good politicians,” she says. “We’d need Stalin!”
“There are no terrorists or separatists here!” she says. “Russia hasn’t occupied this land at all! And we certainly can’t say that Ukraine sends its boys to free its land, it’s not true. ‘Territorial integrity of Ukraine,’ is it what we called it at the beginning? They keep their integrity by killing children, women, and elders? No. All of this is not true.”
Oleg takes them to walk the city, eat ice cream together, talk, and take in the sights. “I understand that lying is bad,” he says when they leave, “but lies were mandatory in this situation. […] Mission accomplished.”
Near the end of the film Oleg gets drunk with a comrade and talks trash about quitting or deserting. We can see that he will not. As he drive back to his unit, he dances in his seat, sings, screams, and roars with laughter. There is an ugly little scene when he lets himself believe a man in another car tries to cut him off and may be photographing him. Oleg gets out and browbeats the other young man, who is puzzled and terrified. Oleg gets back in his SUV and drives off, still drunk, but his mood is ruined.
“What the fuck do I care about your fucking republic of Donetsk?” he shouts at the dark windshield. One gets the feeling he is most at home in that moment.