A Sniper’s War Shows Entrenched Thought in Ukraine War

Screenshot of sniper Deki in camouflage, courtesy Journeyman Films



For a time, during the early part of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, social media was inundated with videos of captured Russian soldiers being given tea by everyday Ukrainians and a chance to call their parents back home. The propagation of this compassion might have seemed at odds with the viral video of the Ukrainian granny who tried to give Russian soldiers sunflower seeds so their corpses would sprout flowers.

But the suggestion of these and other stories from the war was that with the right education, Russian soldiers might realize they had been lied to and would abandon or even denounce the invasion, and that their new knowledge would lead to a wider call within Russia for political change. This has not come to pass so far; Putin’s popularity in Russia is up from 71 to 83 percent.

The Times quoted a Russian man on Wednesday whose 22-year old son was killed recently in the war: “If America didn’t supply weapons to the Ukrainian Nazis, then there would be no deaths of our young guys,” he said. “My personal opinion is we should just whack America with a nuclear bomb and that’s it, so that they stop getting involved in other countries’ business.”

It is a mistake sometimes to think we can limn others’ hatred, let alone educate them out of it. A documentary from 2018 shows this mystery well.

A Sniper’s War, directed, produced, and partly filmed by Olya Schechter, follows a Serbian national nicknamed Deki, who went to eastern Ukraine in 2014 and served three years as a top sniper with Russian-backed separatist troops. He has killed so many Ukrainians he cannot keep count and, besides, says he feels nothing about their deaths. (His motto is that he has never shot an unarmed person.)

But Deki is no toxic adventurer, apparent sociopath, or comic-book bad guy. He looks an awful lot like Orwell, speaks intelligently and acts methodically, is shown emoting over other things, and is very quiet, direct, and respectful. He is a volunteer many times over and unpaid as a soldier. (This is a common story.) He frequently brings food to an orphanage and spends time there playing games with the children.

But Deki’s service to Russia is driven by hatred that cannot be quenched. He blames “NATO terrorists” for bombing Belgrade in 1999, says they destroyed his country, and that he went to Ukraine so they could not do the same to it.

“This is basically a war between NATO and the USA versus Russia,” he says. Olya Schechter asks if he understands that viewers will think of him as a terrorist and fascist, and he replies that that is an invention by American journalists “who are responsible for the Serbian war.”

(As James Waller says in his Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing [Oxford UP, 2002], “In an exhaustive report to the United Nations, a special commission…concluded that 90 percent of the crimes committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina were the responsibility of Serb extremists…. Most significant, the Bosnian Serbs were the only party that systematically attempted to eliminate all traces of other ethnic groups from their territory.”)

The documentary has the tension of front-line action as well as a strange subplot of sniper “duels” arranged through Facebook-like channels. Deki has shot his main rival, a Ukrainian sniper he portrays as a war criminal who uses dumdum rounds and shoots at civilians, and Deki is in turn shot by him (but gets up to continue the fight). Deki is also a man without a country, as his return to Serbia would lead to imprisonment for having fought in Ukraine, so his view of himself as a protector of other people, at great personal cost, is often deliberated. (US sniper jargon of being on “overlook” or “overwatch” has become a powerful trope for paramilitary types on the American right too, who see themselves as protectors.)

The film was dangerous in more ways than one for director Schechter and her two cinematographers too, one of whom was arrested five times in Donbas. They often lived on a military base, and travelled internationally for two years. The FSB, Russian Security Service, interrogated them for 14 hours, and the FBI called on Schechter in New York.

In an interview, Schechter says that making the film was also “a challenging exercise in objectivity. Being in Donetsk felt as if I had stepped through the looking glass. On that side of the mirror the beliefs were very different from the beliefs in the U.S. It was important to stay unbiased and politically neutral and tell the story subjectively through Deki’s point of view. […]

“I also had a moral dilemma over what I personally thought of Deki. The more time I spent with him the more I wondered: is he a hero or a monster? My editor and I tried to capture that duality in every scene.”

To Schechter’s credit, the documentary refuses to make Deki a type, a trope, a bogeyman. We get to see what this otherwise unassuming man, who could be anyone’s quiet uncle, is willing to do for his own determined beliefs.

Yet the documentary has been criticized for failing to contextualize, including leaving out the Ukrainians’ views and failing to deal with the problem of a stoic character: how to know what he really is? According to Wikipedia, Dejan Berić [Deki’s real name] moved to Russia after his time in Donbas “and has been increasingly present in the Russian media…usually presented to the Russian public as a hero and the most highly decorated fighter. He most often comments on the situation in eastern Ukraine and Kosovo, calling the OSCE and the Red Cross ‘spies’ and NATO a ‘terrorist organization.’”

By Berić’s Instagram page, he has made a life in Russia and is recently married. But in February, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network says, he apparently left again for the war, along with other Serbians going to Ukraine to fight for the Russians, “as it represents some sort of justice for them, vis-a-vis Western support for the Yugoslav breakaway republics and Kosovo in the 1990s.

“The West,” in their belief, “‘is now facing what it did to Serbia in the 1990s.’”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.