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'We Have To Pay For Our Indifference': A Russian Deserter Speaks Out After Ukraine War Memoir Hits A Nerve

Pavel Filatyev
has applied for asylum in France.
Pavel Filatyev has applied for asylum in France.

Before fleeing Russia in early August, Junior Sergeant Pavel Filatyev penned a 141-page bombshell exposé of how things were going for his paratrooper unit in the war in Ukraine.

Not good.

This is how he described his unit, the 56th Airborne Assault Brigade, in the days after it entered the port in the Ukrainian city of Kherson, not long after the February 24 invasion:

"Like savages, we ate everything, everything that was there: cereal, oatmeal, jam, honey, coffee.... It didn't matter at all, we were already pushed to the limit, most lived in the fields for a month, without any hint of comfort, showers, or normal food, and after that people were sent to war."

"How little commanders must care about their people, those who, with sweat, blood, health, and life, must carry out their plans, which are not clear to us," he wrote in his text, Zov, which was first published on his page on the Russian social network VK. Its title translates into English as The Call.

With the invasion now in its seventh month, and with Russian and Ukrainian forces now battling in what some experts describe as a war of attrition, Filatyev is believed to be the first Russian soldier to have deserted and fled the country after criticizing the Ukraine war.

His criticism has focused mainly on the way Russia is waging the war and treating its own soldiers, and his observations have hit a nerve.

"I have been dissatisfied with our government since about 2012, like many in the country," Filatyev, 34, told RFE/RL's Russian Service in an August 25 interview.

"But I never went to rallies, did not participate in the political life of the country, in public life. And in the end, what? Please, I myself ended up in a war that I didn't need at all. Now we have to pay for our indifference," he said. "I believe that this war must be ended as soon as possible, they have to sit down at any negotiating table."

'I Am Against The War In Ukraine; I Am Against Corruption And Gouging In The Army'

Filatyev said he volunteered for the Russian Army after first joining as a conscript in 2007, under nationally mandated military service. He said he served in the North Caucasus, where Russian units were conducting the last of a multiyear "counterterrorism operation" -- as the Second Chechen War was called by the Kremlin.

He said he left service in 2010, and then worked raising or training horses in an unspecified part of Russia.

In August 2021, he signed a new contract to rejoin the military, and he was deployed to Crimea, the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula that Russia had seized in 2014.

In his book, he said he was disillusioned by the conditions at the base in Feodosia where he was stationed. The salaries were less than a supermarket worker received, and the combat-readiness of his unit was doubtful. He said he submitted a written complaint to the Defense Ministry, and contemplated quitting.

On February 15, nine days before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Filatyev's unit was sent to a staging ground in Crimea. Then, he said, he and his fellow paratroopers were sent to attack Kherson, a strategic port at the mouth of the Dnieper River. The city was the first urban center to be seized by Russian forces after February 24.

He said there were persistent problems with communications, medical supplies, and other equipment. "You're already sitting in a convoy, driving and thinking, ‘How are we going to conduct this assault?' The plan is not going well. You don't know anything until you get there. You find out everything only at the last moment," he said.

"I am against the war in Ukraine, but at the same time I am against corruption and gouging in the army, what they are turning our army into now," he said. "It seems that the enemy in the country, in the government, is destroying its army on purpose, and then sends this army to war."

He did not specify who he believes is the enemy within Russia.

After seizing Kherson, the soldiers ran wild, pillaging and seizing any goods they could find, he says. But he also says he and his unit only spent one night in the city.

'A Bad Peace Is Better Than War'

The circumstances of Filatyev's desertion from his unit, and his flight from Russia, are murky. He says he was wounded in the eye during fighting near Mykolayiv, another river port city northwest of Kherson, which Russian forces tried, and failed, to seize in the early days of the war.

Wounded, he was evacuated in April, first to Kherson and then to a hospital in the Crimean city of Sevastopol.

The following month, after being discharged from a hospital, he opted to leave the service, but, he says, his commanders denied his request, ordering him to return to the fight or face court-martial. They said they also lost his medical treatment papers, which would have allowed for a medical discharge, Filatyev says.

At that point, he decided to desert.

After he published the text on his VK page in early August, other excerpts were reprinted by some independent Russian media outlets, and he was interviewed on the independent TV channel Dozhd.

Before leaving Russia, he also gave an interview to The Guardian newspaper, saying he had changed his address several times to avoid possible arrest.

Filatyev is then believed to have slipped out of Russia sometime around August 13 or 14. On August 16, Vladimir Osechkin, a French-based Russian rights defender, confirmed in a post to Facebook that Filatyev had fled.

Roughly two weeks later, on August 28, Filatyev flew to Paris's Charles De Gaulle Airport, according to Osechkin, and two days later, he was allowed to leave the airport, after French authorities granted him permission to formally apply for asylum.

He said he fled Russia partly because he believes a criminal investigation has been opened against him on a charge of "discrediting the armed forces" -- a charge set out in legislation that Putin signed not long after the February 24 invasion.

"A bad peace is better than war, everyone knows this," he told RFE/RL. "Of course, we can now take revenge on each other endlessly, but the truth is that in one year, two, or 10, the war will finish one way or another.

"The question is: at what cost? The sooner Russian citizens at very least stop being afraid to say 'war' and 'we don't want war,' the sooner it will end," he said. "What depends on me, what I am able to do, is firstly to tell what I saw, and secondly, as a citizen, to express my opinion."

Written by Mike Eckel based on reporting by Maryana Torocheshnikova and Natalya Dzhanpoladova of RFE/RL's Russian Service
  • 16x9 Image

    Maryana Torocheshnikova

    Maryana Torocheshnikova is an editor and presenter for the program You Have The Right, as well as being a court reporter. She has worked with RFE/RL since 2000. A former correspondent of the Agentstvo Sudebnoi Informatsii, a Russian judicial news outlet, Torocheshnikova was born in Tver, where she attended university and began her career at local newspaper Tverskaya Zhizn.

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    Natalya Dzhanpoladova

    Natalya Dzhanpoladova is a journalist for RFE/RL Russian's Service focusing on human rights themes. She has co-hosted and co-edited the podcast You Have The Right since 2020, and she has been an editor on the TV program of the same name since 2017.  Dzhanpoladova joined RFE/RL in 2011, working mainly as a court and field reporter, providing coverage both for radio and TV.