ST. PETERSBURG -- To hear him tell it, Ruslan Starodubov can do almost anything: lay tile, carry heavy equipment, even bake bread.
"My hands are the hands of a normal Russian man," he says. "They know what they're doing most of the time."
But what Starodubov and his hands like to do most is soldier. Originally from the central Kostroma region, Starodubov, a sturdy-looking man with a red Cossack-style mustache, fought in both Chechen wars and served with the OMON special forces. Even his intermittent civilian jobs tended toward the physical -- porter, security guard, phys-ed teacher.
Last spring, when hostilities broke out in eastern Ukraine, Starodubov felt an itch to go fight. The United States was backing a war against his ethnic Russian kin -- "You don't need a fortune-teller to know that," he asserts, offering no details -- and he was desperate to put his military skills to use.
"Better I die -- me, with four kids -- than some 18-year-old who doesn't know which end of a gun the bullets come out of," says Starodubov, who recently divorced from the mother of his children.
Starodubov is not alone. Hundreds of so-called Russian “volunteers” have decamped for eastern Ukraine since the start of armed hostilities between pro-Russian separatist forces and pro-Kyiv troops in the resource-rich Donbas region.
Some are believed to be Russian Army conscripts sent to Ukraine under the guise of volunteering during vacations or breaks. Others, like Starodubov, are genuine volunteers -- ordinary citizens, with varying degrees of military training, who are eager to contribute to what they see as a just cause.
While the Kremlin has vigorously denied any official ties to the war, it has openly encouraged the Soviet-era tradition of volunteerism, running numerous television programs praising the accomplishments of the fighters, and allowing volunteer organizations to flourish online.
Aleksandr Kobrin, a lawyer and deputy with St. Petersburg’s Legislative Assembly, says it’s impossible to determine how many Russians are traveling to the Donbas to fight.
“Russia isn’t doing anything to stop the flow of volunteers,” he says. “To the contrary, they’re openly promoting the idea of sending them there.”
In St. Petersburg -- where Starodubov is currently recovering from a frontline injury, under the watchful eye of his new wife, Larisa, a Donbas native -- recruitment and training organizations have mushroomed since the start of the war.
They include Imperial Legion, the Russian nationalist organization that counts among its members Starodubov -- whose field name, “Pastor,” harkens back to a past life as a military priest.
Starodubov says the Orthodox faith is a constant in the Legion ranks, but defends the group -- which he says includes Germans, Tatars, and Karelians -- as ethnically and philosophically diverse.
“Our ideology isn’t that Slavs are a supernation and everyone else is scum to be destroyed,” he says. “We aren’t Nazis. We’re normal nationalists. We love our people, and we love our homeland. ... The main thing [for membership] is that you’re Orthodox and that you speak and think in Russian.”
'Never A Question'
The voluntaristic zeal extends to political groups like Other Russia, an unregistered political party. In St. Petersburg, a portrait of American "gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson presides above bags and boxes carrying food, medicine, and humanitarian aid at the group’s city headquarters.
The group claims to have recruited dozens of doctors, organizers, and fighters for service in eastern Ukraine, and has collected more than 2 million rubles ($30,000) in local donations.
Andrei Dmitriev, the head of Other Russia’s St. Petersburg branch, says he’s rarely seen such an outpouring of public support.
“Old women are bringing us their last kopecks,” he says. “It’s a pity that such unity comes at the price of war and bloodshed, but it’s happening, and we’re happy that our pulse is beating in union with the pulse of our fellow citizens.”
Noncitizens are a factor, as well. Other Russia says it regularly receives applications from Central Asians, most recently an ethnic Uzbek nightclub bouncer, volunteering to fight in Donbas.
“These people who used to be on the periphery, who hadn’t achieved much success, are starting to wake up,” says activist Andrei Pesotsky. “They’re getting a second wind.”
New and old recruits have made the office a meeting point. Two baby-faced teens, Artyom and Masha, say they hope to leave soon for eastern Ukraine.
“I’m embarrassed to be living comfortably when people are dying, suffering, starving,” says Artyom. “My predecessors went to war when they were 12, 14 ... Am I somehow worse than them?”
Masha, who plans to leave for Donbas without telling her parents, says she’s traveling on her own free will.
“When these events began, there was never a question whose side to be on,” she says.
The enthusiasm of Artyom and Masha is barely dimmed by the presence of a wounded volunteer -- Sergei Maksimov, who returned from Donbas after sustaining serious battlefield injuries.
Maksimov, a pale, quiet man who goes by the field name “Silver,” says he’ll return to the war as soon as he’s able.
“It’s a military brotherhood,” he says of the soldiers, whom he claims comprise more Ukrainians than Russians. “A thief, a police officer, and a politician can all serve together there, and everything is normal.”
School Of Life
Groups like Imperial Legion say they insist their volunteers have military experience.
“We only ship people who are prepared -- not guys with sparkling eyes and smoke coming out of their ears,” says Starodubov.
Other recruiters, however, admit they can take anyone they can get.
“There’s no better teacher than war,” says historian Igor Ivanov, who heads the Russian Military Union, an organization that worked closely with former military commander of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, Igor Strelkov.
“Our boys and the boys from Donbas go without any training, but they learn through experience,” says Ivanov, who spent much of 2014 in eastern Ukraine. “A young fighter starting from scratch falls into a unit, and after a month of life in the trenches, he’s a professional fighter.”
Ivanov goes on to defend the integrity of boot camp under Strelkov’s regime. The so-called "Novorossia" unit, he says, was strictly alcohol-free and run according to international military principles that prohibit looting, torture, and other forms of abuse.
Strelkov’s troops, Ivanov says, often blew themselves up with a grenade rather than surrender to Ukrainian troops. Ukrainian troops, by contrast, readily surrendered, he claims.
“They know that we don’t torture,” he says, contradicting evidence from Amnesty International that torture has been used against numerous prisoners held by pro-Russian militias.
“When we gave back Ukrainian guys [in prisoner exchanges], they could stand on their own legs,” he says. “But when they gave our guys back, they would just toss us what was essentially a bag of bones, a person with everything in him broken. Officially alive, but not going to survive.”