On a Saturday morning in late July, under strong rain, dozens of people started to arrive at a paintball club in Kyiv, Ukraine. Some were anxious, others confused, as they did not find their names on the list of participants. Many arrived from other cities just for this event and planned to leave the Ukrainian capital the same evening.
They later learned that all participant slots were filled only 10 minutes after the Azov brigade announced its soldiers would be offering a military training workshop to civilians. Within 24 hours, more than 1,000 people had registered, while only 60 could be accepted. Those lucky enough to be chosen were contacted by phone to confirm their participation. Anyway, we ended up as a group of 80, with some who came without invitation eventually being allowed to join.
This frenzy is easy to explain, even as organizers were surprised at the turnout. The Azov brigade is the most prominent even among the elite military units of Ukraine, partly due to Russian propaganda portraying them as dangerous Nazis, partly — and mostly — because of their battlefield performance in Mariupol where they were holding the frontline since 2014 and fiercely fought under siege in 2022. So some of those who came to the Azov event were rather adventurous. This training offered them the opportunity to tell their friends and acquaintances: “I got military training with Azov!” — a statement sure to inspire admiration.
For those seeking a military career or just temporary service, being accepted to the already legendary regiment means being recognized as the best of the best. So the majority — some teenagers, most under 30 with some previous training — came to test themselves and determine whether they could fit into Azov and where they needed to improve. As a female acquaintance in Kyiv told me the day before the training, when we discussed available opportunities for civilians to get military preparation, “Sooner or later, all of us will be there,” meaning in the army.
In Ukraine this year, the public's sentiments have pivoted from predicting a quick victory, given the Russian army's poor performance in 2022, to preparing for a long war as the Russian army dug into the nearly 20 percent of Ukraine they occupied, as they continue their heavy assaults in some places. Still, practically no Ukrainians want to surrender, especially as the public learns about Russian atrocities in the occupied territory. The public is also not keen to negotiate because the apparent majority believes that the war won't end until the entire Ukrainian territory is liberated because, otherwise, as is the case with Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Moscow could leverage the occupied area either for military bases or to exert influence on Ukraine's internal and foreign policy.
About a dozen people came to the Azov training in military uniform — either students of a military college or university or soldiers from other units. Most were civilians in civilian clothes and sneakers, clearly impractical for running in the rain and mud. As we were registering in a crowded pavilion and signing an agreement to be photographed and filmed, a very young man was adjusting a prosthetic leg. Speaking Russian and heavily swearing, he introduced himself by his nom de guerre, Buyvol (Ure). He was our instructor on military tactics.
Later, during a separate Q and A session, not swearing anymore, Buyvol told us that he was wounded in Mariupol a month after the Russian full-scale invasion and was evacuated from there by helicopter with several comrades. While constantly joking about his prosthetic leg, he told us that after that month of fighting, he was already so exhausted that he didn't even want to survive after being wounded: some rare insights into the grim picture of the 2022 Mariupol fights. He also said that he joined the Army in 2020 at the age of 18, meaning that he was only 21 when we met him.
Paths to war
The training consisted of three parts: physical exercises, tactical moves, and first aid — putting tourniquets on limbs and carrying wounded comrades. All 80 of us did the exercises together, and after that, the instructors divided us into several groups so they could pay attention to everyone and ensure that everyone got his or her tourniquet and rifle. It was the first time I had held a real combat weapon; however, it was not loaded. The instructor said my rifle was too large for me.
The rain didn't stop even for a minute. In two hours, I was already sorry that I had come. I was soaking wet and cold and I started to shake. I couldn't stop thinking about those on the frontline who have been enduring such — and worse — conditions for months and years. “I have to stay out of solidarity with them,” I thought, “I shouldn't be weak. I should train myself to be strong.” No one else displayed their discomfort. No one left. By the end, the forest glade where we were practicing lifting and dragging wounded soldiers became a bath of mud in the rain. No one cared anymore about the state of our shoes, now entirely covered with chunky Ukrainian black earth.
The rain also washed out our hopes for lunch. The single bar we could reach in that weather became so crowded that after standing in line for an hour, many left without being able to buy anything. I enjoyed staying there anyway: first, it was the only dry and warm place around; second, I liked the people staying in line with me. “A war doesn't let one out,” my colleague and now a widow of a Ukrainian soldier, said to me recently, citing one of her late husband's comrades.
I already knew this. Life in war conditions simplifies relations among people. You're all experiencing the same phenomena — you have similar and very definitive tasks, you are forced to rely on each other, and your actions only have two outcomes: survival and death. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2014 of war in Ukraine, I saw soldiers who, after being demobilized, weren't able to integrate into the “normal” society because of its numerous senseless complications. I experienced this feeling of foreignness myself, even after a couple of days on the frontline in my home region of Donetsk in the east of Ukraine. I got this feeling during that training with Azov as well. Those were all “my” people, almost equally wet, cold, hungry, and critical of their performance during the exercises.
But this year, even more widely, with hundreds of thousands killed and wounded, millions displaced, and everyone suffering through constant bombings and shellings, those staying in the country found a new sense of solidarity. In the paintball club, two men who witnessed my misery brought me, at the same time, a warm synthetic blanket, without asking for anything back. One of the Azov staff, a tiny girl in military uniform, handed me a thermal blanket as I returned the synthetic one back at the end of the training. “Don't worry, and leave if you feel bad,” she told me. “We will have other events like this.” A young man I had never seen before silently held his umbrella over my head after we walked to another place nearby to listen to Azov fighters answering questions from the public. The taxi driver who took me, still wet and shaking, didn't say a word about my shoes and pants with thick layers of mud on them.
The event, which they are now planning to scale up to meet the unexpected demand, was designed to recruit new fighters as there are already significant staff shortages in the Ukrainian Army, and the fighting troops are getting more and more weary and irritated with the lack of rotation — a dangerous tendency that Ukrainian officials and common civilians are cautious to discuss.
Azov is known for not accepting women as fighters (rather a common trend in the Ukrainian armed forces) so my participation in the training, as well as the rest of less than a dozen female attendees, was an act of generosity and common solidarity. The majority of women in the Ukrainian military are serving at the rear, but there are no vacancies for women anywhere in Azov right now, one of the organizers told us. In the meantime, they are preparing staff for other units and letting us make an informed decision of whether we are fit for a job in the army. “Sooner or later, one way or another, all of us will be there,” I kept repeating to myself the entire day.