Translated by Nikita Che
An interview by Zakhar Prilepin
Having met Motorola from time to time, I almost always saw Vokha near him: a not tall, utterly quiet, bearded young man of few words.
It was hard to define his age but I was sure he was over 25 years old, being a deputy battalion commander. Besides, the battalion that was known by half the world!
Vokha and me likely met each other some five times, but said hardly a word in the two passed years.
Nobody doubted that he was the man who would head the battalion after Motorola: in any case of Motorola leaving the unit, it was always Vokha, who replaced him. Vokha’s real name is Vladimir Zhoga.
This time we are meeting at the headquarters. Our conversation was being interrupted by Sparta soldiers and officers, coming in on their business. I have to say that it is really impressive: strong men on the wrong side of fifty enter the room, Vokha calmly orders them to do something, they move out. Besides, it’s hard overestimate that the new battalion commander is only 23 years old.
“Vokha, very shortly, if you please: who are your parents, where were you born and study?”
“I was born in 1993 in Donetsk but my family soon moved in Slavyansk. Before May 2014 I was a usual lad: lived my life, studied, worked.”
“What were your parents doing?”
“My father ran his small business. Since I was 14 years old, I assisted him. My mother was a housewife. In fact, they divorced when I was a child. So I was involved in sport, mainly football, long enough, with some success… Graduating school, I started to assist my father in his business. It went good. Everything went good indeed until Maidan… Events caught my attention. I’d like to participate in it somehow but did not dare to go there. Things didn’t work out let us say. But, discussing with my friends the development in Slavyansk, I said once that if Maidan men would come into out town, I would stand for its defence.”
“You were involved in politics, weren’t you?”
“I kept myself distanced from politics, being more or less indifferent. I was twenty, I should have a good time, so to say. But while the coup started I got following news, discussing the issue with my father, with my friends, with elder or wise people. I understood soon: it’s inacceptable for me.”
“Were there those who stood with Maidan amid your friends in Slavyansk?”
“No one. At all. All my friends and comrades cried out: ‘We stand with Slavyansk, we stand with Donbass!’
Nevertheless, only three men of us stood in defence: me, my friend Fedia who served as a military physician, and my father. Though he didn’t participate in combat in Slavyansk. When it just was starting, I said to my father and all my relatives they should leave town. They did, so since we entered Donetsk – in August 2014 – he serves in our battalion.”
“And now, under your command?”
“Yes. Although all those lads and adult men who cried out that they would stand with the Homeland and take up arms are now sitting on the fence in Slavyansk. They accompany our fight in their mind, waiting for us to come back, and that’s it. Well, when we left Slavyansk, just a couple of months after that, I quarrelled with them all and stopped communicating, because I am tired of being asked by them: ‘When will you come back? When will all it finish?” I asked them in return: “What did you do to finish it?” They answered: ‘Oh, I have a family, I have a job…” And I said: “OK, I had a family, I had a job too.”
“When did you meet Motorola for the first time?”
“In April, on Easter eve. We have known each other since that bloody Easter… [the first civilian deaths happened in Slavyansk on Easter day, 2014.] I took duty as a guard at our check point on the road. In those days, the enemy was well armed, but we just had bats.”
“So you got into the militia before you met Motorola?”
“Yes, yet I told myself, if a mob starts in our town, I will stand in defence. I wasn’t given any arms in the beginning, they said I was too young, they sort of cared most that I could flee with the weapon… Anyway, they gave any excuse but we tried to do our best.
And then I met him…”
“We started to enforce our check points: there were data that the UAF were going on the offence. So some militiamen arrived at our check point, spending the night there. Motorola helped us complete the check point, lest we should be killed all together in a moment, but over time, ha ha… he showed us how to use the arms. I could make his face out only in the morning: they all wore ski masks. He told us about Kharkov. There was a man with such nom de guerre “Kharkov”. They told us how they fought with the Right Sector – unarmed, with only chains. Motorola told us about his way of scouting – riding a horse. In this way he got past a Right Sector position, coming into their view but he was able to leave the area in time.”
“I don’t remember such story.”
“It did happen. He shared many such stories. So, they left in the morning, we lost contact with him. Soon the 2nd of May came with a hot battle, then there was the battle of the 5th of May. My comrade and me were worrying about him surviving. We’d like to meet him again. On 6th of May, I visited the militia headquarters in Slavyansk. He came out of the building, saw my car, a pickup, and asked who its owner is. ‘Me,’ I said, asking how he is doing. He answered: ‘It’s hot, it’s war, we have death tolls.’ He paid attention that I was wearing civilian, dirty working clothes. ‘You are not armed,’ he said, ‘but you wanted to fight, didn’t you?’ I agreed, adding that nobody accepted me in their unit. So he invited me and my car in his own team. He gave me time to consider it till the evening.
I went home, not considering too much. I met my father, and told him that I am going off to war. Initially he thought I was joking. I packed, said ‘goodbye’ to my girlfriend.
I seemed not to realize how serious it all would be. We all proposed the Crimean case: we hoped it, waited, wished. But everything happened in another way.
My father came with me to talk to Motorola. He asked him to protect me. And that was it: my father went home, I moved to Morotola’s unit station. He introduced me to his mates and showed me a video of the 5th of May battle – the blowing up of the gas station in Semenovka, burned lorries that had been fired at by ukrops. The video also showed his rush across the road, coming under tracer fire. ‘The concrete was being hit by tracers close to me and I was running along,’ he told.
Militiamen Odessa, Kirpich, Botsman were with him already, and me, a local. Kirpich always was carrying a machine gun, Botsman – an automatic grenade launcher, RPG-7. So we always had in our car a loaded grenade launcher, and Botsman, if it was necessary, jumped out and fired it.
Igor Strelkov gave Motorola special tasks, and we always fulfilled them.
One time, I remember, we drove without headlights, only using a weak night lamp. When we arriving at our check point, men on duty scattered from there. Because they really couldn’t get what is going on when a car without headlights but with a heavy machine gun and armed fighters was nearing. We were concerned both ukrops and our own troops would kill us while in panic from the surprise.
We were given with two sets of Simonov anti-tank gun PTRS, then the automatic grenade launcher АGS-17. We moved in certain direction and attacked the enemy.
After that there was an assault on Semenovka. We were traversing along the town, fulfilling some tasks. I had got a racing bike then, using it for a reconnaissance. I reported back with my data to the command, they directed fire on the targets. I did it twice and refused to do it in the third time because I had been already noticed by the enemy.”
“Let’s stop for a moment, Vokha. Were you interested in being a soldier before? Had you some experience in military science?”
“I have to confess: I didn’t want to serve. Graduating school, I evaded the draft, being called up several times. The last time it happened was in April 2014. I didn’t want to serve in the Ukraine army then, I saw some my friends doing that, there was nothing interesting for me.
I even told Motorola I disliked it, but there the war was already happening.
Now we have got military trainings, advisers and so on. In 2014 we were forced to learn on the run.
Once locals complained to us of snipers or something. The four of us – Motorola, Kirpich, Botsman and me – went on reconnaissance. We were met by fire, so it turned out to be reconnaissance in force. In this way they revealed for us their positions, so we were sort of troubling them later. It was the first time I used a underbarrel grenade launcher. I didn’t really understand where I was targetting. In the lapse of time, we learned everything.”
“There were many various commanders but Motorola turned out to be the most famous one. Why?”
“He didn’t long to be well-known, interviewed. He was a usual man. His actions made him well-known, his fighting in combats instead of staying in headquarters too. He always was at the front line: in Ilovaysk, in Slavyansk, at the Donetsk airport. He was wounded at the airport, as well as in Ilovaysk.
He wasn’t thinking long and hard, he just made a decision. And his decisions always were successful. We never had huge tolls. When we entered the airport we heard of wounded, killed men in other units. Of course, there were wounded in our battalion too but usually not severe. Being under heavy artillery fire, you can’t help avoid shrapnel injuries… So he always found special ways in any situation.”
“Do you replicate Motorola’s listening to music all the time?”
“[Laughs.] He was awesome. Riding a car, he always switched on music. Once he drove an armoured vehicle, and there was not an audio player in it, so he couldn’t stop yelling at us because we couldn’t set-up a sound system for him. His working day was followed by music constantly. I more or less have the same music taste he did.”
“When did you take position of deputy battalion commander?”
“Since the start of the battalion itself. Nevertheless, I had been a deputy commander while we had got a separate reconnaissance company. And I’d been an acting commander in Snezhnoe, when Motorola had gone off for medical treatment.
After that, I got wounded, there were some troubles with my arm so I became a left-hander temporarily. In Ilovaysk and Miusinsk, I managed the company logistics – ammo, fuel and so on.
What about being a deputy battalion commander, wounded again Motorola had suggested it once during the airport battles. He said: ‘OK, let’s check your skills on the run.’ Of course, he provided some guidance. I was visiting him, having talks, discussing some issues. Some times he corrected me but the whole picture was not bad.”
“Do you speak Ukrainian?”
“Yes. ‘Mother tongue’ [speaks Ukrainian]. I’m not against Ukrainian. Motorola learned it too. We constantly spoke Ukrainian via radio at the airport, having started it for fun in Slavyansk yet. At the airport, it became a serious matter indeed. Ukrops sometimes could not get who were those they talked to. We had their radio frequencies and could contact them. So we got their location and targeted them. Our Ukrainian turned out useful. Motorola also liked listening to music of “The Elise Ocean’, Ukrainian band.”
“How many times were you wounded?”
“The first one was in Slavyansk. Another one I got in battles for the border, thirteen shrapnel at once. The most painful wounds are from the automatic grenade launcher. The wound to my nail was extremely painful, I even thought at the moment that I had lost the whole finger.
The next one I got in the storm of Shakhtersk, on the 10th day. I had just been discharged from hospital, Motorola was still being medically treated in Crimea. My arm had a hole all the way through.
I should add that two our guys had been wounded before, very severely. So I gave them my first-aid kit with antishock drugs, tourniquets, having missed out on that stuff when I got wounded myself…
The last one happened at the airport when we defended the terminal. We were once attacked by fifteen armoured vehicles. Most of them, twelve or thirteen, were tanks. They took distance some 500-700 so that we couldn’t reach them with our handle automatic grenade launchers. They stood there and battered our positions, distracting us so we didn’t notice that they were trying to attack us from the right flank too. I was wounded there, in my head. My helmet which had been granted to me by Gleb Kornilov [a Russian musician, Motorola’s friend] saved my life.”
“Did Motorola’s bodyguard, Gogi, who died with him, have a family, any relatives?”
“Yes, he had a family. A father, a mother and a brother are here. They decided to bury him in Abkhazia.”
“Was he from there?”
“Could you recollect the most stupid fakes on Motorola? What about quarrels with Abkhaz?”
“That’s nonsense and provocation. Everything was all right. Motorola didn’t quarrel with anybody. There are a lot of fakes indeed. For example, we allegedly are selling Motorola’s property off. The alleged property he doesn’t even have.”
“And what about his shooting of POWs?”
“That’s delirious ravings. They keep raving about the interview he gave when ukrops phoned him. They got harassed him so much that he joked with them about the shooting of POWs to spite them Another fake was about his mistresses. That’s all ravings, untruths and nonsense.”
“What is Sparta doing now?”
“We are managing our combat tasks and trainings. We are working now the same way as we did before. No low spirits for us. We remember and mourn him, but, as Motorola himself was telling, one should strive for higher goals. We do it.”
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