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In Ukraine, When Professors Reach For Kalashnikovs

It isn't just the Ukrainian military defending the country against pro-Russian militias in eastern Ukraine. Voluntary fighters, many of them intellectuals, have left their jobs to help the cause.

Intellectuals volunteer to fight against pro-Russian separatists
Intellectuals volunteer to fight against pro-Russian separatists
André Eichhofer

LUHANSK — Yevgen Dykyj is supposed to be lecturing at the university, but instead the bearded, curly-haired man is hunkered down in a hideout near Luhansk cleaning his Kalashnikov. In May, the professor exchanged his academic life for a machine gun, going with other volunteers to eastern Ukraine to help the government defend against Moscow-supported separatists.

Some 10 volunteer battalions are fighting in the civil war alongside the army and the National Guard. The government depends on the paramilitaries because the units are often better equipped and more highly motivated than the military itself. Dykyj's "Aidar" battalion is mostly comprised of intellectuals — teachers, artists, students and lawyers. After operations, the men relax by playing chess or reading poetry aloud to one another in the barracks.

What is utterly absent among these volunteers is romanticism about the war. "Many of my friends died in the first fights," says a grey-haired Maxim Kosub, another member of the Aidar battalion. Part of the battalion lodges in concrete barracks in Polovinkine near Luhansk. Sandbags are stacked up in front of the windows, some laundry dries on a line, and the men sleep on creaky metal beds.

Kosub worked as an interpreter before voluntarily taking up arms to defend his country. At one point, he even interpreted for former President Viktor Yanukovych. In his backpack is a book of poems by Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky. "We read the poems aloud in the evenings," he says. Some 400 volunteers fight in the Aidar battalion, which was founded in May by former officer Sergei Melnitshuk and named after the river in eastern Ukraine.

Sixty percent of the fighters come from the Luhansk and Donetsk areas, including 45-year-old Zhenya, who is piling sandbags up outside the barracks. He's actually a sculptor, specializing in works for playgrounds, he says. The artist is well-known for the figures he made for a popular Moscow adventure park.

The men all offer the same response to the question of why they felt drawn to join the war: "Because we have to defend our country," they say. The separatists would presumably answer the same way. Most of the volunteers in the Aidar battalion have no war or military experience of any kind. They receive just two weeks of training before they're sent out to fight.

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The National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy — Photo: Own Work

Professor Dykyj didn't serve in the army either. "I didn’t feel like spending two years marching around and scrubbing barracks," says the 41-year-old. But the academic does have experience in war zones. In January 1991, he protested in Vilnius, Lithuania against pro-Soviet militias who tried to undermine democracy there. And during the first Chechen war, he organized humanitarian aid for civilians in Chechnya.

From classroom to war zone

Dykyj is a biology professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kiev, a research university that is considered pro-Western. During the winter, he participated in the Maidan Square protests and was among the demonstrators who stormed the ornate residence of former President Viktor Yanukovych. After the change in government, he wanted to return to the university, but that's when the civil war began. So Dykyj became a squadron commander in the Aidar battalion.

"I don't want 18-year-old recruits sent to slaughter," he says, explaining why he volunteered and adding that there are plenty of grown men better suited to front-line duty.

There are currently 22 paramilitary groups in Ukraine. Eight to 10 of them are fighting on the government side. The army sent 30,000 soldiers into battle, while the paramilitaries have about 2,000 volunteers engaged in the fighting. "And we need them," says Andriy Parubiy, former head of the Ukrainian Council for Security and Defense.

The volunteers are not only better equipped, he says, but also their morale is better. The best-known unit is the "Dnieper" battalion financed by oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. Battalion members wear black uniforms and have state-of-the-art weapons. Right-wing radicals have assembled to form the "Asov" battalion.

But military experts take a critical view of the paramilitary involvement. While the units are under army command, some defy military orders. In mid-June, the Aidar battalion undertook an attack near Luhansk that had not been authorized. Before that, they’d marched into the city of Shchastya, arrested the deputy mayor, and — again, unauthorized — assumed leadership of the city. The separatists claim that ten civilians were killed in the battalion’s seizure of the city.

To get the battalion under control, it was reassigned in June to the authority of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense. But the volunteers continue to see themselves as "partisans" who dislike blindly following orders. "The army can tell us what to do," says a businessman serving with the battalion, but "that doesn't mean we'll follow their orders."

The separatists hate the paramilitaries. "We'll take normal soldiers as prisoners," says separatist leader Igor Bezler, who commands a division near Horlivka. "But anybody from a battalion is shot immediately."

Nadya Savtshenko, a helicopter pilot with the Aidar battalion, was "lucky." The 33-year-old fell into rebel hands in mid-June, but she wasn't executed. Instead, she was first brought to Luhansk and then to Voronezh in Russia, where she is now facing trial by military court. She is charged with killing two Russian reporters near Luhansk.

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