Look to the sky: A visit with the communists of the Ghost Brigade

By Susann Witt-Stahl
Junge Welt

Ukrainian positions are just 500 meters away. “In the first light of dawn, it’s particularly dangerous. The snipers try their luck,” warns a fighter of the communist unit, pointing to a hill. On the adjacent barricade stands a sign that says “Mines.” The front at the village of Donetsky, where unit 404 is stationed, lies about 40 kilometers northwest of the city of Alchevsk, which can be reached only by nearly impassable roads, sometimes even through rough terrain. 

Photo by Susann Witt-Stahl / Junge Welt
“That was the Ukrainian tanks,” says a political commissar with the nom de guerre Alexander Krot, explaining why most buildings in the area are destroyed or damaged. “In Soviet times Donetsky still had 8,000 inhabitants, after the collapse [of the USSR], 4,500, and since the war began, there are only 800.” One of them, Galina Selimova, invites us to visit her devastated house. “We have worked all our lives, but instead of paying our pensions, Kiev shoots at us.”

“The constant artillery fire against civilians is terrorism,” says Krot, presenting military equipment captured by his unit in the Battle of Debaltsevo. The father of two young children came from the neighboring city of Stakhanov. “When the new government began to arrest and kill opponents of Maidan, we had no choice but to take up arms.”

“Hitler kaput!” shouts a fighter, who smiles when she hears that a journalist has come from Germany. In unit 404 there are some women. Among them is a young Israeli woman who also wants to provide her fellow citizens with reliable information: “The Russian-language press in Israel is very one-sided, pro-Kiev.” Nika, a 29-year-old saleswoman from Lugansk, has a son in primary school. Why does she risk that he may grow up an orphan? “I want him to have a future without fascism”—she stresses that she is fighting for her son, not in spite of him.

In 404’s camp there is electricity, but no water. The equipment is beyond poor. The places where personal hygiene is taken care of can hardly be called “sanitary facilities.” Rice porridge with a few scraps of meat for dinner, a bun with compote for dessert, sweetened tea with fresh fruit. The supply is spartan. The only entertainment at the front: kittens romping through the small canteen barrack. “The unit’s love for animals is huge. Tanks have stopped firing to save dogs from death,” reports Nemo, an Italian anti-imperialist. It’s evident that he and his comrades take no joy in killing when they explain why they are here. “I am a communist, so it’s my duty to prevent the return of a fascist bloc in the heart of Europe.” Lucky, an anarchist skinhead from Madrid, wanted to do something against the “rampant anti-Russian racism.”

The international left is making sacrifices here — Western war correspondents, however, make themselves scarce. “They are far too scared,” laughs a partisan who does PR work for the unit. There may be another reason: there is scarcely any recyclable material here for demonization of the insurgents. There is no presence of Russian nationalists or other right-wing forces so willingly used by the NATO-patriotic media establishment as arguments to support the campaign of the Ukrainian army and paramilitaries in Donbass. Alexey Markov, a political commissar whose unit calls him “Dobriy,” the Good, because of his kindness and infinite patience, offers a humanist vision of the world based on Marxism-Leninism. He finds the signals from Kiev disturbing: “After the battle in Debaltsevo, we found fallen from the other side wearing badges with the inscription “slave owner” on their uniforms,” says Markov. “There is no doubt that in the Ukrainian volunteer battalions, the prevailing view is that those living in the Donbass are ‘subhuman.’”

Nothing remains in Markov and his comrades of machismo or the romance of war. Standing at attention and other military rituals are largely dispensed with in the headquarters on Lenin Street in Alchevsk. Some everyday scenes are not without humor: at Dobriy’s desk, the little daughter of a soldier eats chocolate ice cream with gusto, fighters surf the Internet on his PC or gossip over coffee. In the office of the political commander, there is a similar buzz.

But Markov knows this is no idyll – and refuses to spread illusions. “The United States will continue with President Petro Poroshenko on the proven motto, ‘He’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard,’” he says, and the German government, although opposing neo-Nazi marches in their own country, generously overlooks commemorations of Nazi criminals in Ukraine. Markov describes the situation since Minsk-2 as a war of attrition. Currently there are no big fights, but every month there are dead and wounded in his unit. He does not mention figures.

“Of course, we are not doves, but soldiers,” says Pyotr Biryukov, the military commander of 404. Never forget what happened after the Reichstag fire, says the engineer from Siberia. Biryukov is convinced that war will only end when the “fascist plague” is defeated. The events in Odessa of May 2, 2014, in which a mob manipulated by Ukrainian fascists set fire to the House of Trade Unions and killed dozens of people, finally convinced him that he had to take up the armed struggle. “For future generations to look to the sky, not into the abyss.”


Translated by Greg Butterfield
Spanish translation by Nahia Sanzo

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