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Long Read People and Leadership

‘ZOV’: Confessions of a Russian paratrooper (Part 1)

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

In May, Russian paratrooper Pavel Filatyev e-published a 140-page memoir entitled ‘ZOV’, after the ‘Z’ symbol, on his VKontakte page. He then fled Russia. ZOV’ is a scathing criticism of the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine and of the Russian Army.  This analysis, in two parts, offers selected quotes with brief commentary.

Filatyev served as a contract soldier (kontraktniki) mortar man in 56th Guards Air Assault Regiment.  In his words: ‘Guards ml.s-t. Filatiev 6 DSHR, 2 DSHB, 56 DSHP, 7 VDD’, – or ‘6 Air Assault Company, 2 Air Assault Battalion, 56 Air Assault Regiment, 7 Guards Mountain Air Assault Division’).  56th Guards Air Assault Brigade was a Kamyshin-based formation (north of Volgagrad). In 2021, Defence Minister Shoigu announced the formation would be ‘upgraded’ to regiment, subordinated to 7th Guards Mountain Air Assault Division, and be re-based in new barracks in Feodosia, Crimea.  The barracks, in fact, were not fully completed when the invasion was launched.

Filatyev had previous military service as a contractor with 46 OBRON (a National Guard unit) in Chechnya. He then worked as a horse trainer for 10 years.  He returned to the army in his early 30s due to financial difficulties with his business. 56th Guards Air Assault Brigade was his father’s formation and Filatyev was a proud paratrooper.  In late March he was caught in a shell blast in the Kherson Oblast and contracted a serious eye infection. This injury, and the poor medical care he received for it, was a key motivation for some of the most contemptuous passages of his memoir.  

‘ZOV’ offers invaluable insights into the reality of the Russian Army and goes a long way to explain why the Russian Army has been losing the war. Part 1 of the analysis looks at the period when he signed up, joined 56 DSHP, and the preparations for war.  Part 2 will look at his active service in Kherson and subsequent incapacitation.

Scepticism over President Putin’s claim that the ‘special military operation’ was a necessary pre-emptive measure

Filatyev expresses scepticism over the claim the ‘special military operation’ was a necessary pre-emptive measure:

‘’If we had not attacked Ukraine, would it have attacked us?’ Many echo the TV that we launched a pre-emptive strike, but how can you believe that Ukraine would have attacked Russia, Crimea, if the Armed Forces of Ukraine could not even hold their borders… How could this country, which defends itself with difficulty, slowly but losing its territories, attack?’(page 4)

He also questions ‘de-Nazification’ and why Russia is ‘saving’ two regions that belong to Ukraine:

Ukraine was enslaved by Nazism and they are infringing on the Russian population?’… Communicating with people who fled the war in Donetsk and in Luhansk, I have not heard cases of Nazism that are shouted about from our media.’ (pages 4-5)

We attacked to save the DNR and LNR’. What are the DNR and LNR? Indeed, in fact and legally, these are two regions that were part of Ukraine, which rebelled and decided to become independent…why do we need territories in fact of a foreign state? What for? Are we short on land?’ (pages 4-5)

Criticism over the disbanding of 56th Guards Air Assault Brigade

56th Guards Air Assault Brigade – as Filatyev describes – was a proper 3,000-strong brigade with three assault battalions, a paratrooper battalion, a reconnaissance battalion, a tank battalion, and organic artillery and air defence.  Its disbandment and re-designation as a ‘regiment’ was an example of the creation of ad hoc, under-strength formations on the eve of the invasion. The parachute battalion was merged with the Crimean ‘Separate 171st Assault Battalion’ to create a ‘regiment’.  In reality, this was ‘an airborne battalion, an airborne assault [battalion] and a reconnaissance company (whose number was equal to a platoon).’ 

Filatyev was assigned to a euphemistic ‘Night-Experimental-Air Assault Battalion.’ However, the reality was ‘putting the entire battalion on ordinary UAZ vehicles, not armoured! So that’s exactly how my 2DShB was sent to war.’

2DShb was seriously understrength and a battalion only in name:

I forgot to mention that the battalion consists of three companies, my company went to war with about 45 people, and the other two 60 people each, and that the airborne assault battalion consisted of 165…’ (page 6)

Chaotic mismanagement of the move to the ‘new’ barracks in Feodosia

Filatyev was instructed to report to the ‘new’ barracks in Feodosia.  He discovered the barracks were incomplete; he had no bed; the command was absent, catering was awful; and he only finally received an inadequate kit issue after ten days on base.  His assignment to the mortar battery was purely accidental; it was the only area where he could find a bed.  Defence Minister Shoigu actually visited the construction in an event filmed by TV Zvezda.  It appears the visit was for show.

In front of me are two old broken-down 2-storey barracks, an old canteen and a small area for parachute training….having learned that my company is located here on the second floor, I go…[and]…find out…there seem to be no free beds there… the food is bad in the dining room, then there is not enough food for everyone, then the potatoes in the soup are raw, then the bread is mouldy … Washing there is a problem…water shortages, which is why the toilets were often locked … After 10 days, they give out a uniform, but only a summer green, but there are no berets of the right size, which is why…I go and buy berets for myself…’ (page 28)

Even before the war in Ukraine, Russia’s military was flimsy at best.
Inadequate company commander

Filatyev and other contractor soldiers are commanded by an inadequate, overweight company commander. They undertake no training and instead are made to perform menial tasks such as clearing rubbish.  When they do finally go to the ranges, the event turns into a shambles:

The next day we go to shooting, we get up at five in the morning, we line up for three hours and wait for the Kamaz truck, we finally eat, we arrive at 12:00, we line up, we stand, the command at the training ground does not like how some piece of paper is filled out, the major tears the sheet… with some hysterical cries yells that there will be no shooting because of this.’ (page 30)

Inadequate provision of personal equipment

Inadequate provision of personal equipment has been widely reported in the war (e.g. Donbass militiamen issued with Mosin rifles and ‘1945 helmets’).  Professional, elite troops such as paratroopers have also resorted to buying or scavenging personal equipment. ‘Ratnik’, supposedly the standard issue Russian infantry combat system (webbing and body armour) has in fact been monopolised by the officer class or other privileged groups.

Half of my guys changed clothes and went in Ukrainian uniforms because it was of better quality and more comfortable, or their own was worn out, and our great country is not able to dress, equip and feed its own army. For example, from the very beginning I didn’t have a Ratnik kit and crossed the border without even having a sleeping bag.’ (page 2)

On the onset of winter (2021), Filatyev complains:

In mid-October, they begin to issue demi-season and winter uniforms, but only worn ones and there are no sizes, I refuse to receive worn uniforms that are not in size, because of which relations with the command begin to worsen, they don’t like rebels here. After swearing with the company commander, I go and buy myself a jacket.’ (page 32)

Dangerous parachute training

Filatyev was anxious to complete parachute training to collect parachute pay.  After many delays and poor training (’ it turns out that half of them do not know how to pack parachutes’), they do finally jump.  However, pilot error means his lift lands in a cemetery. As a consequence of the sub-zero temperatures and inadequate clothing he ends up in hospital with pneumonia (‘I’m going to the hospital, fluorography shows 2-sided pneumonia’). (pages 32-33)

He adds:

The infections department received about thirty military personnel of my unit (all were present at the jumps) with diagnoses of SARS, bronchitis, angina…’(pages 34-35)

The chest infection means he cannot complete the annual physical training tests and misses his annual bonus. He writes a letter to the MOD in complaint over his treatment but is ignored.

He gets into arguments with various officers but is unable to recover pay or bonuses:

I would lose my monthly allowance -24 %, and the annual bonus 10/10, and also lose the opportunity to receive a bonus to the salary +70%. At the moment my salary is 27 tr. of which I give 12 for rent.’  [27 tr, is 27,000 roubles or approximately £375 per month]

Did I mention the catering?

Three-and-a-half months into his contract, Filatyev continues to complain over the catering (the Russian Army has had a poor reputation in catering for many years; Defence Minister Shoigu has sought to address these problems over his tenure):

Meals in the canteen are extremely poorly organized, raw potatoes in soup on the water are a common thing, there was not enough cutlets, salad, butter, bread or [sic] salty tea ran out. As a result, contract soldiers almost never eat in the canteen, and conscripts simply have no choice.’ (page 38)

Poor or non-existent training and low morale

The lack of basic, company-level leadership and any sort of training programme continue to mark his service:

For three and a half months, in fact, there were no classes, except for pre-jump additional training. There is an atmosphere of apathy among the contractors, and 90% in the smoking rooms are discussing how the contract would end faster. Conscripts do not understand why contract soldiers serve at all. I also heard from a number of officers that they do not want to serve hereWhat I have been observing for three and a half months horrifies me…in fact, I see complete anarchy, there is only a faint hint of combat readiness, much ridicule is heard among the local population about the Feodosia Airborne Forces.’ (pages 38-39)

Deployment to a training ground on the eve of the invasion

Two weeks before the invasion, Defence Minister Shoigu ordered ‘control checks’ in Southern Military District (YuVO). These are unit assessments undertaken on training areas.  Control checks are not unusual.  What was unusual was that these were the third set of control checks in YuVO since the beginning of the year – it was no longer possible to pretend this was routine activity.

By now rumours were swirling that NATO and Ukraine were going to attack the Donbass or Crimea.  These were fomented by Kremlin propaganda.

I thought that battles were possible, but only in the form of the fact that we would lead them on the defensive, standing on the border of Ukraine and Donbass, or on the border of Crimea. It seemed logical to me that they [the Russian Army in the Donbass] would carry out the operation under the guise of peacekeepers … I arrived at the training ground, around February 15, having come to the political officer of the battalion who was responsible for sending everyone there and saying that I needed to go to the training ground, that something was brewing…’ (page 43)

Basic provision at the training area proved awful:

Arriving at the training ground, I continued to freak out from how everything was arranged. Our company lived all in one tent, about 40 people (conscripts all remained in the garrison) in a bunk tent… Food in the dining room is even worse than in the garrison…There was nowhere to wash those who arrived later than those who came, like me, there were about 5 of them, had neither a sleeping bag, nor camouflage, armour, helmets, etc (pages 43-44)

Poor weapon maintenance

Filatyev was not assigned a weapon in his first four months of service.  When he was finally issued a machine gun, it was in a poor state of maintenance.

Before that, for four months, I didn’t have a fixed weapon at all! By the way, even during my service in 2007-2010, this was generally not possible to imagine. So, it turned out that my machine gun had a broken belt and was just rusty, on the very first night shooting there was a plugging after how many shots, after which I cleaned it in oil for a long time trying to put it in order.’ (page 45)

Rusty weapons, as it turns out, aren’t just for swiftly mobilised conscripts.
Total lack of knowledge

One of the remarkable aspects of Filatyev’s experience (from a Western soldier’s perspective) was a total lack of knowledge of what was happening, or why.  It is important to have some historical perspective to understand the deep divide between the Russian officer class and the soldiers.  The explanation below is offered to help the reader.

The key point to appreciate is that the privileged tsarist army never went away.  The Bolsheviks needed the officer class to win the civil war.  The replacement of the professional officers and rank bands with Bolshevik krascoms (‘Red commanders’) proved a disaster, recognised even by Lenin. Trotsky sensibly wooed the former tsarist officers (nobility or pomeshchiki landowners)1 to the communist cause.  The prestige of the class grew again in the 1920-30s which also witnessed a flowering, and indeed golden age of Russian military theorising. The Chekists (Soviet secret police) however remained suspicious of the class, especially when they manifested independent thought. Stalin’s insane pre-war purge of senior officers was abandoned following the German invasion. The war produced gifted operational commanders, notably Zhukhov.

During the post-war Soviet period the officers became a bloated, privileged group. The comfortable Brezhnev years created a military nomenklatura 2 that lacked operational competence.  The dissolution of the USSR was a blow to this class but decline was reversed by President Putin and Defence Minister Shoigu who have favoured the military.  

If you join the Russian Army today as an officer you spend five years in a highly-sought after place in an elite military academy (a militarised Yale or Oxford).  You never see or speak with a soldier 3. You mix with your own gilded class.  At the end of the five years you are posted to a unit where your job is to train one-year conscripts.  Like their serf forefathers, the conscripts effectively perform barshchina (‘labour’) for the state. You have no special relationship with these human units, unlike a professional Western army.  Exceptions are the elite formations such as the paratroopers. Russian officers generally have low expectations of their men: they exist to obey an order and perform whatever role they have been trained in. 

The NCO class is hollow because the Bolsheviks also eradicated these rank bands in the name of equality.  Unlike the restored officer ranks, the non-commissioned officer class remained moribund. The modern Russian Army still struggles with this legacy.

Filatyev’s description of the days immediately preceding the invasion convey well the soldier’s eye view of the preparations, characterised by a total ignorance over what was happening.

Somewhere on February 20, an order came for everyone to urgently gather and move out lightly, a forced march was coming to no one knows where, then the majority hoped that this forced march meant the end of the exercises, some joked that now we would attack Ukraine and capture Kyiv in 3 days, I even then said it was no laughing matter and I said that if something like this happens, we won’t capture anything in three days and put forward my guesses that we would be sent to the Donbas … We gathered all day, most of the units left their mobile phones there, all the weapons were loaded….’ (page 45)

Filatyev describes the regiment (in fact battalion strength):

By 17:00, our regiment gathered, consisting of my assault battalion on the UAZ, an 82mm mortar battery, a parachute battalion on the BMD2, a reduced reconnaissance company, an artillery battalion with 120mm mortars and D30 howitzers, and separate platoons. According to my impressions, there were 500-600 people there.’ (page 46)

Filatyev served in the 82mm mortar battery.  This comprised five mortars, three Ural and three Kamaz trucks, and one command truck. A mortar crew comprised five soldiers:

‘The column began to move…an 82mm mortar of five guns, consisted of three KAMAZ trucks and three Urals, [and] KAMAZ control…’  (page 48)

Road move from Feodosia to the Ukrainian border

Even on the eve of crossing the Ukrainian border, Filatyev had no idea where the column was travelling to and received no orders:

At about 20:00, when it got dark, the column began to advance onto the highway, besides us, other columns advanced from different directions, traffic police and VAI cars with flashing lights appeared on the highway, huge columns began to crawl, all the way we wondered where we were going, the drivers drove behind those who go ahead without knowing the end point. As a result, we arrived in the fields, somewhere near Krasny Perekop, at about 3:00 am. In many UAZs, the stoves did not even work. In the morning we received dry rations. Even then, everyone was dirty and exhausted, some lived for almost a month at the training ground without any [decent] conditions, everyone’s nerves were on edge from this, especially since the atmosphere was becoming more and more serious and incomprehensible. The majority no longer had a connection, and everyone fed on rumours that the atmosphere was heating up. I suppose that at the level of regimental commanders, they already knew what would happen.’ (pages 46-47) [Krasnoperekopsk is a small settlement 25 kilometres from the Crimean-Ukrainian border on the E97 leading north.]

Immediately before the invasion the soldiers were lied to and told Ukrainian sabotage groups had crossed the border. They had no idea what was really happening.

Two days later we again, at night, moved in a column to a new place, closer to the border, somewhere near Armyansk. We slept in Ishun, intensively patrolling at night. On the night from 22 to February 23, received information from the command that sabotage groups had passed through the border to us with the aim of sabotage …No one really understood what was happening, everyone was guessing.’  (pages 46-47) [Armiansk is on the Crimea-Ukraine border on the junction of the E97-M16 leading to Kherson, and T2202 leading north. Ishun is a small settlement near Krasnoperekopsk.]

As a motivator, the divisional commander arrived and promised the soldiers a bonus. Financial inducements have been a feature of the Russian war, not always met (and, indeed, Filatyev did not receive his promised bonus).

‘On February 23, the division commander arrived and, congratulating us on the holiday, announced that from tomorrow, the salary per day would be $69, the exchange rate then was more than a hundred roubles and according to our estimates it was more than two hundred thousand a month, plus the usual salary, it was a clear sign that something is coming serious. Rumours spread that we were going to storm Kherson, it seemed to me nonsense. (pages 46-47) [200,000 roubles was approximately £3,200, a huge hike in the paratroopers’ pay.]

On the last night in Crimea – 23 February – Filatyev remained clueless over what the next day would bring:

‘Nobody knew what would happen tomorrow, someone said that we would defend the border of Crimea. Someone that we will go to Kyiv and take it in three days, with this I immediately entered into an argument that we would not take anything in three days and that it would be just an ass, it seemed to me that no one would even give such an order to me I didn’t like such a frivolous attitude towards this from my colleagues.’ (pages 46-47)

The following morning, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Sergio Miller

Sergio Miller is a retired British Army Intelligence Corps officer.  He was a regular contributor and book reviewer for British Army Review.  He is the author of a two-part history of the Vietnam War (Osprey/Bloomsbury) and is currently drafting a history of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Footnotes

  1.  The system of land ownership established by Ivan IV (‘Ivan the Terrible’) was known as pomestie.  Essentially, the Russian (Muscovite) state was a bargain between the tsar and the pomeshchiki (landowners). The tsar granted land and the landowners owed the tsar lifelong military service.  The serfs ‘belonged’ to the landowners.  In the 18th century, military service was reduced to 25 years. Following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, it was reduced to six years. This basic framework of Russians ‘owing’ the state service – in practice obedience to an autocratic ruler – has remained unchanged to this day.
  2.  Party loyalists and appointees.
  3.  While many militaries have long training courses for their officer corps, the Russian case – as borne out in Filatyev’s memoir – is especially stratified.

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