Guest post by Abigail Gipson.
Elena Volochine and James Keogh arrived in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine on a June evening in 2015 to begin filming the documentary Oleg’s Choice. The Russian-backed battalion in which they were to be embedded was preparing for battle the next day. Before the battle, one fighter stopped to talk to the journalists, and he warned them the conflict would be too dangerous and they should stay at the base. The soldier, Max, was right — their forces suffered heavy losses that night. “He probably saved our lives,” Volochine said in an interview.
Max became one of the main subjects of the film, along with the battalion’s deputy commander, Oleg. Both came to Ukraine from Russia, and Oleg’s Choice follows the two as they grapple with feelings of cynicism and question the realities of the conflict in contrast with the narratives in Russian media.
Throughout the film, we see Oleg on a knife’s edge. The propaganda-fueled idealism that led him to volunteer has faded, and he no longer sees the war as the noble defense of Donbas citizens he imagined it would be. Though disillusioned, he stays with his battalion out of loyalty to his fellow soldiers.
In the winter of 2014, a pro-European revolution in Ukraine, in which Ukrainians protested the government’s rejecting a deal to further integrate with the EU and, more generally, a government they saw as corrupt and subservient to the Kremlin, ended the presidency of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych. As a reaction to this, Russia annexed Crimea in March. Russian state-owned media depicted the revolutionaries as fascist criminal groups who wanted to oppress the Russian-speaking populations in Ukraine. Fueled by this propaganda, pro-Russian protests broke out in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, the region often referred to as the Donbas. Against the backdrop of these protests, “Russia sent mercenaries and used its secret services to take power in these regions,” Volochine said. “The new Ukrainian government decided to send troops to stop this so-called ‘pro-Russian’ rebellion, and an armed conflict started.”
Oleg describes the situation in Donetsk as “complete disorder” (prosto besporyadok). It’s unclear whether Russian or Ukrainian forces are shooting sometimes. There are not enough supplies. Volochine described seeing a tank so old that it broke down on the road.
This besporyadok, the lack of strong coordination from the center, is what allowed Volochine and Keogh to create the film at all. It fell to each battalion commander to authorize journalists, so once he gave them his okay, they got almost complete access to film. Once there with the approval of the commander, they were able to integrate into the battalion and became a fixture of psychological support for the soldiers, Volochine said.
Volochine is the Moscow bureau chief for France24 and has been reporting in Russia since 2012. She first met Oleg when she was reporting on the armed conflict. She kept in contact with him, and eventually decided to return to film the documentary. The war wouldn’t be happening without people like Oleg, Volochine said, and she couldn’t convey the truth of the war without telling his story.
Volochine was born in Moscow, and she and her family moved to France when she was 7 years old. She said she was affected by the conflict on a personal level, and it became her duty to bring this story to the outside. “It’s my country fighting there, my country writing the story, the story of Russian guys, my people,” she said.
The film is not interested in making moral judgments, but instead presents the soldiers as complex and conflicted individuals. It brilliantly weaves in the music the soldiers are listening to, songs about violence, glory, destruction, and longing for home. Much of the music is from Soviet times, written about World War II. The Second World War is still very much alive in Russian memory. It lives in movies, parades, familial histories. The war has become romanticized over the years, transformed into a tragedy from which Russia emerged victorious.
Fighting to defend one’s country is deeply ingrained in the Russian national ethos, which means, for men especially, that there is a particular honor in becoming a soldier. This mentality, combined with Russian media news stories that falsely portray the Ukrainian forces as fascist aggressors, led to Russian volunteer fighters pouring into the Donbas.
“War is very present in their everyday life,” Volochine said. “War is like a fairy tale and Russia always wins.”
With this documentary, Volochine asks what brings young men to go to war, and what happens to them once they arrive. She shows soldiers trying to bring meaning to the senselessness of combat, often failing to justify their actions to themselves even as they continue to go to battle.
Abigail Gipson is a senior majoring in International Studies and with a minor in the Russian and East European Institute. She also produces IU’s podcast Through the Gates.