In late May, Russian photographer Max Avdeev spent time with the separatist fighters of the Vostok Batallion at their training camp outside Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine. He found a strange assortment of men camping out in the forest, surrounded by Kalashnikovs, anti-tank guns, grenade launchers, and man portable surface-to-air missles.
Most of the men were local, Avdeev says, and the ones from Russia “didn’t look like mercenaries. They looked like people who had a hard time in the world. Their lives without fighting for whichever ideals they’re willing to believe in seems pointless.” In his time with the fighters, Avdeev met a travel agent who closed his business to come fight with Vostok. Another was part of the Berkut riot police who had tried to quash the Maidan protests in Kiev. He had been set aflame by protesters’ Molotov cocktails three times. “He showed me the scar on his forehead,” Avdeev says. Then he went back to his native Crimea, where he stormed government buildings alongside Russian troops, before moving to the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
The locals refused to be photographed without balaclavas or masks for fear of reprisal. “We’re local, we have to live here,” they told Avdeev. “All of us have relatives here.” Many of the men who weren’t scared to be photographed maskless were fighters from Ossetia, in Russia’s restive north Caucasus. “According to them, they came here back in April with humanitarian assistance, and the locals asked them to stay and fight.” When Avdeev quizzed them on how they entered Ukraine from Russia with weapons, they vehemently denied his suggestion and said they had been armed once they got into Donetsk. “One of the fighters said he was afraid his mother would see the pictures,” Avdeev recounts. “He had told his mother that he had gone to Pyatigorsk [near Sochi] to work. His comrade started laughing and said his family thinks he’s in Moscow and doesn’t suspect anything.”
The batallion’s commander, Alexander Khodkovsky, told Avdeev that he had defected from the SBU, Ukraine’s successor agency to the KGB. “Before, Alexander commanded the antiterror unit of the special forces of the SBU, and now the SBU in Kiev considers him a terrorist,” Avdeev says. “He jokes that he knows exactly how they’re going to fight him.”