Pavlo Vyshebaba is a Ukrainian poet, musician, activist, YouTuber, and United Nations Development Programme ambassador in Ukraine. He was born in Kramatorsk (1986), obtained his BSc in Journalism at the University of Mariupol (2012) and participated in the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity (Maidan, 2014). With the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he became a squad leader in the 68th Oleksa Dovbush Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine defending the Donetsk region.
The interview was recorded on the 25th of November 2022, in Kyiv.
Full video interview with Pavlo Vyshebaba by ISLND TV in Ukrainian:
Summary and translation by @Anastasiya1451A
Where is Pavlo Vyshebaba fighting?
You hear news from Kharkiv, Kherson, and the rest of the frontline was relatively stable. Yet now Russia is trying to break our defences in Pavlovka. [Vyshebaba’s rangers unit is stationed near Pavlovka.]
We have been defending that region for 8 months. In the last 8 days, there is a lot going on in Pavlovka, while the front was stationary for a long time. In the reality, the static parts of the frontline are the ones where there is a lot of fire exchange – the appearance of an unmoving frontline is achieved by constant and fierce fighting between the Ukrainian defenders and Russian invaders.
Could you describe your emotional state in 3 words, any 3 words?
Anxiety. Victory. And premonition.
Yes, the premonition of victory above all.
The psychological state of soldiers at the front
After months of constant fighting, there is fatigue. The fatigue makes you more careless – you forget to wear a helmet here, pay less attention over there, you take unnecessary risks. Ukrainian soldiers are not just tired, they get used to the constant danger. You can get used to almost anything, but at war when you get used and tired you get careless and that can get you killed.
What is most shocking in Kyiv after the front?
It’s like another world. I noticed that people in Kyiv take the air-raid siren very seriously, as they should. Yet, it’s a big contrast with the frontline, there you are under bombardment and shelling 24/7. You just live with it.
What is unique about Donbas residents?
There are two different Donbas – the cities and the villages. The villages of Donbas are deeply Ukrainian – they speak the Ukrainian language, and they have Ukrainian culture and identity. I grew up in the city of Kramatorsk, Donetsk region, visiting the countryside regularly and now my unit has walked through many more villages in Donbas since the full-scale invasion. People from Western Ukraine are always surprised by how Ukrainian the villages are in their nature.
Meanwhile, the cities of Donbas are a different story. During the Soviet times, the cities grew almost from nothing, appearing around large factories. There are a lot of social and ecological problems in the region due to mass industrialization and the high level of criminality inside the cities. (The criminality rates and the normalization of crime are much higher than in Western Ukraine or Kyiv.) The Ukrainian villagers didn’t want to move to the cities, but the Russians did. Therefore, people in Ukrainian cities speak Russian.
And many people in the Donbas cities are disconnected from their cultural heritage – they were uprooted and thrown into a city. Then, there are high levels of criminality and loss of self-governance & sense of responsibility that you find in Western Ukraine and post-Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth tradition. Moreover, many watched only Russian TV channels – literally propaganda 24/7.
When we return and liberate these territories, we would need not only to return the Ukrainian culture but also to institute the rule of law.
How has the war changed the people of Donbas?
In 2014, the main sentiment in Donbas was “it’s not so clear, it’s not just black and white”. Now, after 8 years and after the full-scale invasion even people that were pro-Russian don’t have any doubts. My friend who was almost like a separatist back then even voted in the pseudo-referendum in 2014 in Kramatorsk [which was temporarily occupied for 4 months], he changed his mind completely after the 24th. He even transitioned and speaks and texts to me in Ukrainian. He joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
I think the biggest problem back in 2014 was the Russian propaganda – if people in Donbas saw something else and not just the Russian channels 24/7 it would have been very different. This is something that we need to change in the future and not allow the Kremlin propaganda in Ukraine.
Who is still living in the Donbas?
Many pro-Ukrainian people were tortured and murdered – “put in the basement” is the expression in the occupied parts of Donetsk & Lugansk. Many fled the region due to constant harassment and high criminality in the Russian-occupied region. Now, there aren’t many pro-Ukrainian people physically left in the area.
With the full-scale invasion, Russia has been forcibly mobilising all men in the occupied territories. The city of Donetsk is what you call “the city of brides” – there are barely any men left there.
One brother is fighting in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the other in the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DPR”) – the fate of the people of Donbas
Fate is a funny concept. I know of a Ukrainian professional military soldier that is fighting in Donbas whose brother is in the so-called “DPR” militia. They are even fighting in the same area and there is a non-zero chance that they could meet in combat.
Is it possible to forgive those forcibly conscripted to the “DPR”?
It depends. There are only two scenarios in my mind – if they didn’t want to fight and just try to surrender it’s one thing, but if they shoot at us, then we follow the rules of war.
Will the cities of Donbas welcome the AFU the same way as in Kherson?
There are not many pro-Ukrainian people left there – many fled [to Ukraine-controlled areas] and many were killed. So, after 8 years of systematic eradication of everything Ukrainian, there may be few people that are pro-Ukrainian and managed to survive, so we should not expect the same type of overwhelming joy from the locals when we liberate our Donbas.
What should be the Donbas of the future?
Flourishing. I believe that we will liberate the Donetsk region. There are many challenges, from de-occupation, de-mining, and rebuilding, but we will manage and the region will prosper again.
But we should avoid the same mistakes – nature and the ecosystem suffered a lot from industrialization and the war. We will need to fix it.
About Rinat Akhmetov, his role in the life of Donbas and 2014
Rinat Akhmetov is a local oligarch who is very popular in Donbas. Since he was a child, Pavlo has been hearing Akhmetov sponsoring local schools, sending Christmas gifts to the kids of Donbas, financing sports events, etc. Many locals like Rinat.
Since the Maidan Revolution and the invasion of Donbas by Russia, there was total silence from Akhmetov. Maybe he was afraid of his property and business being confiscated and stolen by pro-Russian forces on the occupied territories, maybe he wanted to keep doing business with Russia, or maybe he didn’t care. Either way, his silence on the subject was damaging, as many in the region respect him and listen to him.
Wagner mercenaries, Russians and mobiks from the occupied territories: who is fighting against Ukraine?
We have seen everything – the Russian professional army, VDV, marines, Wagner mercenaries and now there are more mobilized Russians… They are getting less trained and worse equipped. We have seen them all coming to Ukraine and now they are no more.
Is it impossible to get used to at war?
It’s impossible to get used to losing your comrades. You can get used to almost anything, but not to that.
Don’t write about the war to me
Don’t write about the war to me,
Just answer: is there a garden near?
Do snails crawl on grass, and do you hear
cicadas singing, grasshoppers flee?
In faraway lands what do they call
their cats, what names did you hear?
The thing I wanted the most is to clear
your letters from sorrow, remove it all.
Do cherry trees already have flowers?
If someone brings a bouquet you like,
Don’t tell them about scary missile strike,
instead, talk more of this life of ours.
Please invite all the people you found
to visit Ukraine when this war is over,
We’ll show them our gratitude for knowing
our children were safe and sound.
Poem by Pavlo Vyshebaba
Translated by Anastasia Kirii
Why discussions in the army are more tolerant than on the Internet?
The Ukrainian military has become more tolerant and, while some individuals may still have retrograde views, we are all here to work toward a common goal and the environment for discussion is nicer than in the Twitter comment section.
We have people, even within our unit, who are very opinionated and have completely different opinions. There are many discussions on politics (we have two guys who love to discuss for hours who is the best president, Poroshenko or Zelensky, there is one guy who admires Stalin, etc. Yet, everyone is very polite because we are all armed. I used to be against the fire-weapons legalization in Ukraine, but in the military, you can see that people are more tolerant and polite in their discussions than on the internet, because here everyone is armed. [Vyshebaba smiles].
The most dangerous unit of the Russian army
Wagner mercenaries at the beginning of the full-scale invasion. They were professionals – trained, with military courage, even a kind of daredevils sometimes. Sometimes they would attempt a daring escape or a suicide mission just to have a chance to kill you. Even if they are the enemy, you can respect them as warriors. They were the best units that we encountered. They “were” – past tense. But even they are no more.
To what extent does Ukrainian society adequately assess the Russian army?
When you are at the frontline for 8 months you just get flabbergasted by the amount of artillery and rockets that Russia throws at you. First, you think it will end soon, but they have a lot of it. Don’t get me wrong, any units attacking in mass and with that much artillery and heavy weaponry are still dangerous and serious foes. We just need to acknowledge the seriousness of the threat and have an adequate perception of it.
Can the enemy be pitied? [As the ex-Wagner mercenary that was executed on video with a sledgehammer by Russia after the POW exchange]
Of course, from a philosophical point of view you pity any person suffering, but the war, after this long, changes you. I start thinking in a more statistical sense – there are a lot of Ukrainians, men and women, in Russian captivity and we want to return them to safety. So, we want to exchange POW. [After the POW exchange the responsibility for the Russian soldiers and mercenaries returned to Russia is completely on the Russian Federation].
About the exchange of prisoners
Ukrainian soldiers always try to take POWs and not wouldn’t just shoot them. Many have family members and friends who may be in Russian captivity right now. So, POW exchanges are essential to get our loved ones back to safety.
We must rescue all our defenders, men and women, from the Russian captivity.
About Belarusians and their attitude to the war
One of my grandfathers died defending Belarus against Nazi Germany during WWII. He fought against fascists side by side with Belarusians and Russians back then. And now the Russian fascists are using the territory of Belarus to launch rockets against Ukrainian cities and civilians. And when I say fascists – I mean it. It’s not a figure of speech, the Russian regime is fascist, just like Umberto Eco described it.
While these people who fought Hitler, the ancestors of Belarusians and Russians are turning in their graves right now, the ancestors of Ukrainians can rest in peace.
Are Ukrainians able to conduct a dialogue with each other?
There are still a lot of problems – our level of discussion needs to increase. We need to be more tolerant within Ukraine and I also work on my own patience. I write and rewrite the comments, I try to find the patience to explain my point of view to someone.
What will be the level of aggression and violence among Ukrainians after the war?
With the war, the level of violence definitely increased in our society. I can even feel it in myself, almost like getting on edge more easily. It’s a side-effect of war and it’s a problem that we will need to deal with, but now we don’t even have time to address it.
In a way, it’s easier within the Ukrainian military – everyone is armed, and everyone is very careful even with their tone of voice.
“We did not send you there” – about the “cancelling” of the military after the war
There will be 10 idiots for 1M veterans, and those idiots will spoil the image of the army. I am afraid that our society might not be wise enough to understand this.
Once you take off your uniform you become a civilian in the eyes of others, and you are just like everyone else. There was not much respect for the military before and it can be similar after the war ends. It will become again about who has more power, who has more money, and not about who defended you once. I just hope that we won’t hear “We didn’t send you there”. I think that the Government won’t say it. Our nation needs to become more like the US – from what I hear the respect for veterans and their service is entrenched in the Americans.
About the case with the military in the Ukrzaliznytsia train
[A Ukrainian soldier was asked to leave the train carriage and to stand in the corridor between the carriages because of his strong bodily odour].
Those people just live in a completely different world, in their information bubble. When I came to Kyiv [for the interview], I noticed that the people in the cafes have the most mundane conversations – on coaching, business strategies, IT, etc. While it’s good that they can have a semblance of normal life and move the country forward, the contrast with the realities of the frontline is eerie.
How is this possible? I think that some people live with this war and some try not to think about the war constantly. And then I ask myself – “How much did I think about the war before the full-scale invasion?”. So, it’s natural that people have their life and focus on their own daily tasks and problems.
Should those who took Russian passports be deprived of Ukrainian citizenship?
For 8 years people in occupied territories were not forced to take Russian passports. You could stay there without getting Russian citizenship, but some chose to get it and even sent their kids to Russian Universities. One such example is a family that had kids in Rostov’s University (Russian Federation) but with the full-scale invasion, they realised that the Ukrainian passport could give some advantages now. So, they applied for asylum in Canada (parents, grown-up kids, their Russian daughter-in-law from Rostov), pretending that they are pro-Ukrainian now. What should you do with these people that collaborated with the invaders and actively welcomed the annexation?
In our unit, we had this discussion for a while now on what’s the right thing to do with people that actively and willingly collaborated with Russian invaders. We have arrived at the conclusion that they should keep their Ukrainian citizenship but they must be punished administratively at least, for example by not being able to vote.
About work in the Cabinet of Ministers and lustration
I worked for the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers, writing the news for their website after the Revolution of Dignity. The majority of people working there are not corrupt, they are just Governmental employees with small salaries. People at my unit were asking me if I received any bribes when working for the Government, but I always ask them “How?”. Who would give me any bribes? I was just writing news for their website.
There were some people there that didn’t care. The main streets of Kyiv were still covered with the blood of the protesters of the Maidan. Literally – still covered with blood. And some people in the Government didn’t care. That attitude of distancing yourself from your country and not caring what was going on in it was a big problem amongst some of the elite.
New poetry collection by Pavlo Vyshebaba
Pavlo continues to write poetry, even at the frontline. His new, self-published poetry collection by Pavlo Vyshebaba is available for pre-order.