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«I masked the PRESS caption on my helmet to use it in combat» Journalist Yuriy Matsarsky on waging war in Ukraine

Former Kommersant journalist who left Moscow for Kyiv after the annexation of Crimea, Yuriy Matsarsky worked as a radio presenter in Ukraine and wrote Russian-language publications. When a full-scale war began, he joined the territorial defense forces, believing he will be of more use to his country with an assault rifle than with a mike. Yuriy tells The Insider how academicians and playwrights have taken up arms alongside him, which of his journalist skills came in handy on the front line, and how he feels about his former colleagues in Kommersant.

  • How I gave my career a one-eighty

  • We won't mourn until after the victory

  • A playwright guarding barracks

  • «It's almost like I was on vacation – I'm not making any decisions»

  • A shocking emptiness

  • Cameras, mikes, and assault rifles

  • About my former colleagues

  • When the war ends

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How I gave my career a one-eighty

I enlisted into the territorial defense forces on the second day of the war. On its first day, I went to work and did my usual broadcast. Mind you, it was in Russian. That's what goes for the alleged oppression of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and their insufferable position: I ran a daily Russian-language broadcast on a national radio station.

However, the first day of the war made me realize I couldn’t go on. I had a hard time trying to convince myself I could help my country in my capacity of a journalist, editor, or reporter. I failed. When you live in a city besieged by a mad crowd of sadists and rapists, finding peaceful applications for your abilities is very problematic. One of the first missiles launched at Kyiv hit an apartment block some seven hundred meters away from mine. After the victory, I plan to return there.

When I realized I could no longer remain a civilian, the first thing I did was grab my black reporter’s helmet with a large PRESS caption. I had worn it in the Gaza Strip, Iraq, Syria, and many other not-so-fun destinations. I took my daughter’s felt-tip pen, masked the white letters, and transformed my helmet into a military one. I still have it; they offered me a different one, but I refused, taking only the camo cover to conceal it. I can imagine what may have happened to me if I had managed to justify staying away, going to work at the radio station, writing stories or videos for various channels.

There might be something selfish about my decision. To a large extent, I joined the army to avoid feeling like a coward and a traitor. I think I’ve found a place where I belong. And that’s despite me not being eligible for drafting under the Ukrainian law: firstly, my daughter is a minor and I’m a single parent because her mother walked out on us; secondly, I have asthma, which makes me unfit for military service; and thirdly, one of my employers issued me a certificate of military exemption because they need me to cover the ongoing war as a journalist.

Every time my former Russian colleagues who have fled to Georgia, Armenia, or Serbia complain that they would join the fight of the Ukrainian people were it not for their wives, children, or parents, I feel like saying: “Folks, look, I also have elderly parents, an underage daughter, and a bunch of jobs I abandoned without being sure I can go back to them.”

I don't mean it as a reproach to those who remain civilians, have left the country, or moved to safer regions – even though nowhere in Ukraine is truly safe: missiles have reached even Lviv and the Ivano-Frankivsk region. I failed to find my place in the civilian life, so I wrote in my work chat that I’m joining the army, and so did my co-host.

On the following day, the two of us went to the same military enlistment office and joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine. We got our firearms and immediately proceeded to our assigned positions because Russian troops were storming Kyiv. We secured the location and held it for several days. It was freezing, but we had nothing except our regular clothes for the first couple of days: no uniform or military-grade footwear.

As for weapons, we had assault rifles and a few dozen cartridges each; grenade launchers and machine guns arrived later. After Russian troops had been pushed back from Kyiv and suffered defeat in the north, in central Ukraine, and the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy regions, our commandment assumed that, in the absence of immediate threat to Kyiv, our foreign-language and journalist skills could be used for assistance to foreign reporters working in Ukraine.

So in addition to military duties and guarding checkpoints, my colleague and I spent a couple of weeks accompanying foreign journalists: giving them the lay of the land, ensuring access to the part of Kyiv where our battalion was stationed, showing them non-classified locations and objects, and putting them in touch them with fascinating speakers, who now abound.

We won't mourn until after the victory

The first few days were terrifying: Russian troops were storming Kyiv, and our task was to hold one of the entry points. We were under a hail of fire, with tanks and explosions everywhere, glass trembling, houses shaking, and an endless chain of ambulance cars dashing past. Lying in position with an armed assault rifle, all you can do is pray that you don't mistake an ambulance transporting wounded Ukrainian soldiers for a vehicle with Russian special forces trying to sneak into Kyiv. Although I’m not religious and I don’t know how to pray, I still said it out loud: first, you have to make sure your target is right, and only then you can shoot.

We often found ourselves in locations that were permanently shelled by artillery, Grads, Smerches, Uragans, and other fatally dangerous rocket launchers. I admit it can be scary: even in an armored vest you realize nothing can save you from a mortar shell – especially as you see seriously wounded soldiers nearby. Or when you see, hear, or learn that guys with whom you served or crossed paths have been killed. It takes a heavy toll on you, but you also realize our psyche is flexible enough to prevent us from obsessing over bad things or clinging to negative emotions. Otherwise everyone in the AFU would have gone mad.

Our mind squeezes such feelings out to the background. I often talk with my peers and our commanders and have understood that people are focused on the victory, on resistance. When soldiers, both religious and atheists, commemorate their fallen comrades, I’ve heard them say: “Lord bless their souls, but we won't mourn them until after the victory.” Unfortunately, we can’t afford to mourn our losses, but there will be a time for this once we’ve banished the Russian monster.

Everyone will be buried and mourned, everyone will get their due for their courage, and every Russian scumbag who has come to kill Ukrainians, who supports these killings, who shows glee at our deaths, at brutality or looting – each and every one of them will answer for their acts. One way or another, they will either stand trial or answer to a different authority, one that is more formidable than any earthly court.

A playwright guarding barracks

I’m a Ukrainian national, born in Kharkiv when it was still the Soviet Union. I have always identified as a Ukrainian. When Crimea was annexed and the war began, I was in Syria. Of course, it was painful, psychologically impossible to be away from my homeland. I moved back to Ukraine from Russia and worked for Ukrainian media. My kid goes to a Ukrainian-language school, and until February 24, I lived the life of an ordinary Ukrainian who loves his homeland and wants it to thrive, who wants to grow old in his own home and dreams of his children and grandchildren living happily in their land instead of trying to flee from it.

Ukraine is a peaceful nation. Despite all the allegations made by that psycho Putin and his henchmen, no one intended to attack Russia; there weren’t even any plans of reconquering the temporarily occupied territories in the Donbas and Crimea. Until February 24, both mainstream and opposition politicians only considered diplomatic means of their return.

It was this peaceful, calm attitude that enabled Russia to seize Crimea and parts of the Donbas in 2014 and unleash war. Like all nations, the Ukrainians judge others how they judge themselves: if we don’t want to take up arms against anyone, if we don’t want to conquer any cities or ruin any lives, no one will come to kill our elderly and children, telling tales of our inhuman nature. Our kindness and composure have triggered aggression which has reached its climax in the last hundred days or so.

We have been forced to take up arms: me, my co-host, Max the playwright, the mime artist from the neighboring company, a ministerial advisor from the economics block, a very young biochemist – a girl barely out of college without any experience of grown-up life...

Since February 24, the AFU has come to include many people who couldn’t have been further removed from all things military. We had one of Ukraine's most renowned playwrights in our company: he writes plays, stages them, and has taken his performances to a variety of drama festivals. I once received a call from The New Yorker, asking: “Do you know X?” “Sure, I do, he’s standing at the gate now, guarding the barracks where other soldiers are resting.” “How come? He is the future of all East European theater. How can he be guarding the gate instead of writing plays?” “In his free time, he is writing a play about the company he serves in. He’s writing about the war that we’ve been forced to wage against our will.”

«He is the future of all East European theater. How can he be guarding the gate instead of writing plays?»

«It's almost like I was on vacation – I'm not making any decisions»

I’ve been sleeping in my sleeping bag for over three months, on concrete, in a rented flat if I’m lucky, or simply in a bunker or a trench.

As a reporter, I’ve been in the field a lot, to some really nasty places. I sometimes had to go for five or seven days without a shower, anything soft to sleep on, or any warm food. But any field trip is over in two or three weeks: you know you’re getting on that plane and going home, where there’s a shower, hot food, and so on. By contrast, when you have nowhere to go and you haven't showered for a few days, you can just splash some water on your body, wipe it, and be on your way. If you miss lunch or supper, you can chew on some canned beef using the same plastic fork you’ve been using for three months.

Your entire value system changes. Naturally, you want to go home, to your room and your cats, to hug your daughter, to see the woman you love, to watch funny YouTube videos in the evening, drink cold beer, share a lump of cheese with your cats, and savor the moment. But you realize you’ve entered a different stage in life, so you mount your sleeping bag on your backpack, grab your assault rifle, a few cartridges, and some clothes, don your camo and tactical boots and go wherever your commanders send you.

Sometimes you spent a couple of weeks in the same location with the people who are now guarding and protecting the daily lives of Ukrainians, to the extent possible. You don't have to manage your time or pick your route. You're a soldier, so you’ve got your commanding officers setting tasks for you to perform. A guy whom I met in a line at the military enlistment office and who served alongside me for the first six weeks would say: “It's almost like I was on vacation.” “How do you mean?” “I’m not making any decisions. Normally, I make a lot of choices every day, but there's no need for it now. I wake up when they wake me; I do as I’m told, and I go to sleep when they let me.” He's not unique. Many people perceive military service as a significant change in their life, which, despite all the dangers and challenges, offers the opportunity to reconsider and comprehend many things.

A shocking emptiness

At some military unit the other day, we met a fantastic fellow who played Ukrainian folk songs on a button accordion. He said he played whenever he felt sad – some songs he remembered from his childhood, others he learned after 2014. His comrades like his music as it cheers them up. When you're overcome with grief, you don't have to sing along – even sitting by his side helps.

I’ve recently been to the Donetsk region, to the very front, a few hundred meters away from Russian occupants’ positions. Our guys made a bunker in a half-destroyed house, with a gym, some weights, cleaning duty, tidy kitchen, clean sleeping space, and a firearm cleaning routine. Their company commander is keeping them in shape, makes sure they wash themselves and stay fit. As a result, it also helps with the morale.

One of the world's leading religion scholars who spent several hundred days as a prisoner of so-called DPR shared how they tried to keep their spirits up while locked in a basement. They agreed to do morning workouts, read books, keep themselves clean, cut their hair and nails, shave, and generally resist the pressure of their situation, trying to lead a normal life to the extent possible. And it was a great help because they stayed sane, tried to wake up at regular hours, greet one another and say goodbye, ask each other how they felt, what plans they had, and so on. Such efforts keep up the morale not only among terrorist hostages but also among those who voluntarily defend their motherland.

My most devastating experience has been seeing Kharkiv, my native city. We entered the city in the evening and didn't meet a single car in the streets. Only tanks. The city was shelled every few minutes. I managed to get to my apartment in the Saltovka district, wondering if it was still intact. It was, but the district that had once housed dozens of thousands of people was completely abandoned. There were traces of shellfire everywhere: charred houses and craters. The contrast with the Kharkiv I’m used to, the Kharkiv that is always noisy and crowded, with children playing football and youth drinking beer on benches, was so drastic that I felt overwhelmed. My biggest shock has not been the death or destruction Russia has brought upon us on an immeasurable scale but the emptiness it spreads wherever it goes. Chernihiv was abandoned by 70% of its residents in the beginning of the war; half of Mykolaiv residents fled. You walk the streets of cities and see empty houses without any light in the windows. There is no more life. It’s as though Russia repels it.

Cameras, mikes, and assault rifles

When it became clear that Russian troops had left the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy regions for good, the commanders came up with an extra job for me, my co-host, and another former journalist. Those who have seen Full Metal Jacket probably remember one of the main characters nicknamed “Private Joker”. He's a soldier with a rifle, wearing a helmet, but also a bit of a journalist, and it's not always clear which of his roles prevails.

We are now in a similar situation: in addition to cameras and mikes, we carry our assault rifles and a large stock of munitions. Our current focus on journalism does not deliver us from our duty to use weapons if we have to. We’ve lately been visiting the AFU brigades that are either at the front line or fresh out of boot camp, battle-ready, and about to depart for the front line to fight the aggressor.

That said, I’m generally a pacifist. I’ve been to the Middle East and Central Asia a lot and have seen the fallout of aggressive military conflicts. I have covered the genocide of the Yazidis unleashed by ISIS; I’ve worked in Syria and Iraq and know a thing or two. My pacifism is hard-won and inevitable; yet it does not contradict my understanding that, under attack, with an enemy at the gate who wants to destroy you physically, culturally, and demographically, you can’t pose as a pacifist or tell the world that violence is not the answer. We can’t refrain from resistance.

You can’t pose as a pacifist if you're under attack

The invaders don’t want to negotiate. They want to rape, kill, and loot, so my only choice, my natural choice was to take up arms. I did not hesitate; I had no second thoughts about it, ethically or spiritually. I realize these people are here to destroy the country I love and will never abandon; they are here to kill the people who are important to me: my friends and my loved ones; they are here to rape Ukrainian women and children. They are here to end Ukraine as a nation, as a cultural entity, and as a political entity. My choice was between being human and being – I don’t have a better definition for these people at the moment – a d*ckhead.

About my former colleagues

All political decisions in Russia are made by d*ckheads, apparently, because they earnestly believed they could conquer Ukraine in three days. They believed and still believe that the Ukrainian nation is under the yoke of so-called Banderites or Nazi battalions. They seriously thought we would welcome Russian occupants with flowers. So the three branches of government, executive, legislative, and even judicial are controlled by the same d*ckheads, who prosecute people with children's drawings or peace signs, fine them, or send them to jail. And the head of state is just another d*ckhead with all his never-ending lies about the “special operation”.

Then there’s the media, the triumph of d*ckheadedness. I’m not even talking about [Olga] Skabeyeva and other individuals who use the terms like “Ukro-Reich” in earnest. I’m talking about my former colleagues from the Kommersant publishing house, for instance. A few days ago, one of them penned an astonishingly idiotic and vile Facebook post professing his sympathy for the poor Russian prisoners of war in the hands of the Ukrainian military. The killed women and children of Bucha, the city of Mariupol razed to the ground, thousands of demolished buildings including schools and hospitals in Kharkiv did not outrage him; he wasn't shocked at the obnoxious, unjustified brutality resulting in thousands of civilian casualties. Meanwhile, seeing a few cases of Ukrainian soldiers treating rapists and looters the way they deserve to be treated was disturbing for him.

I can see two options: either his outrage is earnest, in which case he's a d*ckhead through and through, or he simply wants to join the premier d*ckhead league alongside Skabeyeva and [Dmitry] Kiselyov. Another textbook example was President Zelensky's conference with interviewers from so-called Russian liberal media, including another one of my Kommersant colleagues (besides, Kommersant never published that interview). He was pathetic. It seemed that he had no questions to ask; that he could not care less and had only joined to voice the false stories from the Russian presidential administration, such as: “So what’s with the denazification?” “Are you saying no to denazification?”

Those people claimed to advocate freedom and liberal values, but now they borrow and spread d*ckheads’ narratives without any remorse or hesitation. Either they’ve become d*ckheads too or they are feigning it to keep their privileges inside the Reich, to blend in and keep their sweet jobs.

When the war ends

I don't have the slightest doubt that the war will irrevocably change Ukrainians’ attitude to Russia and Russians. Naturally, pro-Russian parties and all that garbage will be gone for good. They might find a corner to hide in, invent new names, and elect new figureheads to replace Medvedchuk, but their political future is doomed. The main lesson Ukraine and the Ukrainians have learned is the imperative of staying away from Russia at all costs. Your entire political landscape must be shaped with an insane neighbor in mind, remembering that he is bent on destroying you physically and culturally. Pro-Russian politicians are past their expiration date. I’m witnessing a booming interest in our national culture. I can’t imagine myself going back to Russian-language broadcasting when I retake journalism.

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