If a Russian Fighter had a Conversation with the Soldier Švejk

A Russian professional paratrooper was called up to fight against Ukraine. He and his unit entered Kherson with instructions to conquer the city. Then they found themselves entrenched 70 kilometers further on, near Mykolaiv. For a whole month they endured heavy artillery fire. The soldier suffered head wounds, which gave him an eye infection. Then he thought: “Our mission is absurd, why are we in this war? God, if I survive, I will do my best to stop this madness.”

Thanks to his eye infection, Pavel Filatyev, that’s the soldier’s name, was admitted to a hospital in Crimea. During the 45 days of his hospitalization he wrote a personal diary about his war experience. In August he published his text, titled ZOV (“call”; moreover, is the acronym for the war against Ukraine) on the social media site Vkontakte. After publication, the ex-paratrooper was forced to go into hiding: he stayed in different hotels, one night in each. His mother advised him to leave Russia and that’s what he did. He traveled from one country to another – he was arrested in Tunisia where he was suspected of being a spy – until he arrived in France, where he asked for political asylum.

Shortly after its publication I had access to ZOV, in Russian. The account, which begins on February 24, the day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is a unique source of information about the conditions of the Russian army on the Ukrainian front. The soldiers did not know why they had been posted to Ukraine. “It took me weeks to understand that there was no war on Russian territory and that Russia had attacked Ukraine,” the author explains and then goes on to report on the state of debasement in which the army found itself. “The paratroopers, the elite of the Russian army, captured Kherson and started stealing computers because their value is higher than their salary. Then we attacked the kitchens. Like animals, we devoured everything we found: oatmeal, porridge, jam, honey… We didn’t care about anything, we had been pushed to the limit, to a savage state. Like hostages, we were just trying to survive.”

While reading ZOV – soon to appear in English – I couldn’t help but think of The Good Soldier Švejk by Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek (whose centenary is coming up soon: he died on January 3, 1923). Although the Czech novel is written in a humorous vein – Milan Kundera considers it the best modern comic novel – wheras ZOV has a serious, chilling tone bordering on anger, the two books have much in common. They are united by their anti-war message, the accusation of the absurdity of war and the denunciation of those who set it in motion.

Like the Russian author, Jaroslav Hašek, who fought in World War I, highlights the crumbling morale of the Austro-Hungarian army, which could neither eat well nor rest, nor did it have modern weapons at its disposal. In addition, both multinational empires earned the animosity of the peoples and nations far from the capitals Moscow and Vienna for their domineering treatment.

Just as Filatyev fled Russia, so did Hašek: but in his case he went over to the enemy, the Russians; in the novel we see how Švejk, that amusing buffoon, a sort of Sancho Panza, puts on a Russian uniform to see if it suits him. All these attitudes reveal the same thing: war is madness and one must do whatever it takes to escape from it. Both books revolve around the idea that combatants only help some abstract, dehumanized, Kafkaesque power, but definitely not people.

Filatyev observes: “Most of the army members were unhappy with the front, the government, Putin and [Russian Defense Minister] Shoigu who has never served in the army.” In Hašek’s dark comedy, Austro-Hungarian soldiers and civilians express their contempt for the empire’s rulers through black humor. “Flies are shitting on the portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph,” says the bartender, and is immediately arrested.

Hašek, and the whole pleiad of Central European writers, from Prague, Vienna and other cities, lived through a period of transition, the end of one era and the beginning of another. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was collapsing, a period that Stefan Zweig would later describe as “the world of yesterday” had come to an end. Change, war and fear of the unknown permeated the air. That’s when Hašek wrote his Good Soldier Švejk, Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March, Karl Kraus, The Last Days of Mankind; and Franz Kafka, The Trial.

World War I contributed to the self-destruction of the Austro-Hungarian empire that had launched it. Without seeking parallels that may be misleading, the Russian invasion could trigger, in case of defeat, the fragmentation of the Russian Federation as we know it today. To avoid this, Moscow should learn its lesson from history.

But for Russia, it may already be too late.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)