About 10 guys showed up at a meeting somewhere near VDNKh [the All-Russian Exhibition Center in northern Moscow]. We spoke in the entrance arch of a residential building there. A Slavic man in civilian clothes who didn't give his name met with us.
First, he asked us whether we knew how to handle weapons. He warned us that we would be going to [the eastern Ukrainian city of] Slovyansk, that we were heading to certain death, that the punishment for looting was execution on the spot—which, by the way, I saw was true several times while I was in Ukraine. Two men immediately walked away.
Did they promise you money?
They didn't promise a per diem or payment. Only free food, clothing, weapons, and a guarantee that they would transport our bodies to Rostov-on-Don and give them to our relatives. If, of course, they found them. They insisted that we destroy all our online accounts and, in general, remove any personal information from social networks. I deleted my accounts on [the Russian social-media sites] Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki.
How did you get to the Ukrainian border?
On the morning of May 12, the group got into two cars and headed south. It took about 24 hours to get to Rostov. It turned out that the drivers were also volunteers. One of them, by the way, was killed. They took us to a camp—some small homes near a creek and a forest—I don't know where. They took away all our road maps. Our telephones and other personal things were logged and taken away. We changed into clothes they gave us.
How long were you at this camp?
Nearly two weeks. Every day, more and more new people came. By the end, there were about 100 of us. We didn't rest at all—it was a military schedule. We got up; we went for a run; we had breakfast; we had training; we did orienteering in the fields, in the forest; we learned the hand signals.
What do you mean, hand signals?
They taught us to communicate using gestures and signs in order to recognize each other, to communicate silently at night, to give commands like back, forward, stop, get down, danger, and so on. Now I can speak with my hands like a deaf person. All this was taught by an instructor in civilian clothes. He, like all the other big and small bosses, didn't give his name. We didn't even know one another's real names—just nicknames. Even now I don't know the names of most of the guys who were killed beside me in that hell.
Did you have any combat experience before Ukraine? You were in the breakaway Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh, but that isn't real war.
Mostly we just had some exchanges of fire, automatic weapons or grenade launchers. In short, it was a low-level war of positioning. Nonetheless, I knew more about war than most of the guys there.
Were there Russian nationalists among them?
I didn't see any nationalists, although most of the guys there were Slavs. Whether they were Belarusians, Russians, or Ukrainian—I can't say. They were good, patriotic guys. None of them looked at me funny because I'm Armenian. There were a bunch of guys from the Caucasus, some Armenians from [the Russian city of] Krasnodar and [the Ukrainian city of] Kryvyy Rih. Some Chechens came a little later. I became friends with a few—one guy named Red and another named Small. Both of them were killed in those KamAZ trucks.