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Textbooks and Assault Rifles: The Student Soldiers in Rebel-Held Ukraine

VICE News visited the Donbass region of Ukraine to meet the student soldiers trying to combine their studies with fighting on the frontlines for pro-Russia forces.
Photo by Jack Losh

After joining the pro-Russia rebels in Ukraine last year, 19-year-old student Ruslan Protsyenko was schooled in a deadly new syllabus: how to assemble, fire and reload assault rifles; how to survive a barrage of shells; how to perfect the trajectory of an outgoing mortar.

Twelve months on, during a flying visit to his college in Donetsk, Protsyenko's education briefly resumed a more familiar tone. Clad in full military camo alongside his civilian classmates, the trainee welder sat at his desk, sketching architectural blueprints.


The boyish-looking Protsyenko is one of hundreds of students in the separatist stronghold who now balance fighting at the frontline with a part-time, increasingly fragmented education.

Shellfire, fear and the physical demands of a war that has cost the lives of more than 6,700 people are hardly conducive to studying and exam success. But Protsyenko is determined to make the best of it.

"I use my holiday time to leave the front when I can and continue my college education — catching up on lectures, doing course work, sitting exams. That kind of thing," he told VICE News. "I take some books to my base but they're mainly sci-fi and fantasy. Not school textbooks.

"My superiors can be sympathetic. They let me come back to study sometimes and take exams. But it depends who the commander is."

'The front is no life for these young people'

Of the 1,200 students previously enrolled at the Donetsk Industrial-Pedagogical College, around 350 have left since the outbreak of the war last summer. One senior teacher said it was impossible to keep track of how many had become soldiers — but it was certainly "more than we would like". She added: "We'd prefer they returned to us and continued their education. The front is no life for these young people."

The campus — on the road to the front in the town of Marinka which erupted with fresh violence in June — is scarred by months of urban shelling. Classroom windows remain blown-out, taped over with flimsy sacking.


Scorch marks remain on nearby roads, and entire apartment blocks, devastated by indiscriminate bombing, have been abandoned. In a back room adjoining the sports hall, the sports master keeps a macabre collection of shell fragments salvaged from the college grounds.

A student shows off his medals, having removed his nametag to avoid being identified. Photo by Jack Losh

Another student, 20-year-old Sergey Filonich, was halfway through his welding course when his neighborhood was pounded by heavy artillery; he joined the rebels soon afterwards. His impromptu military career has since plunged him into some of the conflict's fiercest battles, including the rebels' month-long victorious offensive on the strategic town of Debaltseve last winter.

"There was a Ukrainian checkpoint at a nearby village. We were ordered to take it. This was the most terrible experience I've had in the war so far.

"The assault lasted around two weeks and we lost three of our soldiers. They were my friends. It was painful but I'm used to the fighting now — you learn to switch off."

'I will rebuild the city'

Sergey said he is paid 15,000 rubles a month — around $263. The cost to his education is harder to calculate. "For wartime, the salary's not so bad," he admitted. "But it's not so good either. My education comes second to my life as a soldier. When I have free time, I come to college. But I don't study at the front — I leave my school books behind. There, I don't read anything."

When the war finishes, he wants to resume civilian life as a welder. "I will rebuild the city," he said, quietly. "Houses, factories, coal mines — wherever welding is required. There'll definitely be work for me."


Related: Beauty Amid the Chaos: The Donetsk Opera Offers Relief to a City in the Grip of War

His classmate, Ruslan, has other plans. "I want to join the Russian army," he said. "Fighting here has confirmed my love for it. Welding's just a job for peacetime.

"When I enlisted, I was deployed at Donetsk's airport. There were 30 men in the unit at the start — by the end, there were just four people left alive. I've suffered some injuries along the way too — seven holes in my back from a grenade."

He tries not to think about the horrors he has encountered. "I don't want it to affect me. Sometimes I have thoughts but if I'm not alone and stay away from alcohol, it can be okay."

Watch the VICE News documentary, Child Warriors of Donetsk here:

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The intensifying blockade of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic is forcing some students to rely solely to the internet to finish their studies. Rusakov Nikolaivich, who runs Abakumov College in a southwestern suburb of Donetsk, told VICE News: "The war has really affected life at the school. Our pupils are joining the fight and they are being killed.

"Many of the students who live in the territory under the control of the Ukrainian authorities cannot come here to receive a proper education. So we have set up a special network so they can take their exams over the internet. It keeps things going."


'We have what we have. What can you do?'

The conflict has impacted on the further education of older students too. One 27-year-old, who only gave his first name as Sasha due to security concerns, worked for several years in one of the area's many coal mines — the economic bedrock of the Donbass region — before taking a specialist electrical course to boost his career. VICE News first encountered him as he presented his end-of-year project to a panel of five lecturers, three medals adorning his khaki jacket.

In an adjoining classroom afterwards, the father-of-two described the difficulty of balancing studies with fighting. "It's tough but there's no choice — I have to fight now," he said. "I bring my books to the front but rarely get to look at them. Sometime when the shooting subsides, I can read in my barracks, but not often."

Sasha, one of the students back from the frontline, leaves his beret on a desk while he presents his end-of-year project. Photo by Jack Losh

The intensity of hatred on both sides of the divide continues to escalate in a war that is leaving former neighbors and fellow countrymen increasingly polarized. Amid the bitterness, many opposing soldiers share a common emotional weight borne from conflict and exile. Sasha, whose home village lies in government-controlled Ukraine, is one of them. "I know so many rebels who are from across the border but we don't support Kiev. I can't go home — I'm a wanted man. It would be suicide."

A thick-set man and undemonstrative, even somewhat brutish in the wrong light, Sasha softened and looked to the floor as he talked about his family. "I'm married and have two kids," he said. "I can only see them through Skype now. I'm used to it but it doesn't make life easier."


Related: In Photos: One Year Later, a Look at the Forming of the Donetsk People's Republic

One battle stands out for the former miner. "I had one of my worst days in Gorlavka last summer. We were attacked and our side lost many men. After that, everything changed for me."

He exhaled deeply. "Life goes on. We have what we have. What can you do?"

Sasha says going home across the border to visit his family "would be suicide". Photo by Jack Losh

His 26-year-old classmate and fellow rebel soldier, Vitalia, seemed colder, more inured, and repeated the same dogma heard every day here. He was compelled to shelve his studies by a desire "to protect his homeland from the junta" in Kiev, brought to power by "dark American forces".

Unemotional, he said: "The Ukrainian army came to us, we didn't come to them. The enemy are fascists and Nazis. That's not just what I believe — there's no other way to consider it."

How does he think it will end? "The war will stop because we will win," he declared.

Sasha is less convinced. "I don't know, I have no words," he said ruefully. "Who observes the talks in Minsk? Nobody. I still hope for a political solution. If it's left to the military, everything will be destroyed.

'Students should not be killing each other'

My final meeting was with another college director, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely. For him, the conflict cannot end too soon. He has seen his students leave for the front, only to return in body-bags. "Sometimes I question why I still come back to this office," he said. "I have a civic duty, I suppose. Even in war, we must serve what remains of our society."


He insisted that his students should be in the classroom, not on the battlefield. For him, it is the powers-that-be in this unstable, breakaway statelet that are to blame.

"The authorities here should ensure our young people continue their studies," he told me, wearily. "They must stop them from fighting.

"Students should not be killing each other. They should be learning about the world, expanding their knowledge and nurturing their education. That lasts longer than war — that lasts for life." He paused, wincing. "At least for those who are still alive."

Follow Jack Losh on Twitter: @jacklosh

Related: 'This Is Meant to Be My Childhood': Life Inside One of Donetsk's Claustrophobic Underground Bomb Shelters