Patriotism, adventure lure Russian volunteers to Ukraine conflict

Saint Petersburg (AFP) - Filled with patriotic bravado and a thirst for adventure, Yevgeny Pavlenko and his friend Yevgeny Markin volunteered with dozens others to leave their home in Russia to go and fight in eastern Ukraine.

But only one of the two would survive. Markin, 25, accompanied Pavlenko's remains back to the city of Saint-Petersburg for burial after he was killed in bitter fighting alongside pro-Russian separatists who seized the Ukrainian town of Debaltseve in late February.

Pavlenko, 35, was one of four volunteers to be buried in the past two weeks from the northwestern city, where organisations helping Russians of all ages with everything from military training to making the journey to the battleground, have sprung up in recent months.

"Yevgeny could not have acted otherwise when Russians are being killed in Donbass," the eastern region of Ukraine, Markin told AFP, his eyes glistening with tears as he spoke of the former professor of literature and member of the banned National Bolshevik Party - which combines radical nationalism with communist ideals.

"When my mother heard I was leaving she burst into tears. But when I explained why I was going my parents gave me their blessing."

It is not known how many Russian volunteers are fighting alongside the rebels and what the US says are "thousands" of Russian troops heavily armed by Moscow in the east of ex-Soviet Ukraine, where more than 6,000 are believed by the UN to have died in less than a year of conflict.

- 'This is their war' -

"Those who join the rebels in Lugansk and Donetsk are those who understand that this is their war, our common war against the enemies of Russia, against the expansionism of the West," said Denis Gariyev, 36, who helps those in Saint Petersburg who wish to go to Ukraine.

The historian and member of the nationalist, monarchist Imperial Legion, said he has himself been several times to the conflict zone, and his organisation had helped some 140 volunteers to join the pro-Russian rebels.

The Imperial Legion website offers volunteers training to ready themselves for life as a combatant, such as an initiation into shooting.

The organisation's headquarters are in the basement of a building in a working-class suburb of the former capital of imperial Russia.

A doormat bearing the face of American President Barack Obama lies at the entrance of the premises, which includes a gym and a classroom where Russian history books and icons are on display.

What appears to be assault rifles lie on a table, but closer inspection reveals they are merely paintball guns used in strategic military games. Photographs of those who have been killed in the conflict hang on the wall.

- 'Romance' of war -

Gariyev, nicknamed "The Instructor", told AFP that 20 percent of those who sign up have no military training.

"For two weeks we try and teach them basic techniques," he said, before he himself accompanies the fighters to Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia where representatives of rebel units take them in hand.

"Motivation is essential for volunteers who leave. We only help Orthodox believers who know they are fighting for great Russia," said Gariyev.

However not all the volunteers are as ideological.

Vitaly, 19, who attended the funeral of his comrade-in-arms Pavlenko, spent seven months fighting in eastern Ukraine. To him, those who fight for political reasons are merely "romantics."

"Quite simply, war is a man's business," he said, adding that to him the main draw was the friendship and camaraderie found on the battlefield.

"And the adrenalin isn't bad either," he grins, flicking through videos on his telephone where, alongside images of his girlfriend and his dog, are those of fighting at the Donetsk airport.

"Look, that's me shooting! Not bad, hey?"