Russian-Speaking Airmen Translate Rare Account of Ukraine War Through Invader’s Eyes

“Half of my guys changed clothes and wore Ukrainian uniforms because they were of higher quality and more comfortable. … Our great country was unable to clothe, equip, and feed its own army.”

Those are among the opening lines of a harrowing 77-page account from Russian paratrooper Pavel Filatyev, describing his part in the 2022 invasion of Ukraine—and now available to read in English thanks to five Russian-speaking Airmen who translated the text on behalf of the Air Force Culture and Language Center (AFCLC).

The full blog—titled “Zov,” a term that means “Calling” in English—made headlines in August after appearing on the Russian social media website Vkontakte. Though Russian soldiers had previously posted photos and videos of the war to social media, Filatyev’s blog was one of the first longform accounts to appear in public.

“I cannot remain silent,” wrote Filatyev, who later fled Russia for political asylum in France.

Airmen and the rest of America can now read the whole document on the U.S. Air Force’s Air University website. And while it may be impossible to verify all of the details in Filatyev’s account, his writing offers a rare glimpse of what went wrong in the Russian invasion.

Specifically for U.S. service members and leaders, “Zov” provides insight into how Ukrainian forces have been able to defy the odds and blunt the effects of a larger, technologically superior Russian military, one of the USAF translators told Air & Space Forces Magazine.

“Before the invasion started, everybody was reporting that Ukraine would fall within weeks, and that clearly hasn’t happened,” Capt. Roman Obolonskiy said. “Now we have to go back and figure out what within our military intelligence community and analysis failed to predict this outcome.”

While military planners could estimate the number of Russian resources like tanks, troops, and planes, accounts like “Zov” shed light on intangible factors such as morale, motivation, and training.

“Is what’s on paper real? The writer would tell us, ‘Hey we were not issued the things we thought we would be issued,’” Obolonskiy said. “‘We did not have sleeping bags or winter clothing and we had rusty weapons that were out of sight.’ Having 200 rifles is great, but not if none of your 200 rifles can shoot straight.”

A destroyed Russian tank at an undisclosed location in Ukraine on Oct. 2, 2022. Ukraine Ministry of Defense/Facebook

Challenges of Translation

Like his four co-translators, Obolonskiy is a member of the Language-Enabled Airman Program, an initiative within AFCLC where Airmen and Space Force Guardians who have significant experience in a foreign language can apply to serve as cultural and linguistic experts for their fellow service members.

The team of Airmen, which included Maj. Herman Reinhold, Capt. Mikhail Berlin, Capt. Abror Samatov,, and Master Sgt. Nadia Wolfe, read “Zov” the entire way through, split it into sections, assigned one Airman to each section, then worked together to ensure consistency throughout the translation. It was a difficult task: Filatyev wrote in a stream-of-consciousness style filled with military jargon, typos, and colloquial expressions that do not translate perfectly into English. 

“It was the use of language I found particularly interesting,” Reinhold said. “It is kind of a puzzle: how do I translate the F-word in Russian into English in a way that is understandable to the reader. I may or may not use the exact F-word equivalent. Maybe I’ll use different curse words to convey the meaning.”

Indeed, David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker and a fluent Russian speaker, wrote in 2014 there are thousands of variations on the four curse words that make up the backbone of Russian profanity. Besides profanity, the LEAP scholars also had to use their best judgment to translate colloquial or military terms.

“Some of the military jargon, slang, wordplay, and colloquial expressions would not make sense in English if translated verbatim,” said Berlin. “It was a fun challenge to find a creative way to convey the exact same meaning and find similar phrases that would be used in English.”

Lessons for the US

When the translation was complete, it provided firsthand perspective of what many analysts had seen from a distance: The Russian war effort has been hampered by poor logistics, communication, and leadership. “Zov” illustrates how those issues affect frontline troops.

“Who will be accountable for these lives lost and the wounded?” Filatyev wrote about a suspected incident of friendly fire. “After all, the reason for their deaths was not the professionalism of the Ukrainian army, but the mess in ours.”

The shortage of medical supplies and other equipment that Filatyev experienced reminded Wolfe, a medical logistics flight chief, just how important her work is to the larger U.S. military.

“In medical logistics, we do our job day to day and we do not necessarily see the outcome,” she said. “‘Zov’ brings the importance of what we do to light and is an example that I can use to motivate my people.”

Filatyev’s memoir also showed the impact a corps of noncommissioned officers, or lack thereof, can have on a battlefield. 

“There is a very large separation between officers and enlisted,” said Wolfe. “It was almost like they are not even working on the same side.” 

Obolonskiy came away with a greater appreciation for corruption in the Russian military and political system, which may have contributed to the dysfunction at the front.

“We’ve always known about corruption within Russia, but I don’t think we comprehended what that meant,” he said. “Throughout reading this, from start to finish, every link in their chains of supply, appropriations, and logistics was impacted by a level of corruption where people were just stealing everything that they needed for the war effort.”

A Ukrainian army soldier stands near the wreckage of a Russian vehicle at an undisclosed location on March 8, 2022. General Staff of the Army of Ukraine/Twitter

More Understanding

Despite Filatyev’s criticisms of the war and the Russian military, the paratrooper declares: “I’m not a coward! I’m a patriot! … I feel sorry for the Ukrainians, a fraternal nation to me! But even more, I feel sorry for the used Russian people and the nations of the great USSR, whose people were exploited by others, more unscrupulous individuals. Who are currently destroying the largest and the greatest country in the world!”

Filatyev may have witnessed war crimes firsthand. In March, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty alleged the paratrooper said he was aware some Ukrainians captured by his unit would later be executed. In ‘Zov,’ he wrote that he did not witness any acts of torture or rape, though he saw at least one mutilated dead body. The paratrooper expressed guilt for participating in what he felt was an unjustified invasion.

In writing “Zov,” he may have “tried to do something that would clear his conscience,” Wolfe said.

In reading the document, Americans must remember Filatyev’s experience may not reflect that of the entire Russian military, Reinhold said. “Zov” is a primary source document, and other sources are needed for a more holistic picture of the conflict. With those limitations in mind, Filatyev’s account could serve as a reminder that an army’s strength on paper may not hold up on the battlefield. 

“There is an opportunity to try and figure out how we can re-analyze other adversaries,” said Obolonskiy.  “Are we focusing on the right things when we try to calculate how capable a foreign military is?”

That mindset applies not only to adversaries, but also to allies, partners, and the U.S. itself.

“We need to look in the mirror as well and see what of this applies to us,” Obolonskiy said. “Do we provide the correct training, or are we boggled as well? Do we provide the proper equipment or do we also have five guns at a base of a thousand?”