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Maksym Skubenko: The truths, you have never thought about, are revealed at ground zero02.06.2023
Maksym Skubenko, a journalist, analyst and media manager, dealt with countering disinformation and fact checking, managed the VoxCheck initiative, and later was at the head of the VoxUkraine project. In 2021 he was on the “30 under 30” list of Forbes Magazine. After the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Maksym volunteered for the frontline and went all the way from Territorial defense force soldier to sergeant major of an assault platoon. He’s now an instructor of the 5th Separate Assault Brigade.
In the framework of a special project Words and Bullets, produced by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine, we have spoken to Maksym about transformations military men undergo, especially at ground zero, what to do with those who don’t want to join the army, what the de-occupied Donbas lands look like and how fantasy books save lives.
– Before the full-scale invasion you were engaged in several large and important projects, and your name was included in the Forbes Magazine “30 under 30” list. After that your life, just like the lives of the majority of Ukrainians, changed dramatically. Is there anything you wanted to do, but didn’t have time before Feb. 24?
– Millions of things. If we speak about work, I have prepared my organization for such situations quite well, but I had no time to implement everything I had on my mind. Quite a lot of projects remained only on paper. There are new projects too, of course, but I would really like to have closure with the old ones that were being prepared.
When it comes to some personal stuff, I wanted to earn enough money and secure my parents’ future, and help my grandparents. Unfortunately, this plan didn’t work out so far. I have been waiting for the release of one Playstation game for years. My favorites are Bloodborne and Dark Souls. In fact, the producer advertised a new game many years ago. I have been waiting for the release, and it happened just after the beginning of the full-scale invasion. A friend of mine played the game, and said it is great. I hope I’ll have my chance.
photo courtesy of Maksym Skubenko
I didn’t buy a scooter though. Didn’t write a book either. I had an idea to write a great fantasy book. Or a fake documentary about how the mindset of a person is different from what is real. About manipulations and fakes, and how they function. This is a very simple, very obvious story. People who say that only naïve and clueless people buy such things make me laugh. The truth is you can manipulate everyone. Even those, who’s quite sure they wouldn’t bite it. I find it an interesting thing for research.
– Will you be able to realize all this after the war? How hard will it be to go back to a life as a civilian?
– You know, a manager who falls behind in operating activity can keep everything afloat for some time, but it is extremely difficult. I’m not sure the war will end before I’m able to keep it. We all lose something over this time. Someone can catch up later, others — not. There will be many of those who can’t. I had a thought like this: when the war is over, I will leave everything behind, settle down in a village and have some rest. But I know myself, which means I, most likely, will go back to my job and work 24 hours a day.
On the other hand, I think, people who go through the war, especially at ground zero, will have it easier. Things you have never thought about are revealed here, and this actuates you to some unreal creative thinking and search for the most extraordinary approaches. It might give you some new impulse in your development. And all the people who came to the army from various spheres will return to their previous activity with this new experience. I want to believe that they will be able to turn it to some positive direction.
– What truth has ground zero revealed to you?
– The first thing, and I repeat it from time to time: you need to be able to accept people with a different point of view. I was in a trench with a guy who volunteered to go to war and protect Ukraine from Russians, but he still supports Yanukovych (Viktor Yanukovych, the fourth president of Ukraine who was moved from office in 2014). So, the guy thought he was the best president of Ukraine and he would like him to return. How is all this combined in his head? No idea, really. I had a quarrel with him, so did other fellows — nothing helped. After the war, maybe, we could gather together, sit down and try to explain that Yanukovych is a prick and that he was one of the reasons the war actually started. But right now, you need to accept that this man is “your person” who took a weapon to protect Ukraine.
I also realized, and my opinion is firm, that if you see bullshit, you must say it is bullshit. If you know, are capable, suggest and are not afraid to take responsibility, it is pretty likely that they will listen to you and it will work. On the other hand, I can speak only about my brigade because things differ.
I’ve learned to appreciate simple things: a hot shower and food, time when you manage to sleep more than two-three hours in a row.
– Was it difficult to acquire basic military skills?
– Well, I can’t do everything, of course. I have never used a mortar. And I would really like to shoot a Javelin, but they don’t give it to me (laughing). But I master everything I need for work.
When the war started, they gave me an automatic rifle and said: “Shoot.” And so I did. When the Kyiv region was already safe, we had a short break and were getting ready to go to Donbas. That was when I learned to be a sniper, and a scout, who fought in Iraq, taught me. We learned for a long time and then looked around to see that many things were not managed yet and started the formation of a combat company. Then I became a platoon sergeant major and found instructors. I learned to shout loud for everyone to hear me well (laughing), taught soldiers how to bend down, how to dig in. I’m a battalion instructor now.
photo courtesy of Maksym Skubenko
– You’re very active, full of energy. Don’t you feel tired, exhausted and burnt out after more than a year of the war?
– I’m so cheerful because that’s the 8th Red Bull I’ve been drinking for the last 24 hours (laughing). That’s just me: I have always worked too much, slept too little. I have chronic lack of sleep and other chronic diseases. In fact, I am an introvert, quite shy, and I have a melancholic temperament. But I try to be active all the time, understanding how important it is for me. I tell myself something like this: “Have a nap? Later. Feel depressed? Later.” I go on doing things. If I feel I’m heavily depressed, usually that’s not for long. I give myself a day at most, then I take control of myself again and move on.
– Do you go on leaves sometimes, say, for a couple of days?
– In general, yes. But you should understand the algorithm. My friends tell me: “Come home finally! Everyone does that.” And I respond: “If everyone has a leave, what’s going to happen, what do you think?”
Take, say, an assault unit, a striking force. It consists of about 300 people. Withdraw the wounded, dead and the missing. Imagine now, if 10% of these people take leave — 30 people at the same time. Ten whole days these 30 people will be away. A combat zone is large, there are never enough people. Who will cover these areas? My comrade’s father died, another one had his child born three months ago and he hasn’t seen the baby yet. So how do I take leave? People who really need leave should have it.
photo courtesy of Maksym Skubenko
– You went to a military registration and enlistment office voluntarily. What do you think of men who deliberately avoid conscription saying “the war is not for me”?
– Oh yeah I know such men. On the one hand, I’m a very peace-loving person too, and war is not a place for me either. But you can’t love your country and hide out abroad while it is attacked. Otherwise you’re a coward. But no. That’s a very unpleasant word to hear. Maybe you just can’t overcome your fear. I accept that, but you can always try, learn how to.
On the other hand, I would not want to be at war with that kind of person. There are not many people at the frontline, that’s true, but quality trumps quantity. We have already shown the Moscovites that quality and motivation are much more important than quantity. That is why I find it useless to give way to quantity instead of quality. I’d better direct the effort to train the motivated people. No need for military conscription for now, just train them locally. We have many veterans who want to do something. They can’t go back to the frontline, but have experience to share and can teach and train. Because there are “instructors” who can provide such a training…
We, for example, had seasoned guys who were badly injured, but decided to continue their service. So they sit in place, teach recruits how to shoot, give them weapons so they know how to disassemble it, clean, understand what it is, run with it, crawl in the mud, and finally not be afraid to fall into it. Sometimes it is not that easy as it seems: hard to psychologically overcome. All your life you wore a suit and a tie and then suddenly you had to fall into the mud. It sounds trivial, I know, but in reality many have this psychological barrier. They should go through all of this.
– After a year of shooting war, the military often defies safety measures. Do you do it as well?
– Well, just now I went past a building which had just been struck twice with 120 mm and 150 mm shells. I had nothing on, except for combat boots, Multicam trousers and thermals, that’s it. On the one hand, I would go crazy if I had to wear body armor and a helmet. On the other, I understand that the enemy likely wouldn’t shell for some time, or maybe from different positions. Because they fired for a very long time, about 10-15 minutes. It means that our guys have already detected them and fired in that direction. So I talk to you, walk around and there’s a small ditch so I could jump in in case.
photo courtesy of Maksym Skubenko
– What kind of shooting seems the most scary for you?
– The most scary thing is when you’re not in a shelter. It happens that you drive and seem to be in a safe zone, but then in a blink of an eye you are not any more. And quite unexpectedly you are under fire. If it strikes, you will not be scared. But I am afraid of the very possibility of such fire.
– You spent all your time here in Donbas since last summer. Did you feel connected to this place?
– The best years of my life are being spent here, for sure (laughing). I liked the nature in Donbas, all these fields, waste heaps. This is a majestic, nice place. After the end of the war I would definitely go back here sometime.
I want you to understand: it is often waste land here, all abandoned, but people still live there. They have strikes every day — and they stay here and don’t plan to move out. When a day is calm, they go out, when it is not — they don’t. But there are many people here anyway. And then you move forward, liberate a piece of land, settle in the next position and people follow you. A shop opens, they put up some stalls and life returns.
– You mentioned earlier you didn’t have enough time to write a book. Could it be a book about war some day, maybe?
– Maybe. I have some ideas, not sure I’ll have the time and opportunities to realize them. I write down everything that is happening anyway. I take notes on my phone. When we have some mission or something, I hide it in a safe place and take another one with me. Things happen, you know.
– What’s in your notes: stories, facts, reflections?
– A bit of everything.
– If I asked you about the most memorable stories, what would you definitely include in your book?
– I think I should tell you about New Year’s Eve 2023. I named it Calamity Day. It happened near New York (a settlement in the Donetsk region, presumably founded somewhere in the 19th century, from 1951 to 2021 it had a name of Novhorodske), we were returning to “civilization” with a friend of mine. We were already going back. There’s a faster road to drive; it is perfect, not beaten, but goes through “the gray zone” — not a good idea, and I had no night light lamp with me so we had to drive with the headlights on. And so we drive, and a tire gets punctured and the shock absorber goes out. We stood there contemplating what to do. We didn’t want to leave the car and go on foot. The company commander calls us. In about half an hour, he drove a pick-up, hurrying to us. In three to four minutes he removed the wheel, changed it to a new one and just as we set out, the shelling began.
The same day we were attacked with cluster bombs. I drove to our old command and observation point, which we left because it was discovered and one of our guys was captured. Half of a building was left, one remained intact. We stored items there that we no longer needed.. So I drove there quietly and somehow forgot where I was. I stood under a tree and the fire started, fucking fire was coming from everywhere. I leaned against the tree, was so dead tired that I thought: “Dear God, if the munition strikes my car now and I’ll have to go on foot, I’ll just stay here.” Thankfully it didn’t. Late in the evening, just some ten minutes before New Year, I had half of my tooth broken. That’s the story.
I had one of my most memorable experiences when we were near Bakhmut. There is a hill from the top of which you can see the whole town. I climbed it once and shelling started, missiles were flying: both our and the enemy’s. It’s wrong to say, I know, but it was really beautiful. Fire, helicopters, just like you’re out of this world. You can’t drive that way anymore, of course.
From the times when I was in the Territorial Defense Force I remember my first encounter with shelling, and we were so silly back then. When “Grad” shelling started, raining bombs down on us, our driver was pale with fear, but we were cheerful, laughing and taking videos. Our car got a strike just a bit higher than head level. But everyone survived, nobody got wounded. Afterwards, when we saw the “work” of the “Grad,” we didn’t want to laugh anymore.
I remember one more story from the time when we forgot two of our fellows near Irpin. They were in an ambush, and we got into cars and — whoosh! — drove past them. They only had two rifles, and that’s all. We came back to get them later, of course, but in the meantime their hair nearly turned gray.
photo courtesy of Maksym Skubenko
– I know you also have a story to tell with elements of fantasy in it, which has something to do with Harry Potter and the “Deathly Hallows.”
– Yes, I have been a Harry Potter fan ever since I was a child. When it was time to come up with a symbol for our unit, we remembered the “Deathly Hallows.” which grants immortality. A car with this emblem on it and two of our fellows aboard were blown up by two anti-tank mines. The car was completely destroyed, but our guys survived. They were wounded, but recovered quickly. The story is fantastic, but true. And it has great value for me because one of these fellows is the first person I met on Feb. 24, the one I went into my first battle with and with whom I still serve.
Words and Bullets is the special project by Chytomo and PEN Ukraine about Ukrainian writers and journalists that joined the army or started volunteering when Russia invaded Ukraine in February this year. The name of the media project symbolizes the weapon used by the heroes and heroines of the project before Feb. 24, which they were forced to take up after the outbreak of a full-scale war with Russia. The special project is being implemented with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Translated by Iryna Savyuk
Edited by Jared Goyette
This publication is sponsored by the Chytomo’s Patreon community
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