Pavlo Kazarin was Crimean by nature, Russian by passport and worked in Moscow. Now he has been in the Ukrainian army for a year and considers himself simply a Ukrainian. An interview about the long way home

Yevhen Spirin
Kateryna Kobernyk
Pavlo Kazarin was Crimean by nature, Russian by passport and worked in Moscow. Now he has been in the Ukrainian army for a year and considers himself simply a Ukrainian. An interview about the long way home

Pavlo Kazarin was born in 1983 in Crimea in the family of a professor of Russian philology. In 2005, he graduated from the local Tavria University and went to work for local television. In 2012, he went to Moscow after being invited to "Rosbalt", then a liberal publication. In 2013, he supported Maidan, the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity. He says he used to go to Kyiv on weekends and then return to Moscow. Russian colleagues joked that the editorial office “smells like a bonfire”, which means Pavlo came from the protest capital of Ukraine. A few days before the Russian annexation of the peninsula, Kazarin returned to Crimea, and later moved to Kyiv. At first, he worked for “Krym.Realii”, wrote for the “LiveJournal" and “VKontakte”. He wrote columns, articles, and eventually became a morning news anchor on ICTV. This brought him real popularity. Now Pavlo has more than 90,000 followers on Facebook. Later, he was invited to host the political show “Countdown” (”Zvorotnyi vidlik”) on the Ukrainian public TV channel together with Myroslava Barchuk. Three years ago, pro-Russian propagandist Anatoly Shariy made public copies of Kazarinʼs Russian passport. Pavlo said that he received it in 2014 in order to work in the annexed Crimea, and already in 2017 he began the process of withdrawing from Russian citizenship. The day after the full-scale invasion, Kazarin joined the army together with fellow journalist Yurii Matsarskyi. At first, he participated in the Kyiv defence operation, and then he traveled almost all over the country, except for the Kherson region. He arrived from Bakhmut a week ago, and in a few days he is returning to the front. The editor-in-chief of "Babel" Yevhen Spirin, who grew up in Luhansk in similar conditions, with a mixed culture, met with Pavlo in Kyiv and talked about his life in Moscow, Crimea annexation, the life of the army and how Pavlo killed the “Russian world” in himself.

You were born in Crimea. Graduated from Tavria University, and in 2012 you went to live and work in Moscow. Why?

Crimea was a region with negative selection. The most ambitious sooner or later left the peninsula and traveled further. Some went to Kyiv and Odesa in Ukraine, some to Moscow or St. Petersburg in Russia. At that time, Bolotnaya Square took place in Russia. And in Kyiv there was a situation of solid Yanukovych rule. I was invited to come to Moscow and become an editor-in-chief of one of the media outlets. They said: here we all the fun, and you have stagnation there [in Ukraine].

Yes, then some of Ukrainian journalists moved to Russia, Russians like Vladimir Fedorin came here , everyone admired Galya Timchenko,, Novaya Gazeta, then Meduza, and so on. How did it happen that we all looked into the mouth of Russian journalism, and it turned out that they lost everything, and Russia ended up where it is now?

In 2012, I heard one opinion of an acquaintance of mine. He said: “Remember, there are journalists in Russia, but there is no journalism. And there are no journalists in Ukraine, but there is journalism.” In the end, he turned out to be wrong, because there are many journalists and personalities in Ukrainian journalism, not only the environment.

The Russian system was built in such a way that the state received a monopoly on almost everything. I will now explain what I mean. When we started actively writing about why Ukraine is not Russia, one of the answers was that our country doesnʼt have a monopoly on money. Several oligarchic groups formed in our country long before the war. The Ukrainian dragon had many heads, all of them competed with each other, and this oligopolic system eventually prevented any political player from cementing the political space.

But Yanukovych tried to cement it.

Yes, but he entered into conflict and contradictions with various oligarchic groups. Some of them were interested in strengthening the Donetsk clan and Yanukovych himself. And some on the contrary. In Russia, there was no such oligopoly from the beginning of the 2000s. In particular, because the “vault with money” was just one. And when the state finally established control over this vault, it began to control almost everything.

Who did you consider yourself to be before the war — a Russian, a Ukrainian?

Crimea had a very insular mentality. Regional self-identification was primary for us. Ethnic or civil identity was already the second or third step. The Crimean Tatars were the only exception, because due to the history of this nation, national identity came first for them. If you had asked me in 2012 who I consider myself to be, I would have answered: “Crimian.” And then 2014 happened in my life and yours. And we faced all the consequences of the annexation of the peninsula, the military invasion of Donbas, and lived through it. And these events changed me.

Do you now also consider yourself a Crimean? Or a Ukrainian?

Regional identity is no longer as important to me as it once was. Around the end of 2016 — the beginning of 2017, Crimea still hurt me. I remembered it, I wanted to get there, to get home. And somewhere in the last five or six years — it ceased to hurt. In 2022, my thoughts returned to Crimea only when Russia announced the annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. Because it was then that Moscow destroyed the distinction of Crimea from the so-called “LPR” and “DNR”. Because earlier, in optimistic scenarios, we were told that it is possible to liberate Donetsk and Luhansk, but Crimea is unlikely, because “how can hostilities be conducted in the territories that Russia considers its own?” And now we have been waging war for a long time on the territories that Russia considers its own. And no “Crimean otherness” in this sense exists anymore.

If you put your hand on your heart, what were the Crimeans really thinking during the annexation? We are not talking about a “referendum”, itʼs clear that it was fake. But what did people feel?

We received the latest data from Crimea in mid-February 2014 from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. There was something like this question: “Would you like your region to separate from Ukraine and join any other country?” Some 40 percent of Crimeans said “yes.” But this was already after the Maidan, about which they received information for three months purely from the Russian media, which talked about drug addicts and Nazis. I think that at that time approximately 15-20 percent of people in Crimea were still pro-Ukrainian. And another 40 percent were focused on matters of domestic survival, for whom the color of the flag was unimportant, and who were ready to join what was considered the ideological mainstream at the time.

How did you feel in Moscow when you worked there? Are you communicating with any of your colleagues now? What happened to them all?

I have a few friends left there, one of whom sold everything in 2014 and moved his family to Prague. A few more acquaintances with pro-Ukrainian sentiments remain in Russia, and I donʼt know how they manage it.

As for me, in 2012 I went to Moscow as a purely Russian-speaking person who grew up in a purely Russian cultural environment. Well, if you remember KVN, only people with Caucasian surnames could joke about Caucasians there. The conditional Galustyan or Martirosyan could make fun of the Armenians, but the conditional Slepakov could not. So itʼs 2013, weʼre sitting in a bar after work, and someone starts telling a joke about Ukrainians. Everyone laughs, and I think to myself: “Stop, stop, Iʼm the only one who can tell jokes about Ukrainians, because Iʼm the only one here with a Ukrainian passport.” It was the first such moment. I thought that when I came to Russia, I would not feel any difference between them and myself.

But you felt?

Yes. When you find yourself in a different environment, it defines the boundaries of your identity. Even if this identity is still being born. And there was also a very noticeable difference when the Maidan began, and I was supporting it, while most of my Moscow acquaintances were against it.

After the annexation, you went to Crimea. Why did you get a Russian passport?

Because at that moment I was very different from the Pavlo Kazarin that many are used to today. During the annexation of Crimea, I still remained a person with a predominantly regional identity. My planning horizon looked very simple: I will return to Crimea to my parents, I will live there, write about what is happening. Russian documents after the annexation were a “pass” for me to live and work in Crimea.

Did you keep your Ukrainian passport?


Was it possible?

In Crimea, Russian passports were issued just like that. There were no additional procedures, such as relinquishing Ukrainian passports or taking an oath.

When did you realize that there would be a reputational mess if all this became known? You were already a famous Ukrainian journalist.

In 2015, there was a statement by representatives of the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice that official Kyiv does not consider the documents received by the Crimeans as proof that they have Russian citizenship. But at the end of 2017, I started collecting documents for the official withdrawal from Russian citizenship. It turned out to be a complicated bureaucratic procedure, considering that I could not go to the peninsula.

I remember, I wake up, I open Facebook, and there are dozens of posts. Everyone posts Shariy and your Russian passport.

At that time, I was traveling by train to Zaporizhzhia to visit my friends. I also opened social networks and realized that someone from the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs leaked my passport to Shariy, because he posted scans of my documents, which could only be kept by Russian officials. Maybe it was the Russian consulate, to which I already had time to submit documents for the refusal of Russian documents.

Regarding your former Russian colleagues and the question of how they lost all the journalism play. Arenʼt you pissed off by all this stuff about “foreign agents” and everything else?

I can assume that the position of many Russian media regarding these statements is an attempt to remain in the legal Russian space for as long as possible. Because after being declared a “foreign agent”, the next step is the status of an “undesirable organization”. After that, even if your editorial office is located abroad, everyone who works with you is at risk of criminal prosecution. As I understand it, many publications tried to postpone the process of transition from “foreign agents” to “undesirable” or “extremist” organization. But you put me in a difficult ethical situation by forcing me to be their lawyer. Let them explain themselves why they decided to do this.

You said that Kazarin of 2014 is not Kazarin of 2023. And how are they different?

Thatʼs because I didnʼt always perceive reality as I came to realize it later. Until 2007, I was not very interested in politics at all, then I started reading Russian liberal publications, the conventional Novaya Gazeta. Later, I began to read already Ukrainian publicists and listen to their opinion.

Who did you read?

Portnikov. Then I went from Crimea to Moscow and also felt the difference. I realized that I would not really like to see in my Crimea those political practices that were in Russia. And then came the realization that regional identity no longer works.

Did you have any Russian colleagues whom you admired? What do you think about them now?

It seems to me that now the opposition Russians are divided into two large groups. In one, there are people who sincerely believe that in the current format of existence, Russia is doomed to be only an empire, and therefore they donʼt see a catastrophe in its possible disintegration. And the other part believes that the whole problem lies only with the regime that governs Russia, and therefore perceives Ukraine only as a tool for the overthrow of Putinʼs rule. That is, they donʼt want to reassemble Russia based on other rules of existence, but believe that the main problem is only the political regime established by the president of the Russian Federation.

Like, there will be another president, and everything will be ok?

Yes, and that is why for them Ukraine and the Ukrainian armed forces are only a tool to remove Putin from power. But when Putin is no longer in power, they hope to get a chance to build the “beautiful Russia of the future.” I donʼt think they think about how permanent the imperial discourse is in Russian culture and literature, how ethical it is to keep Nenets and Chechens, Buryats and Dagestanis under the same state roof. They sincerely believe that the current Russia in the form in which it is now can exist without the “spiritual clips” with which the Russian government, as an imperial armature, pulls together all these very heterogeneous territories, which otherwise could be scattered in their separate state buildings.

I donʼt want to take bread from Ivan Yakovyna and engage in Putinology. But do you think Putin wants to make USSR-2?

The Russian elite today masturbates not to the Soviet Union, but to the Russian Empire. There is a very significant difference between these two principles of imperialism. The Soviet concept proclaimed the trinity of fraternal nations: Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian. The imperial pre-revolutionary spoke of a triune Russian nation, and there was no place for either Ukrainians or Belarusians. At the beginning of his reign, Putin was a Soviet man by inertia, and in his imagination there was a kind of Ukraine that simply had to be a fraternal, friendly client of the Russian Federation. And today, he has long since moved to the imperial understanding of reality, within the framework of which no Ukraine exists, but only a divided Russian people.

In addition, one must understand that in any empire there are no borders, only horizons. And this is generally the main question: where does “not ours” begin for Russia? Where people donʼt speak Russian? Where Orthodoxy is not practiced? Where there was no Eastern bloc? Where there was no Russian Empire? Or where there are simply no people who walk on two feet?

I read your columns, you look there on a horse with a saber — sometimes very optimistic. You talk about the collapse of Russia. Honestly, on the one hand, I donʼt believe that Russia will collapse, and on the other hand, in August 1990, no one thought that the USSR would not collapse either.

Actually, I donʼt talk about it very often. So far, I donʼt see any prerequisites for Russiaʼs disintegration, but I wouldnʼt completely rule out such a possibility. We cannot now imagine what will happen to the Russian Federation in the event of a military defeat [in this war]. And even the disintegration lines may not be what we imagine them to be. These may be, for example, not along the borders of Russiaʼs national republics, but along the borders of regional armies.

All hope is in Prigozhin.

No, he will probably be eaten completely, and in that case we wonʼt remember his name in a few years. But many other players in the Russian Federation may decide that having their own private army is useful, that it increases your political survival factor or personal security in a hypothetical future where the monopoly of the center is no longer so steadfast.

In 2014, you did not go to war. And a year ago, you were a presenter, you had nice costumes, an audience, popularity, and on February 25 you said to yourself: “Thatʼs it, Iʼm going to sleep in clay in a trench.”

This happened precisely because I did not go to war in 2014. I felt I owed something. Other people bought me time that I could spend on reflection.

And how did it happen that you were hired right away? In the first days, there were huge queues at the military commissariats, and many were refused.

The Shevchenko District Military Commissariat [in Kyiv] was one of the last to receive people on the evening of February 25, register them and issue weapons. The next day, there were still queues, but no one could get anything anymore. If we had been late for a few hours or a day, then we would not have joined the army either.

OK, so you came, and what happened next?

We arrived around three oʼclock in the afternoon, we were issued weapons around six oʼclock. They divided our entire crowd into conditional companies.

In general, how were Territorial Defense units created? Each region has one brigade, and in Kyiv there is an additional separate brigade per city, one battalion per district. But there were so many willing people that at the peak of its existence, the Kyiv brigade numbered, according to rumors, up to 20,000 people. After the end of the Kyiv operation, it was slightly reduced and divided in half: the battalions of the left bank are one 112th brigade. The battalions that were formed on the right bank are the 241 brigade of the TD.

What were the first days of this war like?

We received weapons on February 25th. At one oʼclock in the morning we were raised and told that there was a risk of the column breaking through, and sent to one of the streets which our company was to hold. As far as I understand, the idea was that the central street was held by regular armed forces, and all these small streets, which could become an alternative way for the occupiers to enter the city, were held by Territorial Defense. But to our great happiness, there was no convoy, and if there was, it was detained somewhere on the approaches by the army. Because if there was a convoy, we would hardly be able to stop it. At that time we only had machine guns, four gun cartridges each and zero experience.

Did you shoot at all before that?

I went to the shooting range.

The army is always absurd things, absurd actions, and statutes. How do you deal with it?

During these 13 months, I almost did not come across all this in everyday life. And I will say the terrible thing: I have never given a military salute. There was neither occasion nor circumstances for this. Now there are units that are in the rear and units that are on the front line. And the further from the front, the stricter the VSP. And if we talk about household items, the most important discomfort is the complete lack of privacy. You are actually never alone. People are always nearby.

When I studied at the police academy in the mid-2000s, we had three holes on the training ground for the whole platoon to go to the toilet, and there were no walls between them.

I had to see toilets with five holes and no walls. By the way, one of my main pre-war possessions is earplugs. If you donʼt fall asleep quickly and donʼt sleep soundly, you can hear all the other guys in the same room sleeping.

In war, you get used to the fact that it is not at all like what you once saw in the cinema. In very many parts of the front, if we donʼt talk about the hottest spots like Bakhmut, 90 percent of the infantryʼs life can consist of routine, and only 10 percent — of action. Sometimes those who do not understand this start writing in the comments: “Why are you posting in Facebook?” You read and understand that these people imagine war as one continuous gameplay from Call of Duty, where we have 24/7 “tra-ta-ta-ta-ta”.

And you also get used to the idea that in war your life largely depends on chance. No one can calculate such things as friendly fire, own and foreign mines, the trajectory of debris.

And regarding the absurdity of the bureaucracy. Did you have a wash log and log of logs?

We visited a huge number of brigades and divisions, starting from the north of the Kharkiv region and ending with the Mykolaiv region (the only region we have not been to yet is the Kherson region). We have witnessed how the reality of the most diverse services in the war is organized. Starting from scouts and ending with rear services. Therefore, we have a good idea of what the Ukrainian paper army consists of.

I have a collection of paper army stories.

During 2022, the army suddenly received a very large infusion of civilian blood. And this led to various consequences. Someone may say that people who have not yet had experience of military service joined the army, and they will see a disadvantage in this. But I also saw how people, to whom no one had time to explain that “this isnʼt possible”, suddenly created things from the category “oh, is that actually possible?” Sometimes it was these people without army experience, but with civilian competences who greatly strengthened the army. Because the army included those whom the army could never afford before the war because of the salary policy. The classic monopoly of the personnel military was eroded, because they suddenly received at their disposal a large number of people who turned out to be professionals in their civilian specialties. And they can do a lot of good, because sometimes decisions are made at the horizontal level.

Can you provide an example? What can be done when there are paper logs everywhere?

Iʼve seen industrial climbers, wedding photographers, and a few IT guys band together and create a think tank. Industrial climbers hung cameras, wedding photographers mastered Mavics, and every evening this unit issued an analytical report to the neighboring brigade with targets for destruction and targets for reconnaissance.

What happened with you after Kyiv?

The Donetsk region happened in our life. When the Kyiv operation ended, many Territorial Defense brigades began to be transferred to the east. “Buyers” began to travel to many units, offering to transfer to units located in the east. Two thirds of my company transferred to the 111th Luhansk brigade of the Territorial Defense. And I was offered to become a military media person.

It was logical: you are a public person. What did they tell you to do?

This is not at all connected with my publicity — only with the experience I had. At some point, Ukraine became the main country on the planet. The demand for content from the most diverse countries of the world is very high. And civilian journalists are objectively not always and not everywhere allowed to come. At some point, someone in the army came up with the idea that the army itself could create content and then give it to anyone who wanted it. Over the course of a year, the content created by our group alone was viewed at least 40 million times.

When did you get to Bakhmut?

We arrived on February 8 [2023]. And then left for Kyiv on March 6. How is it there? It is difficult for me to compare, because I have not been to Sievierodonetsk and even more so I havenʼt been to Mariupol [under siege]. But Bakhmut is the hottest section of the front I have ever been to.

There is one axiom: war is scary. And if someone says that he is not afraid of war, then you start to be wary of such people. Fear is what you feel when you get into a stressful situation. If a person does not feel fear, it only means that he or she may misjudge circumstances, underestimate dangers and risks. And if a person says that he it she is not afraid of war, it is better to stay away.

Are you regretting your decision on February 25th?

If I had not accepted it, I probably would not have been able to explain to myself why I am not in the army today.

To explain is one thing, to regret is another.

I understand all the consequences of that decision. I understand that I do not know when the demobilization will take place. I donʼt know in what state I will meet this demobilization. I donʼt know what will happen to me in the coming months either. But again, if I hadnʼt ended up in the army, it would be very difficult for me to explain to myself why Iʼm not wearing a pixel uniform right now.

How do you feel about men who left the country?

Itʼs a difficult question. I, too, was not in the army in 2014, and by 2022 I was carried on the shoulders by all those who joined the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces instead of me. Therefore, I would not like to climb on a chair and point a finger at others with accusations. The only thing I urge is to think that this war is for a long time, and it isnʼt guaranteed that it will end this year or next year. I would like to remind you of one simple thing: none of us was born a soldier. People become soldiers. I met very different people in the army. A person from the Forbes lists and circus mimes, school teachers and bartenders. And war is not the business of some special people with some special abilities. And given the circumstances, sooner or later the war will reach those who are now in the rear, so it is better not to waste time and prepare.

You used to be into motorcycles. Do you have time for personal life? Do you have a girlfriend?

My personal life is other peopleʼs Instagrams. Before leaving for Bakhmut, I went to the store, bought myself the most expensive sneakers from the new collection and left the unpacked box at home. This was my personal attempt to “flip a coin”. When I returned from Bakhmut, now, before another departure for the front, I bought myself a backpack for a motorcycle. And in exactly the same way, without opening it, I put it in a closet at home. I leave many things for “after the war”.

Do you have any rough understanding of where the end of the war is?

No, I do not know. But the fact that we are talking to you today is already one of the signs of our victory. Because you remember how little Western intelligence prophesied to us to withstand the aggression in the 20s of February last year.

Iʼll be honest, until I arrived in Bucha on April 2, I probably had a planning horizon of seven minutes.

Everything that we observe today is partly already a sign that we have won the hell out of it. Because in the last 40 years, all the wars that the world has seen have been wars of regular armies against guerrilla movements. And now we have a confrontation between two institutional military machines, which are fighting with all the conventional weapons invented in the world. Only chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons are not used. We are the first country that has endured such a level of military confrontation over the last 40 years. And this fact is so damn encouraging.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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