It’s January 16th, 2015, NAF forces are consolidating their hold on the new terminal of Donetsk airport, I’ve filmed in there for half an hour when things get a bit hot, shelling is hitting near, the Ukrainians now near exiled from the once gleaming, now post-apocalyptic site, having taken to shelling it. A command is given to get out, quick, it’s hard to do so, there’s just so much to film. The command comes again, stronger, I make a move to the covered parking over from the new terminal. But still don’t want to leave the site, requesting to go back.
Until this point, Arseniy Pavlov, known throughout the world as Motorola (nickname from his billet in signalling during national service), has been his usual charming self, but he draws a line here, shouting at me ‘Graham, get out, you shouldn’t even be here, you were wounded recently, you won’t get wounded again on my watch!‘.
The command was given in such a way as to brook no response other than obediently climb into the waiting APC. And in that, is a lot about Motorola, a man I’ve known for almost a year now, starting in Slavyansk. He loves to joke, in times of semi-ceasefire I’ve filmed several interviews of his doing just that – as here –
But when it comes down to business, the man who pre-war worked in a number of vocations, reportedly from lifeguard, car washer to gravestone etcher, is a formidable commander. More, he’s a personality who has stood the test of time in a war which has seen many figures hit the scene, make waves, headlines, rack up YouTube hits, before fading from the centre of action – former Slavyansk mayor Ponomarev, Gubarev, Babay to name just a few.
Motorola has stood, endured, risen from a simple soldier in the self-defence forces / people’s militia anti-Kiev forces (‘rebels’ the favoured term of much western press). Having come of his own volition to Slavyansk (early on appearing at demos in Kharkov, motivated by a resistance to the anti-Russian sentiment of Maidan), taken part in numerous battles there before the order to withdraw, Motorola through his renowned bravery in battle combined with charisma, rose to the rank of commander, commander of his own battalion, Sparta.
Sparta were the one battalion to remain constantly at Donetsk airport, as the Ukrainian forces were pushed back, ceding territory month-on-month as Motorola masterminded the taking of arguably the most significant symbol of the war. Helped by a close relationship with fellow commander Givi (of Somali battalion), Novorossiya forces surged forward from September, much of the territory in their hands by October, old terminal November, early December, the new terminal mid-January, holding it despite waves of Ukrainian attacks. Even with the highly respected Vostok Battalion coming to the airport in December, it was still Motorola’s men holding the key positions there, a spirited bunch of volunteers, mostly local, some Russian (as Motorola himself).
Of course men were lost, I saw Motorola after men were lost, in no mood to talk to journalists at these times, in distemper, angry, hurt. Wounded fighters (Motorola wounded himself in November) quickly evacuated, tended, taken to hospital. Motorola has a reputation for caring for his men, he does that. He has a reputation as a joker, he can be that (upon Ukrainian rumours of his death, he answered me in Ukrainian ‘if you can see me, I’m alive’). But above all, and whatever he was before the war, he’s a warrior. More, he inspires that ultimate belief, both in his men and beyond, that if this guy is on your side, you’re on the winning side.
So, a Very Happy 32nd Birthday Motorola!