As his funeral took place in Donetsk today, I’d like to say a few words about the Donetsk People’s Republic commander Mikhail Sergeevich Tolstyikh, Givi. I first met Givi in October 2014, by Donetsk airport. The push was on at that time, for the DPR forces to take Donetsk airport, and Givi’s unit ‘Somalia‘ (named so because in the early days they ran around in shorts with machine guns, ‘like Somalian pirates’), were at the head of that push, along with Motorola’s ‘Sparta’.
After his exploits in Illovaisk, in summer of 2014, in which he was one of the key fighters as that town, his hometown, fought out Ukrainian forces, Givi was known, but in October of 2014, still far less known than Motorola. However, a series of hugely popular interviews, and YouTube clips, in which the charasmatic then 34-year-old by turns exhibited bravery, charm not to mention fearlessness soon turned Givi into a huge deal in his own right.
There was a time I’d be doing to the airport territory in 2014, trying to get as close to the airport as possible, and seeing Givi every day. He was the commander who gave clearance to go right to the frontline. And he’d always ask ‘do you really want to go Graham, you know you might get killed?’ I wanted to go, next he’d be on his walkie-talkie saying ‘take Graham‘, and to me ‘take care‘.
At this time, Givi would also quite often be in the centre of the city, at shops, cafes etc. I’d often see his car, see him having a cup of tea. Then, early 2015, after DPR and LPR took Debaltsevo, I left Donbass to return to the UK for a while, returning in May. I saw Givi shortly after my return (here with Patrick Lancaster), his still being based near the airport, asking ‘what happened there in London?’ (referring to the Donbass event I’d held, where a pro-Ukrainian had heckled, personally abusing Givi). I’d brought him a mug, and tea from the UK, which he would show me every time I went there, with a smile.
Our was a relationship characterised by personal warmth, professional respect. People have accused me of being ‘too close’ to the DPR, Givi, Motorola etc’, but it was never like that. When you are a journalist working in that environment, you build working relationships, as in any working relationship that can include friendship. But I always filmed Givi as he was, no edits, no concessions. In my videos, you saw Givi from warlike to light-hearted, from fierce, to fun, even dancing, here on his 35th birthday, 2015.
There were videos of Givi and Ukrainian prisoners of war, taken in the heat of battle, with tempers high, which were used, particularly by Ukrainian media, to demonise Givi. And there’s no question he could indeed be fierce. But, that’s war, tempers, emotions, run high. Givi was a warrior, a fighter, a commander. And I saw those sides to him.
Givi was absolutely respected by his fighters, for whom he did everything, respected by anyone who came into contact with him, adored by women. And in company, he was always good company. Interested, engaged, funny, he could laugh, take a joke, could cut loose, not a bad dancer even. He was kind, friendly, genuinely concerned for the people of Donbass, loved his family, fighting for his home, his family.
Pro-Ukrainians do what they always do – mock, dance on bones. But those with more compassion will mourn a man who went to war to fight for what he believed in. Pro-Ukrainians will circulate pictures about him working as a security guard before the war. But that wasn’t ‘Givi’. Givi (the callsign taken to honour his grandfather’s service in WWII) was borne in, and of war in Donbass. His destiny was not only to serve in that war, but to become a hero in that war. He led. He led from the front.
Givi was directly involved in key strategic victories in Donbass – notably Illovaisk, and Donetsk airport (taken by the DPR in January of 2015). More, he held the DPR line at times when it looked like it may be swept away by an EU, US backed Ukrainian onslaught. With old tanks, and volunteer soldiers, Givi’s Somalia defended key positions. His legacy is the existence of the Donetsk People’s Republic he loved, and was immensely proud of. A Republic which lives, and will continue, in which he wrote himself into history, and legend.
As for all the jokes pro-Ukrainians are making after his death, it’s always easiest to mock someone who can no longer defend themself. Nor was Givi ever bothered by trolling, and insult while alive, he would even laugh at such comments on YouTube videos of him. He wasn’t scared of death either, appreciated that it may come to him earlier rather than later, accepted that.
Nor is Givi who you are reading about in western media. Givi, Misha to those who knew him, was indeed not always the most civil in his dealings with captured Ukrainian prisoners. But how should he have been? These men had come to his hometown, were shelling civilian areas of his native Donbass. But, to those who knew him, there was another side. He liked a cigarette, and cup of tea, he often asked me what people in the UK made of all of this, hoped they would understand the real situation in Donbass.
He’d survived a thousand fake reports of his death. But, on February 8th, it wasn’t fake. Givi was gone, killed by an early morning blast in his Donetsk office. By whom, and how, will surely come out in time. For those of you who’ve read hopefully understand a bit more about the Givi I knew, remembered, and will remember. A man like any other, a hero like few other.