Russia: Writer Prilepin trades words for weapons | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 14.02.2017
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Russia: Writer Prilepin trades words for weapons

A famous newcomer has joined the ranks of the separatists in eastern Ukraine. One of Russia's best-known writers, Zakhar Prilepin, is fighting for Ukrainian separatists with words.

Zakhar Prilepin (left in photo) has a problem on Facebook. His profile has been blocked for 30 days. Since the weekend, the Russian writer's friends have been sharing his message that he is now officially fighting on the side of separatists in eastern Ukraine. The pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda revealed his intent to serve in the army, and the headline "A Famous Writer Establishes His Own Batallion in Donbass" rapidly spread throughout Russia and even made it to the top reports on the state new channel. Images show Prilepin in camouflage together with armed men in a hall. Prilepin himself explained that he has been fighting as a deputy commander of a battalion in Donetsk since October 2016.

The 41-year-old Prilepin is one of the most famous and influential writers in Russia. He is considered to be the voice of an entire generation. Prilepin has been awarded many prizes and is highly acclaimed outside of the country, as well. "To understand Russia today, you need to understand Prilepin," Newsweek magazine gushed in 2011, comparing the writer to Hemingway.

People who know Prilepin are not surprised by his latest endeavor. He was born in 1975 and grew up in provincial Russia. His father was a history teacher, and his mother was a nurse. Prilepin remembers the Soviet Union well and is part of the generation that lost its bearings after the ultimate collapse of the USSR in 1991. Before going into writing, Prilepin studied philology at the State University of Nizhni Novgorod and the School of Public Administration. In the two wars with Chechnya, he fought as an officer for OMON, a special police unit. At the same time, he was active in the banned left-wing National Bolshevik Party. He described these experiences in his novels. His most well-known work is 2006's "Sankya," 2006 which has been translated into several languages. Prilepin's Austrian translator, Erich Klein, told DW that anyone who wants to understand the events in eastern Ukraine from a Russian perspective should read this book.

Prilepin was a passionate nationalist and Putin critic who was often arrested at protests. After the annexation of Crimea, he radically changed his opinion about Russia's president. Now, Prilepin praises Putin and even made an appearance in the two-hour documentary "Crimea: The Way Home," which was broadcast on state television channel in 2015. For Prilepin, Ukraine is not a truly independent state but instead a renegade province that must be reconquered. "Our goal is Kyiv," he told Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Making a cameo

After the annexation of Crimea, Prilepin also showed his support for the separatists in the Ukrainian coalfield region of Donbass. At first, he demonstrated his support in the words he had written in numerous articles, books and TV shows. Prilepin also sent aid supplies to Donetsk and advised the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. Then he traded in his words for weapons.

The writer has become the most well-known Russian to join the separatists in eastern Ukraine. Other Russian writers, musicians and artists have traveled regularly to Donetsk to perform, but none of them has joined the fight. Only the actor Mikhail Porechenkov had a picture taken of him firing a machine gun at Ukrainian positions; however, he never fought in battle.

The Kremlin has always denied interfering in eastern Ukraine. Now it did not have much to say about Prilepin's deployment. Dimitry Peskov, President Putin's spokesman said that it is obvious that Russian citizens, like citizens of other countries, travel there.

The news of Prilepin's deployment in Donbass came just as the battles between the separatists and Ukraine's army resumed. Also, the news followed a detailed report in Russian media about Mikhail Tolstykh, a famous separatist commander known as "Givi". According to reports in Donetsk, his office was attacked from the outside with a flamethrower. The separatists lay the blame on the Ukrainian army but Kiev rejects this claim. "Givi" shares the fate of many well-known separatists who were killed quietly, in the background, and not in battle. It is possible that the charismatic Prilepin will help the separatists to win the hearts of the people and the same time recruit new fighters in Russia, some observers say. In his interview with "Komsomolskaya Pravda", Prilepin says that people are lining up to fight in Ukraine.

Observers point out the fact the Prilepin released a new book a few weeks ago. It is called "Platoon" and describes the lives of such 19th-century writers as Derzhavin and Pushkin - "who did not only know how to use a quill but also how to hold a weapon." Prilepin feels he is part of this tradition; however, it remains to be seen how long he can endure the battlefront and what goals he is truly pursuing.


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