By Aleksandr Kots
This callsign—Motorola—Arsen Pavlov chose himself long before the events in the Donbass. In Russia, he served three years as a combat signaller in the 77th Brigade of the Naval Infantry. That is where his nickname—Motorola—was born, and it remained with him when he continued his military career after the mandatory draft service and through the two tours of duty in Chechnya. It is in Chechnya that he received his first combat experience, becoming addicted to war. There are those who, caught in the meat grinder of bloody battles, emerge from the experience with ground-up souls and a persistent aversion to guns. And then there are fanatics, who not only like to fight and are skilled at it, but also manage to preserve humanity inside them. Motorola was one of the latter. A soldier from God, a fan of the Russian rap music and an irrepressible wisecracker.
We met in the spring of 2014, when it was still possible to take the direct route into Slavyansk, even though fighting already raged in the city and on its outskirts. A passenger van had come under Ukrainian artillery fire not far from the Karandashi checkpoint on the road to Andreevka. With our headlights off, we were slowly moving toward the burning van in the gathering dusk, when a gnome in military fatigues, heavily laden with weapons, materialized from the darkness. In spite of the low height, he looked very natural in his equipment, which only reinforced his credibility.
“Where the [expletive] are you [expletive] going?” he asked good-naturedly, with a smile that, nevertheless, did not augur any small talk. “Who the hell are you?”
“That you are Russian is a good thing, that you drive in the dark—a very bad one.”
“Is it alright then if we walk over to the van, shoot the scene?”
“Are you adrenaline junkies or something?” Motorola guffawed with obvious respect. “Turn around and follow us. And no turn signals.”
Motik, as he was known to friends, did not like to talk about his past. He was born in the Komi Republic, was orphaned at fifteen, and grew up with his grandmother. Apart from the military, he also mastered several civilian professions—as a certified rescuer, a granite and marble construction worker, among others.
But his heart was always drawn to a military path. At first, he observed the Maidan events on television, later travelling to Kiev “to sate his curiosity.” When he overheard someone’s casual phrase, “for each of ours, we’ll kill ten Russians,” his mind was made up. He joined the ranks of the protest movement in the southeast of Ukraine before the events in Slavyansk took place. He travelled to take part in the Kharkov protest march and in the Odessa rallies, until, finally, he found himself in the middle of the Crimean Spring, which he left as part of Igor Strelkov’s small unit that went to Slavyansk.
Once there, he quickly became a favourite of the media. Not because of a thirst for notoriety, but on account of his gregariousness and natural charisma. His ability to describe grave events with relatable irony captivated, and his openness and sociability made one feel welcome.
Motor was one of the first to realize that the media component of this war is almost as important as traditional combat. Using his enormous tablet, he shot videos of the first battles, passing them on to us, journalists. To be able to broadcast them, we inevitably had to filter out Motorola’s patented commentary, which made it impossible to view the real war without a smile.
After the first serious battle in Semyonovka, on May 5, 2014, Motik, the last to leave the battlefield, came back overstrung, anxious: “Stop recording!” he roared menacingly, with a waive of his rifle, at Zhenya Poddubny’s cameraman, Vasya Yurchuk. “He is one of us,” Zhenya carefully inserted himself. “Oh, sorry, brother,” Motorola bashfully responded right away.
An hour later, he passed on to us his footage of the fighting—images that soon spread to every corner of the country. But with every day that followed it became increasingly difficult to hold an automatic rifle in one hand and a smartphone in the other. Motik started taking us with him, to the war, instead of bringing the war to us. Nikolayevka, Semyonovka, Illovaisk, Debaltsevo, the Donetsk airport…
We are standing behind a concrete fence across from the new terminal, the second floor of which is still occupied by the Ukrainian “cyborgs”, while the first floor has already been taken by the Militia. Arsen personally drove us as close as possible, so that we could record a few images. Death of various calibres is deafeningly exploding around us, but Motorola is calm and composed.
“Are those ours?” I show Motik a forest patch about three hundred metres from us. Tanks positioned there are firing point-blank at the terminal. Only muzzle flashes can be seen.
“Journalists and their sharp eyes,” responds Motorola with an invariable smile.
And aims the Militia’s mortars at these tanks.
“And now we have to skedaddle,” he winks at us. “The response is coming.”
“But our quadcopter has not returned yet,” my colleagues respond, flummoxed.
“So be it, we’ll wait,” Motorola gloomily sits down, leaning against the fence.
The drone’s buzzing came together with the explosions of counterbattery fire. Motik waited patiently while we loaded up the vehicle. After escorting us out of the area of artillery fire—on his trademark quad bike, adorned with a Naval Infantry flag billowing in the wind—he returned to the frontline. A couple of months later, he stormed the airport with his men, fighting in the forefront: “Well, is there another way?—he would always be surprised by our question—If I don’t go myself, then how can I send my men into battle? I know that some of them won’t return. How would I look the others in the eyes?”
Motorola knew perfectly well that, in the time of respite from the fighting, without battles and reconnaissance operations, an army can start deteriorating. For that reason, he made his battalion sweat at a training range from dawn till dusk, using regiments developed for Russian special forces. At the same time, he kept up regular online reports on his Instagram account.
“Let’s agree on a hashtag, so that all the war correspondents can post their military videos on the Internet in a centralized manner. Like the Americans do, except that their videos are crap. Meanwhile, we have so much real war here, and so much of it is lost,” Motorola lamented at our last meeting on the first of October of this year.
We were sitting in the Legend Café—an unofficial gathering place for journalists since August 2014. Back then, it was the only place in the city that stayed open for business. With free WiFi to boot. Motorola used to frequent this place as well, to treat himself to a latte. And to talk with reporters.
“You seem nervous,” remarked one of our friends.
“Yes, Lenka is supposed to give birth today or tomorrow.”
Makar was born the following day. Motik immediately posted the news on Instagram. Miroslava, born a year earlier, now had a little brother. When Arsen and a man from his security detail were entering the elevator, his children were waiting for him upstairs, in their little beds. The explosion shook the building, filling it with the smell of soot and burned gunpowder. Lena knows this smell first-hand—she is from Semyonovka, where she met Arsen. They celebrated their wedding in Donetsk, held the ceremony in Crimea…
Motorola had no desire to be in politics; it did not interest him. For that reason, the theory of internal infighting is simply misplaced. In Ukraine, on the other hand, he has been painted as a monster who executes prisoners. I have observed first-hand how Motorola treats prisoners, and these allegations are outright lies. For Motorola, to execute was to forsake dignity. He was not lenient, but neither was he cruel. He was not eloquent, but he was very convincing. He was not a handsome man, but he was a devoted friend and a faithful husband. He was a warrior from God. The Knight of the Cheerful Countenance.