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Pro-Putin Grannies Chased Away the Ukrainian Army. Then They Turned on Me.

On the surreal front lines in Donetsk

Max Avdeev

The Donetsk People’s Republic is now heavily armed and well fortified: tires, barbed wire, grenade launchers, APCs, Kalashnikovs, and seemingly more pistols than they have hands to shoot them. But the fledgling republic’s most fearsome weapon is their grannies.

The Russian countryside is populated by the baba, the strong, hefty woman who, according to Russian legend, will stop a galloping steed and save a burning house. But in the Donetsk People’s Republic the legions of baby are simply the shock troops.

Their methods are fierce and sure: these stocky women, mostly pensioners with brightly colored hair, motley, polyester uniforms, and gold Orthodox crosses nestled in their plentiful bosoms, sniff out the enemy and, shrieking their terrifying war call, surround him until he can be liquidated by their men. The enemy is naturally afraid of resisting: these are grannies, women in their 50s and 60s who, likely, remind him of his own grandmother.

Baby were reportedly deployed in April outside Slovyansk, where the Ukrainian government’s troops, in a massive embarrassment to the provisional government in Kiev, surrendered their tracked and armored personnel carriers, as well as their assault rifles, to the rebels.

How did it happen?

The machinery rolls in, and a battalion of grannies surround it, hectoring and jeering at the young men in Ukrainian uniform, shaming them for coming to kill them. The Ukrainian soldiers were not going to shoot or plow through unarmed babushki, so they sat there and waited while the grannies hooted and hollered. But before the soldiers knew it, their men arrived, with guns, and the game was lost.

Just last week, Russian state media reported that, outside Slavyansk, Ukrainian troops were again turned back by the granny shock troops. When the Dniepropetrovsk unit had stopped outside town, it was surrounded by baby, cooing at the young soldiers. Then they fed them cakes packed with sedatives, and when the soldiers fell asleep the separatists came and captured their weaponry.

The grannies are the front line of defense of the capital of the Donetsk People’s Republic, which exists in the seized building of the region’s administration. They sing old Russian songs while picking weeds from the building’s neglected flower beds; they sit in a big white tent, discussing politics. This is their headquarters. It’s where they gossip about the evils of the fascist junta in Kiev, winding themselves up to the pitch of a chorus of angry, warbling chickens.

Soon we discovered that they are a terrifying, violent bunch.

When I approached the group with my Russian photographer Max Avdeev, we asked if we could talk to them and take their pictures. First, they agreed and started preening, asking if their hair looked good. As I flattered them and Max started shooting, though, their fellow soldiers smelled something fishy.

“Where are you from?” one of them asked.

“Moscow,” I said.

“Moscow’s big,” she said, looking at me cockeyed, her face leathery and suspicious. “Where in Moscow? Are you from … Dozhd?” (She was referring to Russia’s last independent television channel, seen as being in opposition to the Kremlin.)

Photo by Max Avdeev

I said I wasn’t, but I didn’t have time to explain because one of her comrades leaned in, spilling some cross-and-bosom, and pointing a terrifying finger at me.

“Young lady, you’ve already been here, and we didn’t like you, so please get out.”

“Yeah!” the first one recalled, rising. “You were here saying you loved the Maidan!”

“What? No I didn’t!”

“Yes, you did! You said you loved the Maidan and that they’re good peaceful people fighting for a better life! Now git before I get the boys on you!”

For the record, two days prior, I had talked to these women about whether it was really necessary to burn Ukrainian television host Savik Shuster at the stake for saying something they disagreed with. One or two of the women vowed to personally set the man alight. Two days of chatter by the tent had, apparently, changed the story.

Photo by Max Avdeev

The woman, a kind of blue cotton suitcase with tan, sturdy limbs and a man’s short haircut, waddled over to the hoodlums lounging by the entrance to the Republic.

“Boys!” she hollered. “They’re enemies! They love the Maidan! Get them out of here!”

The boys didn’t move. One of them rolled his eyes.

She ran back over to me and Max, who, at this point, had stopped shooting.  

“Get out of here, Maidan lover! Get out!” the blue suitcase began to shove Max away from the Republic and out toward the street with surprising force. Max wisely did not resist. Then she turned to me and, bending down to grab her shoe, growled: “Get the fuck on out of here before I take my shoe to your fucking face!”

Photo by Max Avdeev

Luckily, a man held her back. Suddenly, I felt someone smack my arm. I wheeled around to see a fierce woman of sixty screaming at me about fascism, ready to strike again. One of her comrades started to push me, too. While I yelled at them not to touch me, someone started to pull my hair. Unwisely, I resisted: My arm instinctively shot out behind me to dig into the woman’s hair and yank, hard, toward the ground.

“Oooooooooohhhhhhh!” she screamed, a short little homeless-looking thing with hair matted to the consistency of Brillo. “Oooooooh! She’s pulling my hair! She’s pulling my haaaaaaaair!”

Suddenly, we were surrounded by screaming, pushing grandmothers. One, a woman of about 70 with a smear of coral lipstick raised her arm and yelled, “You smiling bitch, why I ought to tear your smug piece of shit face off!”

Photo by Max Avdeev

Another grabbed on to Max and demanded that he delete their pictures. Apparently, their permission had been withdrawn.

A young man no older than 18 pushed in. He was in fatigues, with a blond buzz cut and a Kalashnikov. He was trying to hide his laughter, but was not helping us.

“Why are you photographing them without their permission?” he growled.

“We had permission!” Max and I yelled. 

This raised a deafening screech and the cordon of grannies squeezed us tighter. 

“Delete it! Delete me!” the woman screamed at Max, clawing at his arm. “Give me your phone!”

“I’m not giving you my phone!”

Photo by Max Avdeev

Someone else punched my other arm; it was the first woman who wanted to know if I was from Dozhd. I turned to one of the men and yelled, “Hey! Control your baby!”

“BITCH!” she screamed and lunged for me. “I’m not a baba! I’m a woman!" 

Luckily, one of the men stepped in.

Finally, a cordon of beefy men had to lead us out of the square, the buffer region of the Republic. They had a hard time doing so because the baby wouldn’t let them take their prey away. They clawed and yelled and pushed and cursed our smug enemy faces.

Away from the hell’s grannies, Max and I, still shaken, had to finally deal with the men and delete some pictures. Max’s hands were shaking, I was on the verge of tears.

“Don’t be mad at the baby,” an old man standing next to me said. He was old, with a St. George’s ribbon pinned to his chest. He leaned on two canes for support.

“Why can’t you control them?” I nearly yelled.

He shrugged and smiled a mischievous, toothless smile. 

“We need them like this some times,” he said. “They’re our guard dogs.”