MOSCOW, Russia — Zakhar Prilepin didn’t know what to expect when he traveled to war-torn eastern Ukraine last month.
But what the young nationalist author, one of Russia’s most celebrated writers, says he found there was a cast of characters straight out of a classic Russian novel.
In one of his journalistic dispatches from the region, he describes an encounter with a pro-Russia separatist rebel who had been recently freed as a prisoner of the Ukrainian army.
While he was detained, his comrades had buried the corpse of another fighter thinking it was his.
“We drove the man up to his own grave,” Prilepin writes with dark irony. On arriving, the rebel said, “I’ll take it from here.”
As the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has played out, a vicious information war has led to competing narratives about what exactly is going on in the strip of territory contested by Ukrainian forces and the Russia-backed separatists.
For Ukrainians, the war is part of a struggle for independence from Moscow’s perennial dominance. For many Russians, however, it’s an effort to preserve what they believe is their rightful claim over historically Russian-speaking lands.
Prilepin — a 39-year-old university graduate who fought in Chechnya as a member of an elite police squad — sees the rebels as virtuous freedom fighters whose everyday heroism represents the best of the Russian soul.
“They’ve made that very same democratic choice of which the Russian spirit is allegedly incapable,” he said in an interview after his recent return from Ukraine. “That choice really exists: to use your life as you see fit.”
Since he began his writing career in the mid-2000s, Prilepin — who is also a political activist with a fringe ultranationalist movement — has been compared to some of the most important writers in Russia’s history.
His critically acclaimed novels capture the chaotic social order of post-Soviet Russia, in which unlikely heroes are forced to navigate extreme situations in order to survive.
A self-professed patriot, Prilepin is nevertheless deeply critical of his country’s social and political ills.
Critics say he represents a new generation of writers who have cultivated a following through their gritty social realism. It helps that Prilepin bases much of his material at least partly on his own experiences.
“It’s like a kind of journalism transferred into the style of a novel,” says Natalia Ivanova, deputy editor of the literary journal Znamya.
Prilepin says his trip to eastern Ukraine was a personal visit rather than an attempt to collect material for his work. But he nevertheless published a series of dispatches in the form of diary entries in the popular Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda.
In them, he muses on the devastation and absurdity of the war, which has claimed more than 3,500 lives since last spring and which critics say has been fueled by logistic and even direct military support from Russia.
But Prilepin maintains that his encounters were mostly with local fighters, many of whom he paints as salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar heroes, and idealistic volunteers from Russia.
Through their tales of battle and captivity, he weaves a gritty but flattering portrait of the separatists he describes as “free to the absolute highest degree.”
“There’s a feeling of having torn away from everything that was holding him back,” Prilepin says of the typical rebel fighter, adding that the archetypal Russian character “receives a feeling of justification from being surrounded by stress, by war.”
It’s an undoubtedly biased portrait of the separatist fighters who have been accused by Ukrainian officials and many others of ruling through violence and terror.
But it also represents widespread sentiment in Russia — fueled by a heavy-handed state media campaign — that the pro-Moscow fighters hold the moral high-ground in a fight against allegedly “fascist” Ukrainian forces.
At home, Prilepin’s longtime political activism has made him somewhat of an anomaly: While he supports the Kremlin’s current policy in Ukraine, he criticizes the authoritarianism and graft that’s flourished under President Vladimir Putin.
He’s also a divisive figure who often picks fights in opinion columns with other writers and political commentators.
Still, even many of his liberal peers agree he’s increasingly influential. Some believe he may be carving out a lasting role in Russian culture.
“I think the next attempt to create a national myth — sort of cheerful, somewhat conquistadorian, aggressive and which rejects both Ukraine and oligarchic Russia — will be made by Prilepin,” the popular writer and prominent Kremlin critic Dmitry Bykov said on Echo of Moscow radio last month.
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A longtime mainstay at opposition rallies, Prilepin appears to have put his anti-Kremlin criticism on hold for now, preferring to rally around the greater nationalist cause, like other members of Russia’s ideologically split protest class.
Western economic sanctions against Russia and the ongoing information war between the former brotherly neighbor nations have made matters “difficult for everyone,” which is why it’s important to decide the fate of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, he says.
“The situation today,” he says of Putin’s Russia, “is not one in which bitter confrontation is a necessity.”