‘Live, Fight, Survive’ is the extraordinary real-life story of a former British soldier who joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces to fight for the country following the Russian invasion of 2022. Shaun Pinner narrates his own often-harrowing account, which provides readers with an insider’s view of the current war in Europe.
The author gives details to his background that help readers to understand his personality. We learn what it takes to thrive in the army, to see and survive conflict and to recover from the immense physical and psychological trauma of warfare. Having put military life behind him, Pinner was motivated to volunteer his services with the Ukrainian Army due to his wife’s Ukrainian nationality. But as he admits, he had also struggled to find career satisfaction outside of the camaraderie and excitement of army life. Repeatedly throughout the book he emphasises that during life-threatening situations he didn’t feel fear. It’s hard for the civilian reader to understand this, but easy to take him at his word throughout an authentic account that needs no exaggeration for dramatic effect. Put simply: men like Pinner are a breed apart. By helping in the fight to liberate Ukraine, we can only be thankful that there are soldiers with both conviction and the courage to act on their principles.
If you’re looking for an insight into what it’s like to be at the heart of modern warfare, then ‘Live, Fight, Survive’ is a compelling first-hand account. There isn’t much that Pinner doesn’t experience. He describes the friendships he forged with Ukrainians and how he doesn’t have time to grieve for one young man whose death in conflict he learns of at a crucial moment. Having explained how essential it is for a British national, likely to be considered a mercenary, to avoid being caught, he is nevertheless captured by Russian soldiers during the siege of Mariupol.
The bulk of the book is taken up with the aftermath of Pinner’s incarceration inside an unnamed black site in occupied Ukrainian territory. There are many efforts on the part of the Russian military to destroy his morale. He is driven through local towns that he knew in peacetime that have been reduced to rubble. There is also the constant threat of torture and illnesses such as dysentery that come with malnourishment and ill-treatment. There is the mundanity of a life in confinement that could drive any person crazy too. In describing how to pass time and try to keep spirits up during months of imprisonment in brutal conditions, the book is like a modern day version of Solzhenitsyn’s ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.’ One difference is that now, captured soldiers’ phones are confiscated and their photographs and social media accounts scoured to find ways to compromise them. The author paints a vivid picture of some of his tormentors, including ‘Mr Balaclava’, who comes across like a Bond villain’s henchman.
The final part of the book gives an account of the part of the story that gained considerable media attention and brought Shaun Pinner’s name to international prominence. He stands trial in a Donetsk People’s Republic courtroom, accused of many things including treason. He knows full well that the kangaroo court is interested in finding him guilty, where the likely punishment would be execution. It is a stunning example of how, in warfare, the battlefield isn’t the only place where you can find yourself in mortal danger.
‘Live, Fight, Survive’ is a detailed insight into modern warfare and an eyewitness account of the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It will appeal especially to any reader who has a keen interest in current affairs and military operations. Necessarily, it is a male-dominated story and one with some choice language: two factors which may limit the book’s target audience. As a piece of writing, it is fascinating, and Pinner’s strength is in sketching out his emotional reactions to events, as well as giving readers a good idea of the characters of the men he was serving with or imprisoned alongside. It is fair-minded too. There is no attempt to demonise ordinary Russian soldiers. Pinner reserves his ire for those in authority.
In capturing a broad chronological sweep of his experiences, ‘Live, Fight, Survive’ does become repetitive at times, especially once Pinner has been captured and is moved between prisons, each time establishing a new and frustratingly limited routine. However, the final chapters are the strongest and most eventful in the book, and they come with a rewarding emotional pay-off. Readers will have these passages fresh in their minds as they reach the final page.
The audiobook version is narrated by Shaun Pinner himself. His no-nonsense and clear tone of voice is authentically militaristic, and therefore the ideal choice to convey the story. An actor would probably have made the prose too flowery. The downside is that there are fewer nuances in his vocal delivery than is common for audiobook readers. Nevertheless, the dramatic events of each chapter ensured that our attention held throughout ‘Live, Fight, Survive’.
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK audio Narrator: Shaun Pinner Publication date: 28th September 2023 Buy ‘Live, Fight, Survive’