How does a 61-year-old former pot dealer named “Texas” end up filming videos in front of Z-marked tanks on the Russian side of the frontline in Donbas?
Russell “Texas” Bentley has gone viral this week with a YouTube video in which he wears a black leather jacket and a revolutionary’s army-green cap. “This is Tejas on the frontline with the De-Nazifiers and the Liberators of Ukraine,” he twangs with all the camp of a Tarantino character. “These guys are tough. These guys are ready. And there’s plenty of ‘em,” Bentley boasts of the Russian soldiers behind him, adding: “We’re gettin’ ready to bring the hammer down. These guys are going to save and liberate all the good people of Ukraine. And the bad people? BOOM! Kick their ass.”
YouTube pulled the video for violating its community guidelines but it’s still available on Twitter.
— Bad Weapon Takes (@BadWeaponTakes) February 28, 2022
Bentley writes that his aim — which also happens to be Vladimir Putin’s aim — is to bring “Ukraine back into the Slavic family where it belongs and has been for 1,000 years.” As for the “bad people” he hopes to see the hammer dropped on? They seem to include not only the rulers of Ukraine but the leaders of his former American homeland. On VK — the Russian alternative to Facebook — Bentley posted that he was “heading west with the Liberators of Ukraine. We may stop in Kiev, we may stop on the English Channel. We may liberate the USA.”
On Tuesday, Rolling Stone reached Bentley at a hotel in Donetsk for an hour-long phone interview. Bentley describes himself as an “information warrior” for the Russian side. He has lived in the separatist areas of Eastern Ukraine since 2014 and is now a citizen of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic as well as of Russia. “I don’t give a fuck what they think about me in the United States,” he insists. “The government — or most of the people.”
Bentley’s backstory is as wild as his present circumstance. He’s a former marijuana legalization activist who once mounted a third-party bid for the Senate in Minnesota — in the 1990 election that brought Paul Welstone to Washington — before landing in prison for felony marijuana trafficking.
He was born Russell Bonner Bentley III to a wealthy family in Texas in 1960. “I grew up in a very exclusive area of Dallas called Highland Park,” he says. “It’s basically the Beverly Hills of Dallas.” Bentley was the “black sheep” of the family as a teenager, he says, drawn to hard left causes. “I was reading Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara” he says. “I understood the Vietnamese were right to defend their land against foreign invaders, and that the United States was wrong. I understood that Fidel and Che were right to overthrow the foreign masters that had turned Cuba into a casino and bordello.” Bentley insists: “I’m anti-racist. I’m anti-imperialist. I grew up supporting people’s rights to defend themselves.” (His commitment to democracy and self-determination was less developed.)
Bentley bills himself as an “auto-didact.” He dropped out of middle school, but later got his GED and spent some time in the U.S. Army. He then waited tables and partied for years on South Padre island, on the Texas coast, playing guitar in a group called the Asbestos Band. He says his preferred genre was “cow punk” — a mix of Johnny Cash and Johnny Rotten. But when that music failed to pack in the crowds, Bentley recalls, they started covering hits from hot MTV bands like ZZ Top, the Cure, and even Bryan Adams.
Known then as “Bongo” rather than “Texas,” Bentley followed a girlfriend to Minnesota, according to profile in Texas Monthly. There, Bentley got deep into the world of marijuana legalization, running for Senate in 1990 as a member of the pro-pot Grassroots Party, whose motto was “lower taxes, higher taxpayers.” He garnered nearly two percent of the statewide vote.
In the mid-1990s, Bentley made a radicalizing trip to Cuba where his socialist leanings hardened into communism. “I went with Pastors for Peace, with Medea Benjamin from Code Pink, and a bunch of those guys,” Bentley recalls. On the island, he met a captain in the Cuban army who told him that “a communist is someone that’s willing to fight for socialism.” He vowed then: “I’m going to quit being a pussy and calling myself a socialist; I am a communist.”
In his professional life, Bentley wasn’t just promoting pot, he was dealing it — importing substantial quantities of weed from Texas to Minnesota. And by 1996, Bentley got tripped up by the DEA. He was arrested for felony trafficking and sentenced to federal prison. But only months before he was scheduled to be released in 1999, according to court documents, Bentley broke out of the minimum security facility where he was being held. “I didn’t have to dig a tunnel or take anybody hostage,” he recalls. “But I did escape from prison.”
Bentley then lived on the lam, mostly in Washington state. He took part in the anti-globalization uprising against the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle in 1999, which he says “was the last time that I was really proud to be an American.” Bentley remained a fugitive for the better part of a decade before being recaptured in 2007. “They put me in a maximum security joint till the end of my sentence.” Bentley remained under supervised release — which included a ban on intoxicants and a mandated 12-step program — until 2012.
Over the years, Bentley’s distrust of American power had been metastasizing. Today, he rattles off a list of American foreign policy sins dating from Ronald Reagan’s invasion of the island nation of Grenada and what he denounces as Bill Clinton’s “horrendous war crimes against Yugoslavia.” Growing conspiratorial, he insists that 9/11 was — at least in part — an inside job, citing his expertise in the U.S. Army as a demolition expert: “You can say what you want about building one and two, but building seven? Anyone that doesn’t understand that that was a pre-planned, pre-placed controlled demolition is either an idiot or a liar,” he claims. (Government investigators found the tower collapsed from the heat of uncontrolled fires.)
Bentley’s disgust grew through the “bogus” wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he insists the final straw was the 2011 Western military action that toppled Muammar Gadhafi in Libya. “He was one of the greatest,” Bentley says fondly of the larger-than-life dictator whom the International Criminal Court accused of war crimes. Bentley says that when “Gadhafi was brutally murdered on video, it really pissed me off.” Bentley worked out his anger by donning rock climbing gear to scale a Marines recruiting billboard in Austin, defacing it with the words “FUCK NATO” in six-foot letters.
By the time the Maidan Revolution broke out in 2014 in Ukraine — toppling the Putin-backed government in Kyiv — Bentley was primed to see the events through the looking glass. “I knew it was exactly the work of the State Department and the CIA and Soros, of course,” Bentley recalls, invoking another conspiracy theory that Hungarian billionaire George Soros pulls the strings of American foreign policy. When he saw the unrest spill over into violent clashes in Odessa, Bentley sympathized with wounded pro-Russian separatists.
Then Bentley came across video from the aftermath of an explosion in Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine, that local separatists blamed on a Ukrainian air strike. He recalls a video of a dying young woman with her legs blown off. “Her eyes looked into my soul,” he says, earnestly. “She was asking me, ‘What are you going to do about this? Are you going to go hold hands across America for peace, or sing Kumbaya?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m going to go kill some of the dudes that did this.’ And I have,” he insists.
Determined to head to the frontlines in Donbas, Bentley broke up with his yoga-instructor girlfriend, quit his job as an estimator for a tree-trimming company, and booked a flight for Rostov-on-Don, a Russian city on the Black Sea. Before he left Texas, he recorded a song about his belief that this was “armageddon” and he was choosing his side with “Novorussia.” He sang: “The U.S. is wrong, and I’ll do more to right it than just write this song.”
Bentley, then 54, was an unlikely foreign fighter. He didn’t speak Russian at the time, but made his way to the war-torn city of Donetsk where he hooked up with a fellow Russian-sympathist expat, a writer from Italy, who showed him around and helped Bentley hook up with the Vostok Battalion — a militia group linked to the Russian intelligence service.
“When I came here, I didn’t think I would live through the winter, bro,” says Bentley, who peppers his speech with surfer pronouns like dude and bro. “I didn’t hardly speak Russian. It was a major war with a full-on National Army against the people’s militia. And I was on the little guys’ side,” he says, adding he believed he was, “defending good people against abjectly evil people.”
Bentley has lived in the contested separatist regions of Donbas ever since, surrounded by a war that’s killed an estimated 14,000, with allegations of abuses and needless civilian casualties on both sides. Bentley says he’s since served as a military policeman and an “information warrior” — an English language propagandist for the Russian side, hosting a podcast called “Radio Free Donbas” and filming YouTube videos of the struggle in the region. He emphasizes he’s a volunteer for the cause: “I don’t get paid by the Donetsk People’s Republic. I don’t get paid by the Russians. I don’t get paid by anybody.”
Bentley became a citizen of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic in 2017, and became a citizen of Russia in 2020. Today, he grows belligerent when pressed on the contradictions of his decision to side with an authoritarian like Putin. ”What about Putin poisoning his political rivals?” I ask him, referring to Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who blames the Kremlin for poisoning him with a powerful nerve agent.
Bentley shoots back: “Are you really that stupid or are you pretending to be that stupid?” He insists that it’s “a fucking question that only an idiot would fucking ask.” Bentley underscores that the alleged poisoning victims are still living. “Do you think that if Vladimir Putin, the head of the most powerful military in the world today, wanted to kill somebody that [he] would fail?” he asks. “That’s a really stupid question.”
Like Putin, Bentley decries the Ukranian military as the sum of all evil, blasting them as “genuine, mass-murdering Nazis.” Bentley embellishes that the Ukrainian ranks are also swelled by “thousands of ISIS cannibals.”
Invocations of Nazis are still politically potent in Russia, which suffered unfathomable losses at the hands of Hitler’s armies in World War II. But while Ukraine, like many nations, has extremist right-wing factions, there is no evidence its military is teeming with Nazis. To the contrary, Ukraine’s popularly elected president is Jewish, and several of his relatives were killed in the Holocaust. The United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum has denounced Putin for having “misrepresented and misappropriated Holocaust history” by “claiming falsely that democratic Ukraine needs to be ‘denazified.’” Shortly after I spoke to Bentley, news broke that Russian forces had shelled a Holocaust memorial in Kyiv.
I ask Bentley why he thinks anyone who calls themselves an “information warrior” should be trusted as an honest broker.
“In every information war, there’s two sides,” he says.
“And you see yourself as on the side of truth?” I ask.
“The evidence speaks for itself,” he insists.
In the current conflict, Bentley boasts that “Russia is liberating Ukraine from foreign occupation.” I ask why the world is not seeing Russian troops greeted as liberators, and Ukranians are instead hunkering down and with AK-47s and Molotov cocktails preparing to defend their cities. “How in the hell can you even think you’re qualified to have an opinion on that?” Bentley snaps. “I was, today, 50 kilometers inside what was, two days ago, under Ukrainian Nazi occupation and the dudes there, the women there, had tears in their eyes thanking us for coming to liberate them after eight years of terrorism and oppression. How do you dare to say that?”
With the conversation growing heated, I ask a more muted question: If Bentley knows why Russian tanks have been marked with a “Z.” He says he’s heard differing explanations, from the swashbuckling — “the mark of Zorro” — to the mundane, deriving from the Russian word for west, zapad, which indicates the direction they’re traveling. “But I have my own personal theory,” he adds, “and it is that the ‘Z’ stands for Zelensky’s zhopa. Zelensky, of course, is the puppet president of Ukraine,” he says. “And zhopa is the Russian word for ‘ass.’ So all those machines are going to Zelensky’s ass. That’s my theory.”
Carrying on a conversation with Bentley is challenging. Though we share a common language, he’s committed himself to an alternate reality. “With U.S. politicians and mainstream media, including Rolling Stone,” he tells me, “everything they say is a lie. It is 180 degrees — the opposite direction from what is true.”
What is Bentley’s version of the truth? “Believe me, bro, this is very clear cut,” he says. “This is the battle, not just of Ukraine. This is the battle between good-and-evil for the future of the world. And right now, it’s looking like the world might just have a chance because us and our friends are kicking some Nazi ass right now.”
In reality, the balky Russian blitz of Ukraine has brought terror and bloodshed to a prosperous European nation, whose only real offense has been to chart a course independent of the aims of an unstable strongman in Moscow, who yearns to recapture the glory of a Russian empire.
Before he hangs up, Bentley signs off with a chilling little prayer for the battles ahead:
“May God protect the innocent,” he says. “And may the rest of us get everything that we deserve.”