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Читать онлайн Greetings from Novorossiya: Eyewitness to the War in Ukraine. Pieniążek Paweł.

Paweł Pieniążek



Translated by Małgorzata Markoff And John Markoff 

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Indifference kills just like a bullet.






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THE YEAR 1989, the year the Polish war reporter Paweł Pieniążek was born, was understood by some in the West as an end to history. After the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe, what alternative was there to liberal democracy? The rule of law had won the day. European integration would help the weaker states reform and support the sovereignty of all.

But was the West coming to the East or the East to the West? By 2014, a quarter century after the revolutions of 1989, Russia proposed a coherent alternative: faked elections, institutionalized oligarchy, national populism, and European disintegration. When Ukrainians that year made a revolution in the name of Europe, Russian media proclaimed the “decadence” of the European Union (EU), and Russian forces invaded Ukraine in the name of a “Eurasian” alternative.

When Pieniążek arrived in Kiev in November 2013 as a young man of twenty-four, he was observing the latest, and perhaps the last, attempt to mobilize the idea of “Europe” in order to reform a state. Ukrainians had been led to expect that their government would sign an association agreement with the European Union. Frustrated by endemic corruption, many Ukrainians saw the accord as an instrument to strengthen the rule of law. Moscow, meanwhile, was demanding that Ukraine not sign the agreement with the EU but instead become a part of its new “Eurasian” trade zone of authoritarian regimes.

At the last moment, Russian president Vladimir Putin dissuaded the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych from signing the EU association agreement. The Russian media exulted. Ukrainian students, who had the most to lose from endless corruption, gathered on November 21 on Kiev’s central square, the Maidan, to demand that the agreement with the EU be signed. Pieniążek arrived a few days later. After police beat the students on the night of November 30, the young men and women were joined by hundreds of thousands of others, people who would brave the cold, and worse, for the next three months.

The “Euromaidan,” as the protests were called at first, was multicultural and anti-oligarchical. Ukrainians were taking risks for a local goal that is hard to understand beyond the post-Soviet setting: Europeanization as a means to undo corruption and oligarchy. By enriching a small clique, writes Pieniążek in this collection of his reportage from Ukraine, “Yanukovych brought the state to the brink of actual collapse.” In December 2013 Russian leaders made financial aid to Yanukovych’s government contingent upon clearing the streets of protesters. The government’s subsequent escalation of repression—first the suspension of the rights to assembly and free expression in January 2014 and then the mass shooting of protesters in February—turned the popular movement into a revolution. On February 22, Yanukovych fled to Russia. (Two years later his political strategist, Paul Manafort, would resurface in the United States, playing the same role for Donald Trump.) After the failure of its policy of repression by remote control, Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. By March Russians who had taken part in that campaign were arriving in the industrial Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine, Yanukovych’s onetime power base, to help organize a separatist movement.

Inhabitants of southeastern Ukraine had just as much reason to be dissatisfied with corruption as anyone else, and it was reasonable to fear that the revolution in Kiev was nothing more than a swing of the pendulum from some oligarchs to others. Just how these sentiments might have been resolved through negotiations or elections we will never know, since the Russian intervention precluded both, bringing instead fear and bloodshed that changed everyone’s political calculations. Slovyansk, a small city in the Donbas, was an early gathering point for separatists. When Pieniążek arrived there in April 2014, he found the place crawling with armored personnel carriers, and he understood that local opposition to the revolution in Kiev was supported by outside forces. The Russian citizen Igor Girkin, a veteran of the Crimean invasion and the commander of the separatist forces, had made Slovyansk his headquarters.

Under Girkin’s supervision a “people’s mayor” arrested the elected one, and the new authorities murdered two people who opposed them. When the Ukrainian government sent policemen to investigate the crime, they were arrested by the separatists and photographed in humiliating positions—images suggesting the local dissolution of Ukrainian state power. As Pieniążek reported, power now resided in the former headquarters of the Ukrainian state police, which Russian soldiers and officers used as their base. By March 2014 Crimea had been annexed by Russia, and in April further Russian annexations of Ukrainian territory seemed possible. Putin spoke that month of a “New Russia” (Novorossiya ), meaning Donetsk and five other regions of eastern and southern Ukraine.

Putin maintained that the use of the Russian language beyond Russia’s borders justified Russian invasion. If the unity of language groups were accepted as a principle of rule, then international state borders would cease to matter. The Second World War began from such arguments (think of the Anschluss  and the end of Austria, the Sudetenland and the destruction of Czechoslovakia, and Danzig as a pretext for war against Poland). Thus the founders of European integration insisted that state borders be respected and issues of human rights be resolved within their necessarily imperfect confines. Pieniążek was continually struck by the fact that separatists characterized the European order as “fascist,” even as they spoke of the significance of common language and common blood. What they meant, he realized, was simply that “everyone who does not support Russia is a fascist.”

Ukraine is a bilingual country with a cosmopolitan ruling class. Because almost all Ukrainians speak Russian as well as Ukrainian, they belong to what Putin calls “the Russian world” (russkii mir ). Yet this “world” is by no means automatically aligned with the politics of Moscow. Kharkiv, a university town near the Russian border, is governed by people who take a sympathetic view of Russia but have rejected separatism. Dnipropetrovsk, the onetime Soviet “rocket city,” became the gathering point of Russian-speaking Ukrainian volunteers who fought against separatists and Russians. Cosmopolitan Odessa excelled in mockery of Putin.

The city of Donetsk fell to the separatists for local reasons. In spring 2014 its local oligarchs were indecisive and tried, disastrously, to play Kiev and Moscow against each other. This had little to do with ethnicity; the most important Donetsk oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, is a Volga Tatar. With local power uncertain Russian veterans of the Crimean campaign could travel to Donetsk at a time when Ukrainian central authorities hindered such people from reaching other east Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv. Afterward Russian troops could move into Donetsk across a border that Ukrainian authorities were unable to control. Some of the Russian regular soldiers were Siberians, and many of the irregulars were Chechens. Thus people who did not speak Russian were killing people who did—in order to defend the Russian language in a place where it was never threatened.

Despite the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and separatist control of the city of Donetsk in April, by May Russia was facing humiliating defeat. Throughout the country the Russian intervention had, as Pieniążek notes, “strengthened the sense of Ukrainian identity.” The Crimean model of Russian control was irrelevant in almost all of Ukraine and was failing in the southeast. In Crimea Russia had a network of local turncoats, considerable support from local Russians, and military bases from which to launch an invasion. Without such resources the limited detachments of Russian special forces, known in Ukraine for their lack of insignia as “little green men,” could not control the southeast. Four of the six southeastern districts that Putin called “New Russia” had produced no separatist movement. The separatist hold on the Donetsk and Luhansk regions was partial and shaky.

The Ukrainian leadership now decided to fight. Although the Ukrainian armed forces were small, they quickly drove back the separatists. Ukraine used air power to deploy troops and destroy some of the armor the separatists had seized from Ukrainian forces or obtained from Russia. In May 2014 Kiev was abuzz with rumors of a Uk

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rainian offensive on Donetsk. To stop the rout Moscow had to bring down the Ukrainian air force. In June Russian troops crossed the border with tanks and antiaircraft batteries. About a dozen Ukrainian aircraft were quickly shot down.

The Russian decision to escalate brought about a major war crime. One of the numerous Russian military convoys in those weeks departed from its base in Kursk on June 23. It was a detachment of the Russian Fifty-Third Air Defense Brigade, bound for Donetsk with a BUK antiaircraft missile launcher bearing the marking 332. On the morning of July 17, this BUK launcher was hauled from Donetsk to the Ukrainian town of Snizhne and then brought under its own power to a farmstead south of that town.

But for what happened next, this transport of a Russian weapon would have simply been one of several photographed by locals and ignored by the world. Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, carrying 298 passengers from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was flying just then over southeastern Ukraine. At 13:20 it was struck by hundreds of high-energy projectiles released by the explosion of a 9N314M warhead carried by a missile fired from that BUK launcher. The projectiles ripped through the cockpit and instantly killed the cockpit crew, from whose body parts some of the metal was later extracted. The aircraft was blown to pieces at its cruising altitude of thirty-three thousand feet, its passengers and their baggage scattered over a radius of thirty miles.

Pieniążek raced to the site where the largest pieces of wreckage and a number of corpses were found. Although he was the first reporter on the scene, one day after the crash, its story had already been told on Russian television. Two Russian networks claimed that Ukrainian aircraft had shot down the plane. Three other networks provided a motive: Ukrainian authorities had intended to shoot down an aircraft carrying Putin and had made a mistake. Long before the 298 corpses had been assembled and identified, the victims had been defined in the Russian media: the Russian president and his people.

In the days that followed, Russian media purveyed further versions of the disaster: fictional, contradictory, and sometimes grotesque. What Russians call the “zombie” story, that the CIA filled the plane with corpses and exploded it by remote control, enjoys surprising longevity. The Russian tactics are easier to mock than dismiss. A large majority of Russians (86 percent in 2014, 85 percent in 2015) blame Ukraine for shooting down the flight; only 2 percent blamed their own country, with most of the remainder opting for the United States.

How did Russia reach a point, in its media and politics, where the fact of Russian soldiers mistakenly shooting down a civilian airliner during a Russian invasion of a foreign country could be transformed into a durable sense of Russian victimhood? For that matter, how did Russians take so easily to the idea that Ukraine, seen as a fraternal nation, had suddenly become an enemy governed by “fascists”? How do Russians take pride in a Russian invasion while at the same time denying that one is taking place? Consider the dark joke now making the rounds in Russia. Wife to husband: “Our son was killed in action in Ukraine.” Husband to wife: “We never had a son.”

Russia, unlike Ukraine, has natural gas and oil, a strong army, and a propaganda apparatus that can be used to delay, distract, and confuse. The Russian leadership failed to use the profits from energy exports to diversify the economy during the flush first decade of the twenty-first century when prices were high. We should see the policies of institutional oligarchy, military buildup, and media coordination as internal and misguided Russian choices that made foreign wars likely. Russian propaganda themes of ethnic justice and antifascism are more appealing than the basics of political economy. Propaganda conceits of this kind allow Russians to define themselves as the victims.

Russia, like Ukraine, has failed in the modern task of establishing the rule of law. Many Russians, for that matter, reacted to this failure in much the same way as Ukrainians did in 2013. Russians protested the falsified parliamentary elections of late 2011; Putin claimed that members of opposition groups had responded to a signal from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Russian police arrested their leaders. Although the Russian media followed Putin’s line in 2011, the very fact of the protests seem to show that media control and coordination were not enough. The emerging stratagem was to merge Russian news with foreign news: to make it seem as if much that happened abroad was about Russia, since foreign leaders had nothing on their minds but the disruption of Russian politics. In this way Russia’s growing social and economic problems could be ignored even as Russians believed they were at the center of world attention.

After the protests Putin turned away from the middle class and embraced national populism. The rejection of the EU as “decadent” and the creation of the Eurasian alternative also arose from this experience. So when Ukrainians protested in favor of the EU in late November 2013, Russian leaders understood this within the story line they were writing for themselves. Rather than dwelling on the similarities between Ukrainian and Russian problems and the uncomfortable ability of Ukrainians to demand reform, the Russian media defined the Euromaidan as an eruption of European decadence.

The European Union was already called “Gayropa”; now the Euromaidan was called “Gayeuromaidan.” Once Russian troops invaded Crimea, happy endings gave way on television screens to splendid little wars. Russia’s economic decline continued, but this could now be presented as the price of foreign glory. The new Russian wars are a Bonapartism without a Napoleon, temporarily resolving domestic tensions in doomed foreign adventures but lacking a vision for the world. Authoritarianism is the best of all possible systems—the thinking goes—because the others are, despite appearances, no better. Lying in the service of the status quo is perfectly justified, since the other side’s lies are more pernicious.

All problems, in this worldview, arise from illusory hopes of improvement aroused by foreign powers. Police power is authentic, whereas popular movements are not. Killing in the service of the status quo is necessary, since nothing is more dangerous than change. In the parts of southeastern Ukraine under Russian and separatist control, millions of people have lost their homes and thousands have lost their lives, but the property of the oligarchs is untouched—and those separatists who believed they were fighting against oligarchy have been murdered.

Must protests for justice bring foreign invasion, stupefying propaganda, and squalid murder in the name of maintaining the wealth of a few? This is the essence of Russian foreign policy: enforcing the principle that public efforts to change politics for the better must bring war and “normalization”—to use the term made notorious after the Red Army and its Warsaw Pact allies put down the Prague Spring in 1968.

After the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev promised “fraternal assistance” to any Eastern European country that seemed to depart from the official line. To Soviet citizens Brezhnev proposed “really existing socialism,” the notion that despite the dreariness of life nothing better was possible. For KGB men educated in the 1970s such as Vladimir Putin, instability and change were the enemies more than any particular idea. Working in the 1980s in East Germany, he could delude himself that the status quo was durable—though by then East German stability depended upon Western economies. It would not occur to him that Brezhnev’s bet on energy exports and foreign intervention was a mistake; once in power Putin would repeat it. Eastern European dissidents drew a different lesson from the wreckage of 1968: the importance of truth as the foundation of a life in “dignity”—a term that Ukrainians applied to their revolution in 2014. Why did so few people who identify with the left not see the Ukrainian revolution as such and not condemn the counterrevolutionary Russian invasion accordingly? Part of the answer is that many in the West who remember 1968 recall Paris and not Prague, and so they forget the reactionary militarism of the Brezhnev doctrine.

There was no Orwell of the Ukrainian revolution, but readers of Paweł Pieniążek will get something like the everyday grit and political insight of Homage to Catalonia . Pieniążek risked his life to see what he saw, as did other brave and talented Western journalists. Along the way, perhaps, he benefited from the seemingly innocuous nature of his work. Because separatists believed that only television coverage mattered, they kept asking where his cameraman was. Perhaps because he was filing for print Pieniążek found it easier to extend conversations and move from one side of the lines to the other. After he spent days with a separatist, the two men realized they had both been on the Maidan on the same day, the one beating and the other getting beaten. It says something about Pieniążek’s tact that he kept the relationship going. Pieniążek takes no stands and strikes no poses but modestly exemplifies the old dissident ideal of seeking after small truths, at risk to oneself, in a world of big lies.


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OCTOBER 2014, in the vicinity of the Donetsk airport. Art

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em lives less than a kilometer away. The village is totally devastated. You can hardly find even a few houses without shrapnel holes. Rockets are sticking out of the ground, and the asphalt around is completely furrowed from explosions. There are practically no people here, but there are many dogs that suddenly became homeless. Ironically, the village is called Vesele, which means “cheerful.”

The destruction is a result of more than a month of fighting for the Donetsk airport, controlled by the Ukrainian forces. The separatists want to retake it. Both sides are shooting at each other. Every now and then sounds of explosions alternate with the noise of rifles. Those residents who have decided to stay hardly even pay any attention.

“Oh, a rifle,” Artem announces impassively.

Not even for one moment does he lift up his bent neck. He is moving forward to show us “an interesting hole” created by one of the rockets. The hole is like any other hole. During the months spent in Donbas I saw a lot of them.

“Look inside.”

It is narrow, but at least a meter deep. Apparently the explosion was terribly loud and damaged a few buildings. The rockets keep going off around us, near and far away. Finally, one can hear a whoosh.

“Oh, now you can see,” Artem nods in the direction of the sound. In a split second we hear a roaring explosion. He didn’t even budge, but a photographer standing next to him cringed.

“Don’t be afraid, sir. It’s far away,” Artem laughs.

By now, Artem knows which whooshes should be feared. He regarded this one as innocuous. After all, you can’t do much when you hear a whoosh, because the rocket is already too close to its target.

A few hundred meters away a girl who was walking home was not so lucky. She died instantly, killed by shrapnel. She lies on the sidewalk, covered with a sheet. After a while an elderly woman lifts the sheet up.

“Oh, my God! Nastia!,” she begins to sob. It is her granddaughter.

Two meters from the girl I can see a bloodstain, some broken eggs, and a flat hat. Two pieces of shrapnel hit the man right in a lung. His relatives hid him in a shack. He is breathing, his entire shirt is covered with blood and he lies in a pool of blood. You can hardly expect an ambulance here because paramedics are afraid to come to neighborhoods under fire. Finally, two private cars show up. The wounded man is loaded into one of them. This is the only way to get him to the hospital on time.

I have never thought I would find myself in a war. Even less so that it would be Ukraine. Nevertheless, war has come here. And in an instant, full speed ahead.

According to the official data, by early October 2014 more than thirty-five hundred people had died in the Ukrainian conflict. Unofficial statistics are much higher, and as the conflict continued estimates later reached ten thousand. There is no indication that the conflict will end soon.

It all began in March. Initially, it looked like the usual sort of protests. However, with the passing of time, they turned more and more violent. In only a month and a half people were reaching for firearms. Armed units showed up, the first clashes took place. In May the fighting erupted for real.

I arrived for the first time in Donbas in April 2014, when the conflict was already going on. Although I have been going to Ukraine since 2008, only now for the first time did I experience its eastern part. I had known it before from articles, news reports, and essays. Since April I have traveled all over.

What did I want to see there? Initially, everything indicated that it would be a grotesque and more brutal copy of the protests on the Maidan in Kiev. However, when in April I came to Slovyansk, it turned out that what came into play were not only protests, or even machine guns, but also armored vehicles.

I realize that a report from an ongoing war is a risky business. Especially because I wrote this in a hurry and its ending is just my prediction of future events and may turn out to be wrong.

This book is not meant to be a detailed chronology of the war or a geopolitical analysis. Mainly, I try to present events that I have witnessed myself, my impressions, and impressions of the people on both sides of the conflict, even if in the future they will turn out to be illusory.


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ALTHOUGH UKRAINE HAS always been troubled by internal conflicts, it was Yanukovych who brought the country to the verge of real disintegration. First of all, he and his entourage relinquished their monopoly over violence.

In Ukraine hiring protesters is a common practice. Occasionally, one can spot the same person on opposite sides of the barricades—the authorities’ and the opposition’s. That’s why people can hardly believe that it is even possible for there to be a protest that doesn’t have some interested person behind it.

The first protests in Donetsk begin quite innocuously. On March 1, 2014, during a demonstration in Lenin Square, the few thousand people gathered there declare a vote of no confidence against the regional authorities. The demonstrators choose a previously unknown resident of Donetsk, Pavel Gubarev, as the “people’s governor.” Additionally, he proclaims himself leader of the Donbas People’s Militia. “I will stay with you till the end,” he says, right after he has introduced himself to a cheering crowd waving Russian flags. He moves from his biography to his political program. He is well known within the milieu of pro-Russian groups that organize protests in Donetsk (Russian Bloc, Donetsk Republic, and Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine), but for the last six years he has been a student and running his own business. “I am married, I have three children, and I am 30. I have three university degrees: in history, law and public administration. I had no intention of going into politics before this ‘wonderful’ crisis started. I just wanted to live in peace, be a breadwinner and feed my children. But the new situation didn’t let me stay impartial, my conscience didn’t allow it.” “Hero!” shouts the crowd. Gubarev explains to them that something like southeastern Ukraine doesn’t exist. There is only Novorossiya. “In reality it is a Russian land and Ukraine has never existed,” he declares. “Yeeesss!” chants the crowd. He names the politicians who are close to his heart: the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko; Nursultan Nazarbayev from Kazakhstan; the deceased Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez; the former Cuban head of state Fidel Castro; and finally, Vladimir Putin. After the last name is mentioned the crowd is screaming with all its might: “Yeeesss!” When the authorities are “elected,” the crowd walks from Lenin Square to the Regional Administration Building. After several speeches the Ukrainian flag is replaced by the Russian flag. The building itself cannot be taken because riot police are blocking its entrance and all the windows are barred. The demonstrators are furious and smash the glass.

They are able to enter the building two days later. (In the course of a month, the building’s “owner” will change a few times. Either it is seized by the activists from the emerging separatist movement or it is recaptured by the police. In the end, the separatist movement will prevail and settle there for good. It will become their headquarters.) By ignoring the assault, the passive police only made this easier. Home Ministry forces were standing there with their shields ready but they didn’t even budge. Gubarev stormed the assembly room of the Regional Council and once again proclaimed himself the “people’s governor.” The demonstrators forced the local assembly to announce an independence referendum for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

At the beginning of April they eventually take total control of the Regional Administration Building. The regional authorities have to leave. The freshly named governor, and businessman, Serhiy Taruta was not able to hold off the militants. Instead of clearly describing his position, he was evasive and tried to mix water with fire. What is more, he simply ignored the “Russian Spring,” as the demonstrators call it. Step by step, the Russian Spring spreads to more cities and towns, but in the media Taruta keeps repeating that the integrity of Ukraine is not threatened. He was the only one among the official Ukrainian representatives who insisted on calling for a referendum, but in a different form. It was supposed to be held later, and the citizens were to answer questions regarding decentralization and the status of the Russian language. For the supporters of a united Ukraine it was an excessive bow before the self-proclaimed authorities. For the separatists the bow was not enough. In the end none of the parties trusts him. Those in power are completely losing their authority.

According to Gubarev, both the authorities and the opposition are at fault. Actually, all the sympathizers of the separatists share this view, but they are not alone. It is the lack of hope that the Ukrainian opposition can change anything that makes it easier for the separatists to take over more cities. After all, nobody is willing to defend rotten authorities and a nonfunctioning state, even if there is a risk that they will be replaced by something more atrocious.


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There was only one person who could stabilize the situation or at least halt the state’s disintegration in Donbas. It was Rinat Akhmetov, the wealthiest Ukrainian and, among other things, the owner of the most expensive apartment in London. As in the majority of such cases in post-Soviet territory, nobody really knows where his money comes from. The first information about his legal business appeared in 1995 when he founded Donetsk City Bank. When Kiev realized that in the eastern regions businesspeople enjoy the highest respect, Akhmetov was offered a position as governor. Leaks about this offer appeared just a few hours after the crowd had stormed the Donetsk regional administration. Another oligarch, Igor Kolomoyskiy, was chosen as governor in the Dnipropetrovsk region, for similar reasons. Almost every passerby in Dnipropetrovsk asserts that if it weren’t for him things would take a different turn. “He’s our boy,” explains Iryna, a middle-aged resident of Dnipropetrovsk. However, in the Dnipropetrovsk region, unlike in Donbas, public opinion is in favor of Kiev.

Unlike Kolomoyskiy, Akhmetov rejected the offer to become governor and decided to continue his ambiguous game. “If the police attack people, I will take their side,” maintained the oligarch at the beginning of the demonstrations in Donetsk. It was his first really courageous declaration. Somehow, during the protests on the Maidan, Akhmetov was not bothered by the fact that police attacked people many times. This time the police are very consistent and do nothing, even during a demonstration on March 13 in Donetsk when the first victim of the Russian Spring dies.

Almost everybody in Donbas identifies oligarchy, thieving, and corruption as the most infuriating of vices. It is a paradox that hardly anybody in Donbas attributes these traits to Akhmetov.

“The whole thing is the fault of these oligarchs. They appropriated everything for themselves,” says Volodymyr, a retiree.

“So Akhmetov is guilty, too?” I provoke him.

“He’s different. Maybe Akhmetov is fabulously wealthy, but he shares some of his fortune. His wealth trickles down to us, too. He is creating new jobs and making investments in the cities. He isn’t cheap like the others.”

Volodymyr is not convinced by the argument that, if Akhmetov paid into the state budget as much as he owed, much more would “trickle” to the local population.

The fact that the oligarch didn’t decide to stabilize the situation in the Donetsk region made the authorities fall even faster. He was supposedly supporting the separatist movement from the time of its difficult beginning. Akhmetov hoped that his business would thrive and Donbas would turn into his private ranch. Nevertheless, the separatists escaped his control and were mostly taken over by Russia.

What is this oligarch’s role in the separatist movement? Nobody knows. Back in May Gubarev claimed that two-thirds of the pro-Russian activists were funded by Akhmetov.

The building that houses his company DTEK rises in the center of Donetsk, right next to the occupied building of the regional administration. Nobody has ever tried to take it over, destroy it, or even spray anything on the walls as the separatists like to do. At the same time Ukrainian forces are stationed in the many offices of his company. Nevertheless, it is he who loses most in the war—his factories are not functioning and they are occasionally shelled. From organizer and master of the situation he turns more and more into its victim. When the situation escapes his control, conditions in Donbas deteriorate. Local demonstrators don’t walk the streets with baseball bats any more. Soon knives show up and finally firearms. Uniformed people with automatic weapons and grenade launchers become commonplace and no one is astonished. More buildings are taken over. The police, so passive in the past, side with the separatists. Now it is the militants who administer “justice.” People don’t mock them any longer. It is too late to stop them without fighting.

“Had the state been functioning and its officials following orders, everything could have been suppressed by the police and without the special forces,” states Semen Semenchenko from Donbas, the commander of the volunteer battalion Donbas. “I have witnessed the entire process with my own eyes,” he adds. It is true that, at the beginning of the conflict, pro-Russian separatists couldn’t brag about their efficiency or numbers. The police would have dealt with them without bringing reinforcements from other cities.

Not Only Donetsk 

In April the pro-Ukrainian movement in Donetsk is still easily able to organize demonstrations with more people than the separatists are. But the largest group of people are the “indifferent” types, who don’t care what is happening around them. We simply want to make money in order to live quietly, they say. To them pro-Russian demonstrators are objects of ridicule. “Look, it’s a madhouse,” a man on a bus turns to me. He points to the occupied Regional State Administration, surrounded by dozens of people and several tents. If I were not interested in current events, I wouldn’t even notice the Russian Spring in Donetsk.

“We are here to defend Donbas from the Kiev junta, who despise the Russian-speaking population.” That’s what I hear in the tent of the Communist Party of Ukraine. Other separatists often add that Donbas returns too much tax money to Kiev. In fact, Donbas receives two times more than it pays in. This is not a secret and many people in Donetsk know it. They also know that Russian speakers have never been discriminated against in Ukraine, particularly in the capital of Donbas, where it’s fairly rare that you hear Ukrainian. That’s why pro-Russian separatists can hardly fire up the crowds. Their rhetoric and demands are completely incomprehensible in this city of almost one million residents. “Nobody is discriminating against us,” says Andrij, visibly surprised.

There are, however, places more susceptible to these demands. In Donbas, with its six million people, there are many postindustrial cities with populations of one hundred or two hundred thousand inhabitants. In the times of the Soviet Union they were centered around big factories. The Soviet Union collapsed, the factories were collapsing, too—obsolete, inefficient, and often useless. Today most of them don’t exist and many jobs have disappeared. In some cities unemployment has really become a serious problem. That is why it is not only elderly people who are dreaming about the return of the Soviet Union.

According to Oleksij Matsuka, editor in chief of Novosti Donbasa , many political organizations worked very hard to exacerbate this discontent. They used left-wing populism, conservative ideas of russkii mir  (literally, “Russian world,” a nationalist concept of a cultural zone of “Russianess” outside Russia’s political borders), and old Soviet rhetoric. It was they who prepared the foundation for the events in Donbas in 2014. “It is not that Russia just came here. Everything has been the result of our internal problems and Russia interfered a little later,” says Semenchenko from the battalion Donbas.

From March to April the Russian Spring spreads with special intensity to the towns of Donbas and other Ukrainian regions, although it doesn’t go beyond street protests and short-term building occupations. But there were also some tragic incidents. Particularly bloody disturbances took place in Odessa, when the House of Trade Unions was set ablaze and about fifty separatists lost their lives. Clashes were also taking place in Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Zaporozhia, and Dnipropetrovsk. At that time there was a common worry in Ukraine that the Crimean situation might be repeated, in other words, that more and more Ukrainian territories would be annexed by Russia. Very quickly, however, pro-Russian demonstrations were halted all over—with the exception of Donbas.

In the Donetsk and Luhansk regions hot spots appear one by one. Small postindustrial towns there turn into the main headquarters of pro-Russian activists and militants. It is much easier there to find support among populations struggling with serious social problems. It is also easier to project an impression of mass involvement and total control. Pro-Russian demonstrations in Donetsk coincide with demonstrations in Alchevsk, Khartsyzk, Druzhkivka, Horlivka, Kramatorsk, Makiivka, and Slovyansk. They also erupt in two larger cities, Luhansk and Mariupol. The scenario is usually the same: pro-Russian demonstrations lead to the occupation of the city council, the police headquarters, or the security service.

In Horlivka the police immediately join the militants. The police station is guarded by “volunteers” armed with police shields and batons. The officers do nothing to oppose them. Some surrender, because they sympathize with the separatists’ ideas, others surrender because they know they can’t count on any help from Kiev. In principle, postrevolutionary authorities lacking any structure and a corrupt system make any action impossible. At the beginning of the conflict you may get the impression that Kiev hardly cares what will happen to Donbas.

In mid-April in Kramatorsk and Slovyansk cheering demonstrators are joined by the “little green men.” That’s what the Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms who were responsible for the intervention in Crimea were called. “We are Crimean… I mean Donbas Mass Mobilization…,” “Balu” begins his speech. He is a commander of the little green men.

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Those in Slovyansk are armed with automatic rifles and grenade launchers. They also have armored vehicles. A Russian flag is flying on one of them. Until now in Donbas this has been a rare sight. For several months Slovyansk becomes the unofficial capital of separatism. It is here that the majority of the militants’ forces are stationed.

“How did you get your weapons?”

“The residents gave them to us,” explains one of “greens” with a sarcastic smile.

“And what about the armored vehicles?”

“In the morning we found them parked here, so we took them.”

It is certain that some equipment is being seized from the few and undisciplined Ukrainian forces, which in the initial phase of the conflict are not fighting the separatists. Instead, they surrender without a single shot. From the very beginning it is the Russians who are suspected of arming the separatists.

“It would never have begun, if the Russians hadn’t helped them,” claims Vasil, a resident of Donetsk. His view is shared by many people.

Glory to the Berkut 

The protests in Donbas as well as the intervention in Crimea were caricatures of the events on the Maidan in Kiev. On the Maidan barricades appeared and official buildings were occupied. After a while there was violence, and in the end the authorities were forced out. In Donetsk as well the barricades went up in front of the administration building. Posters and flags appeared. Tents have been put up nearby, there are leaflets and posters. Loudspeakers are positioned outside the building, speeches go on, and music is playing. If we leave out the number of participants, we can get the impression that we are dealing with a copy of the events in Kiev. “At first glance everything looks the same, but it evokes apprehension rather than joy,” one of my friends wrote. As a matter of fact, something is not right.

The Maidan was fighting the regime, sooner or later doomed to collapse, but at that moment still strong. In Kiev the streets were flooded with complete police units who were defending the government. They were the Berkut—the special police forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. They had no problem in pacifying their compatriots with clubs, cruelly and ruthlessly. During their first attempt to disperse the Maidan, the police were beating up people covered with blankets (there were no tents on Independence Square yet) who were simply sleeping around the Independence Monument.

Yanukovych’s apparatus could defend itself for a long time from the thousands of exasperated demonstrators who in January wanted to storm the Parliament building. The result was that a hundred people were shot and the Maidan was completely crushed.

“Donbas had its Maidans, too. We’re sick of this government. They are responsible for all this.” You can hear these words almost everywhere. But the new administration is targeted and becomes an embodiment of evil. Yanukovych has been erased from the collective memory very quickly.

“What does Yanukovych have to do with this? He doesn’t rule in Kiev,” replies Vadim when asked about the former president.

I disagree and I say: “The new government has been in power since only recently and has inherited a plundered state.”

“So what? They are all the same.” Although one of the most important demands of “the Anti-Maidan” is fighting the ubiquitous corruption, surprisingly enough this ubiquity doesn’t apply to the police, according to the Anti-Maidanists. They know how to explain police behavior during the demonstrations and clashes.

“The Maidan humiliated the police, so they joined us,” claims Serhiy from Donetsk.

“Glory to the Berkut,” shouts the crowd, frequently. The Berkut was a special police unit, notorious for particularly brutal treatment of the demonstrators on the Maidan. When power changed hands the Berkut was dissolved. Some officers fled to Crimea, where they received Russian passports and were incorporated into the Russian equivalent of the Berkut—OMON. Others disappeared and then showed up on the separatist side. A large group, however, was “rehabilitated” and now fights for the Ukrainians. Word has it that among them there are snipers from the Maidan, who had been firing at the demonstrators. Deputy Hennadiy Moskal maintains that this is their way to atone for their sins.

The fate of the officers is one of the favorite subjects of Russian propaganda. Even now, Russian TV viewers, if they chance upon a program about the Maidan, are bombarded with images of wounded policemen and streets aflame from Molotov cocktails. In these programs the Berkut epitomizes heroism. They were the ones who attempted to defend Ukraine from the Maidan “fascists.”

Beware, Benderites Are Attacking! 

“Which network are you from?” Almost every conversation held on territory that was or is still controlled by the separatists begins with this question. I don’t carry a camera or a microphone, but people are not convinced that I am not from TV. The argument that my journalistic work is based on writing is met with disbelief. In Donbas, as in the majority of Ukrainian regions, sitting in front of the TV is the most important part of each day. It’s the basic entertainment, either after work or on a day off. Cultural trash, sentimental and patriotic movies, the news (which can be described with many words, but “objective” is definitely not one of them), and the cult of Putin—all this can be found in the TV box. Even educated and intelligent people often believe a TV version of events that has very little in common with reality. It’s enough for them to have heard them on TV.

“How can you, Poles, join up with these savage Banderites? After all, they were murdering you in Katyn,” asks Volodymyr in Slovyansk. He has no idea that he is confusing the Volyn massacre with Katyn. Later, I will hear about “the Katyn massacre” a few times.

It is, indeed, the Banderites (originally Ukrainian nationalists named for their leader in the 1930s and 1940s, Stepan Bandera) that the Russian media are warning against. They—the Banderites, fascists, nationalists, and the National Guard—are ready for anything, and above all for oppressing and humiliating the residents of Donbas. Unfortunately, as often happens, somebody has misheard or misunderstood something, and now people take it out on “Benderites” instead of “Banderites.” Ostap Bender, a Soviet archetypal antihero, is a character from the novel The Twelve Chairs  by Ilf and Petrov, published in 1928. This “Great Schemer” is a street-smart con man but has very little in common with Ukrainian nationalism.

On the other hand, pro-Russian demonstrators and militants frequently describe themselves as antifascists.

“I hate nationalists and fascists,” a uniformed separatist with a machine gun tells me. A moment later he talks about the blood unity of all Slavs, the greatness of Russian culture and Orthodox religion, but he disparages other faiths. The “people’s governor” Gubarev likes to pose in the imperial uniform.

“You have to write the truth.” This sentence usually follows the question about which TV network I come from. But which truth? Here everybody has his own truth. Once I spent a few hours in a bunker with the separatists. Their unit commander, a retired policeman called “Cimmerian,” is a really polite person. He shows me the photos on his phone: his family, house, work, and so on. Suddenly, one of his subordinates starts telling me about Right Sector—the organization that enjoys an almost mythical status among the separatists.

It is a nationalist coalition created during the Maidan events. Their street clashes with the police in January brought them popularity. But they owe their real fame to the Russian media, which describe them as bloodthirsty beasts. They were mentioned as often as “The One Russia of President Vladimir Putin.” Of all the “Banderites” (or perhaps even “Benderites”) they are the most feared. One militant from Cimmerian’s unit claims that when somebody deserts from the Ukrainian army or the National Guard, men from Right Sector are waiting behind and slash his throat. It’s not a joke. He is quite serious about it and his commander only nods his head.


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WHEN THE RUSSIAN SPRING began, Russians started pressing for constitutional changes that would “respect the interests of the people in all Ukrainian regions.” It was at that time the term “Southeastern Ukraine” was coined. It comprises eight Ukrainian regions. On the map they look like a croissant, and they are respectively the regions of Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporozhia, Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Odessa. They were all calling for independence. The Kremlin propaganda began to dub them “Novorossiya” in order to stress that this territory was historically close to Russia and lacked any ties with Ukraine.

The term “Novorossiya” originated in the eighteenth century. On the territory of what is now eight regions of present-day Ukraine (including Crimea, but without the Kharkiv region) the New Russia Governorate (gubernia) was founded. It was part of the Russian Empire. The name Novorossiya was not used since the Bolshevik Revolution until the year 2014.

However, the expansion of the Russian Spring was met with unexp

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ected opposition.

“Novorossiya? But no such thing exists. I haven’t seen their passports,” says Oleksij from Dnipropetrovsk. “Here we support Ukraine,” he adds.

Before the Maidan, the annexation of Crimea, and the pro-Russian demonstrations in Donbas, such opinions were hardly heard. Instead of mobilizing Ukrainian society against the authorities, the Russian Spring only reinforced their sense of being Ukrainian.

Victory Day in Kharkiv 

Every year on May 9, on the anniversary of the Third Reich’s surrender, Ukraine celebrates its National Day of Victory and Freedom, commonly known as Victory over Fascism Day. Every year there are grand parades during which in many Ukrainian towns the achievements of Soviet ancestors are remembered.

On May 9, 2014, in Kharkiv the commemorations began at Glory Memorial. Mykhailo Dobkin, at that time a regional governor known for his anti-Ukrainian views, laid flowers there to pay tribute to the veterans of the Great Patriotic War. There were speeches and a parade. At Glory Memorial a crowd of several thousand people were commemorating veterans’ heroic struggles and were not embracing the Russian Spring (as some tried to depict it). Communist flags were not in the majority, and I could see only one that was Russian. The representatives of pro-Russian organizations—the Party of Regions, Borotba, and the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine—pushed their way toward the front rows. However, Ukrainian symbols predominated. The soldiers were marching. These were the veterans of the Second World War. Many of them were invalids with tons of medals and some had them hanging from their entire torso. Bystanders were handing them flowers. Although this holiday is celebrated every year, many had tears in their eyes and almost all of them were bursting with pride.

It is only after the official celebrations that several hundred people lined up again in front of the Memorial and unrolled a huge ribbon of Saint George. This is a symbol commemorating Victory Day and is used currently by pro-Russian demonstrators who want to prove that they are fighting fascism like their grandfathers. Every now and then the demonstrators were shouting “I thank Grandpa for victory!” The veterans showed up, too, but it was only a small number from among those who gathered around Glory Memorial during the official festivities. There were about twenty of them. They carried portraits of Stalin and General Zhukov, a brilliant strategist who was widely revered in the Soviet Union.

The march headed toward Freedom Square, one of the largest squares in Europe, to end up at the monument of Lenin, a traditional site of pro-Russian demonstrations. Nobody interfered and there were very few police.

Numerous security forces had gathered near the State Regional Administration building. The police standing in front of the entrance had shields. Inside the building you could see people with shotguns. Not so long ago the mayor of Kharkiv, Hennadiy Kernes, was leading the pro-Russian demonstrations. During one of them, on March 1, an angry crowd entered the building and brutally assaulted almost one hundred participants from the local Maidan. One of the most popular Ukrainian writers, Serhiy Zhadan, was injured. He is an anarchist, but he didn’t have any doubts which side of the barricade he should stand on.

Now Kernes has changed sides and was doing everything he could to discourage the crowd from taking over the building or inciting a riot. Although along the march route there were very few police, there were many on the square. Several thousand had been summoned to the city.

I was wearing a light bulletproof vest under my sweatshirt. After the events in Kiev, Donetsk, or Odessa I knew I could expect anything. Clashes can begin at any moment. “You don’t need it here. Everything is under our control,” a policeman reassured me. As it turned out, he was right.

As soon as that march was approaching the Lenin monument, a new one was forming, this time organized by the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU). Like its equivalents on the former Soviet Union’s territory, the CPU combines chauvinism, conservatism, and anti-Western sentiments with nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Before the Maidan protesters in Ukraine began their action of mass demolition of statues of Lenin, it had been the CPU members who were putting up tents around them to make sure that the Comrade was sleeping peacefully. From way back they have been organizing all the holiday celebrations associated with the past before 1991. They have been the loudest in opposing integration with NATO and the European Union. Although at the same time that they present themselves as the closest friends of “the proletariat,” without batting an eye they have accepted laws that can be described with many phrases but “in the interest of ordinary people” is not among them. During the Russian Spring they chose “the proletariat,” too. Their tents are standing in Donetsk, Luhansk, and other Donbas cities. Frequently, their activists have become involved personally in the actions of the separatist governments. Right after Victory Day, on the orders of the Parliament, the Prosecutor’s Office looked into their activity. May 9 was their last day to show off.

Several thousand people have joined their march. When security forces refuse to let a motorcade into a closed street, a light shoving match with the police takes place. Dozens of men are charging, as a result of which a police officer falls to the ground, and the cars drive through.

When the demonstrators get to the German Honorary Consulate, a group of people are screaming: “We will burn Berlin again.” They are joined by a musical band and the parade is led by people with the banner: “No to fascism and nationalism.”

Despite apparent success the demonstrators are dispersing in a hurry. They are announcing that there won’t be any referendum in two days (as in Donbas), nor ever. Since that day nobody has seen any federalists or separatists in Kharkiv. Clearly, you can’t get anything more out of the “defenders of the Russian-speaking population.” Thus the pro-Russian demonstrators have lost a crucial piece of their southeastern puzzle.

How to Disarm a Separatist 

Dnipropetrovsk. It is an important arms, space, and business center (the majority of Ukrainian banks have their headquarters right here). According to Maryna, a local activist, taking over the southeastern Ukrainian territories will be profitable for Russia only if they include the Dnipropetrovsk region. Unlike Donbas, for example, it is a net contributor to the Ukrainian budget. However, the pro-Russian demonstrators had to forget quickly about Dnipropetrovsk being their banking capital.

Demonstrations against the new government and for integration with Russia started here at the beginning of March. On March 1 a meeting of several thousand people took place. Its participants placed flags of Soviet Ukraine and Russia on the City Council building. One of the meeting’s organizers was the Union of Soviet Officers, whose members showed up with a banner: “In memory of those who died for the motherland and the Soviet government—be worthy of them.” There were no incidents. Just one man began to destroy candles and flowers laid by Euromaidanists on the pedestal of the statue of Lenin—only his shoes were left after the monument was sawed off—to commemorate those who died during the protests.

During this and subsequent demonstrations people expressed their approval of Crimea’s annexation to Russia (but not in such numbers anymore). There were no attempts to take over any administration buildings. Unlike in Donbas, here both the police and the new regional authorities acted decisively. Oligarch Igor Kolomoyskiy immediately and forthrightly declared himself on the united Ukraine side and together with his coworkers did his best to keep the situation under control. It is interesting that before the Maidan, Kolomoyskiy was regarded as an opportunist. Now he became a national hero. On the Internet you can find an altered poster of Captain America showing Kolomoyskiy holding a shield with a trident. The poster is titled “The First Avenger.”

Kolomoyskiy likes to parade in a black T-shirt decorated with red lettering that spells out “Yido-Bandera” and a menorah combined with a trident. In this way he refers to his Jewish roots and his patriotism, and he makes fun of Russian propaganda that depicts Ukrainian nationalism as frightening. This oligarch is the biggest sponsor of the Jewish community in Ukraine. He is well connected in Israel, thanks to which, according to some sources, he has access to consultants from its intelligence agency.

When I arrived in Dnipropetrovsk in May I had the impression that I had come back to Kiev at the times of the Maidan. Many residents were wearing blue-and-yellow ribbons. I am walking through the city. Some kids are riding bicycles with blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags. They are circling around the fallen Lenin. Above their heads, among the ads on the outside walls of the shopping center, a jumbotron is flashing Ukrainian and European flags. Every now and then the anthem is played. A little further there are three boys—two with drums, one with bagpipes. When they finish the anthem, the passersby are shouting, “Glory to Ukraine.” Nobody is booing, nobody is making sarcastic comments.

Here life takes its usual course. Dozens of residents and visitors spend their free time walking along the river. “It is peaceful here and I hope it

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will stay this way,” says Vitalij. Like other residents, he is afraid that the military conflict will arrive here, too, but he unambiguously opts for Ukraine. He is grateful to the oligarch who has seriously protected the region from the conflict.

In Dnipropetrovsk they found a unique way to to “disarm” the separatists: they were invited to join in. “If we work with the separatists, they won’t unite and they won’t reach for arms,” says the vice governor and businessman Boris Filatov, closely associated with Kolomoyskiy. The Union of Soviet Officers even got an office in one of the administration buildings. Other groups were neutralized in a very simple way: they don’t have time for political activity because they are involved in practical and useful causes. Some take care of the monuments, others get access to athletic facilities and run sports classes. In the end, the pro-Russian organizations lost their enthusiasm for fighting to join Russia.

But while promoting collaboration, they didn’t ignore real defense. Thanks to Kolomoyskiy’s backing and financial support (reluctantly acknowledged by the authorities), the infrastructure necessary for newly formed units was created very quickly. “Patriots were guaranteed the best conditions,” claims Filatov. The National Defense Headquarters was established in the administration building. That’s where people who are interested can find out how and what to join: the Defense Ministry (the army) or the Interior Ministry (National Guard and police). As a result, volunteer battalion Dnipro-1 and territorial defense units were formed. What is more, volunteer battalion Donbas is carrying out exercises on the border of the Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk regions. The volunteer battalions have been dubbed “little men in black” in response to the Russian “greens.”

Apart from supporting these units, Kolomoyskiy is in charge of other activities. Taking advantage of his eccentric image, the oligarch offered a ten-thousand-dollar reward for delivering “a Muscovite”—a “green man” captured on Ukrainian territory. The money is paid by his PrywatBank. The vice governor explains that this is not about people but about illegal arms. There are also cash rewards for any kind of weapons. These rewards are higher than the market price of an ordinary automatic rifle. Since the separatists started to rob arms warehouses, you can find guns everywhere and get them without any problems. A stack of dollars is presumed to persuade chance owners to part with military equipment. “If some people are willing to pay for war, we will pay for peace,” says Filatov.

From Donetsk to Dnipropetrovsk, I was going by train. My journey lasted more or less two hours. However, I had the sensation that I had crossed hundreds of kilometers only to find myself in a different country. I don’t know if I can find anything in common between these two cities. This demonstrates, according to Filatov, that “Novorossiya” is just an invention of the Russian Federation. Each of the eight regions that supposedly belong to it is completely different. If you can compare Dnipropetrovsk to any other Ukrainian city, it would be to Odessa, both ethnically and economically. “That’s why a repetition of events from Odessa, and never from Luhansk, was possible here,” Filatov explains.

Federalist Mishmash 

Although the separatists made themselves at home in only two of the eight regions in southeastern Ukraine, Russia and its supporters have not changed their rhetoric. Commenting on Ukrainian events, Vladimir Putin would refer in his speeches to the entire territory. Then he would talk directly about Novorossiya, demonstrating thereby how little he cares about Ukrainian statehood.

It is worth remembering that Ukraine has been “divided” from the moment of its independence. Intellectuals were arguing about how many Ukraines actually exist, about a common history and language. Politicians were happy to stir up these discussions, because taking over “the largest Ukraine” makes electoral victory possible. It was particularly visible during the presidential elections when the fiercest battles were fought between the “representatives” of western and eastern Ukraine. When they wanted to provoke especially stormy discussions, they would bring up some question of language and history. These were the causes of protests, clashes, and assaults. It was always a perfect pretext to avoid a discussion about the oligarchs, for example.

The Kiev Maidan tried to go beyond this usual pattern. It has been stressed many times that some of its participants were Russian speakers. Nobody on the stage needed to point this out. It was enough to walk around a bit on that Kiev square to hear Russian. All this was destroyed. The question of language returned like a boomerang and is another weapon used to fight Ukraine. One of the first attempted parliamentary actions after Yanukovych’s flight was to cancel a controversial language law according to which some regions could apply for recognition of a second official language. This law, which had been adopted by the politicians from the Party of Regions in June 2012, stirred up some outrage in Ukraine. There was concern that it might lead to a total displacement of Ukrainian from the regions in which Russian was predominant.

It is mid-April 2014. I am standing in front of the occupied Regional Administration Building in Donetsk. It is not the first time that somebody is trying to convince me that Russian-speaking citizens are discriminated against locally. One man has just told me how the Parliament tried to cancel the regional language. “It proves that we are discriminated against here,” he claims. To him it doesn’t matter that the law voted for by the Party of Regions is still in force, since the acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, has not signed its cancellation.

The federalists were thereby also joined by those to whom “federalization” meant equal language rights for the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine. Occasionally, this led to absurd situations. In some pro-Russian demonstrations, a crowd with Russian flags would be shouting: “Russia, Russia, Russia,” while a large number of participants only wanted Kiev “not to discriminate against” Russian speakers. “I don’t want to be in Russia at all,” a woman in the crowd tries to convince me.

So We Could Have Some Food 

The essential problem that both sides—pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian—are struggling with is, first of all, the passivity and deep distrust felt by the Donbas residents. Those who go out and shout and sporadically get involved in some activity (from voluntary work to military actions) are just a tiny sliver of the six and a half million regional residents.

These sentiments were depicted by the Donbas writer Olexij Chupa in his book The Homeless of Donbas . When a homeless man who cannot cope with his life is asked what he believes in, he replies: “I only believe in a Kalashnikov. With it you can solve all the problems of government and society… . My own problems I’ll handle on my own.” Many residents of Donbas I have talked to convey the same message. Fortunately, it is just talk. Later on, they all go back to their everyday life and try to make both ends meet. Even the war doesn’t move them emotionally. If necessary, they don’t hesitate. They pack up their things and leave. They abandon their cities, towns, and villages to their fate. Their complaining begins during their wandering. “What can I do? I’m not interested in politics. I just want peace,” I hear in Mariupol from Taras, a refugee from Donetsk. If need be, he will pack up again and go somewhere else. What he hopes for most, however, is that his city will finally be peaceful and that he will be able to forget and go about his own business. One of the protagonists from Chupa’s book says: “It is not in the style of Donbas residents to define themselves as people of a particular nationality. They have other concerns, expectations, and therefore, other needs.” People have complained forever, and not only here. They have had reasons to do so. Oligarchization, corruption, and failing industry made their lives miserable. According to Chupa’s protagonist, people in Donbas describe themselves mainly by their occupations. They are electricians, plumbers, or drivers.

I met Larissa and Vasily in a suburban train, called an elektrichka . Larissa speaks surzhyk , a mix of Ukrainian and Russian. There are different versions of it. In her case, Ukrainian is dominant.

“I told her to stop talking like that, because it only causes problems,” says her husband, Vasily, in Russian.

“Once I was talking to somebody in front of the church and a woman shouted at me that I was a Banderite,” she laughs.

We traveled together most of the way, so I learned the entire history of their family since the tsarist era. They were talking like crazy, and I was thinking about current events, so I just pretended to listen. Finally, we came back to modern times. “Ukraine? No, I have nothing against it. It is important that they pay out our pensions and that there is peace,” asserts Vasily. However, if the Russian border suddenly moved two hundred kilometers, they wouldn’t pay any attention. Well, unless the new authorities stopped paying the welfare benefits or lowered their amount. Then they would get mad and sling mud at the new government while sitting in the kitchen. For the time being, Kiev is paying every penny, so they don’t worry.

For some a call for integration with Russia awakened nostalgia for the old days, when all the factories were working, a shared poverty

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didn’t arouse anger, and food was always to be found one way or another.

When in April 2014 I was going to the press conference organized by the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, I ended up by chance in a taxi with local journalists. All of them were grumbling about the present situation. There was an elderly woman next to the driver. It turned out during the conference that she had placed herself on the stage, instead of sitting together with the journalists, and nobody knew why. A man who was sitting next to me in the backseat would be recording the faces of all the participants on his phone, just in case, just to know whom you are dealing with. When he hasn’t liked a question from a Western journalist, he will laugh loudly so the entire audience can hear him. He will energetically react to Ponomarev’s every word.

For the time being, however, we are sitting in the taxi. My travel companions reflect on how it was before and how it is now. “In the past we lived in a big country and what is it now? Industry has been declining for many years and there are no jobs. A ‘worker’—this word used to carry pride and now it is despised,” a man in the backseat is almost shouting. It is not only people over fifty who miss the Soviet Union and trust Putin as they used to trust Stalin.

Not far away, in Kramatorsk, I talk to Vladimir. He is over thirty and comes from the Donetsk region. He used to serve in the army and now is a militant of the Donetsk People’s Republic. He came from Slovyansk to take over a police station because the residents “called” for help. Who exactly? We don’t know. A small group occupying the City Council building had not enjoyed great popularity. In this respect, Kramatorsk is very different from Slovyansk. Nevertheless, Vladimir is convinced that it is they who will save people from the “bloody junta” and its geopolitical yearning. “There is no place for me in the European Union. Our culture and mentality are closer to Russia. In my heart I am a Soviet man,” he says. Although he couldn’t have been in the Soviet army, his military jacket is decorated with a red star.

During the referendum in Donetsk I meet twenty-year-old Ira and her boyfriend. They are dressed in fashionable clothes. You can meet a couple like them in any European city. They have just left one of the very few polling stations where voting was taking place. “Have we voted? Sure thing,” declares Ira in a firm voice. They certainly voted for independence. The opponents of the illegal referendum didn’t participate. Staring at her smartphone screen, she says that life is better in Russia, with a real president, not like here. Putin is the epitome of goodness and a leader who takes care of his people. For her, the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic is a step toward a better future, toward Russia.

The subject of the European Union pops up in many conversations. The Union is something incomprehensible, distant and hostile. That’s why they don’t want it. They are afraid that it will bring poverty to Ukraine.

“How are you doing in that Union? Very badly?” asks a taxi driver who was taking me around Slovyansk.

A series of questions follows: about prices, apartments, cars, gasoline, corruption, and life in general.

“Here it won’t work anyway. A different mentality,” the driver cuts it short.

Freedom for the Cutlet 

First of all, Donbas feels it is ignored. Its residents are complaining that nobody cares about their problems and the politicians in power don’t represent them. They are not convinced by the argument that from 2010 to the beginning of 2014 Ukraine was actually ruled by a Donetsk clan.

Viktor Yanukovych was born in Yenakiieve, sixty kilometers northeast of Donetsk, and he was attached to this region all his life. In the 2010 elections his mass support came from Donbas. In the first round in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions 76 percent and 71 percent of voters respectively chose him. In the second round, when he faced Yulia Tymoshenko, his results were even better—90 percent and 89 percent. The minute he took over he started supporting his own entourage. Those who were close to the “family,” in other words the group of young businessmen connected to Yanukovych’s son, Oleksandr, quickly received a lot of tasty morsels. Their wealth was growing enormously. Oleksandr Yanukovych himself is the best example. Since the beginning of 2010, in only two and a half years, the value of his bank’s assets went up by 1240 percent. The corporation he owns won an infinite number of bids organized by the state. Oleksandr Yanukovych, an unimportant businessman, began to be among the most influential.

On his estate of three hundred hectares in Mezhyhirya, Viktor Yanukovych has collected almost everything a human being can think of, and a few other things that nobody but he would imagine: antelopes, a breadloaf made of pure gold, and a restaurant in the form of a ship.

“They want ‘their own’? Nobody has ever robbed us like our own,” Valentina comments on the so-called federalists’ demands. For her and for many Ukrainian residents, the name Yanukovych still brings bad memories. For others he wasn’t that bad, because there was order under his rule. “He could have simply dispersed this entire Maidan, so we would be left alone,” explains Sasha, a young man from Kurakhove, several kilometers from Donetsk. He doesn’t support the separatists, but he doesn’t like the war either because prices are going up. “Look at the gas stations and the exchange rate for the hryvnia. Where should we get money for this? Yanukovych did a lot of bad things, but also some good things. When he was in power, I was earning money. Now I sometimes have nothing in the fridge.”

“Even if there weren’t any war, the economy would collapse anyway,” I try to convince him.

“Maybe,” he replies, but I can see that he hasn’t changed his opinion. So we change the subject to talk about the furrowed roads that even without the war look like they have been hit by missiles. On top of that, they were recently damaged by tanks. “You haven’t seen anything like that,” he says with a smile when we are hitting the bumps and bouncing.

For those who keep shouting about “hearing” what Donbas is saying, Yanukovych is a taboo subject. “What does Yanukovych have to do with this? ‘They’ are the ones who are in power,” says a man in Donetsk. I respond that they have been in power for a few months, and they have to deal with the war. How is it possible under such circumstances to stabilize the situation? “They should have thought about it before the Maidan,” he concludes.

It was the “voice of Donbas” that turned into the breeding ground for the so-called federalists. “We want the governors and the regional authorities to be elected by us,” says seventy-five-year-old Natalya from Donetsk. Gathering momentum, she throws in the judges. “We know these people better, so we know if they will be fit for the job. In Kiev they don’t have any idea about it,” she remarks. For several years who got named to power in Kiev was decided by representatives from Donbas, but she hardly pays any attention to this.

The myth that it is Donbas that feeds and supports Ukraine, that if it weren’t for them all the people would starve to death, makes this outrage even greater. Somehow, no one is asking what Ukrainians have been eating in recent months, when in many places in Donbas the harvest was impossible, transport was stalled, and the majority of the companies were closed by the separatists.

“Federalism” has become a slogan that somehow stuck to the residents, but nobody knew what was behind it. Usually, it was associated with Russia. “I am for federalization, that is—for Russia,” one man tells me, standing in front of the administration building in Donetsk. Others have seen a social question in it. Still others don’t know what to see in it, so they simply shouted. Yevhen Nasadyuk, a Donetsk journalist and theater director, tells me that during a pro-Russian demonstration in front of the administration building, some skirmishing with the police took place. The crowd started chanting: “Those in power have to respond” (Vłast k otvietu ). The first time, the second time. By the third time it sounded like “Power to the cutlet” (Vłast kotletu ). With smiles on their faces, the crowd kept chanting, unaware that they have just created one of the most interesting political slogans of the Russian Spring.


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“VLADIMIR VLADIMIROVICH, WE are a small provincial town in the Donetsk region that is under attack from fascists and imperialists of all kinds and nationalities. They kill our brothers and hurt our citizens. They carry on military actions against our people. Therefore I would like to turn to you, Vladimir Vladimirovich: I ask you to consider, as soon as possible, bringing in a peaceful military contingent that would protect peace-loving residents of the Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk regions from the aggression of Right Sector and the National Guard. They represent nothing but death. They want to turn us into slaves, they don’t talk to us but simply kill us.” Thus states the “people’s mayor” of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, during the press conference on April 20, 2014. On that day there had been a shooting at one of the militants’ checkpoints. The supposed attacker was the Right Sector.

I arrive in Donetsk in mid-April in the morning. From there I try to go f

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urther—to Slovyansk. You can buy tickets without any problems. The train is almost empty. There are a few people in the car: a married couple traveling to Dnipropetrovsk, three other journalists—two Belarussians and one Pole—and Maya, a forty-year-old supporter of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

“The train is not stopping in Slovyansk. The station is closed. The nearest stop is Krasnyi Lyman,” explains the conductor. He asks us if we want to go. Do we have an alternative? After all, it is easier to reach Slovyansk from Krasnyi Lyman than from Donetsk. This is important for the journalists. And it is easier to reach Kramatorsk where Maya is headed. From time to time Maya joins the conversation to tell us about the successes of the “volunteers,” whom she is enthusiastically cheering on.

“Not bad. They have taken the side of the nation,” she says, commenting on the news that part of a Ukrainian landing force has joined the separatists. Maya has no doubts that Donbas should become part of Russia. “This is our future,” she declares.

After three hours we get off the train in Krasnyi Lyman. We walk a few steps away when we hear the conductor shouting: “Things have changed, we are going to Slovyansk after all! Come back!”

We occupy the same seats again and drag on for one more hour. The entire trip from Donetsk to Slovyansk took four hours. The day before an express train had gotten there in an hour.

Slovyansk, with its population of slightly more than one hundred thousand residents, is a perfectly stereotypical post-Soviet city. It is ugly, gloomy, and totally uninteresting. What may make it distinctive are the nearby salt lakes that tourists seeking relaxation used to visit. Another distinguishing feature is Sviatohirsk with its Russian Orthodox monastery. It was made famous by Viktor Yanukovych who would go there to pray.

“When everything is peaceful, you have to go there. This is a wonderful place, but you only show the worst,” one of the residents encourages the journalists.

“We will definitely go,” I reply together with the other reporters, but it is very unlikely that we will go back to Slovyansk soon after all these events.

The city’s main public space, October Revolution Square, combines everything that represents the post-Soviet ideological mishmash. What stands out first is the Lenin monument. It isn’t as impressive as the monuments in other large cities. Lenin in Kharkiv is proud, with his chest stuck out and his arm stretched forward. Monumental, placed on a high pedestal with his head raised, he looks inspired. He convinces you that such a leader should be followed to the other end of the world. Lenin from Slovyansk is so… unsure. Nothing about him resembles an intellectual or revolutionary. He stands there in his flat cap and buttoned-up coat. He has one hand in his pocket. In the other hand he holds a piece of paper. He appears completely unremarkable. There is an Orthodox church on his right. Its golden cupolas are shining. It gives the impression of being the newest building on this square. There is the City Council behind Lenin—a huge modernist grey concrete lump, like so many others in the former Soviet Union.

The square is surrounded by places to eat and drink, shops, and banks. This concrete space is lightly garnished by a little bit of green and benches. Each bench has a small plaque attached with the information that it was sponsored by Deputy Oleksiy Azarov, the prime minister’s son. Thanks to Oleksiy the residents can also enjoy wireless internet. Of course, before you get connected, a window pops up and you know whom you should thank for this technological marvel. The icing on the cake is a brightly painted rooster in a glass coop standing on the square. On Independence Day in 2013 in Kiev this rooster represented the city during the rooster parade. Evidently, the city authorities liked it so much they decided to keep it. Now it proudly presents itself on the main square.

When I arrive in Slovyansk, I notice that a slight change has entered its usually monotonous life. The entrance to the City Council building is surrounded by sandbag barricades. A few “greens” are wandering around. Next to them a banner is hanging: “Popular Mobilization of Donbas.” The Ukrainian flag has disappeared from the edifice, replaced by the Russian. Only the flag of the Donetsk Region has stayed in place: a rising sun symbolizing Eastern Ukraine, black water standing for coal, and the Azov Sea in which sunbeams are reflected.

Barricades of sand, tires, and wood appeared on the nearby streets. Banners were hung on them: “Junta, get lost,” “Power to the people” and “We are against fascist occupation of Donbas.” The barricades were placed at the police station, the Security Service of Ukraine building on Marx Street where “greens” had their headquarters, and around the city. At each barricade people coming and going had their documents and car trunks checked.

“Chechen, the journalists have arrived!” a masked man at one of the checkpoints is shouting. He is calling the people who are standing on the side of the bridge. “Chechen” is approaching the car I’m in with two other media employees.

“Poland? You are our enemies,” says Chechen adjusting his rifle. After this not so nice introduction he lets us go free.

A group of residents has gathered at the nearby playground near the City Council. They are listening to the conversations between the journalists and the “volunteers,” trying to comprehend what is happening here. Armored personnel carriers with Russian flags arouse their confidence and admiration.

“Sir, could you pick up my kid? We’ll take a picture,” the child’s mother asks a guy in a balaclava holding a grenade launcher. He is sitting on one of the vehicles. He lifts the boy up, puts him on the carrier, and takes his hand. Somewhere else a “green” gives a rifle to a kid and they both pose for a picture, smiling.

You may get the impression that for the residents the separatists are some kind of traveling circus that has stopped in their city today. The separatists themselves help to create such an image: in the parking lot behind the City Council they are racing like crazy in their APCs. This show has attracted the most attention among the residents. Finally, one of the vehicles breaks down and the spectators leave the lot.

“We thank you boys!” says an elderly woman with tears in her eyes, when she sees the Russian flag. After posing for pictures, a few snapshots, and some chatting, people can go back to their daily routines. Although some people have gone home, social life in October Revolution Square is thriving. Every now and then somebody drinks beer from a large plastic bottle. Children are having fun on the playground. People are conversing as in the past, only the subject has changed. Now all of them are talking about the war. However, it is not clear who is fighting whom. With time—thanks to the Russian media—the narrative about a civil war will prevail. Donbas is fighting the rest of Ukraine.

New Orders 

On April 13 Afghanistan war veteran Vyacheslav Ponomarev informed the people who gathered on October Revolution Square that Slovyansk mayor Neli Shtepa had fled. That is why he decided to make the city his responsibility and proclaimed himself the “people’s mayor.” Soon it is clear that Shtepa didn’t go too far. She was arrested by the new “authorities.” Ponomarev claims there was no arrest, and that he simply offered Shtepa his “protection.” On April 15 the Ukrainian government initiated proceedings against Mayor Shtepa for supporting the separatists during their first attacks on the state buildings. Supposedly, the separatists stole twenty automatic rifles and four hundred pistols from the police station. At that time Shtepa was arguing that it had been local “volunteers” who did the raid.

“These are not some newcomers from Western Ukraine, but our own Donetsk boys,” she was telling the crowd gathered in front of the police station. She was also in support of the referendum on the independence of the two Donbas republics.

In an interview for Rossiyskaya Gazieta  meaningfully entitled “Obama, you should shut up,” Ponomarev explained Shtepa’s arrest in his characteristic style. “We decided to protect her, so she wouldn’t be kidnapped. However, her house is outside the city and we can’t leave our people there. So it was simpler to bring her here. She has good conditions—a toilet and shower. A hairdresser visits her and she is fed by her family. She has warm clothing. Everything is OK.” The problem with Ponomarev’s hospitality is that you can’t decline these “good conditions.” Even to take a short walk.

With time, the number of such “guests” will grow. A week after Shtepa’s arrest a journalist from Vice News , Simon Ostrovsky, was detained.

“This is not journalism,” Ponomarev was scolding Ostrovsky’s colleagues, when at the press conference they asked him about his whereabouts. Ponomarev’s press secretary, Stella Khorosheva, accused Ostrovsky of spying for Right Sector. In the interview mentioned above, Ponomarev explained the case more bluntly: “We need hostages. We need a bargaining card, you understand.” Ostrovsky was released after four days. A day earlier the US State Department asked Russia to pressure the separatists and help free an American citizen. However, there was no information on whether the journalist was swapped with somebody or released without a “trade.”

In the course of many interviews the Vice News  reporter affirmed that he had been beaten, his eyes covered and his hands tied. Later on, he was able to

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move freely in the areas where he was held. He seems to have seen other detainees there. Some were released quickly, others had to stay longer. Ostrovsky spent only four days at Ponomarev’s, but there were people who stayed there for several weeks. Unfortunately, they couldn’t count on such attention from the foreign journalists. The priority for these journalists was Ostrovsky. About the others only individual persons were sporadically asking timid questions.

The number of arrested quickly reached double digits. At the end of April the Ukrainian side issued a statement that in Slovyansk itself there were about forty hostages. At the press conferences, the “people’s mayor” replied that they had quite a lot of hostages. Ponomarev regularly “invited” journalists, either for a short talk or for hours. Occasionally, they were searched. Their equipment was returned, but bulletproof vests and helmets—not always. In the majority of cases it was all about threats. After one conversation of this kind, an American journalist left at once and she wanted never to come back to the city. “I am persona non grata there,” she wrote from Kiev on Facebook.

On April 21 the media received information that three foreign journalists from Italy and Belarus were detained in Slovyansk. Although they were soon released, the authorities in Slovyansk decided to grab the opportunity.

“Give us your passports. We have to register you, so we will know that you have really been here. Otherwise, we won’t be able to help if somebody disappears,” says Khorosheva to a group of journalists. You can’t attend a press conference without registration, so you lose the only chance to talk to the self-proclaimed authorities.

As it very soon turned out, this was not about security. “We will check what you publish. We are observing the foreign media and we have come to the conclusion that many of you are lying. We are warning you. Those who will keep doing this will be forced to leave the city. That’s why we have written down your information and we will check up on you,” announces city counselor Viera Kubrechenko. Then she picked up a box and walked around the room to collect money from the journalists for the families of victims fighting the “Kiev junta.”

“You are supporting the fascists,” she growled at the Western journalists who refused to contribute. Only the Russians dropped money in the box.

“We have martial law and conditions are harsh,” explains Khorosheva. This argument justifies all the restrictions and repressions. That’s why the curfew from midnight to six in the morning was imposed. Anyone who is in the streets at this time can be detained. The new authorities thus gain a few hours to act with impunity, without film and photo cameras.

“We are expecting an attack,” warns Ponomarev. Actually, he does this every day. “According to our intelligence, today it is even more probable,” he reassures us.

The theater director Pavel Yurov and his colleague Denys Hryshchuk ended up in the Slovyansk cellars, too. On April 25 they came to Slovyansk for just a few hours. They had return tickets for Donetsk. Supposedly, the militants found Ukrainian national symbols in their belongings, so Pavel’s and Denys’s plans got a bit complicated. Instead of going home in the evening, they stayed till June. Letters from Ukrainian and Russian cultural figures didn’t help. When I asked Ponomarev what happened to them, he assured me that everything was fine and that he would provide more information after contacting their parents. Yurov’s relatives got in touch with the self-proclaimed mayor several times but didn’t find out anything from him: neither where Pavel and Denys were held, nor why they had been detained, nor when they would be released.

The hostages’ relatives had good reasons to be afraid. Right after “people’s authorities” appeared in Slovyansk and nearby Horlivka, a local politician from the Batkivshchyna Party, Volodymyr Rybak, went missing. On April 22 his tortured body was found in the river northeast from Slovyansk. His stomach was ripped open. The body of the second person found next to him could not be identified. Witnesses claim that they were tortured in the occupied Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) building in Slovyansk.

The SSU officers tried to detain a suspect in Rybak’s murder case. They went to Horlivka, but it was they who were detained. A group of armed men grabbed their weapons and took them to Slovyansk. Soon after their pictures were published. They are sitting tied to chairs without their pants. Their eyes are covered with bloody bandages. Their passports, IDs, badges, a pistol, and other documents are displayed on the desk. Ponomarev announced that he was ready to swap them for the “people’s governor” of the Donetsk region, Pavel Gubarev, who at night on March 6 was detained in his apartment by the special SSU unit Alfa.

As luck would have it, at the same time the pictures of the tortured officers appeared on the internet, a press conference was going on with the arrested observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) military mission. They had better luck.

The observers were detained on April 25 near Slovyansk, because they had not informed the “people’s authorities” that they entered the territory controlled by separatists. What is more, it was to their disadvantage that they were wearing civilian clothes, not uniforms. “These are NATO spies,” says Ponomarev. He repeats this accusation many times and is not bothered that one of the observers is an envoy from Sweden, not a member of the Alliance.

The observers are brought to the press conference in pairs, escorted by “volunteers” with rifles. The observers look well. They don’t exhibit any signs of beating, they are not filthy. They don’t even look tired. Ponomarev sits among the seven observers and an interpreter. He begins the conference. He doesn’t speak abusively, as he did earlier. There are no accusations of spying. He gives the floor to the observers. Initially, the chief of the OSCE mission, Colonel Axel Schneider, looks a little scared. Perhaps he thought that only Russian journalists would show up. It turns out, however, that the majority are representatives of European and American media.

“We are not prisoners of war, but only mayor Ponomarev’s guests,” says Schneider, and the “mayor’s” face brightens up with his characteristic mischievous smile. “We are treated in the best possible way, given the circumstances,” asserts the mission chief. Like other “guests,” the OSCE observers have no idea when they will be able to go home.

During the conference two Russian journalists, both women, showed off. Taking turns they asked the same questions, but in different forms. They wanted the observers to confess that they were spies. They were disappointed that they didn’t gather any sensational information.

As in the case of the SSU officers, Ponomarev announced that he would trade the observers for separatists arrested by the Ukrainian side. Nevertheless, he was not going to discuss this with the “Kiev junta.” The observers were to be rescued by diplomats from their own countries. Unfortunately, the process stalled and they were released only after eight days, when Putin’s envoy, Vladimir Lukin, arrived in Slovyansk.

Catch a Spy! 

The separatist authorities live in constant fear of spies and saboteurs. To confirm that their fears are justified, every now and then they catch some “saboteurs,” and it’s even better if they belong to Right Sector.

On April 20 the journalists were informed that there had been shooting at one of the separatists’ checkpoints near Bilbasivka village, less than twenty kilometers west of Slovyansk. Three local men were killed. When I arrived at the spot with other journalists, I saw two cars burned to the ground. What caught my attention were the license plates, which miraculously were not even touched by the fire and that looked brand new. The number of different kinds of shells indicated that serious shooting had taken place, but the bullet traces were hard to find. The whole situation seemed extremely fishy.

However, during the morning press conference the “people’s authorities” decided not to keep the journalists in suspense. They brought all the spoils that supposedly had been found in a bag near the cars when one of the nationalists fled the scene of the shooting. Three printouts from Google Maps showing the neighborhood, a train ticket, a driver’s license, a car registration, three bullets, and the red-and-black visiting card of Dmytro Yarosh, the Right Sector leader, are displayed on the table. The phone number on the card, as a matter of fact, does not work, all the journalists know that the organization uses a different e-mail address, and the other side of the card is in English. A photo of the visiting card immediately appears on the internet and in the coming days will become one of the most popular memes. “Look, here is their medallion. I couldn’t make it myself,” says Ponomarev, after having realized that the visiting card was an embarrassment. The metal medallion with the inscription “Right Sector” hangs on a blue-and-yellow ribbon. “You have no reason to distrust me. I am always honest with you,” he addresses the skeptical journalists.

All these items, in fact, can fit into a shoulder bag, supposedly lost by one of the fleeing nationalists. But what about the MG3 machine gun in perfect condition that is also sitting on the table? With a tripod, it weighs at least twenty-seven kilograms. How can you flee with this? This question remains unanswered.

This event took place on Eas

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ter Sunday, the same day Kiev was promising not to take any military action. Nevertheless, the self-proclaimed authorities and the Russian media presented the incident as breaking the promise. On top of everything, all three shooting victims were Slovyansk residents. The youngest was to celebrate his twenty-fifth birthday in two months, the oldest was fifty-seven. Pictures of the victims appeared the same day. They were placed on the City Council building and on the Lenin monument. Each picture was signed: “People’s hero.” Red roses were laid. Several people are standing near the monument in a group. A few women are crying.

“We feed Ukraine, we work hard, and they murder us. How can it be?” says one of them.

Funeral celebrations took place two days later. People were gathering on the main square in front of the Orthodox church, altogether perhaps two or three hundred people. More had been expected.

Three buses pull over in front of the church with a coffin in each of them and a picture on each windshield. When the coffins were taken out, the crowd stood there in silence. Finally, a woman shouted: “Glory!”

“Glory, glory, glory!” responded the crowd. There are more and more slogans directed against nationalism. Then it’s time to focus on the media.

“On this occasion, we would like to ask the media to present the truth,” an elderly man is shouting through a megaphone.

“Truth, truth, truth,” the crowd is responding. Some discussions begin and the conclusion is that foreign media are not needed. Of course, with the exception of the Russian media that are doing a great job, according to the separatists’ sympathizers. It is only the Ukrainian media that are even worse than the foreign ones.

“Look, what they are saying there. These are pure lies,” a man standing in front of the church tries to convince me.

Dual Power 

Stella Khorosheva, Ponomarev’s press secretary, is usually the first representative of the “people’s authorities” that journalists meet. She is forty-eight. When I see her for the first time she is wearing a grey jacket, a white blouse, and jeans. She has grey hair and glasses. Her phone is ringing all the time and she never silences it. She writes poetry and lives in Italy. She supports Forza Italia and Silvio Berlusconi. She came to Slovyansk only when the Russian Spring had already taken Crimea. She still has a lot of connections in Italy, so she tries to stir up public opinion there. She sometimes boasts about her articles on Facebook. At each press conference she moves around the room, darting and talking. She seems very chaotic. You realize very quickly that you shouldn’t ask this person any questions because she is always the last to know anything.

After the morning press conference with Ponomarev, together with other journalists who have just met the “mayor” I go to the barricade near the SSU building. “Greens” want to show off another Ukrainian nationalist who was captured. He supposedly has a list of colleagues’ phone numbers.

“Call and talk to them,” one of the “greens” encourages him. When the nationalist (from Right Sector, of course) stammers, a man in uniform prompts him about what to say. Another whispers to the Russian journalist and asks her to make the nationalist’s statement more precise.

But before the show begins Khorosheva turns up. She looks for something.

“Excuse me, what is Ponomarev going to do at twelve? Unfortunately, I have not heard what he was saying at the conference,” she says at last, turning to one of the journalists. She finds out that the self-proclaimed mayor is about to meet with the special observation mission of the OSCE. Then she tries to enter the space between the barricades. One of the “greens,” however, stops her.

“What are you looking for here?” he asks.

“I am Ponomarev’s press secretary and I have to get there,” she points toward the SSU.

“I am sorry, but you can’t pass,” the armed man says to end the conversation, and Khorosheva walks away toward the City Council.

At the same moment a question I had been asking myself since my arrival in Slovyansk came back to me: Who is in charge here? Who exercises control over whom? The City Council over “greens”? Or perhaps “greens” over the City Council?

Right after my arrival in the city I addressed this question to Anatoly Khmelovy, a former parliamentary deputy and presently the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine.

“‘Greens’ do not control the City Council, nor does the City Council control ‘greens,’” Khmelovy told me. I notice very quickly that it wasn’t a truthful answer. The City Council totally defers to Ponomarev. Undoubtedly the majority of its members believe in the legitimacy of his actions. If someone was of a different opinion, he would keep it to himself, because his career could come to an end very quickly. Here nobody has ever heard about brave people who would oppose the “people’s power.”

“Please, have a look, everything is working fine,” the mayor kept boasting about the order in the city.

Black hoodie with the ribbon of Saint George attached, black polo shirt, black cap, and jeans—this is Ponomarev’s typical outfit. From time to time you can see him in uniform. He often covers or hides his left hand with its missing index finger. He is forty-nine, but very little is known about his past.

He is a retired soldier. He claims that during Soviet times he served in northern Russia. It is possible that he participated in special operations. As some Russian media maintain, after the fall of the Soviet Union he was selling cars to Russia and was the manager of a garment factory. The residents who don’t support his activities allege that in reality he was dealing drugs. This is a popular enough business idea in Slovyansk. That’s why in April the militants paid a call on the local Roma households. People who were unsympathetic to the mayor said that the basis for this was not racism but business. Therefore only a few Roma families met with repression. Ponomarev himself says very little about the 1990s.

“What did I do before the conflict? I was a co-owner of the soap factory,” he describes his last job. As he points out, he is a simple man, who is not afraid of any work. If need be, he is ready to fight alongside the rank-and-file militants. Was he a popular figure in Slovyansk? No. Before he proclaimed himself the “people’s mayor” hardly anybody had ever heard of him.

Although Ponomarev is the only one who can count on the support of “greens,” he doesn’t command them. He is a pawn. It is not at the City Council building that you can find all the military equipment, but at the SSU headquarters. This means that the command center is there. The journalists’ access to this facility is very limited. You can enter Marx Street only during the “presentation” of captured nationalists or for an interview with some high-ranking officials. I have managed to talk to more or less fifty-year-old Evgeny Gorbik twice.

“What did you do before the war?” one of the journalists asks him during the “presentation.”

“I was an entrepreneur,” Gorbik replies.

“In the region?”

“You might say so.”

The second time, I showed up with a Crimean photographer. Then “You might say so” got a more precise geographical location.

“You are from Crimea? I am from there, too,” Gorbik addressed my companion very cheerfully.

When on April 26 the representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic came to Slovyansk, they didn’t call on Ponomarev but instead went to the SSU. It was the first time Igor Strelkov appeared on the Donbas scene. It was his first press conference. Soon after he was interviewed by Komsomolskaya Pravda . Unlike Ponomarev, he never takes off his uniform.

Strelkov took part in the occupation of Crimea and from there he came to Slovyansk. According to him, he was persuaded by the soldiers from his unit, who for the most part were Donbas residents. But not only, he emphasizes: in his unit there are people from Crimea and other Ukrainian regions, and one-third of them don’t have Ukrainian passports at all.

According to the information published by the SSU, his real name is Igor Girkin, he is forty-four and he is an officer of the Russian intelligence agency—GRU. On the other hand, he claims to be a former officer of the Federal Security Service (FSB), now retired. This gets some confirmation by Ponomarev, who would say that they had known each other for a long time and that they were both pensioners.

In 1992 the first serious military operation took Girkin to Transnistria. Later on, he visited Yugoslavia, Chechnya, and other Russian regions, where, among other things, he was involved in antiterrorism actions. When he isn’t traveling, he lives in Moscow. He has been a keen reenactor. Word has it that in one of the reenactments of the battle of Grunwald he appeared as a Ruthenian knight.

His job was to unite the separatist forces. There is a lot of anarchy among the “volunteers,” claims Girkin. Before he came out of obscurity, the cities in the Donetsk People’s Republic were, in principle, functioning as separate entities.

“Coordination here is very weak. A lot of different political forces are active here,” the Communist Khmelovy explains. It is Girkin’s job to fix this, so that the “referendum” would be possible.

Strange Operation 

On April 24 some other journalists and I had an interview set with Ponomarev in the morning. At the appointed hour the security doesn’t let us into the town hall. Stella Khorosheva, his press secretary, cannot leave her house because, as she puts it, “she was stopped by the internet.”

“I am coming,” she calms us dow

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n when we call her, but after almost an hour she is still not there. We wait on a bench, resigned, understanding better with each minute that nothing will come of this.

“OK, twenty minutes more and we’re leaving,” says one of the journalists.

When for the last time we attempt to meet Ponomarev and walk toward the guards stationed in front of the City Council, we hear wild screaming. Crying at the top of her voice, an elderly woman in a reflective vest and with a broom in her hand is rushing toward the building. Incoherent sounds turn into separate words.

“Help! They are murdering us!” Tearful, she approaches the building.

“Where are all those men with weapons? Help! Why are you even here?” she shouts. “Greens” look at her with surprise, but they don’t react.

“My family has called me from a nearby village. Shooting is going on there. A few people are dead,” she sobs.

Finally the “people’s mayor” comes out in a hurry. He is accompanied by two armed men in uniform.

“She is a provocateur,” he says softly. The woman is taken to the City Council. Once again she is screaming: “they are murdering, help, do something!”

We decide to check it out. When we run to the hotel to get the equipment, we meet the press secretary, “taken away from the internet.” We try to find out something. Without any luck. It is she who asks us what is happening.

We are going Khrestishche village, north from Slovyansk. Already from several hundred meters away you can see huge clouds of smoke, black as tar. The separatists burned down their checkpoints when they saw Ukrainian forces approaching. Burning tires created a circle of fire. With every gust of wind you can feel waves of heat. When I cross the wall of smoke, I see what has scared the separatists. APCs are approaching from the north. There are about ten of them, some have Ukrainian flags. Some are taking the road, others are moving toward us through the fields. They are accompanied by special units and snipers. Helicopters are flying over our heads. This is not the only checkpoint that is in flames today.

“The antiterrorist operation may have started in earnest,” I tell my colleague.

Slowly, we approach the APCs. We show our documents to a man in uniform. He explains that they are a special forces unit.

“How long do we have to wait for you? We have been dragging along like this for half an hour,” he says with a smile, as if all this were a media event.

The APCs are slowly approaching the burning barricade. There is a car coming from the direction of Slovyansk. The soldiers are waving their hands, telling the driver to stop. He must have been spooked, so he is lurching left and right. Finally, a warning shot is fired.

“Halt,” shouts one of the soldiers.

The car stops and a man gets out slowly, with his hands up. The soldiers tell him to lie on the ground and they search him. He is clean, so they let him go.

In the end the APCs and the soldiers pass by the checkpoint. There is nobody there. Suddenly and out of nowhere an elderly man appears on a bike. He stands next to the burning barricades as if nothing has happened.

“What do you want?” asks a startled soldier.

“I want to get there, home,” he points westward.

“So go!” The soldier gives in.

Panic has broken out in the city. Just a few hours ago people were walking around and now the streets are completely deserted. Everyone is afraid that the Ukrainian forces will enter the city and regular combat will begin. There are no pedestrians. The city is patrolled by “greens” with rifles and grenade launchers. The shops closed in the blink of an eye. There is nobody near the SSU building. The separatists’ APCs patrol the neighborhood until nightfall.

When I come back to the checkpoint a few hours later, the Ukrainian soldiers are gone, and the checkpoint has been taken back by the separatists again. The former simply disappeared without any struggle. A “green” is trying to convince me that Right Sector has been here. He claims they are ready to fight off an attack, although they only have old rifles, a few grenades, and some Molotov cocktails. They are probably the ones who took to their heels when they saw Ukrainian forces moving toward them. They are safe now, so they can show off how fearsome they are. Their men have noticed that the Ukrainian forces withdrew toward Izium in the Kharkiv region. The headquarters of the antiterrorist operation is located there.

“Probably about a hundred Spetsnaz troops have stayed in the forest,” a “green” says.

Why did the Ukrainian forces leave their positions? As always, nobody knows. On this very day quite a few contradictory explanations emerged in regard to the events that had taken place northeast of Slovyansk. First came the leaks from the military sources. Supposedly, it was the threat of Russian intervention that halted the operation. Also on this day Russia began to hold its military exercises near the Ukrainian border (claimed to have been planned a long time before). Then, Viktoria Siumar, the deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, announced that stage one of the operation had just ended. Now the next stage was on its way—the siege of the city.

Defeats in the East 

That was the first “active phase” of the antiterrorist operation announced by the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council. After the Russian annexation of Crimea and the total lack of any opposition to the progress of the Russian Spring, Kiev desperately needed some sort of success. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov’s declarations that “the reaction will be very severe” were not taken seriously any more. He was dubbed the “Facebook minister,” because, as was commonly believed, he was active only there. The phrase “The Interior Minister has made information available on his Facebook page”—like the expression “The European Union is concerned about the situation beyond its eastern border”—became objects of ridicule.

It is necessary to demonstrate that the Ukrainian side controls the “rebellious” regions, even if it is a pure PR strategy. Ukrainian officials have made serious declarations. On April 13, Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov proclaimed that the Ukrainian state wouldn’t remain passive about events in eastern Ukraine. “We have done everything to avoid casualties, but we are ready to resist all attempts at invasion, destabilization and terrorist activities with weapons in our hands. The NSDC has made the decision to launch a large-scale antiterrorist operation using the Ukrainian armed forces. We will not let Russia repeat the Crimean scenario in the eastern Ukrainian regions,” declared Turchynov. Two days later he announced that the operation had begun in earnest. “On Tuesday morning the antiterrorist operation began in the northern part of the Donetsk region. It will be carried out gradually, responsibly and in a balanced manner, because its goal is to protect Ukrainian citizens,” he stated. One of the strangest of military operations had officially begun.

The first attempts to recapture Kramatorsk and Slovyansk ended in humiliating defeats for the Ukrainian forces, although the shooting was rather sparse. On April 16 near Kramatorsk six Ukrainian infantry fighting vehicles appeared. Their job was to retake the city. However, city residents showed up, got in their way, surrounded the vehicles, and didn’t let them pass. As a precaution, they blockaded the road with a marshrutka , a private minibus. Standing by the vehicles, dozens of people are trying to convince the soldiers not to “shoot at their own.” This is absolutely sufficient for the soldiers to abandon their plans. According to the Defense Ministry, “representatives of Russian subversive and terrorist groups” instigating the local population were spotted among the blockaders.

It is interesting that initially the ministry claimed that no such an incident had ever taken place, and photos and videos were just “fakes.” But they could no longer be called a lie after a plethora of pictures and videos appeared in the media and on the internet. The Defense Ministry then admitted that the IFVs were from Kramatorsk and belonged to the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

“As a result of the siege extremists took over the vehicles and the convoy moved towards Slovyansk. At 3 p.m. the convoy approached one of the administrative buildings in the center of Slovyansk. Armed people in military uniforms are nearby, but they have nothing to do with the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” you could read on the Ministry’s Facebook page. But what happened to the soldiers? Nobody knows. The separatists were boasting that they had joined them, but judging by the fact that no Russian media managed to interview them, this was just wishful thinking. It is known, however, that the vehicles ended up in the separatists’ hands without any struggle.

While the confusion about the personnel carriers was going on, in Donetsk some armed militants from Oplot, a pro-Russian organization founded in Kharkiv, took over the City Council. Its employees were evacuated. Moments later in Yenakiieve, the birth place of Yanukovych, pro-Russian demonstrators captured the City Council, too, and detained its officials inside. Skirmishes broke out in Mariupol, when militants attacked a Ukrainian military unit. One person was killed and a dozen were wounded. In the end, the Ukrainian forces managed to hold on, but at that point the city was under the separatists’ control. According to Oleksandr Zakharchenko, a member of Oplot, the purpose of taking the buildings was to force the government in Kiev to organize a referendum about the status of the Donetsk region.

To save face, the Ukrainian authorities carri

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ed out the so-called stage one of the antiterrorist operation, which they considered a success. Getting Ukrainian checkpoints closer to Slovyansk was to be its accomplishment.

At the same time, Ukrainian forces were supposed to retake Sviatohirsk from the separatists, although when I had gone there two days earlier, the Ukrainian flag was there but not a single armed person. There was no published information that “ownership” had changed hands. So whom did the Ukrainian troops fight? Probably nobody. Kiev had joined the propaganda war started by the Kremlin. Without blinking an eye many Ukrainian journalists decided to give up accuracy for “righteousness.” The group who believes that “you can only win by telling the truth” is in the minority even today and has no impact on Ukrainian media accounts.

Fighting against Kremlin propaganda is a daunting task, if you consider the means, expertise, and structures at Russia’s disposal. In Ukraine the media represent the interests of their wealthy owners, but now the state has an exceptional opportunity to fit information to its needs. Ukrainian journalists soon lost the opportunity to visit the separatist-controlled territories, so they had to rely mainly on reports published by state organs that very often were simply false.

The Security Service of Ukraine announced that the separatists’ checkpoint on the road to Kharkiv had been captured. I decided to check this out. When I arrived I noticed that nothing had changed: separatists with rifles were controlling the traffic. When I approach them to find out what has happened here, I meet with the nervous reaction of a man in a Berkut uniform and police helmet. As I learned later, his nickname was “Lynx.” The same name was visible on his license plate of his car. Supposedly, Lynx served in the Ukrainian special forces.

“Who are you?!”

“A journalist from Poland,” I reply.

“Who sent you? Do you have a press pass?”

“What press pass?”

“From the SSU.”

In response I shook my head. Before I even uttered that such a thing didn’t exist, I heard:

“Sit here and don’t move. We saw how you presented the events on the Maidan. We don’t trust you.” He walked to our car with two photographers and a taxi driver inside. Meanwhile, I sat down next to two other armed “berkuts.” They were not eager to talk.

“You have my permission. You can do interviews and take pictures,” said Lynx when he realized that there was nothing interesting in the car. Once again I tried to find out something more about the allegedly captured post.

“Did any clashes take place here?”

“Two days ago, only not here, but a few kilometers away.” Lynx is talking about burning checkpoints near Khrestishche. “Today some Ukrainian personnel carriers were nearby, but they left. There was no fighting.”

Similarly incomprehensible events took place at the TV tower located between Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. The tower was, at least symbolically, a critical point in the information war between the two parties. The militants were disconnecting Ukrainian stations, and Ukrainians were disconnecting Russian stations. The tower would change hands, but without serious clashes. After disconnecting the opponents’ TV, soldiers would simply go away.

Leaky Blockade 

At last the Ukrainian forces began the blockade of Slovyansk. Checkpoints of the Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry forces were placed mainly north and west of the city. Journalists went there immediately, just to see whether it was true.

We have arrived at a checkpoint north of Slovyansk. National Guard troops, including snipers, police, and the armored carriers are stationed there. We are about to leave, when one of the policemen shouts, “Move over!”

A man dressed in black is walking toward the checkpoint. He is wearing a bulletproof vest and a strap across his shoulders. From the distance you cannot see what is attached to it. “It’s a machine gun,” claims one of the policemen and instantly the atmosphere gets tense. What was hardly visible, too, was the press ID, partially covered by his shoulder strap. It soon turned out that he was a journalist from Russian LifeNews who had decided to “pay a call” to the police.

“Please, stop!” shouts the uniformed man. The journalist keeps walking. After the next warning he stops and… kneels down. The officers approach him and check his documents. When it becomes clear that there was no gun attached to his strap but just a regular bag, they let him stand up and he goes free.

Together with the other journalists who had been inspected at that checkpoint I wondered what was the purpose of this incident. The explanation came a few hours later when LifeNews broadcast some footage shot by a cameraman who oddly enough had been standing a few hundred meters away from the checkpoint, recording the whole event. The viewers learned that the journalist had been forced to the ground to be denigrated, and threatened with a weapon, although “he was not doing anything illegal.” Indeed, the footage was edited in such a way that it looked like the “Kiev junta” officers were harassing the journalist only because he was Russian.

The blockade began on April 24, and the way it was carried out was rather peculiar. When I arrived in the city a week or so before the blockade, the situation was more peaceful, but there were no trains going through Slovyansk. Once the blockade began, they were running again. It turned out that, before the blockade, they had not been running because the separatists blocked the tracks. What for? Perhaps they were afraid that Ukrainian soldiers would be redeployed along this route.

Actually, life in “blockaded” Slovyansk didn’t change. All the shops were supplied as before and there were no problems with ATM machines and banks. In the restaurants you could order any meal from the menu. If someone didn’t have to leave the city, he wouldn’t even notice that something had changed. Even “greens” were less visible in the streets—either they were staying in their bases or they were dispersed on the outskirts. The only difference is the increased air traffic over the city. Leaflets are dropped from the helicopters. The residents are informed about the antiterrorist operation and warned not to aid “terrorists.”

“I wouldn’t touch them. People say they are contaminated,” one resident tells me, when I pick up a leaflet that has landed in a tree. It is a popular rumor spread by separatists that this is the way the Ukrainian forces want to finish off the locals. The militants eagerly shoot at the helicopters, occasionally bringing them down or damaging them.

The checkpoints of the Ukrainian forces blockading the city look very serious. They are not just some concrete blocks piled up at random and guarded by poorly armed men. There are armored personnel carriers, National Guard, and police units. They are all in defensive fighting positions. Every now and then the helicopters land, bringing provisions. But instead of actually blockading the city, they simply control the passersby. Anybody can move in and out of Slovyansk without any problems.

Slovyansk is a strategically important location, because it offers the easiest passage to the Kharkiv region. When Ukrainians deployed their forces there, the militants captured new sites in other parts of Donbas. In April and June in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions they took control in Alchevsk, Amvrosiivka, Antratsit, Artemivsk, Avdiivka, Druzhkivka, Dzerzhinsk, Khartsyzk, Komsomolsky, Kostiantynivka, Krasnoarmiysk, Krasnodon, Krasnyi Luch, Lysychansk, Makiivka, Mariupol, Novoazovsk, Pervomaysk, Rodinsky, Severodonetsk, Siversk, Stakhanov, Stanytsia Luhanska, Starobesheve, Sverdlovsk, and Zdhanov. In the majority of cases the cities and towns were captured without any fighting. Control over the Ukrainian-Russian border was given up, too, and this very abandonment will turn out to be the biggest tactical mistake of the Ukrainians.


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MAY 11, 2014. Some residents of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions decided to participate in the referendum. Its purpose is to “officially” bring into being two parastates: the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. Everything seems quiet and the voting is not interrupted by any incidents. However, when you go to the State Regional Administration occupied by the separatists and the Central Electoral Commission that they have established, you will understand that this peace is not completely spontaneous. Order is maintained by armed men, who seem to have multiplied since March. They don’t tolerate any opposition. Therefore, those who don’t vote stay at home or pack their bags to move to a more peaceful location.

“You must have a lot of confidence to defend the Ukrainian state,” a lady journalist tells me. She is right. Although separatists were in the minority, nobody stands in their way. It is probable that no one would have interfered with the referendum, even if its champions had not been armed. Since the fall of the Yanukovych regime, the Ukrainian state has not existed in Donbas.

People are queuing up in front of the very few polling stations. These are Donetsk residents who want to take part in the referendum. What will happen next?

“I don’t know,” replies almost every single person I ask. For many of them it is simply an opportunity to express their disagreement with Kiev’s politics, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they want their regions to se

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parate from Ukraine. They often talk about federalization, but in fact they would be happy with simple decentralization. They claim they want a stronger say in electing the authorities and that the referendum is a means to achieve this. And what about Russia?

“Those who want to join Russia must have been paid off,” says seventy-five-year-old Natalya on her way to the polling station to vote for the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Among the people who have already voted or are about to do so, there are some who believe that their choice is a step toward Russia. I hear this from quite a few Donetsk residents.

Up to the beginning of May it was not obvious if the referendum would take place at the appointed time. Its fate was uncertain until the very end, although it had been planned at the beginning of the pro-Russian events in Donbas. Even in mid-April the Communist Anatoly Khmelovy from Slovyansk maintained that there would be only one question: about federalization. Then it was said that the referendum would be about regional independence. At another point I heard there would be three questions: about independence, about joining Russia, and about remaining in Ukraine. In Donetsk there were rumors about two referenda. The former was to be about independence, the latter about joining Russia. In the end this project was abandoned.

“Here everybody wants to be part of Russia. This is one of the main slogans raised during the marches,” explains Myroslav Rudenko a few days after the referendum. He represents the self-proclaimed authorities and walks around in a T-shirt with the image of the “people’s governor” Pavel Gubarev on it. It’s true that you could hear this expression quite often during the demonstrations. But only a marginal group among the Donbas residents participated in the protests. After talking to them for a moment I realized that only a few of them actually wanted to become Russian citizens. Yet to the unrecognized authorities this is irrelevant, as is the Kremlin’s lack of full enthusiasm for incorporating Novorossiya into the Russian Federation.

The separatists instantly rejected Kiev’s proposal to organize an all-Ukrainian referendum on federalization. (According to Ukrainian law, a referendum can only be held on a nationwide basis.) In the beginning of April the Ukrainian Center for Public Opinion Research (Rejtinh) conducted a survey in which Ukrainian citizens (including residents of Crimea) were asked what kind of state Ukraine should be. The results: 64 percent of respondents opted for a unitary state, 14 percent supported federalization, 10 percent wanted a unitary state but without Crimea, and only 1 percent wished for Ukraine to break up into several states. In Eastern Ukraine the results were, respectively, 45 percent, 26 percent, 8 percent, and 4 percent. The research sample consisted of twelve hundred people. Later research can’t be treated seriously because the territories controlled by separatists were not included.

Crowds at the Voting Booths 

When at seven in the morning I walk to the polling station to watch the referendum, streets in Donetsk are almost empty, as they usually are on a Sunday. Apart from occasional trolleybuses moving at a snail’s pace, I don’t see any vehicles or people. The sun is rising slowly, heralding a pleasant day. When I arrive at the location it is a quarter to eight. All stations will open in fifteen minutes. This one, like many others, is situated in a primary school. People are gathering. Right now, there are twenty, but newcomers keep arriving.

Olha is among them. She is a doctor, about forty. “I couldn’t sleep. I was so eager for this vote,” she explains, excited. She claims that all her relatives and friends will take part in the referendum. Why? “Nobody wants to live with fascists.” That’s how she describes the advocates of a united Ukraine.

This opinion is shared by Valentina, Olha’s neighbor, who is a little older. She can’t say that her entire family is going to vote. Valentina’s relatives don’t live in Donetsk but in Kiev, and what is worse, they support the “fascists.”

“I don’t want to know them anymore, I have broken all contact,” she says frankly. Valentina’s behavior is not unusual. No Ukrainian conflict has ever shaken society as this one has. Many people like Valentina declare they will never speak with their relatives again because there is nothing to talk about. The proponents of a united Ukraine act in a similar manner. They don’t want to deal with those who take the Russian side. The champions of the Donetsk People’s Republic are nicknamed “the zombified,” which means made totally stupid by Russian propaganda. There are instances in which after a few months of silence somebody’s uncle or aunt calls from Crimea, Rostov, or the vicinity of Moscow. They have simply packed up and left, without notifying anybody. They believe that in Russia and in occupied Crimea war will not happen.

At eight o’clock the station is still closed because two thousand ballots are not there yet. “They are coming,” explains Larisa, a member of the polling commission. She assures me that there is nothing to worry about because the commission is very experienced. Its members have been participating in elections organized by the Ukrainian state for many years. In fact, at first glance everything looks as if official elections are taking place, except for the missing ballots and the lack of Ukrainian state symbols in the polling station. When the delayed ballots finally arrive, the commission members start counting them immediately. They do it very quickly and the voting may begin.

Two see-through ballot boxes stand in the middle of the room. Such are always used in Ukraine to make elections more transparent. Because of this, however, people are under more pressure since it is very easy to see if a voter made the “correct” choice. The official forms for authenticating the vote—the protocols—have been dropped in the ballot boxes, then the boxes have been secured. On the right side there are voting booths where you can tranquilly answer a rather awkwardly phrased question: “Do you support the independence act of the Donetsk People’s Republic?” The commission’s tables are behind the booths. There you can find your address and get a ballot.

A few minutes after eight voting is finally possible. Fifty people, more or less, instantly come inside. They are of different ages, but elderly people predominate. The first ballots are dropping into the box.

“For, for, for, for,” I mumble. “Oh, there is one against.” I show it to a lady journalist standing next to me. In the polling stations that I visit the majority of voters have supported the independence of the Donetsk region.

In the afternoon crowds of people go out into the Donetsk streets. Most of them take advantage of the day off to have a walk with their family or to meet friends. Social life is blooming on Pushkin Boulevard in the city center. Waiters can’t complain about being bored. Families with children walk along the boulevard.

You can easily spot people who are not going to vote. “It’s a farce,” they sum things up. Nonetheless, they don’t want to talk to the media and they speak in low voices. This is not surprising. In May many pro-Ukrainian activists left the city because they feared for their lives. Their personal information was widely “distributed.” There were always people willing to denounce a “fascist.”

The indifferent majority of people want to live their lives and try not to pay any attention to what is happening all around them. Perhaps they are scared because not so long ago thousands of people with Ukrainian flags would take to the streets, shouting “Glory to Donbas, glory to the miners,” and now they are not there anymore. Demonstrators abandoned by Kiev and intimidated by the “people’s republics” keep to themselves at home or leave the city. The only Ukrainian politician I have met here is Oleh Lyashko, a populist from the Radical Party.

Oleksandr, a twenty-something casually strolling down Pushkin Boulevard, has not left yet. You can see from a distance that he doesn’t fit here. The referendum is not his thing.

“I am not taking part in this. It is a fraud,” he says loudly, although the polling commission is just some fifty meters away and the advocates of separatism are wandering around. “I want to live in a united Ukraine. If Donbas declares its independence, most likely I will move to the central or western part of the country,” he adds with self-confidence. For now, Donetsk means Ukraine, and Oleksandr, who graduated from college, has a job and is not leaving.

We didn’t have to wait too long for the ballots to arrive at the station, simply because they are reproduced, without any supervision, by the copying machines located in the Central Election Commission. In principle, all voters could come with their own ballots that had been printed out at home. The ballot template had been circulating on the internet for a while. The complete voting lists are missing, too. You can just bring your passport with a stamp proving that you reside in the Donetsk region and you can vote.

“There are many people who can’t vote in their own places or who work in Donetsk, so we have offered them this opportunity,” explains Larisa from the polling commission. Everything would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that those people can vote in every polling station, because nobody can possibly check if a particular voter hasn’t already voted somewhere else. With some ingenuity, even someone officially registered as living in Donetsk will be able to vote in several places without a

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Roman Lagin, the president of the Central Election Commission of the Donetsk Republic, claims that in Donetsk proper there are 118 polling stations and in the entire region there are 1,527. But it looks as if these numbers are made up. A day before the referendum I asked the separatists’ representatives if a list of the polling stations existed. They answered that it didn’t. Until the very end, as well, nobody knew the locations of the polling stations. Some Donetsk residents were completely lost. They would come to where voting used to take place in the past, but the polling stations were not there anymore.

“Where is a polling station?” a forty-something Donetsk resident is asking loudly. The passersby are trying to help him, but it turns out that they themselves don’t know where to vote either.

Thanks to the limited number of polling stations it was easier to create the impression of crowds rushing en masse to vote. Many journalists attended only the opening of the polling places. The most committed groups of voters were already waiting there. These were the avid champions of the Donetsk People’s Republic. The polling stations were open from eight in the morning to eleven at night. Later in the day the turnout was smaller. The ballot boxes were half filled, or even less.

“Seventy percent of the people have already voted here,” a member of one commission tries to convince me at five in the afternoon. The number of ballots in the boxes proves otherwise. In each station I hear stories about the successful turnout.

I ask Larisa from the polling commission if I can stay when the votes are counted. “Nobody can stay, not even observers, just the members of the commission,” she states with great satisfaction. According to her, this indicates that if the commission is left alone with the ballot boxes, the elections are honest. She has managed to throw me off guard, so I don’t ask another question.

Even Russia hasn’t sent any observers to the referendum. Voting in Donbas is monitored only by the supporters of the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Who Are These Fireworks For? 

The results are announced already, two or three hours after the referendum is over. They are presented during a press conference where Russian media and the media created by the separatists are especially well represented. According to Roman Lagin, the president of the Central Election Committee, 89.07 percent of the voters have supported the independence of the Donetsk region. The turnout was 74.87 percent. The highest turnout was in Horlivka and reached 96 percent. It is unclear, however, how they estimated the turnout so quickly if complete lists of voters didn’t exist. In the Luhansk region the separatists won even greater support. The people’s republic was favored there by 96 percent of the voters with a turnout of 75 percent.

The referendum took place without any serious incidents. Only in Krasnoarmijsk, located near the border with the Dnipropetrovsk region, did a curious event occur. Some armed pro-Ukrainian militants showed up and tried to stop people from voting. A group of outraged voters gathered quickly in front of the polling place.

“You have broken the referendum!” they shouted. When shoving started, one of the militants shot into the ground a few times. Ricocheting bullets killed one man and wounded another in the leg. The insurgents, disconcerted by the incident, left the city. It was clear they had planned to stay there much longer, because before the shooting they had taken over a police station to turn it into sleeping accommodations.

Yuriy, a local police chief, is well experienced in contacts with assorted militants. Since the beginning of the Russian Spring his police station has been captured three times. This time, however, it was not done by separatists. He claims that their cars had Kiev or Dnipropetrovsk license plates.

“We no longer have vests, helmets, and weapons. They were taken by the men who broke into the station first. Now, when the pro-Ukrainians showed up I could just spread my arms helplessly and tell them that I have only my shirt left,” he says. Because of this incident the referendum ended earlier, but still the local commission claimed a turnout of 70 percent, so its results were absolutely legal.

Except for this unclear incident that probably was the arbitrary action of some pro-Ukrainian group, Kiev took no measures to stop the “referendum.”

The separatists can now proclaim a huge success—Kiev has lost, at least for the time being. Everyone still remembers the “Crimean referendum” that was the last step before annexation by Russia. That’s how it is perceived by the most enthusiastic proponents of the Donetsk People’s Republic, who don’t seem to notice any difference in the questions posed. In Crimea people were asked about joining Russia, in Donbas they were asked about independence or autonomy (the Russian word can be interpreted in many ways). The Kremlin is more reserved in talking about the future of Donbas than it was in case of Crimea. It respects the results of the so-called referendum, but at the same time it doesn’t encourage breaking relations with Kiev. Instead, it pushes for dialogue.

In Donetsk the separatists’ success is hard to notice. The indifferent still live their lives and don’t pay any attention to what’s happening around them. The cautious decided it would only get worse later, so they packed up and left. Along with them many people with pro-Ukrainian views who had doubts until the very end said good-bye to Donetsk. The referendum was the symbolic end of opposition to the separatists. From now on nobody will dare challenge them.

The day after the referendum the separatist authorities decided to celebrate independence. In the evening a round of fireworks was fired from the administration building. The cannonade lasted a few minutes. A tiny group of spectators stood in front of the building. The indifferent ignored it. Creation of the “republic” didn’t take them away from their dinner plates and private discussions in the local bars. They still hoped they would live as before.

Who Is Interested in the Donbas Elections? 

On May 25, two weeks after the referendum, Ukrainians were about to elect a new president. It was the number one topic in the entire country (except for the occupied territories). It was stressed that the election results would determine the future or even the existence of the state. Many Ukrainians decided to vote for Petro Poroshenko, although he was not their dream candidate. Yet they wanted to elect him in the first round to legitimize the authorities fighting the separatists and to continue the reforms. But it looked as if nobody cared whether in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions these elections would take place.

A few days after the referendum I go to one of the polling stations that is getting ready for the Ukrainian presidential elections. It looks like a meeting of an underground organization.

“Are you looking for the commission? You have to go this way,” a lady janitor tells me. Only one door is open in the empty building. The members of the commission have gathered there. The most important part of their session is excluding those members who don’t want to hold any formal position or who want to sabotage the commission’s activity. In this case it is a woman sent by the Communists. The Communist Party has declared that its members will not participate in the elections. The Communist representative has stopped attending the meetings, but she has no intention of leaving the commission. If other commission members followed suit, its activity could be blocked for its lack of a quorum.

The commission makes its decision to exclude the Communist. The two OSCE observers are staring at their smartphones. Noticing their lack of interest, the interpreter doesn’t even try to tell them what is happening. They sit there in silence minding their own business.

Will the elections take place?

“If Kiev doesn’t help us, I don’t think so,” says Volodymyr, one of the commission members. He explains that the polling commission is a very fragile structure that can be blocked easily. There are many ways to do this: hold its members by force, take away their computers, and so on. There is no security and nobody to rely on. The members of the polling commission are the last group who oppose the separatists and support a united Ukraine. Yet Kiev is doing nothing to help them with the election. Three days before the vote, the chairman of the commission whose session I attended is kidnapped. In the end, no polling station in Donetsk will be open. In the entire region voting will take place in 20 percent of the stations and a little more than 10 percent of the voters will cast their ballots.


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MAY 9, 2014. I am planning a trip from Kiev to Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, and from there to the territories controlled by separatists. Another journalist is coming with me. There have not been any direct trains for a long time, but you can reach Donetsk by taking a roundabout route. A night train from Kiev to Kharkiv turns out to be cheap and relatively fast. After that we could get around by bus, taxi, or private car. “To Slovyansk and Kramatorsk?” asks Irina, who is sharing a compartment with us. She is coming back with two children from Kiev, where she was resting from war and the sight of the wounded people brought to her city. They are going home, to Izium, where for a long time the headquarters and the base of the an

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titerrorist forces have been located. When the front moved into the Donetsk region, the military and the National Guard relocated.

“You can go there. These cities have been liberated,” she adds. “Liberation” is a very popular term, although “escape” would be more appropriate. Three days ago these cities were abandoned by the separatists without fighting. They had been surrounded, but they got through the Ukrainian positions and reached Donetsk.

Irina is telling me how to save time and how not to overpay. You can go by private car instead of by bus but it isn’t easy if you don’t know Kharkiv. I don’t.

“When you get off at the last metro station, you will see a supermarket. In the parking lot there will be cars going to Izium. You will find them for sure,” Irina tries to convince me. She was right. It wasn’t difficult. The biggest problem in the parking lot is to find people going to the regional border. I have to walk around a little. In the end, I find them. Three men are talking at the edge of the lot. Now, we have to wait a while. When the car is full, we will be able pull out.

In Izium the driver lets me off at the bus station. “A bus to Slovyansk? The next one leaves in four hours but all the tickets are sold out,” says a cashier. Although a lot of people hope to get home, there has been no increase in the number of buses. This situation makes a perfect business opportunity for taxi drivers, both legal drivers and others who have sensed a chance to make money. They charge one hundred hryvnias per person, so they take four hundred for a ride (this is about one hundred zlotys or twenty-five dollars). For a distance of a little bit more than fifty kilometers, it is a horrendous price. It is twice as much as you paid before the conflict. Why?

“They are shooting there,” explains the driver. I let him fool me, and I don’t even try to bargain. In reality that area has been peaceful for a few days. Anyway, even if I were to dispute the shooting, he would come up with another argument: the price of gasoline. I don’t have any choice. I could waste the entire day at the bus station.

The traffic jam at the Ukrainian forces’ post north of the city demonstrates that there are many people willing to take a ride to Slovyansk. In April this very post was burned down by separatists fleeing the Ukrainian army. Now, when I approach it by taxi, a dozen cars are waiting to get through. These are Slovyansk residents who want to return home. Many of their cars are packed up to their roofs with food and other necessities. In Slovyansk there are shortages of everything. We wait a dozen minutes for everyone to be checked. The taxi driver says this is nothing. Once, when President Petro Poroshenko came to Slovyansk, they all waited several hours.

Although Slovyansk has never been a prosperous or lively city, this time I have seen real destitution and despair. When Ukrainian forces entered the city on July 5, some residents had not eaten bread for days. There were lines in front of the City Council building where humanitarian aid was provided. Even now a group of people is standing there. They want to know where they can obtain any assistance. According to Zorian Shkiryak, an advisor to the minister of the interior, food is now distributed in the neighborhoods. So that people wouldn’t have to wait before the City Council building. However, the relief doesn’t reach everyone. Walking on the street, I meet a woman who asks me for water. She has funnels and a bucket. Every now and then bottled water appears in the shops, but there is very little and not everyone has money to buy it. She asks me for a little water.

“It has never happened before that everything was cut off,” she says and starts crying. There is no electricity or gas in the city. Yet, Shkiryak guarantees that the city will get back on its feet soon. Water repair is taking place, and in the next few days it will be restored. Electricity restoration may take a little longer. The authorities kept their word, and it did take a little longer. For Kiev, Slovyansk is a poster child. Its function is to convince Donbas residents that living in Ukraine is worth it.

A man tries to get up from the sidewalk with his bike outside the offices of the Security Service of Ukraine that not so long ago was the separatists’ headquarters. He fails.

“Water, water,” he says half-conscious. The journalist who has come with me to Slovyansk gives him some. The man drinks a half bottle at once. He begs for sugar, explaining that’s because of hunger. In the end he manages to get on his bike and ride away.

Recently, many people have not worked because they couldn’t. Everything was shut down. Even if someone has some money saved to buy food, it doesn’t mean necessarily that it will be possible. The shops are practically empty. There is some bread, grains, pasta, eggs, sweets, and alcohol. In one of the shops I even saw canned food. It was the best dinner I was able to get in Slovyansk. I saw ham and cheese, but considering there is no electricity in the city, I wouldn’t risk it.

Since April everything has changed in Slovyansk. There are very few people in the streets. The majority of them either wait for humanitarian aid or queue up in front of the shops. There are a dozen people before one of the newsstands. Cigarettes are about to be delivered. Reportedly, out of 120,000 Slovyansk residents only 40,000 or so are left. Every now and then patrols walk by: one policeman and three guardsmen with rifles.

You can’t see too much destruction in the city center. A building next to the hotel in which I was staying in April is devastated. A projectile hit the staircase on the top floor. Due to the explosion the nearby windows and balconies were shattered. The barricade next to the police station is in ruins, too. It was the most impressive such structure, often shown in photos. A dozen concrete blocks are scattered over there. The painted flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic is half covered by the Ukrainian flag. You can see old lettering on the blocks: “Popular Mobilization of Donbas.” The windows of the police station are broken. In front there are people in Ukrainian uniforms, police, and National Guards. The armored personnel carriers are driving around the city and you can see many guardsmen and soldiers. The battalions Kiev-1 and Kiev-2 are stationed here.

The SSU building has hardly changed. It looks as it did in April. Only the surroundings are different. There are defensive fighting positions on Marx Street. One and a half meters deep, they are very sturdy. Yet the street is fully passable and you can sneak into the SSU courtyard without any problem. Over there, too, the barricades are piled up, numerous documents are scattered all over, and the place is a mess. A paper notice hangs on the tree: “Don’t litter! Those who break this law will end up in the basement!” The basement was the place where most of the hostages were held. However, we are not allowed to enter.

“Supposedly all the explosive devices have been disarmed, but you never know what you may find next,” say a guardsman from battalion Kiev-1. The insurgents who fled the city had mined the entire SSU building. So many “surprises” were expected inside that the Ukrainians considered blowing it up.

The City Council offices haven’t changed, except for a few bullet marks. The Council Chamber is empty. Slovyansk “people’s mayor” Vyacheslav Ponomarev vanished when the separatists still controlled the city. On June 10 it turned out that he had been detained by Igor “Strelkov” Girkin who was responsible for the armed groups in Slovyansk. Why? Two potential explanations were mentioned: rape and embezzlement. Was either of them true? Nobody knows. Even Girkin was reluctant to discuss the official reasons for Ponomarev’s arrest. After his arrest, the “people’s mayor” disappeared. After a while journalists from the pro-Kremlin network LifeNews found him at one of the checkpoints. He claimed he had become an ordinary militant defending Donetsk from the Ukrainian army. Later he appeared on the same network, but in Moscow. He is probably still there.

“Madam, You Were Bombed So Nicely” 

I go to Kramatorsk by marshrutka . We pass a checkpoint. The passengers are dismayed.

“Are they ours?” one of the women is asking. A few people reply “yes,” hesitantly. After all, you don’t know which ones are “ours.” For some people “ours” are those with the Saint George’s ribbons and the Russian flags, for others the “Kievans.” In the end they turned out to be the latter. Several people started to wave when they saw the Ukrainian flags. This was the largest difference I noticed in comparison with April. The overwhelming majority had changed sides. First they supported the separatists, then they backed the Ukrainian forces. When I saw photos of “liberated” Slovyansk, I immediately remembered the beginning of “people’s” rule in Donbas. In April children posed for pictures with the separatists, today they have photos taken with Ukrainian soldiers. The exhilaration is practically the same. I don’t know whether these people are cynical or whether they finally understood what was behind the Donetsk People’s Republic. After all it was Slovyansk that had experienced the most starvation, fear, and violence.

When it comes to destruction, Kramatorsk looks much worse than Slovyansk. There is a demolished building in the suburbs that appears frightening. It is a high-rise that has been hit by at least two missiles. You can see that a few floors are damaged. On the main square, just next to a poster saying “Kramatorsk is Ukraine,” a shell had landed on

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the fourth floor balcony of a row house. A nearby housing project was hit by several. In one place a shell struck a staircase, somewhere else it got stuck in the wall. The shrapnel from yet a different shell shredded the wall, so now it looks like Swiss cheese. The windows were shattered into tiny shards like poppy seeds. Several elderly people are sitting outside the building. Their faces are blank.

There is a school behind the project. In front of the entrance you can see a huge bomb crater, thirty or forty centimeters deep. People say it was a 120 mm mortar shell. A building standing next to the school was less fortunate. Part of its roof looks like a dreadful skeleton. There is a hole in the wall. It must have been hit by shells at least several times. When I am looking at this destruction, a man tells me: “Go to the second staircase, second floor.”

The door is open and off its frame. The apartment was hit by a projectile. You can see a pile of rubble, styrofoam, fragments of furniture, and personal belongings. The walls are cracked. Apart from a closet with a Winnie the Pooh sticker nothing in this old room looks like it did before.

Outside I meet Olha who works for the public administration. She lives in the building next to the school. What does she think about all of this? She was exhilarated when she saw the Ukrainian army in the city.

“I was shouting ‘hurrah!’” she says.

A man passing by listens to her and comments: “Madam, you were bombed so nicely.”

Very often it is the Ukrainian army that is accused of the destruction. However Olha doesn’t agree.

“Look, what ‘ours’ have done,” she says sarcastically about the separatists. “For such ‘ours’ thanks a lot.”

Although the Kramatorsk city center is seriously destroyed, its residents don’t suffer as much tragedy as those in Slovyansk. Water shortages are the only problem, but a few water tanks nearby are enough for basic needs. Electricity is everywhere. No one is staggering due to dehydration or hunger. Almost everything is available in the shops. When I open a freezer, it is full of seafood. It is hard to believe that Slovyansk and Kramatorsk are separated by little more than ten kilometers.


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IN JULY 2014 Donetsk is still a relatively peaceful place, but here is where you can best see the changes that have taken place during the conflict. From a typical European city, it has turned into a godforsaken hole.

What stands out at first sight is the emptiness. You can see with your naked eye that, unlike in April or even May, there are fewer people. Traffic in the streets has almost vanished. Traffic jams in Donetsk? No one remembers they ever existed. Some residents took their cars away from the city, others hid them securely.

“They are concealing the cars, because the separatists steal them. It’s simple: if they like a particular vehicle, they take it. All those pricey SUVs were not theirs,” says Pavlo, a cabbie, who drives me around Donetsk. “I don’t even wear my watch because I don’t want to lose it.” He shows me a bare wrist.

One day I’m sitting in one of the few bars that are open until late at night and a Porsche Cayenne pulls over. Two uniformed young men get out. Theoretically, at ten o’clock curfew begins, but it is the insurgents who break it most often. As it turns out, these two are from Russian Ryazan. They have come for a double date. Their girlfriends are already here. Laughing, conversations, flirtations. A car pulls over outside and one of the militants gets up from the table. He pulls two huge bunches of roses out of the car. One is white, the other red. He hands them over to the women sitting at the table. When a few shots are heard nearby, their security guards show up. The “Donbas volunteers,” with rifles, line up in front of the bar. They obediently wait until the rendezvous is over.

It is not only expensive SUVs that fall prey to the separatists. It can be any car or even an ambulance. One day when I was walking down Ilyich Avenue, I was passed by a black car that looked like a delivery vehicle. Inside I noticed a man in uniform. Only when the car drove away did I recognize the lettering AMBULANCE. Probably out of haste or laziness no one had removed the lettering. Rumors spread fast among Donetsk residents that ambulances were to be avoided because you could find a “surprise.” Not all the seized ambulances were repainted.

Empty spaces are particularly visible in places that in April and May were teeming with life, on Pushkin Boulevard, for example. Two months ago it was full of people walking, relaxing, and socializing. Now it is as gloomy as the rest of the city. It’s not a problem to find a seat on a bench because they are almost all empty. It’s more difficult to make a dinner reservation because the restaurants are closing one by one. When I arrived in Donetsk on July 11 there were still many. When I left the city ten days later only half of them were still functioning or they closed very early.

Although many stores have shut down, shopping for food is not difficult. All basic products are available, but the selection is more limited. And there are problems with ATM machines. Some of them have notices posted: “No money.” Similarly, banks are often closed for “technical reasons.” You can’t miss the open ones because they are full of people. Functioning ATM machines have daily limits, getting lower and lower every day. I did manage to find five machines that still dispensed money. They will soon stop working, too. Coming to the city with cash withdrawn somewhere else is the best option.

After a thirty-minute tram ride and a short walk I reached the apartment building where I was renting a flat.

“I have been left alone here. I don’t know what for. Perhaps I should leave, too?” says Raya, my landlady. At the stairwell entrance there is a posted notice. I learn that in case of artillery shelling there is a bomb shelter in a nearby basement. A few days later a new notice appears saying that cold water will only be available from five to ten in the morning and from five to ten at night. Hot water can only be had in the evening. I can’t complain because I live in the city center and the water problem is less bothersome here than on the outskirts. There the water pressure is very low and hot water almost doesn’t exist. Responding to “numerous questions from the residents,” the City Council put out an announcement explaining that water in the fountains is recycled through a closed recirculating system. People had probably been outraged by the presumed wastefulness.

Why hasn’t Pavlo, the cabbie, left yet? Like many other people he has no place to go, but he is afraid to stake everything on one roll of the dice.

“I don’t have any family to take me in permanently. I have no idea how I could start a new life with my wife and two children but without any support,” he explains. It happens very often to Donbas residents that the Donetsk or Luhansk regions, or the city in which they were born, is their entire world. They have never left its borders. That’s why now, even if their life is in danger, they are scared to risk everything, and they try to wait for the war to end. Others simply have to stay here. They can’t afford to live anywhere else.

Pavlo claims that people are tired of the separatists, but usually they are not eager to organize and challenge the new “authorities.” And when they are eager, they don’t know how.

But first impressions are completely different. Walking in the streets of Donetsk you can easily meet a supporter of the “people’s republic.” These people are very happy to express their views. They are not afraid because what’s to fear? It is their people who control the city. If Ukrainian forces enter Donetsk, the Slovyansk scenario may be repeated: some people will flee and others will transform themselves from separatists into Ukrainian patriots.

Yet when you come to know the residents better or talk to them far away from the insurgents (many journalists don’t pay attention to this detail when they ask people for their views), you will hear critical remarks about the separatists.

“I am a friend of the Donetsk Republic,” Roman, a translator working for the foreign journalists, says to the separatists. Only when we are alone does he state: “They are scum.”

We Are Developing 

The first place in Donetsk any journalist should visit is the office of the Donetsk Public Administration, still the separatists’ headquarters. You can get press accreditation there. It was very early in the morning, so I called them to ask whether I could come.

“Please, come. We are already at work,” replied Klavdia, Press Bureau Secretary of the Donetsk Republic.

The surroundings of the building have been tidied up. The barricades that were here in May are gone, and the only tents still standing are the ones with propaganda materials. The separatists want to prove that the city is totally under their control and that they don’t need any security. I enter the building.

“I have come to get my press accreditation,” I say to a guard.

“OK, call them so they confirm it.”

“From my phone?”


I call Klavdia. I pass my phone to the guard and she explains something.

“You may go. Fifth floor

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“Am I supposed to go there alone?” I am surprised, but this thought I don’t say out loud. Press accreditation appeared for the first time during the referendum. The procedure was similar, but my entire time in the building I was under the careful scrutiny of the “owners.” In May when I was coming in with a group of journalists, a guard said: “If we notice that you are recording something or taking photos, we will confiscate your equipment.” Now nobody cares. Previously, the building looked like it had been struck by a tornado. Everything was scattered and destroyed. Now, on the floors where the journalists hang out, everything is relatively neat and tidy.

My instincts tell me to go left, toward the staircase, but someone is following me.

“Hey, young man, where are you going? Please use the elevator,” says one of the guards.

“It’s functioning?” I can’t hide my astonishment.

A uniformed man nods. I walk toward the elevator.

On the fifth floor I enter the press bureau. I meet Klavdia there. She takes my information. “Oh, Poland doesn’t support us. I won’t issue accreditation,” Klavdia jokes, with a smile on her face. When she has all she needs, she leaves the room to print our accreditations. She is away for a very long time.

There are two more employees of the press corps and one Western journalist in the room. He is reading a separatist newspaper. I can only see the other side of the paper. The correct name of the region is given in large print: “SOUTH EAST—NO. NOVOROSSIYA—YES.” The press employee sitting next to me stares at his computer screen the entire time. He is browsing Vkontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, and he is playing some version of Bubble Shooter. The other press employee is fooling around with his video camera. After a while a stringer shows up. He is a freelance journalist working for Russia Today . He is Ukrainian but he supports the separatists and knows them all. He sits back in the armchair and starts talking, breaking the grim atmosphere. He and the fellow playing on the computer chat about their vacations. The stringer has been to Egypt. The computer guy takes his eyes from the screen from time to time, as if he were doing something important. The Western journalist will occasionally throw a glance at them, and the “cameraman” is not interested in the conversation at all. That’s why the stringer turns to me.

“When I am on vacation I am embarrassed to admit that I am Russian,” he says, unexpectedly, to my astonishment. He continues talking about an article in the Egyptian press that explained why Russians were the worst tourists: because they abuse alcohol.

“It’s true! Russians buy everything in Duty Free . They drink all the way to Egypt, then on the bus, and finally they have to be dragged to the hotel because they can’t walk on their own.” He laughs his head off. Then he says that drunk Russian tourists behave really badly. They provoke fights, they insult other people, and they are very loud. According to him, no tourists from other countries behave like them.

“That’s why, when they ask me where I come from, I say I am Ukrainian. And then all of them say OK.” He gives a thumbs up.

The computer guy has probably never been to Egypt, so he changes the subject to Israel. Stringer has been there, too, so now they can exchange opinions. They describe Israel in superlatives. Everything there is great, beautiful, and delicious. It is easy to get a good job and have a better life. After I heard talk about the shame of being Russian, I thought nothing else would surprise me. And suddenly I hear about an Israeli model for Donbas. I have heard about Transnistria, Abkhazia, Ossetia, but Israel?

“They don’t have any natural resources, but they have good brains. That’s their wealth. We can do the same in Donbas,” proudly claims the computer guy. Stringer nods in agreement, but I am not sure if he believes that it is possible. How would they do it? Who will pay for it? Russia? Russia was to turn Crimea into another Singapore, but it has changed its mind for now. If Russian financial aid hasn’t reached Crimea, it is even more certain it won’t end up in Donbas. Meanwhile huge sums of money should be invested in the region to rebuild buildings that have been destroyed, streets damaged by tanks, and bridges that have been blown up. The list is very long. In the beginning of September the Ukrainian government estimated that eight billion dollars were needed. This amount increases every day.

In the end Klavdia comes back and says that the Central Department Store has been blown up and everyone has to get there fast, so today accreditations will not be issued. Supposedly, the CDS was blown up by Ukrainian nationalists. What for? Nobody knows.

Next day I come back to pick up my press accreditation. I get it right away. It is pretty and laminated. In May it would have been printed on a piece of paper.

“Oh, this looks so much better than the previous one,” I say to Klavdia.

“Well, we’re developing.”


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MARINKA WAS SHELLED on July 11. Next day I go there by car with two Western journalists and a fixer from Donetsk who works for them as an interpreter and assistant. There is hardly a single living soul. You can see that out of ten thousand residents of the city not even one in twenty is left. No one has been shooting since yesterday yet the streets are deserted. Driving through the entire city we can count the pedestrians on the fingers of both hands. More often but still rarely you can spot a car packed to the roof. People try to take as much as they can because when they come back to their apartments, the apartments may no longer be there or they will have been plundered.

We stop at a building hit by a projectile. The apartments on the ground and first floors are missing their walls. They have turned into ruins. A garage a few meters away is full of shrapnel. A retired man, Garik, is standing in front of the building. He claims to be the last resident of Marinka. He keeps watch and protects the building from thieves. First and foremost, however, he emphasizes that this is “his land” and he is not going to abandon it. He lives in the building. Why was Marinka shelled? Garik thinks that for Kiev its residents are expendable because they champion the Donetsk People’s Republic.

“During the May referendum we all voted for it,” he admits.

A dozen meters away from where we left Garik we meet a patrol of “volunteers.” One of them signals with a hand gesture that we should approach them. We walk slowly because we don’t know what to expect.

“Journalists? You think we are the ones who are shooting?” asks one of them. He shows us shells stuck in the ground. He hands me a few pieces of metal and says: “It is a Grad. Take it as a souvenir.”

The Grad is a rocket launcher placed on a truck. Developed in the 1960s it can launch forty rockets simultaneously. They hit one by one, every fraction of a second, and when you listen to them falling you may have the impression that it is hailing.

We approach another projectile and suddenly we hear an explosion. The shelling has begun again. The rockets hit the ground a few kilometers from where we are standing. We follow the “volunteers” to one of the basements. It’s very low so we crouch until the shooting ends. After a dozen minutes we run to the car and drive away. Several meters further on the car breaks down. We can’t move and in the distance we hear more explosions. The fixer starts poking around under the hood. We are having bad luck as in a second-rate comedy. In the end the engine starts up and off we go. We return to Donetsk.

Today the rockets didn’t fall on Marinka but on Petrovska, the most western suburb of Donetsk.

In the evenings the Donetsk People’s Republic organizes a cultural program for its residents. Perhaps it is an attempt to relax a very tense atmosphere. For tonight they’ve announced waltzes. The event has started late. A few dozen people have shown up. “We are sorry that some people can’t come because they are fighting,” explains Klavdia, Press Bureau Secretary of the Donetsk People’s Republic. The dancing lasts two, three hours. After that they have organized, among other things, a concert of several unknown bands that play uplifting music but the turnout is a disaster. Eventually, the cultural program is abandoned.

Next day I decided to visit Marinka again. “It’s quiet. Today no one is shooting,” a woman in uniform tells us when we enter the city. She is the first uniformed female militant I have ever seen. She’s dressed like anybody else. She has sunglasses and a rifle. She claims that she must be very famous because everyone passing by takes her picture. You don’t see armed female militants very often. The Ukrainian side is no different. Women usually stay in the bases, work in the kitchens, supervise gifts from the residents, provide medical services, and so on.

I ask the taxi driver if he would mind going to the area that was bombed a day earlier. He says “no” and once again I end up in the shelled housing project. Today I can spend more time here and I hope that new shooting will not ruin my plans. Some local people, collaborating with the separatists, want to show us the destruction. I can finally take a look at the building in which I was hiding a day ago. It’s damaged, too. It must have been hit two days ago. There are holes in the walls, demolished and incinerated rooms, and shattered

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windows. You can see burned cars in the garages.

The Statistical Office of the Marinka Region took an almost perfect hit. In one of the central rooms you can see a shell casing. The wall panels are ripped off. By the window there is something wrapped in a lace curtain.

“He must have come to the window when the shelling started. Maybe he wanted to see what was going on,” says one of the guides and points his finger at the curtain. He grabs a stick and lifts the curtain part way off the cadaver. I see a stiff hand. There are no traces of the head. “We don’t know what to do with him, so we didn’t take him out,” explains one of the locals.

We leave the Statistical Office and after a moment we hear explosions again. We separate and run in different directions. Two journalists and I rush into a basement. There we meet two elderly men who apparently have stayed in their apartments. They don’t look agitated. They have a bottle of vodka with them. When the shelling stops I tell them they can go out.

“We’re staying. We prefer to drink here,” replies one of them. It turned out they were right. After a few minutes the firing started again. First, we hear the explosions in the distance, but after a while much closer. They sound different. It sounds to us like tank fire. Later on, the separatists would claim that they also saw the tanks.

We were in the middle of the housing project. We were to head for the separatists’ checkpoint where we had met the female militant. There is a shelter there and in it are my cab driver and my photographer. I run as fast as I can. Although my bulletproof vest is quite light, running is not easy. We keep close to the walls and trees as much as possible, so we can hide from the shells if we have to. The fire comes from the south so we cling to the walls facing north.

Suddenly I notice a man sitting on a bench. He may be over forty. He is slouching with his legs crossed. He appears to be relaxing. We stop and I look at him, perplexed.

“Sir? Why aren’t you running away or hiding?”

“I was baptized,” he responds, looking at me almost contemptuously.

I would like to talk to him more but thanks to the sounds of the consecutive exploding shells I change my mind.

We run onto the main road and here the problems begin. There is no place to hide and we have two kilometers more ahead of us. We take a break at a small shop. Then we move on. We try to walk under the trees to be less visible.

We reach the separatists’ checkpoint. They take us to the bomb shelter. You can’t see it from the road and you have to walk between some hangars. The bunker was built in Soviet times. This space, with at least four compartments, covers dozens of square meters. The separatists turned two compartments into bedrooms with cots and mattresses on the floor. Another compartment is a pantry with a fridge and the largest serves as a dining room. You can see a long table with two benches. Everywhere there are vests, a few weapons, and cardboard boxes, most likely with food in them. There is no electricity, but they have a battery-operated lamp. The light is dim but at least you can see what’s on the table: canned food, bread, cookies, water, tea, and so on. As they say, the table is ruled by communism—you can take what you want. And they invite us to dine.

“Try this honey. We’ve gotten it from the locals. It’s without GMOs!”

“Val,” the most cheerful of the entire company, encourages us. He is about fifty. And very devout. Although the majority in the bunker are religious, he is the most zealous. He has an armband with writing on it. As he explains, it is Psalm 80. Val believes that it will shield him from bullets.

Return, we beseech You, O God of hosts;
Look down from heaven and see,
And visit this vine
And the vineyard which Your right hand has planted,
And the branch that You made strong for Yourself.
It is burned with fire, it is cut down;
They perish at the rebuke of Your countenance.
Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand,
Upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself.
Then we will not turn back from You;
Revive us, and we will call upon Your name.
Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
Cause Your face to shine,
And we shall be saved!

“Bullets don’t touch it,” claims Val. This is his only protection from shells since he doesn’t wear a bulletproof vest. He is convinced he doesn’t need it because faith keeps him safe.

Religiosity and conservative values are nothing particularly odd among pro-Russian insurgents. Back in April they created the Russian Orthodox Army. From the very beginning of the Russian Spring numerous groups of pilgrims had been strolling around the Donetsk State Regional Administration building that was occupied by separatists.

Russian Orthodoxy here is strangely connected with antifascism as they perceive it. Everyone who doesn’t support Russia is a fascist. Local antifascists openly talk about the blood unity of Slavic nations and condemn faiths other than Russian Orthodoxy.

“Take my picture,” says Val.

“The photo will be better if you hold some weapon.” I encourage him.

Val picks up whatever is at hand. It is a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

“You are holding it the wrong way,” someone is shouting in the darkness.

“It won’t make any difference to these guys.” They burst into laughter.

Then he takes the weapon. This time properly. He doesn’t stop laughing.

Only some of the explosions are heard in the bunker. When the shells from Grads hit the ground one by one you know that something is going on. The firing calms down a little. I go outside to assess the situation and let my friends know I am all right (cell phones don’t work in the bunker).

“It’s odd. The shells are coming from places controlled by our people,” says one of the separatists. When I hear this, I am even more amused by the question everyone asks me: “Who is actually doing the shooting there?”

How am I supposed to know? I am usually on the side that is under fire but I can only hear the explosions. Honestly, it is very rare that you can observe the moment when they fire and the target. How am I supposed to know who is shooting, if even the insurgents and soldiers don’t fully understand what’s happening?

How many insurgents are in the bunker? Including those standing watch (they are also lookouts when there is shooting), there are about fifty of us, claims the unit commander nicknamed Cimmerian. Usually a dozen or so stay in the bunker proper. They are all residents of Donbas. What did they do before the war? Among them there is a miner, a mechanic, and a blacksmith. Outside of their obligatory limited training they don’t have any military experience.

The commander claims that his unit is the only one here and that they cannot count on any reinforcement. Semen Semenchenko, whom I will meet a few days later, is the commander of the volunteer battalion Donbas. Fighting for the Ukrainian side, he will have a different opinion. According to him, there are a lot of artillery forces in the area, so the Ukrainian units can’t fight their way through to Marinka.

“If there had been only fifty people there, we would have dealt with them a long time ago,” he states.

Cimmerian is sitting next to me. At first, he doesn’t say much but finally he starts talking. He and his son, who is also in the unit, know everything about military service. His son got the nickname “Frenchman.” When the father and son talk to each other they use nicknames.

Cimmerian had been in the police, and he retired in March. That’s when the protests began, so he joined them. Then once again he reached for a weapon and signed up with the Donetsk People’s Republic. He had served twenty-five years in the Donetsk police force. He lives somewhere near the city. As often happens in Ukraine, he showed me photos on his phone—of his granddaughter on a horse and of his daughter. There is a picture of Frenchman in uniform; he must have been in the army. In a group photo he is posing with his entire unit. Another photo shows him as a member of the Donetsk mounted police. Finally, Cimmerian shows me photos from the Maidan.

“You were there?” I ask him.

“Yes, several times.”

He shows me more photos.

“How did they talk about it in Poland? Did they support the Maidan?” he asks me.

“Mostly, yes.”

“For what reason?”

I shrugged. “And you were there for what? For Yanukovych?”

“What does Yanukovych have to do with this? We maintained order.”

He starts by saying that everything was the demonstrators’ fault and that the police behaved in exemplary fashion. They only fought troublemakers.

“You were there on December 1?”

“I was there. Look.” He shows me one of the photos in which he is part of the police cordon holding metal shields.

On that day outside the Presidential Administration building a group of demonstrators connected with the rightist organization, the Brotherhood, brought a bulldozer and tried to storm the barricade in front. According to the supporters of the Maidan, it was a provocation. During quite a long time the police were attacked by demonstrators with stones, bottles, and metal chains. They responded with tear gas and stun grenades. Finally, the police reached for their clubs and dispersed the crowd, assaulting whoever was in their path. In these skirmishes about three hundred people were injured. Half of them were police.

“I was beaten by the police there, although they knew I was a journalist,” I tell Cimmerian.


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here is a pause. It is the first time he doesn’t respond right away.

“But I wasn’t beating you,” he claims meekly.

I burst into laughter, and we never talk about the Maidan again.

Cimmerian insists that we follow them to the buildings to watch them picking up the residents’ bodies. It is very important to him that it is documented. I try to convince them that we have to leave because we can no longer keep the cabbie who was also in the bunker. “We will give you a ride,” says Cimmerian. We settle accounts with the taxi driver and he quits the bunker. We stay put, waiting for the shooting to fade.

I didn’t check the time carefully, but I think we spent about four hours in the bunker. Finally, Cimmerian organizes the expedition. He takes four volunteers and two local residents. We are going outside. “Single file, five meters apart!” says the commander. We are taking the same route on which I was running away earlier. Cimmerian orders us to walk under the trees. Where there is a clearing, we are to dash to the nearest trees. It will make it more difficult to aim at us.

When we walk by one of the houses, we smell the terrible stench of a decomposing body. They look over the fence but see nothing. “It must be an animal,” asserts one of the locals who clearly is not keen on carrying corpses. So we keep walking.

We have returned to the building with the headless official wrapped in a lace curtain. They are about to take him out when we hear some commotion. We go outside. They have caught two guys who are twenty-something. One of the insurgents has brought a bag full of cosmetics.

“They wanted to steal it. They are marauders,” he says.

The militants tell them to put their hands over their heads and kneel down on the pile of glass that fell from the shattered windows.

“You know what we do with people like you?” asks Cimmerian. The boys have tears in their eyes.

“We are not marauders. We didn’t want to take anything. We came to guard this building.” One of them can barely speak. They are told to lower their heads while the insurgents recharge their weapons.

“It is necessary. They are marauders,” says one of the locals quietly, justifying the insurgents’ behavior.

“OK. We have a different task for you,” says Cimmerian, breaking the dreadful silence. “You will take the corpse outside.”

Their job is to remove the body from the building and place it somewhere. They don’t have gloves. They struggle, but in the end they manage to move it out, carrying it on a lace curtain. They keep smelling their hands, making sure that they don’t smell like death.

Then the boys are walked further. Once again we smell the stink of decomposing corpses near the garages but no one can determine where it’s coming from. After a search we return to the bunker. On the way Cimmerian keeps talking to the detainees.

“They are not marauders,” he asserts when we get back. And he sets them free.

As promised, the insurgents gave us a ride to the city center.

The Battle of Donetsk 

Marinka and the Petrovska suburbs are quite far from the center of Donetsk, so the sounds of the fighting were barely audible in the city. On the other hand, north of Donetsk everyone got used to the shooting around the airport.

“Somebody is shooting there every day. For us it’s a daily routine,” a women living near the train station tells me. No one remembers any more that on May 26, the day after the presidential election, a huge battle took place there. This area was controlled by the Ukrainian forces the entire time. If it had been captured by the separatists, the remaining Ukrainian units would have been pushed out from the city. The Donetsk People’s Republic could then form its own air force and Russia would probably send them some planes.

But the combat zone in Donetsk started to expand, and the residents’ initial indifference was slowly melting. On July 21 the shells coming from the north were falling near the train station. The separatists’ artillery located in the city center was firing, too. The shelling began in the early morning.

“Press, pull over! Tanks are coming,” says a separatist blocking the road to the train station, when I and other journalists arrive. We are near the center. People are walking by the apartment buildings in a large group.

“Yes, we had to evacuate. Thank you, ‘volunteers,’ you are great.” A woman with a plastic bag in her hand is clearly exasperated. Like the others, she has taken only the most necessary items. They are all rushing to catch a marshrutka  that will take them to a safe haven. For a while they will be living in the student dormitories in the city center.

A young fellow, Oleksij, is standing near one of the buildings. For now, he is not leaving. He believes all he needs is just to move in with some friends who live in a different neighborhood.

A huge cloud of black smoke hovers over the buildings. Just in front I see a billboard displaying a message with a little dove: “Peace to the world.” The fire is consuming the Tochmash plant that makes products for the mining and military industries. An armored personnel carrier with the flag of the “mass mobilization” is moving toward the factory. After a moment you can hear an engine roaring. A tank from battalion Vostok is advancing toward the train station. Vostok is a Ukrainian-Russian separatist unit responsible for capturing the airport in May. They suffered enormous losses.

I manage to get closer to the station. The neighborhood is practically dead. The only people you spot are those waiting for the evacuation marshrutkas  or who flee on their own. Obviously, there are exceptions.

“This is my home and I won’t leave it,” an elderly man tells me at the bus stop. Another man tries to con me into giving him some money in return for super important information. In front of one building there are totally demolished cars. One of them is an old Lada, or rather, what is left of it. According to the witnesses, it was smashed by a car full of separatists who were in a big hurry.

A few militants, Western journalists, and some Donetsk residents sit in the street leading to the train station. The separatists have rifles and uncertain looks on their faces. They get animated when reinforcements pass by. Asphalt on the street has been furrowed by the treads of armored vehicles. Every now and then you can hear more explosions. After a while, a car with some militants pulls over.

“You will come with us. You will see what ‘they’ have done,” says a militant. “They” obviously means Ukrainians.

I return to the devastated Lada. The owner of the shoe shop nearby is taking his goods to the car. The militants standing next to the car don’t say a word. One of them separates from the rest and tells us to follow him. He walks us between the apartment buildings. I can see shattered windows. It is a crucial sign that the place has been shelled. Here a projectile hit a playground. What was left was a hole in the ground, shoes, sunglasses, and a pool of blood. Journalists who were standing there a little earlier claim that just a moment ago a woman’s body was taken away. According to the outraged residents who described the whole event to the journalists she didn’t even live there. She was probably going to work through the courtyards and had bad luck. Dead on the spot. A man who stood nearby was luckier. Shrapnel hit his leg. The residents dragged him to the stairwell and dressed his wound. The entire floor is covered with blood.

A group of residents stands at the playground and they curse the Ukrainians. “But the very first shell came from over there,” says one of them, pointing at the Donetsk center where separatist forces are located. Others start berating him.

“What are you talking about? What’s the difference where the first one came from, if this one obviously came from the north?”

On the other side of the street a projectile fell in front of a multistory building. A few meters from the stairwell you can see a formidable crater. Everything around has been hit by shrapnel. Two nearby cars are good for nothing. They are all perforated. A man is hanging out near a white Lanos. I ask him if the car is his.

“No. It is my daughter’s. It has been robbed,” he says. I notice an open glove compartment and a few things scattered around.

A few people have moved into the basement of the destroyed building. They have water, some food, cardboard boxes, and blankets. They are prepared to stay there a little longer. They don’t want to leave because they are afraid that belongings left in their apartments will share the fate of the white Lanos, that they will be plundered.

“As we know here, ‘What’s war for somebody is as good as it gets for somebody else,’” observes one of the women, recalling a popular Ukrainian saying.

At the Artem Street station I am pestered by an elderly drunken man. His speech is so muddled I can’t understand him. Finally he is interrupted by a man over thirty, who knows him and gets rid of him. His name is Sergey and he lives near the station.

“I had to go out because I ran out of cigarettes,” he says.

“But there was shooting just a while ago!”

The explosions stopped perhaps half an hour earlier, but the enormous cloud of black smoke is still hovering over the Tochmash factory.

“Addiction. What can I do?” He smiles. His voice is very pleasant and he looks like a decent person.

“It’s not only your problem,” I joke, pointing at the drunken man, who walks away and soon vanishes behind the apartment buildings.

“Today I have had a drink, too, but only one shot. To calm my nerves.”

There is a short pause, then Sergey

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turns to me.

“Paulie, it’s just a friendly invitation. Come to my place, we’ll have tea and we’ll talk. Just for half an hour.”

“OK. Let’s go, but I want to come back before it gets dark.”

Sergey lives about a hundred meters from the station. He works, as he claims, in “the supermarket for the rich.” He is a security guard. He was supposed to go to work, but he was awakened by the explosion.

“I heard the shell and I opened my eyes. I checked whether everything was all right,” he says. Everything was all right. His house didn’t suffer, but it was a close call. He lives about four hundred meters from the place where the woman going to work was killed.

“My friend from abroad,” he tells a neighbor standing before the building.

His apartment is very modest. A few closets, a bed, a small table, and a second room whose door is closed. “If you and your friends ever need lodging, here even three people can sleep,” he tries to persuade me. He has two cats who are the apple of his eye.

I notice a flyer from the Donetsk People’s Republic on the table. Sergey is its champion, but he doesn’t seem fanatical, as do many others I have met in cities with a separatist majority. We change the subject and start talking about jobs. There is less and less work because everything is closing down. People live on the last of the savings they have been squirreling away. “If this continues, people will open those closed shops themselves,” claims Sergey. He is planning to go to work tomorrow although he doesn’t know whether it will be peaceful. He says that you have to hold on to any job by hook or by crook because if you lose it, you won’t find another one.

For a few days I didn’t know what really happened in Donetsk. I found out quite accidentally when I met “Pastor” from battalion Donbas.

I left Donetsk on July 22, a day after the shelling of the train station. Leaving wasn’t easy. Due to the dangerous conditions one of the bus stations was shut down and the majority of trains were cancelled. Those that were running were significantly delayed. I hoped to leave Donetsk before noon, but in the end my train left in the evening. Before I reached Artemivsk and battalion Donbas I had to sleep over in Krasnoarmiysk. Traveling by car or by bus at night in those areas was unsafe. Skirmishes between Ukrainian forces and separatists were still going on.

After a few days spent in Artemivsk, I went with battalion Donbas to their bases in Kurakhove and Krasnoarmiysk. That’s where I met Pastor. He was accompanying us on a bus going from one base to another. I found out who was shelling Donetsk. Pastor’s battalion and other units, whose main force, according to him, was Right Sector, tried to take up positions close to the city. This means the shelling was done by Ukrainian artillery. They always reinforce the infantry. No serious action can be successful without them. However, the reinforcements were insufficient, and they had to withdraw. That’s when the artillery fire ceased.

Volunteers at the Front 

Pastor has been a sniper, but not for very long.

“When they asked me at the recruitment commission what nickname I wanted to choose, I responded: ‘Pastor.’ They stared at me wide-eyed and asked: ‘Why?’ And I really am a pastor,” he laughs. Now he is the unofficial chaplain of his unit. He comes from the Kiev region, but the majority of his battalion, as its name indicates, are people from Donbas. They don’t like separatists and they want to live in Ukraine. They decided to reach for weapons and put up armed resistance against them.

The first time I met battalion Donbas was in Artemivsk, about one hundred kilometers north of Donetsk. They came in the evening to pick me up along with other journalists. It was already dark when two cars pulled over. One was a Mercedes covered with blue-and-yellow stickers saying “United Ukraine,” the other was an SUV. Both cars have logos on them: “Independent Special Battalion Donbas.” There are uniformed men with guns inside.

“Get in,” says a driver. We are going to a boarding school dormitory that serves as battalion base. It is only the next morning that I have a chance to look at other vehicles. Several cars show traces of fighting. One of them, a silver sedan, is missing a grille and a headlamp. You can see a hole in the windshield, right at head level and another, a little lower, at chest level. Supposedly, the car was seized from the separatists. When it was seized, it was full of blood.

All vehicles commencing a military action are covered with yellow adhesive tape, and so are the soldiers. It is the trademark of the antiterrorist forces. The tape is supposed to protect the units from friendly fire.

They walk us through the dark corridors and they don’t even let us turn on our cell phone lights. “Snipers can be over there.”

A guardsman, “Boost,” points to the window. Battalion commander Semen Semenchenko waits for us inside. He is in uniform but without a balaclava. When the photographers want to take his picture, he puts it on.

For a long time Semenchenko hasn’t shown his face and he has never revealed his true name. He has done this for the same reason as many people from Donbas. His family (he has four children) could be in danger. He took his balaclava off only when Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko decorated him with the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, third class. It is awarded for “exceptional service in defense of state security.” By that time his family was already in a safe place. Hiding under the balaclava didn’t guarantee his anonymity. Forty-year-old Semenchenko was one of the organizers of the Euromaidan in Donetsk. He was active in a party called Self-Reliance, so there was a good chance that someone would recognize him. If you googled “Semen Semechenko” you could find scattered photos of a man one might suspect was him. They say that before the conflict he had worked in the field of monitoring and security. He has a diploma in filmmaking and he gained his military experience in the Soviet and then Ukrainian armies. As he tells me the day after I arrived, it was the Maidan that stopped him from leaving Ukraine.

“I hadn’t believed that anything would ever change. Those who went out to protest made it possible to believe in this country again,” he declares. When the separatists reached for weapons, he realized that he should do the same. For the insurgents he became enemy number one.

But Semenchenko has no illusions that everything changed after the Maidan. Chaos, corruption, lies, and shady dealings have remained untouched. Ukraine can’t be transformed if these problems are not faced. And displaying Ukrainian flags in the cities occupied by separatists won’t help.

“If you act like a toy soldier, follow orders respectfully, and if you don’t ask questions, everything is terrific. Well, unless you are hit by shrapnel. But if you talk about what you see, and you want to defend your home, then you meet with resistance,” he says. In principle, very little has changed. According to him, the Maidan was only the first successful battle against the system that is now counterattacking. That’s why Semenchenko decided to bet not only on military force but also on politics. Thanks to the popularity enjoyed by his battalion he intends to carry out his program. For example, in late June he organized a rally whose purpose was to make Kiev’s attitude toward the separatists more belligerent. Several thousand Kiev residents showed up.

Although Semenchenko gave contradictory answers when asked about his involvement in politics, in the end he took his chances in the elections. He claims that his people in Parliament will have an impact on the army’s structure and operations in eastern Ukraine. The main political objectives of Donbas are a little murky. They include fighting corruption, effecting modernization of the army, and providing support for “patriotic attitudes.”

Many Donbas residents were sold on Ukraine only when they realized what the separatists’ rule was like. Some decided to join volunteer battalions fighting for Ukraine, and most of those joined Donbas. Although the battalion was formed in April, it was given legal status only in May and was integrated into the National Guard of Ukraine.

In the battalion I meet many people connected to the region. One of them is fifty-year-old “Iron Man” from Slovyansk who had been fighting on the Maidan and had been shot by a sniper. He arrived in the unit from Vienna where he had received a titanium implant thanks to international aid. Others, like Pastor, didn’t go to the Maidan, nor did they consistently support it. But once they are in the battalion, they have no doubts which side to take. Another guardsman fled Donetsk after someone wrote his apartment number in the stairwell. He was harassed several times by people with guns. He sent his family away, left Donetsk, and joined the battalion. “I have no place to go back to,” he says quietly, ending the phone conversation. His house has just been shelled.

The difference between volunteer battalions and regular forces is that people are better motivated in the former. After all, it was their decision to reach for weapons. They were not forced to do so by draft boards. Very often their enthusiasm transcends their skills. They haven’t all had military experience, but many have had a spell in the army or police.

Apart from residents of Donbas, you can meet all of Ukraine in the battalion. Some men are from the west—for example, a twenty-something from Lviv. Some are from Crimea. They had to flee the areas occupied by the Russians.

When I sit on the steps in front of the dorm-turned-base, I am approached by “Asker,” which in the Crimean Tatar language simply means a soldier. He sits next to me and he wants to check his email. He plays

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for me his favorite music, songs of the Crimean Tatars. As I found out much later from another Donbaser from Crimea, Asker was wounded when his battalion was seizing Popasna, a town in the Luhansk region, several dozen kilometers away. He was taken to the hospital and then disappeared. He just vanished into thin air. Men in battalion Donbas suspect that he was kidnapped by separatists.

“I will never forgive them. I will avenge him,” says one of his Crimean buddies. He is a very young person. In his platoon, out of thirty-five men only five remain. He has started abusing alcohol, most probably due to the lack of both proper support and an adequate number of psychologists. Just like one of his five comrades.

“I feel pain here, in my heart. This is really horrible,” he tells me, swaying a little on his feet.

A desire to fight for the motherland is essentially the only motivation of the Donbasers. Their basic pay, promised by the Interior Ministry, amounts only to 1,248 hryvnas, or 47 dollars a month. If you consider rising prices and the declining value of money, every day they earn less and less. Anyway, their money exists only as an idea because nobody has ever received any wages. The guardsmen from the battalion joke that if one day they get all the overdue money, they will at least notice they have received something. So where does Donbas get its money from? In the beginning they were supported by the pro-Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoyskiy. Now they live off donations from people who can send them from 10 to 1,100 hryvnas. Other people provide food. Thanks to all of this Donbas has uniforms, equipment, and provisions.

Theoretically, each guardsman should be provided with proper weapons, but so far the government has not fulfilled its promise. They captured their first weapons in April when they attacked a checkpoint of pro-Russian insurgents. At that time they were a paramilitary organization and they were equipped with automatic rifles. They still don’t have enough weapons, not to mention heavy equipment. Donbas has at its disposal several armored personnel carriers and antiaircraft guns that can also be used to fight light armored divisions.

War—The Time of the Radicals 

Although battalion Donbas has its own political aspirations, it was not created around any particular ideology. This is not true of two other volunteer battalions, Azov and Right Sector. Their roots are in the Maidan. That was where a coalition formed of diverse radical organizations. They wanted to separate themselves from other demonstrators: “liberals, lefties and anarchists.” The coalition included such organizations as Patriots of Ukraine, White Hammer, the Ukrainian National Assembly/Ukrainian People’s Self-Defense (UNA-UNSO) and the Social-National Assembly. The coalition of organizations became really well known in January 2014 when they stormed the Ukrainian Parliament, launching several days of clashes with police. From the very beginning violence was one of their means to achieve political goals. In the circumstances of the civil war, creating an independent battalion was a natural process. Battalion Azov is rooted in the Social-National Assembly and now is subordinate to the Interior Ministry. You can just look at their logo to realize that you are dealing with an extremely radical group. The logo shows a Wolfsangel and a black sun. Both symbols are used by neo-Nazi movements. After the Azov unit was created, one of my friends joked that, compared to them, Right Sector was almost liberal. It is worth noting however that Azov was also joined by people without any political views or even ideologically “hostile” to neo-Nazis. Even some anarchists fight in its ranks.

It is August 2014. We accompany the soldiers of battalion Donbas from Kurakhove near Donetsk to the base located a few dozen kilometers from Ilovaisk. In the “Ilovaisk encirclement,” Ukrainian volunteer battalions were surrounded by separatist forces backed by Russians in the form of Russian soldiers and Russian military equipment. After their initial victories and having captured at least half of Ilovaisk, Ukrainian units were suddenly isolated and encircled. Eight battalions got stranded in one of the schools on the city outskirts. There were four journalists with them, including Max Levin, a photographer from the Internet magazine Levyj Bereg (Left Bank) . I rely on his report below.

They were constantly shelled by separatist artillery. They tried to break free from the encirclement many times but unsuccessfully, although the separatists promised them safe passage. Each time they would meet with fire, even when the promised corridor was used to carry wounded soldiers.

Four journalists traveling in such a column narrowly escaped with their lives. In the end they separated from the column, went off on their own, and managed to reach the areas controlled by Ukrainian forces. Their entire car was perforated with bullets and shrapnel.

According to the Ukrainians, at least two hundred Ukrainian guardsmen and soldiers were killed in the battle of Ilovaisk. However, according to unofficial sources this number may exceed one thousand. In October the separatists were still holding ninety-eight prisoners from battalion Donbas, the main fighting force in Ilovaisk. Many of them had been exchanged earlier for captive separatists.

I go with a group that will try to rescue the Ukrainians from the encirclement. In a supporting unit there is Ilya Bohdanov, a Russian. He is waiting for the Ukrainian passport that should come very soon. He used to be an agent of Russia’s intelligence service. When he realized that what Putin was doing was incomprehensible, he took time off and came to Ukraine. There, he was thoroughly checked by the Security Service of Ukraine and was allowed to join the battalion. In Russia a military court has taken charge of his case. This former agent of the FSB is a very calm, quiet person. He talks very little and remains in the background. Why did he take the Ukrainian side?

“I am a National Socialist,” he declares.

“But why do you support Ukraine? After all, the extreme right is with Putin,” I ask in disbelief.

“Those people are imperialists. The right is very divided. I am a National Socialist and I want a strong, white, and European Ukraine.” The former FSB agent claims that only thanks to such a Ukraine will Putin’s regime be destroyed.

Dmytro Korchynsky, a leader of the Brotherhood, shares his views. That’s why he is doing all he can to ensure that the revolution that started in Ukraine reaches the very center—that is, Moscow. When during the Maidan protests the supporters of the Brotherhood wanted to attack the Presidential Administration building with a bulldozer, they were dubbed provocateurs and Korchynsky fled the country. Individual members of the Brotherhood participated in the Maidan, but they never revealed their party affiliation.

“I left my home on December 1 and I came back only in February,” says Dmytro Linko, one of the battalion’s soldiers.

The Brotherhood members are Russian Orthodox national anarchists. Their logo displays a labarum . It is a symbol of the Roman legions, thanks to which the emperor Constantine was supposed to conquer his enemies. The main slogan on their website says: “Down with democracy! Let freedom live.” Earlier they had the Unit of Jesus Christ, and now they are forming the first Christian Battalion of Saint Mary. The separatist units from the Russian Orthodox Army will have worthy opponents.


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ON JULY 17, about 4:20 in the afternoon Ukrainian time, air traffic control lost contact with Malaysian Airlines flight number MH17. Soon afterwards video footage emerged on the Internet. It was shot in the town of Torez, thirty kilometers from the Ukrainian-Russian border. You can see a white trail in the sky and then a huge cloud of black smoke appearing on the horizon. There were 298 people aboard the Boeing 777, including eighty children. Nobody survived.

More or less at the same time the controllers lost contact with the airplane, separatists put out information on their websites and on Russian social media about their great success. They claimed to have shot down a Ukrainian An-26, a military transport aircraft. When it turned out that it was a civilian plane, the posts were immediately deleted.

The “prime minister” of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodai, a Russian, instantly accused the Ukrainians of the attack. Using his Twitter account he stated that the “volunteers” didn’t have the proper equipment to shoot down a plane at ten thousand meters. The residents of Torez have a different view. They have seen a BUK missile system there with the capacity to down a plane. They recorded everything with videos and photos.

When the media announce the airplane was shot down, two Western journalists, their fixer, and I are in Artemivsk. In a split second we make the decision that next day we will go to Hrabove, which is the site of the plane debris. Traveling in the evening is not a good idea because you can easily be fired at. At night the conflict areas are completely dead.

Initially, we were flabbergasted by this horrific information.

“Let’s wait for confirmation,” said one of the journalists. We couldn’t believe that anyone would have had the idea of downing a civilian plane. But the information was quickly validated, although no one kne

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w why it happened. The phones were ringing nonstop. In the restaurant where we get together, we were running around like crazy. We were sharing information, making phone calls, and preparing our reports.

We gathered after eight in the morning, so we could have some hotel breakfast. We anticipated a long day. We decided to go through Debaltseve. It is connected to Artemivsk by a highway. From there it is only a dozen kilometers to Hrabove, where the plane debris has been found. However, this route turned out to be impossible because separatists had blown up the bridge. We diverted from the main road and drove through some fields. We came across a checkpoint manned by militants. They looked as if they had never seen a journalist. They decided to search us.

“Where are you from?” I ask.

“From Russia,” answers one of them. But his manner is so slow and strange that I am not sure whether he really means he is from over there, or if he wishes Russia were over here. After a few questions the conversation falls apart. In the end, they let us go.

In Debaltseve we come across yet another checkpoint. We see a few people in uniform and with guns. They stop our car.

“Journalists? Documents!” says a man in a very stern voice. It doesn’t herald a pleasant conversation.

We have accreditations issued by the Donetsk People’s Republic. We show them immediately when he wants our passports.

“What is that?” he asks.

“The accreditation,” I respond.

“I’ve never heard of it.” He looks at the laminated piece of paper. It says that it was issued by the Donetsk People’s Republic. The document has all the necessary stamps and signatures.

“We can call the Press Secretary,” says the fixer when the separatist starts to sniff at it.

“I don’t know her.”

“We can call the Minister of Information.”

“I don’t know him, either.”

There is a short pause. We don’t know how to convince him that we have all the documents we need to continue our trip. Finally, he finds the answer.

“You have to stay here until I get permission from my commander. You are detained.”

He is not willing to answer any questions. He tells us to get in the car and to remain visible. We are not supposed to use our phones or talk. Simply, we have to sit there and wait.

Every now and then they look at us. I am sitting in the back, blocked out by the driver’s seat. Slowly, I pull out a phone from my pocket and send a text message to a friend in Kiev.

“If you don’t hear from me for a long time, that means that I have been arrested.” We spoke on the phone earlier, so he knows where we are, more or less.

After twenty minutes we are permitted to drive further.

“You can go. The ataman gave his consent,” says a separatist. “But pull over near the gas station and pick up some luggage,” he insists.

“What luggage?” one of the journalists asks, petrified.

“From the plane,” replies the militant.

Supposedly, the luggage was brought over by the local residents. The plane exploded in the air, so its fragments and everything else onboard were scattered across a wide area, as far as a dozen kilometers from where it happened.

“But what do we need these things for?”

“You can take them. We don’t want them.”

“What are we supposed to do with them? Shall we hand them over to someone?”

“We don’t know.”

“There might be a passport in one of the suitcases,” interrupts another militant, encouragingly.

We are not interested in the luggage contents, and we are not going to look inside. We are given a suitcase, a backpack, and a box. The fixer puts them into the trunk right away because he wants to drive off as soon as possible. Neither he nor we are going to discuss this. We have no idea what to do with them, either. In the end, we decide to return the luggage when we reach our destination. After all, there must be someone who will take care of them.

Further on, driving is very simple. We pass a few checkpoints, but the militants already know that they have to let journalists proceed. They glance at the Donetsk People’s Republic accreditation and off we go. They must have received an order from above to let journalists access the site.

We bring our unusual present to the crash site. We want to return it to someone, maybe to the rescue workers or to other people in charge. No one is especially interested in what we have brought. I immediately understand why. A few pieces of luggage are the least of the problems. Piles of suitcases are strewn all over, for a dozen kilometers. So are plane fragments and partly charred bodies, or what was left of them, often without limbs. You have to be careful where you place your foot because you can step on a corpse.

A cameraman from one of the TV stations took a step backward. He felt something soft. He was turned toward me. Suddenly a terrible grimace appeared on his face. Slowly, he turned his head to look at his foot, fearing the worst. It turned out to be only mud. He glanced at me again, this time with great relief.

On one of the fields where much of the luggage could be found nothing has been done with the bodies. They are still there, uncovered. Rescue workers, firefighters, and medics walk around aimlessly. Then they start fixing a damaged power line. Only after a few hours do they gather a group of coal miners who most likely will look for bodies. Others place white flags to label corpses and remains. No one knows what is going on. The rescue workers don’t want to answer any questions. They tell us to call a press spokesperson, but he doesn’t want to talk to us, either.

Other than flags and some tape nothing secures the area. In principle, anyone can get to the crash site. The remains of plane, passengers, and belongings are not protected in any way. Dozens of residents from local towns and villages stand on the road, next to the plane wreck. Many of them cry or have tears in their eyes.

The remains of the fuselage can be found a few hundred meters further on. In the Russian media footage that was shown yesterday you could see some bodies. Today they are gone. Only the wreck has remained. What happened to them? According to the most popular theory they have been taken by militants. The cadavers had shrapnel in them so it would be possible to conjecture that the fuselage was hit by a missile.

Pavel Gubarev, one of the separatist representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic, has come to the site. He is with his bodyguards, but probably his only purpose here is to appear in the media.

To most of the journalists’ questions he responds: “I can’t comment on this.”

He maintains, however, that the plane was not shot down by separatists but by Ukrainians from the Dnipropetrovsk region. This is almost 190 kilometers from the crash site. Gubarev wants to find out more and pass the information to the reporters. So he calls the “prime minister” of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a Russian PR man, Alexander Borodai. Borodai doesn’t pick up.

“I’ll try again,” says Gubarev, a little unnerved.

Nothing happens. Borodai’s cell is silent. Gubarev has not tried again. This just confirms how insignificant he is in the Donetsk People’s Republic, and that for a long time the reins have been held by someone else.

In the background you can hear explosions. It is artillery. According to separatist sources, insurgents in the Luhansk region have begun a counterattack, and they are trying to crush the Ukrainian forces. “They have been shooting since this morning. Fighting must be very heavy,” says Oxana who lives near the crash site.

The Train Full of Bodies 

The bodies that were scattered in the fields were picked up after three days. The corpses were to be examined by experts from Donetsk. Who are those experts? Do they know what they are doing? No one knows.

According to the Ukrainians, the separatists are taking the bodies to Russia. At least some of them, those that might prove that the airplane was shot down. The bodies found near the fuselage disappeared on the first night. Initially, nobody knew what happened to the black boxes, either. The separatist “authorities” were not sure whether they had them. One day they said “yes,” next day they said “no.” Only on the fourth day after the crash were the black boxes handed over to a delegation from Malaysian Airlines.

During the day the crash site is guarded by a group of separatists. Their commander is called “Grim.” A photo of him with a toy monkey went around the world. He has a badge in the colors of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic that says on it “General Prosecutor’s Office.” Yet he doesn’t want to give his full name. He fired in the air, twice. First, when the OSCE mission tried to reach the crash site. Next day, in the same fashion, he decided to convince the journalists to move away. It was very effective.

When the OSCE mission tried to get to the site for the second time, they were accompanied by several other vehicles. In them there were about thirty armed men with badges of the delegalized police unit Berkut, and several dozen separatists from Slovyansk. They were from the closest entourage of Igor Girkin, the “military commander” of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Among them I noticed a former spokesperson of the “greens.” And a “local reporter,” as he called himself in April. Now he was in uniform and he had a rifle in his hand. As I was told by one of the Russian journalists, this person introduced himself as Girkin’s former spokesperson. It was Girkin who exercised full control over the separatist-held areas in the Donetsk region. It looked

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as though he had the final say about anything connected to the crash.

Almost immediately the separatists started to blame the Ukrainians for downing the Boeing. They instantly presented varied theories about why it was the Ukrainians’ fault. First, it was Gubarev’s hypothesis that the jetliner was shot down while still in the Dnipropetrovsk region. Others speculated that it was downed by a Ukrainian SU-27 fighter. Later, they surmised that Ukrainians wanted to hit a plane with Putin aboard but they mixed up the airplanes.

Of course, all the “Donetsk Republic” leaders maintain that they are not equipped with BUK missiles. They don’t accept the fact that previously they wrote and said something different.

Girkin’s version of events was the most startling. In an interview published on the separatist website Russian Spring  he claimed that “most of the corpses weren’t fresh” and that the bodies were “drained of blood.” Therefore, he suggested, it was a medical plane.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, moreover, casually stated that if the jetliner crashed on Ukrainian territory it is the Ukrainians’ fault, regardless of who was shooting at the plane.

The interview Alexander Khodakovsky, the commander of the Ukrainian-Russian battalion Vostok, gave to Reuters was just a formality. He confirmed that the separatists were equipped with the BUK missile system. The quantity of evidence was large enough to state this conclusively. Khodakovsky admits that the system was not seized from the Ukrainian army, but that it arrived from the Luhansk region under the separatists’ banners. It is probable that it came from Russia. According to him, after the plane went down, the BUK disappeared from that location in order not to leave any evidence. Despite this, Khodakovsky blames Ukraine for this tragedy because it provoked this whole situation. Its planes were presumed to be flying over these areas. After the interview was published, the Vostok commander tried to explain that he hadn’t said anything of the kind. By that very fact he was caught red-handed. Reuters released the recorded interview in which his very words could be heard.

As I mentioned before, the bodies were collected only on the third day after the airplane was downed. You could smell their odor. It is not clear why this took so long. On the one hand, it might have been because of the investigation, but on the other, how can you explain that the bodies near the cockpit fragments were gone the next day? In addition, someone was going through the passengers’ luggage. On the third day a broken computer and two bottles of Duty Free alcohol were placed on the pile of suitcases. Supposedly, this was to confirm that nothing had been robbed. However, if you consider that only a small portion of the crash site seemed to be protected, this was very unlikely.

The bodies were packed into bags and laid alongside the road. Then they were placed in refrigerator trucks and taken away. Where to? There was contradictory information. Some claimed that the bodies were in the Donetsk morgue and were later sent elsewhere. The journalists who arrived in Donetsk to check this out were arrested.

In the end it turned out that a train with almost two hundred bodies was at Torez station—a locomotive, four refrigerator cars, and a service wagon. At first, no one was sure it was the right train. Neither the railroad engineer nor other people who entered the train were willing to talk. The train station employees were more inclined to make statements, but they didn’t know much.

“When I showed up at work at seven, the train was already loaded and running,” says Veronika, who works at the station. The train’s destination was not known until the last minute. “We are still waiting for instructions,” she added helplessly.

When I started walking around the train I noticed that one door was not closed completely and a little crack was left open. It was covered with flies and you could smell the awful odor of decomposing bodies. Fresh stains, like ones I had seen at the station, were visible under a few wagon doors.

People living nearby saw at least three trucks with bodies that arrived at midnight. Loading began right away. There is a lot of sand on the parking lot where the trucks had been standing. It smells bad, too.

In the end the train went to Kharkiv, and then the bodies were transported further.

For many Ukrainians it was a breakthrough moment in the conflict.

“I hope that those in the West will finally wake up and take appropriate action,” says Vladimir from Dnipropetrovsk, who serves in the Ukrainian army. He was not isolated in his hope. But it turned out to be in vain. The Ukrainian war came back on track. It has become a problem that will be settled between Ukraine and Russia.


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IT IS SEPTEMBER 6, late evening. The eastern outskirts of Mariupol are being shelled. I found myself in this city with three other journalists. We had been sitting in a seaside restaurant when suddenly we heard explosions. The recently arrived reporter and cameraman from one of the TV stations had endured similar conditions several times earlier. They rented a car, so it was easier for all of us to get to the event site rapidly. The third among my companions was a print journalist. He had spent more time in Donbas than anybody else. It was not our first trip together. We decided to go, but we had to stop by the hotel to pick up our helmets and bulletproof vests.

Yesterday yet another ceasefire agreement was signed between the separatists and Kiev. I had no illusions that it would last, but I thought that fighting would start at least two days later. Yet it erupted the next day. The Press Service of the Donetsk People’s Republic announced on Twitter that “The Armed Forces of Novorossiya are capturing Mariupol.” There was no doubt who was behind the attack. There was a rumor that a large fleet of tanks and armored personnel carriers had crossed the Russian border heading toward Mariupol.

When we get closer to the battlefield, we realize that the situation is more serious than we thought. Heavy shelling is really close. It must be large caliber because the explosions are very powerful. We hide behind the last apartment building, only several hundred meters from the shelled Ukrainian checkpoint. It is a half kilometer or so from where the shells hit the ground. With each strike you can hear a terrible boom and the ground shudders slightly.

Instead of hiding in the basement the local residents stand outside the stairwell, in the middle of the square, and despair. A guardsman from Azov has arrived. He may be twenty and he is scared.

“So what that we have rifles if they have artillery?” he asks rhetorically.

I run downstairs and open the basement door. You can enter the basement not only from the stairwell but also from the main entrance.

“Please go to the basement. It is safer there,” I tell people who stand outside.

“And if the basement collapses, then what?” someone from the crowd asks me.

I don’t tell him, but maybe I should, that if the basement gives way in the explosion, not even shreds will be left of him standing there in the open space.

“If you don’t want to stay in the basement, at least don’t stand in the middle of the square, come closer to the walls.”

Some have listened to me, others are still outside because they think they know better. Even a young fellow in uniform can’t convince them. He keeps trying to get them to respect his military background.

“You journalists, you only talk and talk, but you do nothing,” a man suddenly snaps at me. Missiles explode around us, so a conversation about what it means to be a journalist seems to me a little inappropriate.

“And what is it you are doing?” I ask him.

“I’m standing here… I live here,” he responds, thrown off balance.

In the end he decides to hide in the stairwell.

After about two hours the situation calms down. We walk toward the checkpoint. Many journalists have come to the scene. The checkpoint itself was only slightly damaged. But a truck, some grass, a gas station, and a medical emergency building were completely incinerated.

Even a few days before the shelling Mariupol had already been living in fear. In Novoazovsk, forty kilometers from Mariupol and ten kilometers from the Russian border, at least thirty tanks appeared. They came from abroad and dislodged the remaining units of the National Guard from the city. The Ukrainian forces, which had been in no way equipped to defend the place, were taken by surprise. Apart from scattered units of the National Guard, only three volunteer battalions, Azov, Dnipro-1, and Shakhtarsk, are based in Mariupol. Almost every day the governor of the Donetsk region, Serhiy Taruta, affirmed that everything was all right and that the city was ready for defense. Hardly anyone, however, believed his words. In March he said the same about Donetsk, and soon after, he fled the city and moved the entire administration to Mariupol.

The hypothesis that the city has not been secured was confirmed by soldiers. “If these tanks attacked us, the city would be captured in an hour,” “Locha” from the battalion Dnipro-1 tells me. A lack of heavy equipment is a problem here. “We won’t defeat tanks with rifles,” claims one of the guardsmen. Then he adds that even the ro

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cket-propelled grenades they have are too old to fight the modern tanks advancing on Novoazovsk.

Almost every pro-Ukrainian resident would say: “We need tanks.”

Others would add: “…and antitank weapons.”

In the next few days, artillery, tanks, and other military units were sent here to defend the city. They brought heavy equipment for building fortifications and digging antitank ditches.

Earlier, something unusual had happened in Mariupol. The city, rather passive and politically indifferent in the past, suddenly turned into a place with a strong movement of pro-Ukrainian resistance. When its residents heard that Mariupol might be attacked and return under separatist control, they started to organize.

On August 28 an antiwar and pro-Ukrainian demonstration was held, attended by at least five thousand people. This is a surprising number for Mariupol with its population of five hundred thousand, who are generally not willing to take to the streets, and many of whom still support the separatists. Although there were no tents and no one wanted to occupy the main square, the atmosphere resembled that of the early Maidan in Kiev.

“Glory to Ukraine!” someone shouts from the platform. “Glory to the heroes!” the crowd shouts back. The entire square is filled with Ukrainian flags and hand-painted posters. “I want to live in Ukraine.” A young man holds a piece of paper. He has climbed the pedestal where the Lenin statue used to stand. There is a girl with him of the same age, dressed in a T-shirt showing a trident and waving the Ukrainian flag. Somewhere else you can see a poster saying, “Down with Putin!” and next to it “PTN PNCH,” which is a subtle acronym of the less subtle slogan in Russian, “Putin, go fuck yourself.” The residents are demanding immediate measures that would improve the city’s defensibility. They are ready to protect it, too.

On the next day a group of volunteers went to the eastern checkpoint to assist with building fortifications. There were only several dozen persons, not as many as at the demonstration, but new people were joining in. After they got the appropriate permit from the guardsmen, they set to work. Armed with shovels, they dug for hours every day. No one doubted that thanks to their efforts the city would be defended.

“Our action is symbolic. We want to show to our defenders that they are not alone, that they are backed by the city residents,” says Roman who joined the action. In Mariupol I will hear a similar statement many times.

Another undertaking of Mariupol’s civilian defenders is a “human shield.” The residents formed a human chain in the eastern outskirts of the city and made a pledge to stand there until the tanks showed up. They will defend the city with their own bodies, and they believe that separatists and Russians will not fire at civilians. “Mariupol is Ukraine,” they shout. At a preset time they sing the Ukrainian anthem. Then they approach one of the checkpoints. They call the guardsmen “heroes.” They take pictures with them and thank them for defending Mariupol.

The Mariupol events were the first mobilization of this kind, and so far the only one. In other cities people prefer not to be involved because you never know who will rule the city next. Here, this fear has been partly conquered.

Novorossiya Hardens 

It was back in April, in Slovyansk, that I heard for the first time that the separatists wanted to create a second Transnistria on the territories they controlled. At the same time, Evgeny Gorbik, the leader of the green men, argued that integration with Russia didn’t have to mean becoming part of it.

“It didn’t happen in the cases of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” he said. He added that, to him, Russia was good at making states, which didn’t mean that those states had to join Russia right away. To me, comparing Donbas to two parastates unrecognized by anybody but Russia sounded like a bad joke. Who would like to have the same standards of living as Abkhazians or Ossetians? With time I understood that it wasn’t a joke. A parastate in the post-Soviet style was also being built in Donbas.

The key moment was the collapse of the Ukrainian front with the Ilovaisk encirclement and the arrival of Russian tanks in Novoazovsk. The unrecognized republics caught their second wind and strengthened their positions on their territories. The situation was stable, so there was time for politics. In November, presidential and parliamentary elections were held. The separatists’ representatives stressed that this was done in order to legitimize the government among the residents because earlier the authorities “had elected themselves.” After the “referendum” no other elections had been held and all the officials were being appointed from above.

Donetsk, too, has changed in recent months. There are still no crowds in the streets, but there are more cars. When I was here in July the roads were empty. The people expected that the war would rush in here, too, so they left their homes. After their summer vacations many locals returned. Some of them came from Mariupol, at that time defended by the Ukrainians. For many, the reasons were financial. They could no longer afford to live away from home. Others believed that the ceasefire signed on September 5 in Belarus, in Minsk, would bring peace to Donetsk. All in vain. Soon afterwards the separatists resumed fighting for the Donetsk airport. Every day you can hear explosions coming from the city outskirts. Occasionally projectiles hit the city center.

The northern part of Donetsk near the international airport is falling into ruins. The shelling destroys one building after another and each day kills more people. But the ceasefire continues. Residents are afraid that under such conditions they will not survive the winter.

Donetsk generally is a peculiar city. There is a bazaar around the recently renovated, tidy train station. A little further on, towards the center, you can see high-rise buildings. But if you venture a few hundred meters north, you will have the impression that you have found yourself in some provincial town.

I stop at the bazaar that is not far from the airport. The remains of the bus station and the shop that was there are frightening. The building has been patched up with metal plates. There is only the skeleton of a framework left from its western wall and the roof is partly torn off. Walls perforated by shrapnel, piles of rubble.

“No, this is old,” says a young fellow who sells cigarettes. This house was hit four days before my arrival, but for him it’s ancient history. Here every day brings something new. Who is shooting? One of the residents, Ivan, claims it’s one side, and the other side, too. But first he covers himself, saying, “How am I supposed to know?”

Here, on the (pro-)Russian side of the front, everyone, except Ivan, is convinced that Ukrainians are behind the firing, especially the Ukrainian National Guard, so much hated by the Russians. The residents of Cheerful, the village outside the city limits, a few hundred meters from the airport, present a more complex picture of events. They claim that separatists provoke Ukrainian firing by placing tanks and mortars between the residential buildings. Ukrainian artillery responds with heavy shelling.

Projectiles have hit the bazaar, too. They smashed one of the stands and left craters, shrapnel, and shattered windows. Almost all the stalls have been closed. Only a few people are walking around here. They are glad that they can show journalists what they are going through.

“Look what they are doing to us. We want to live normally,” says an elderly woman, crying. Very often tears get mixed with outrage and helplessness. No one knows what to do next, how and where to live. There are more shattered windows, bombed-out houses, wounded, and dead. Maxim was getting some water from a hydrant since water had not been available in the apartments for a long time. A projectile struck the ground and shrapnel hit Maxim in his temple—it has already been patched up—and his hand. His palm is terribly swollen and you can see a large wound.

“It was a piece of glass,” says Maxim.

The lack of water is especially severe during fires.

“The fire department and the emergency medical services should be brought before a tribunal,” claims Irina who lives nearby. During the shelling the neighboring buildings caught fire. One at first, then two more. The firefighters responded that they wouldn’t come because it was a war zone. Irina asked them at least to provide some water for putting the fire out, but they refused that, too.

“When I called the medical emergency number and told them that someone might have been killed, they told me to take the body to some safe location, so they could pick it up,” she continues. “How was I supposed to do it?” She spreads her arms. There is neither water nor electricity, and gas is supplied very rarely. How to survive the coming winter when there is no chance that the heating will be turned on?

Volodymyr, whom I meet at the destroyed bazaar, asks me to write down his brief message to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko:

“May you go through what simple people go through because of you.” And then he invites me to tea and apples. He lives next to the bazaar. His house is full of animals: two dogs, two cats, and a rabbit. Not so long ago his neighbor’s house was hit by a missile. They say it came from the

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Grad rocket launch system. Volodymyr shows me the shrapnel he has found in his backyard. His son Vitaly doesn’t go to school because the neighborhood schools haven’t opened after the summer vacations, and he has no means to get to the center. Despite this Volodymyr doesn’t want to leave his house because as he says: “It is our land.”

Others say: “We stay because we have no place to go.”

I am sitting with Volodymyr, listening to the accompaniment of artillery shelling. You can hear mortars and their typical “popping,” and less often, rifle fire. I have spent several hours here and have counted at least fifty explosions. Some were close, others farther away.

Almost no one pays any attention to distant explosions. People don’t turn their heads, don’t hide, and don’t blink. For those who have stayed, war is a commonplace.

“Over there is a ‘street of death,’” a pro-Russian insurgent points out. He doesn’t tell me his name, just his age. He is twenty-two. “Go to the very end. Our checkpoint will be there. When someone goes beyond it, ukrops  start shooting.”

Ukrop  means “dill” in Russian. Today it is a derogatory term for “Ukrainian.” This fellow is almost as old as independent Ukraine, but he says it was the Soviet Union that was the country worth living in.

An elderly woman is walking toward the “street of death.”

“Excuse me. Are they shooting there?” She points in that direction. I reply that they haven’t been shooting. One second afterwards we hear an explosion. The elderly lady decides to walk to her apartment that is located right there.

Back in July, several hundred meters from the “street of death” a missile hit a garage. It destroyed it completely but didn’t explode. Inside I can see the unexploded ordnance sticking from the ground. In the summer a bomb disposal unit arrived to take a look but they decided that there was no danger, and they left. A family lives in the house nearby. They are afraid to touch the shell so it is still there.

Recently the missiles have been falling close to the city center. Serhiy lives several hundred meters from the station. He says that a missile went through the roof and ended up in his apartment. “Usually I come home at five p.m., but this time I had to stay a little longer. It must have been a divine intervention.”

The men from a bomb disposal unit who arrived next morning again claimed that there was no danger. And they walked away, leaving the remains of the missile in his apartment. Now, Serhiy practically lives under the open sky. He is worried that he won’t get any assistance soon. The temperature in Donetsk falls to a few degrees Celsius, and in a day or two it will fall below zero at night. The rain will come, followed by frost that is generally more bitter than in Kiev. During the shelling that destroyed Serhiy’s apartment, the projectiles damaged a few other buildings. One hit a grocery store. Two shop assistants were killed. On that day five people lost their lives.

Many people regret that they have left more peaceful places in haste. Olha, holding onto a child, is standing in front of the apartment building that was recently hit. She has returned from somewhere in the Donetsk region. She crosses her arms. “What are we supposed to do?” she asks.

The Parastate in the Making 

The city itself looks very militarized. The ratio of “men in uniform” to civilians is overwhelming. When I walk in the Donetsk streets I see people with guns in camouflage outfits.

“Documents, please! It’s standard procedure. There is martial law.” An insurgent stops me on the main street. In the center you can’t see any cars labeled milicja  but policja , just like in Russia now. They stop all the vehicles and check the drivers.

In the first half of October I was coming to Donetsk from Dnipropetrovsk by minibus. Despite the fighting, buses were running everywhere. At the entry checkpoint my bus was stopped. A militant got in and asked sarcastically in Ukrainian: “Any cute boys from Lviv here?” Nobody reacted, so he got off.

The next checkpoint was more serious. All men aged from eighteen to fifty-five had to get out and show their documents. Of course, when they saw a Pole and my friend, a Slovak photographer, they got very interested and decided to check our papers more carefully. Poles, in particular, raise their suspicions. Back in July in Donetsk, when a Polish journalist was detained, the separatists told him that he had a “fucking shitty passport.” Some representatives of the insurgents don’t want to have anything to do with Poles. It’s because there is a myth among them that Polish mercenaries fight on the Ukrainian side. The problem is that no one has ever seen them. And the only Poles engaged in this conflict happen to fight for the separatists.

Another element of control is curfew. Earlier it was taken with a pinch of salt. Now the jokes are over. Really, it would be better if you didn’t walk the streets in the evening. The curfew begins at eleven at night and lasts until six in the morning.

“There are two strategies. Some people say that you shouldn’t leave your home at nine p.m., others that you shouldn’t do it after ten p.m.,” a friend who has been in Donetsk for quite a while tells me.

The first place any journalist arriving in Donetsk has to visit is the Donetsk Regional State Administration building. In the past it was the office of the local Ukrainian government. You can get a so-called civilian accreditation here. It is quite funny but for a long time even the representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) called this building the “regional administration,” which suggested that it was still a part of Ukraine. Now they call it Government House, just like in Belarus or Russia.

The most striking change, however, is not about aesthetics or symbols but about organization. Inside the building it is more orderly. On each floor there are special information desks that provide assistance. The Press Center is on the seventh floor. Here I get my new accreditation. On other floors there are “ministerial” offices, a first aid station, and various agencies providing financial aid for insurgents’ families and refugees. Those who lost their apartments or houses due to the shelling can apply for some assistance, too. How many people get what they ask for, and how many are sent away? I don’t know. But every day you see a larger or smaller group of claimants.

It is clear that Novorussians try to keep the building well ordered. The bureaucracy is expanding because the DPR has to guarantee jobs for its citizens. For the time being, the owners of private shops and small businesses can’t be forced to open them, so other options are pursued. Fighting in the units of Novorossiya is also a job. There are attempts to start industrial plants. But how to find funds for all this? No one knows, and the “authorities” emphasize that the money they collect from taxes (the taxes are imposed) is not enough.

There are more organizational questions than answers. In late October a message appeared on the website of the DPR Press Service: “The Court is functioning in the Donetsk People’s Republic.” The recruitment of judges was announced and the presiding judge of the Supreme Court was chosen. But a question comes to my mind: “What kind of law will these courts follow?”

It’s true that the “constitution” was approved back in June, but it is only a formal and legal framework. On the one hand, the self-proclaimed authorities declare that they want to be an independent and democratic state. On the other, they affirm their attachment to Soviet traditions.

Asking about how city and communal institutions work here turns out to be problematic. “Everything is all right. We work as we did before,” a doctor tells me but he doesn’t agree to be recorded. The hospital administration barred him from talking to the media.

In the schools, children follow the program set by the Ukrainian Ministry of Education. “The only thing that has changed is one hour of Russian that was added to some grades,” says the principal of a Russian-language school. Most of the instructions come from Kiev. To demonstrate this, this woman shows me some documents with Ukrainian emblems. Ukrainian is still being taught. But Ukrainian history has been postponed until the second semester. Schools with classes taught in Ukrainian are functioning as well. Only the schools near the airport were not opened after the summer vacations because it would be too dangerous. Children living near the airport can attend other schools in Donetsk. They were all opened on October 1, but according to the principal they will catch up with the syllabus because the fall break has been cancelled. However, there are rumors that the program will be changed soon. At the universities, too.

The separatists have even decided to impose their new time. In the DPR clocks don’t run on Kiev time. The hands of the clocks are set one hour forward.

Novorossyans are more and more sure that they will create a separate and independent state. They realize that they have a long way to go. In September there was a summit in Minsk that de facto sealed Ukraine’s loss of large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk territories. Even earlier, Novorossyans published an article on their website Russian Spring , entitled On the Way to a Great “Transnistria.”  Its main thesis was

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that Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko couldn’t immediately recognize independent Novorossiya, but he would do so in the end since he had no other choice.

Right now it’s a stalemate. Both sides are in their trenches, and they can’t take a single step forward.

This report is dated October 2014, Donbas.


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WHEN I ARRIVED in Slovyansk for the first time, I didn’t think I would write a book based on my observations. Only when I went to Donbas for the fourth time did I decide to write something more than press or internet articles or do more than broadcasting for radio or TV. I didn’t want to lose “the moment.” That’s why this book is partly based on my texts that were published in Dziennik Opinii, Nowa Europa Wschodnia , and New Eastern Europe . The last two chapters are extensively based on my articles from Tygodnik Powszechny . I finished writing in October 2014 in Donetsk, when the fighting was going on full blast.

This book would have never been written if it weren’t for many people who were so kind to me. First of all, I thank my mother who supported me to the very end, although she was skeptical about my travels and worried all the time.

I thank Ania, Jarek, Małanka, and Ostap Junk on whom I can always rely. I thank all the people with whom I traveled all over Donbas and spent many hours talking. These are, first of all, Piotr Andrusieczko, Piotr Pogorzelski, and Tomáš Rafa.

I thank my friends in Warsaw, Wojciech Kuźnicki and Jakub Piłczyński, who always tried to help as much as they could.

Perhaps I would have never seriously begun to write this book without the encouragement of Professor Jarosław Hrycak and Dr. Tomasz Stryjek. They were the first to motivate me, and thanks to them I believed it possible.

I am grateful to the Warsaw branch of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and in particular to Małgorzata Kopka, thanks to whom I went to Donbas for the first time. And finally, I would like to thank Wydawnictwo Krytyka Polityczna for deciding to publish Pozdrowienia z Noworosji  and for doing it like the wind.

In chapter 9 I used the fragments of the following texts:

“Samolot zestrzelony przez separatystów,” Tygodnik Powszechny , online at https://tygodnik.onet.pl/wwwylacznie/relacja-korespondenta-ze-wschodniej-ukrainy-samolot-zestrzelony-przez-separatystow/fs581.

“Boeing 777 nie wytrzymał walk,” Tygodnik Powszechny , online at https://tygodnik.onet.pl/wwwylacznie/boeing-777-nie-wytzrymal-walk-korespondencja-ze-wschodniej-ukrainy/ybbfe.

“Rosyjskie śledztwo nie będzie uczciwe,” Tygodnik Powszechny , no. 30 (3394).

“Ukraińcy: Donbas wyzwolimy sami,” Tygodnik Powszechny, no. 31 (3395).

In chapter 10 I used the fragments of the following texts:

“Dziwny rozejm,” Tygodnik Powszechny , no. 42 (3406).

“Noworosja krzepnie,” Tygodnik Powszechny , no. 43 (3407).

The translators wish to thank Lena Surzhko-Harned for her advice on Russian and Ukrainian terms.


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Near Luhansk, October 2014

Donetsk, October 2014

Donetsk, October 2014

Donetsk, October 2014

The Donetsk Regional State Administration building occupied by pro-Russian demonstrators. Barricades were placed before the building and guards were stationed. Russian banners on building: “Donetsk Republic.” Large sign with crossed-out swastika in center: “No to Fascism!,” smaller sign: “Drunks keep out.” April 16, 2014

Kramatorsk, April 2014

Donetsk, October 2014

One of the last pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in Donetsk. April 17, 2014

Kramatorsk, April 2014. Russian sign reads: “Donbas, our land”

Separatists took over the infantry fighting vehicles from Ukrainian forces in Slovyansk. April 19, 2014

Kramatorsk, April 2014. Russian sign reads: “Referendum. Fascism, Nato—NO”

The Saint George Ribbon associated with the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany is now used by pro-Russian demonstrators in Kharkiv. May 9, 2014

Donetsk, October 2014

Near Kiev, March 2014

PrivatBank car belonging to oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. Particularly in the initial phase of the conflict, Kolomoyskyi was considered the only man who could stop the separatists. Dnipropetrovsk, May 14, 2014

103 Lenin Street, Luhansk, October 2014

Novoazovsk, October 2014

Main square in Slovyansk with its Lenin statue in the center. April 21, 2014

Some “little green men” who came from Crimea. Initially, many residents welcomed them with great enthusiasm. Slovyansk, April 16, 2014

Near Slovyansk, April 2014

Burned cars that had supposedly been driven by activists from Right Sector. Bilbasivka, April 20, 2014

Slovyansk, April 2014

A Ukrainian armored personnel carrier is shielding a special forces unit during an attack on separatist checkpoints in Khrestishche. April 24, 2014

Ilovaisk, October 2014

A ballot box labelled Donetsk Republic during the so-called independence referendum that took place in the territories controlled by separatists. Donetsk, May 11, 2014

Donetsk, October 2014

Slovyansk, April 2014

The remains of a separatist barricade on Lenin Street. A few days before, Slovyansk returned to Kiev’s control. Under the Ukrainian flag you can see the colors of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Written on the barricade: “Stop,” “By our civic position we protect the land of Slovyansk,” and “In unity our strength.” July 10, 2014

During the fighting for Kramatorsk a shell landed in an apartment. July 10, 2014

Luhansk, October 2014

Donetsk, October 2014

Luhansk, October 2014

After the shelling, almost all residents left Marinka. Separatists are stationed in the city. July 13, 2014

In the bunker, Val with a grenade launcher poses for his picture. Marinka, July 13, 2014

The slogan on the billboard says “Peace to the world.” Behind it you can see the smoke from a burning factory. Donetsk, July 21, 2014

A truck belonging to the nationalist battalion Azov. Their symbol is the Wolfsangel used by neofascist groups. The sign in Ukrainian says “Between us and the terrorists—only the Army—Support the Army—Protect yourself.” Mariupol, September 4, 2014

Slovyansk, April 2014

The remains of the fuselage of the downed Malaysian passenger plane. Hrabove, July 18, 2014

Near Slovyansk, April 2014

Donetsk, October 2014

During a pro-Ukrainian demonstration, a young resident of Mariupol is holding a piece of paper: “I want to live in Ukraine.” August 28, 2014

Slovyansk, April 2014

Donetsk, October 2014

Near Luhansk, October 2014

Ilovaisk, October 2014

Near Luhansk, October 2014

Novoazovsk, October 2014

Donetsk, October 2014

Slovyansk, April 2014. Russian banner reads: “Donbas Republic”


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accreditation: civilian, 185; DPR, 156–57; press, 119-21

Akhmetov, Rinat, 13, 14

Alchevsk, 20, 86

antifascism, 27, 33, 131; Victory over Fascism Day, 32

armored personnel carriers (APCs), 76, 77, 137, 139, 147, 168; in Slovyansk, 7, 23, 59, 61, 84, 86, 109

Artemivsk, 86, 142, 143, 154

Banderites, 26-27, 46; “Benderites,” 27

battalion Donbas. See  volunteer battalion Donbas

Berkut police unit, 25, 26, 161

Borodai, Alexander, 154, 160

Brotherhood, the, 134, 150

ceasefire, 168, 176, 178

Central Election Commission, 89, 95, 97

checkpoints: near Khrestishche, 84; in Marinka, 130; in Mariupol, 171, 175; in Slovyansk, 59, 67, 69, 71, 86

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>Cheerful. See  Vesele (Cheerful)

Christian Battalion of Saint Mary. See  Brotherhood, the

City Council buildings, 20, 37, 48, 81, 118; Ponomarev and, 73, 74, 76, 109; in Slovyansk, 57, 59, 61, 71, 73, 75-76, 105

Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU), 17, 32, 35, 73, 101

Crimea, 23, 26, 80, 91, 92, 146; annexed by Russia, 20, 32, 38, 123; Gorbik from, 74-75; referendum in, 91, 99; Russian Spring and, 72, 79

curfew, 64, 116, 185

Debaltseve, 154, 155

Defense Ministry, 40; forces, 84

Dnipropetrovsk region, 13, 20, 31, 37, 42, 160

Dnipropetrovsk residents: Iryna, 13; Maryna, 37; Oleksij, 32; Vitalij, 40; Vladimir, 48, 164

Donbas, 6, 7, 17, 23, 51, 90; Akhmetov and, 14; Mass Mobilization, 20; People’s Militia, 10; residents in, 45, 46, 119; Russian propaganda in, 23, 27

Donetsk, 10, 20, 23, 99, 100, 115; airport, 3, 136, 178; City Bank, 13; fighting in, 137, 139, 140; Petrovska suburb of, 127, 136; Pushkin Boulevard, 94, 95, 116; restaurants closing in, 118; Regional Administration building, 13, 43, 131, 185; Tochmash factory, 137, 140

Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), 10, 48, 49, 92, 94, 97, 134, 141; accreditation, 156-57; cities acting independently, 75; and Marinka residents, 126; and plane crash, 161-62; Press Service, 168, 185-86; referendum, 89, 90, 99; schools in, 189; and Slovyansk, 74, 110

Donetsk region, 11, 20, 31, 42, 80, 100, 119, 189; Akhmetov and, 14; and Right Sector, 55; and Yanukovych, 49-50

Donetsk residents, 90, 178, 180, 185; Andrij, 19; Artem, 3, 6; Ira and her boyfriend, 49; Irina, 103-4, 180; Ivan, 178; Klavdia (Press Bureau Secretary), 120, 121, 123, 127; Larisa (polling commission), 94, 97, 98; Maxim, 180; Nastia (killed), 6; Natalya, 51, 90; Oleksandr, 95; Oleksij, 137; Olha, 92, 112, 184; Pavlo (cab driver), 116, 118-19; Raya (landlady), 118; Sergey, 140-41; Serhiy, 25, 184; Vadim, 25; Valentina, 50, 92; Vasil, 23; Volodymyr, 14, 27, 101, 180, 182

DPR. See  Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR)

Druzhkivka, 20, 86

elections, 49, 94, 98, 100-101, 144-45, 176; presidential, 43, 136, 176. See also  Central Election Commission

electricity, lack of, 105, 107, 130, 180

Euromaidan, 38, 144

European Union, the, 35, 49

Facebook: American journalist on, 63; Avakov on, 79; Defense Ministry’s page on, 81; Khorosheva on, 72; Russian equivalent of (Vkontakte), 121

fascists: in Donetsk region, 55; in Donbas, 59; separatist name for nationalists, 26, 27, 37, 64, 92, 95

federalists, so-called, 51; Federal Security Service (FSB), 75, 150

Filatov, Boris, 40, 42

flags, 32, 37, 40, 59, 109; Russian in Slovyansk, 23, 59, 61. See also  Ukrainian flags

gas, lack of, 105, 180

Girkin, Igor “Strelkov,” 75, 109, 161, 162

Gorbik, Evgeny, 74, 176

Grad rocket launch system, 126, 182

greens (little green men), 20, 23, 176; in Slovyansk, 59, 61, 72-74, 76-77, 86

Gubarev, Pavel, 10, 11, 14, 27, 91, 160; detained, 66

Horlivka, 20, 64, 98

Hrabove, site of plane debris, 154, 158, 160, 161

Ilovaisk, battle of, 149, 176

Internet: Levyj Bereg  (Left Bank ) magazine, 149; Russian Spring  website, 162, 189; websites, 150, 154. See also  Facebook; Twitter

journalists, 26, 59, 74, 84, 107, 129, 135; detained, 62, 63; international, 56, 63, 64, 119, 120; and Ponomarev, 75-76; at press conferences, 69, 71, 72, 75; and referendum, 94, 97; residents and, 57, 119; Russian, 67, 85, 110, 121; Ukrainian, 52, 83; Western, 48, 64, 121, 125, 139, 154. See also  media; photographers

Kernes, Hennadiy, 33, 35

Kharkiv region, 20, 31-33, 37, 55, 81, 86

Khartsyzk, 20, 86

Khmelovy, Anatoly, 73, 75, 90

Khorosheva, Stella, 62, 63, 64, 71, 75

Kiev, 13, 79, 90, 92, 99, 101, 103, 144; and Donbas, 17, 19, 20; the junta in, 17, 67; Maidan, 43

Kolomoyskiy, Igor, 13, 38, 42, 146

Kramatorsk, 20, 48, 80, 110, 112; resident in, 56

Krasnoarmijsk, 86, 98, 142; resident in, 99

Kremlin, 31-32, 83, 99, 110

Kurakhove, 50, 142, 149

Lagin, Roman, 97, 98

Lenin monuments, 10, 33, 35, 38, 57

Luhansk region, 11, 31, 42, 98, 100, 146, 189; insurgents in, 20, 55, 119, 160; Luhansk People’s Republic in, 89; and Yanukovych, 49-50

Maidan, the, 7, 23, 25, 134, 144; Presidential Administration building attacked during, 134, 150

Makiivka, 20, 86

Malaysian Airlines: flight number MH17, 153, 154, 158, 160, 161; resident at the train station, 163

Marinka, 125-26, 127, 130, 136

Mariupol, 20, 81, 86, 167, 172

Mariupol residents, 168, 171; Roman, 119, 175; Taras, 45-46

media, 11, 59, 63, 67, 80-81, 189; in Donetsk, 95, 98; events, 77, 160; Russian social, 121, 154; Ukrainian, 71, 83. See also  Internet; journalists; Russian media; television

Mykolaiv region, 20, 31

National Guard of Ukraine, 55, 84, 86, 109, 145, 171, 178; guardsman, “Boost,” 143

National Security and Defense Council (NSDC), 79, 80

Novoazovsk, 86, 171, 172, 176

Novorossiya, 10, 32, 42, 91, 186, 189

NSDC. See  National Security and Defense Council (NSDC)

Odessa, 19-20, 31, 42

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), 66, 67, 101, 161

Ostrovsky, Simon, 62, 63

Party of Regions, 43, 45, 47

photographers: in Artemivsk, 143; Crimean, 74; in Donetsk, 6; in Marinka, 129; Max Levin, 149; in Slovyansk, 84; a Slovak, 185. See also  media; journalists

Poles, 26, 56, 59, 83, 120, 134, 185

police stations: in Horlivka, 20; in Kramatorsk, 48; in Krasnoarmijsk, 99; in Slovyansk, 59, 62, 107, 109

political parties: Batkivshchyna Party, 66; Radical Party, 95; Self-Reliance, 144. See also  Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, the

polling commission, 94, 95, 97, 98, 101

polling stations, 90, 92, 94, 97, 100

Ponomarev, Vyacheslav, 63, 64, 69, 73, 75; at a press conference, 55-56, 62, 66-67, 72; self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, 48, 61; vanished, 109

Poroshenko, Petro, 100, 105, 143, 180, 189

Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, the, 10, 32-33, 47

pro-Russian organizations, 40; Borotba, 33; Donetsk Republic, 10; Oplot, 81; Party of Regions, 32; Russian Bloc, 10. See also  Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine

pro-Russians, 10, 14, 17, 19, 27, 110, 131; and demonstrations, 20, 37, 45, 52, 81; and insurgents, 178, 182

pro-Ukrainian movement, 17, 45, 95, 146, 147, 172; and referendum, 98, 99, 100

Putin, Vladimir, 42-43, 49, 149-50, 162, 172, 175

radical organizations, 47, 147

referendum, 37, 49, 75, 81, 120, 126, 176; for independence, 11, 62; and press accreditation, 120; voting in, 89-92, 95, 97-100

Right Sector, 27, 67, 77, 79, 142, 147; Ponomarev and, 55, 62

Russian language, 11, 19, 189; speakers of, 43, 45

Russian media, 27-28, 61, 69, 71, 73, 81, 85, 98, 158; and propaganda, 26, 31-32, 38, 83, 92

Russian Orthodox Army, 131, 150

Russian Orthodoxy, 57, 131

Russian Spring, the, 11, 18, 31, 72, 99; in Dnipropetrovsk, 20; in Donetsk, 17; support of, 35, 52, 79, 131; website, 162, 189

Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), 59, 66-67, 74, 83, 107, 109, 150

separatists, 20, 40, 42, 98, 99, 149, 161; at checkpoints, 67, 69, 71, 76, 130; Cimmerian and his son, 27, 28, 133-34, 135; in Donetsk, 6, 116, 120; and plane crash, 154, 161-62; in Slovyansk, 23, 61, 77; sympathizers with the, 11, 13

Slovyansk, 7, 20, 23, 48, 56, 63, 109; “liberated,” 80, 85-86, 110; October Revolution Square in, 57, 59, 61; Roma households, in, 73-74; Russian flags in, 23, 59, 61; water problems in, 105, 107

SSU. See  Security Service of Ukraine (SSU)

Sviatohirsk, 57, 83

Taruta, Serhiy, 11, 171

television, 26, 84, 158, 167, 193

Torez, 153, 163

Turchynov, Oleksandr, 45, 80

Twitter: Borodai on, 154; DPR Press Service on, 168

Ukraine: eastern, 43, 59, 80, 91, 145; southeastern, 10, 31, 42; western Ukraine, 62

Ukrainian flags, 10, 38, 40, 59; in Donetsk, 95; in Khrestishche village, 76; near Kramatorsk, 110; in Mariupol, 172; in Sviatohirsk, 83

Ukrainian forces, 6, 14, 23, 76, 77, 80, 87, 105; in Donetsk, 142; in Kramatorsk, 112; in Novoazovsk, 171; in Slovyansk, 84

Ukrainian media, 71, 83

Ukrainian National Guard. See  National Guard of Ukraine

Union of Soviet Officers, 37-38, 40

Vesele (Cheerful), 3, 178

veterans. See  World War II veterans

Victory over Fascism Day, 32, 33

Vladimirovich, Vladimir, 55-56

volunteer battalion Donbas, 40, 42, 133, 142-43, 147, 149; “Asker,” 146; Ilya Bohdanov, 149; “Iron Man,” 145; “Pastor,” 142, 145; Semen Semenchenko, 17, 19, 133, 143, 145

volunteer battalions: Azov, 147, 171; battalion Shakhtarsk, 171; Dnipro-1, 40, 171; Kiev-1, 109; Kiev-2, 109. See also  Christian Battalion of Saint Mary; volunteer battalion Donbas; Vostok

Vostok, 137, 162

water problems: in Donetsk, 118, 180; in Kramatorsk, 112; in Slovyansk, 105, 107

World War II veterans, 32, 33

Yanukovych, Viktor, 9, 25, 43, 49, 51, 57, 90

Yenakiieve, 49, 81

Zaporozhia region, 20, 31

Zhadan, Serhiy, 33, 35


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This English-langu

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age publication has been translated from the Polish original: Paweł Pieniążek, Pozdrowienia z Noworosji  © 2015 by Paweł Pieniążek and Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, published by Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej

All photos by Paweł Pieniążek and Tomáš Rafa

Published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15260

Copyright © 2017, University of Pittsburgh Press

All rights reserved

Manufactured in the United States of America

Printed on acid-free paper

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Cataloging-in-Publication data is available from the Library of Congress

ISBN 13: 978-0-8229-6510-7

ISBN 10: 0-8229-6510-0

Cover art: Photomontage of photographs by Paweł Pieniążek and Tomáš Rafa

Cover and book design by Alex Wolfe

ISBN-13: 978-0-8229-8326-2 (electronic)

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