To get a sense of what life is like these days in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, roam the corridors of Donetsk National University on any given weekday. School is back in session.

It is an October afternoon, and dozens of the university’s students are in the halls, just as they would be at any other eastern European institution. Teachers and students mingle in the corridors of the main building, file in and out of classrooms, buy books and materials at the campus bookshop, and linger outside on the main steps for a cigarette break. Few pay attention to the occasional din of artillery fire in the background.

The university, like most places in Donetsk, is stuck in a strange purgatory. At times it seems oddly normal; at others plucked from the pages of Orwell or Zamyatin. Since early September, the institution has been run by a lieutenant of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Sergei Baryshnikov, a rotund former history professor who has made quick work of scrubbing all Ukrainian history and culture courses from the curriculum.

The black-blue-and-red flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic hangs on a mast outside the building, while miniature DPR flags are scattered throughout inside. One sits on Baryshnikov’s desk, inside of which is an engraved eight-round Makarov pistol given to him by the DPR leadership. The rector is already lusting after an upgrade. “My dream is a Stechkin pistol with a cartridge for 20 bullets,” he says.

Baryshnikov left the university in 2012 after a 20-year career there. Officially, he resigned; unofficially, he was fired amid allegations of bribe taking. While this might have been the end of his career, a higher power intervened. When pro-Russia protests began in Donetsk in February, the ex-professor was one of a core group of pro-Russia activists who protested against the government in Kiev and advocated Russian military intervention.

Despite growing up in Donetsk, Baryshnikov says he always felt closer to Moscow than Kiev. He is fairly confident that his parents conceived him on what is now Russian territory when they were in Sverdlovskaya Oblast as graduate students. Several years ago he decided to make the relationship official and applied for Russian citizenship. After the activists seized several key regional administration buildings, Baryshnikov became a deputy on the Donetsk People’s Republic’s first governing council. Five months later, the new leadership of the DPR appointed him as rector at his former university.

Like most historical and literary figures who have rocketed from a position of exile to one of great power, Baryshnikov’s first order of business has been instinctive: revenge. Together with the DPR’s new (and opaque) judiciary, Baryshnikov has put together criminal cases against 200 of his 3,000 former colleagues, the “ideological and political opponents” who pushed him out. Topping the list, somewhat unimaginatively, is his predecessor, the former rector.

“When he left he took university documents, and when he ran away he left in one of the university cars, an Audi. This is theft! He would have taken the TV too if he could have carried it to his car,” Baryshnikov says, pointing at the impressive flat screen on the wall. We are sitting in the ex-professor’s newly acquired, spacious office, where he’s already made himself quite at home. “When we annex the rest of Ukraine, we will find these people and we will put them on trial. If the courts say they should be shot, they will be shot.” He leans in closer. “You know we have the death penalty in the DPR . . . ”

The former rector, Roman Grinuk, dismisses Baryshnikov’s accusations. “Our university was seized by militants,” Grinuk says. “I left with one suitcase.”

 . . . 

Ever since Baryshnikov and pro-Russian activists seized control of two of eastern Ukraine’s biggest cities this spring, western security services and leaders have been trying to guess what Russia’s playbook is for the region. Half a year later, it is clear that Vladimir Putin has no intention of annexing it, as he did with Crimea. But it is also evident that Moscow has played a significant role in destabilising the area and helping the rebels cement their hold on power.

At the beginning of September, Nato alleged that there were 3,000 active Russian servicemen on the ground in Ukraine, while Kiev has put the number as high as 10,000. In early November, two months after Kiev and the rebels signed a ceasefire, Ukraine’s defence ministry alleged that a convoy of 32 Russian tanks and 30 trucks of Russian soldiers had crossed the border.

Moscow’s shadow in the region is everywhere. There are Russian political strategists embedded in the Donetsk and Lugansk separatist governments; Russian mercenaries and volunteers who have taken up arms to fight in the rebel battalions; and real Russian servicemen. There are signs of money coming from Moscow as well.

Yet for all of Russia’s influence, it is notable to what extent the motley local leaders have been left to their own devices. All across Donetsk and Lugansk, there are men and women like Baryshnikov who have sprung from the corners of society and seized control of civic institutions and government ministries, or formed their own personal armies. Under Moscow’s watch, the region is settling into a frozen conflict zone.

 . . . 

The city of Donetsk was founded in 1869 by a Welsh businessman named John Hughes, who helped build the city’s first steel plant. While in popular culture the city has maintained its image as a gritty mining town, over the years the downtown has actually become quite cosmopolitan. Donetsk was the beneficiary of a nearly $2bn makeover ahead of the Euro 2012 football championship. High-end hotels and restaurants abound.

During the height of the fighting this summer, the city of one million had the feel of a ghost town. Stores and restaurants were closed, the downtown was abandoned. But since the September ceasefire, it is surprising how many of the city’s residents have returned, in spite of the continued fighting. During the final warm days of autumn, couples and families paraded down the city’s leafy promenades, which a team of city workers has kept in immaculate horticultural condition. Children were out with their parents on the playground and restaurants with outdoor seating were packed.

When a resounding boom from a distant explosion rang out, no one looked up from their pizza and sushi. And when a group of heavily armed camouflaged men — members of a rebel fighting battalion — sat down at a large table, no one paid them any mind either. Gunmen are all over the city but over the past few months have folded into the scenery of daily life. The rebels are regulars at the city’s nicest hotel bars and at a tacky Havana-themed establishment called BaNaNa, which features pictures of Che Guevara and other Cuba kitsch on the walls. On weekends, the gunmen stroll around the city’s downtown on dates.

While the scenes can be absurd, the reality is certainly not. More than 4,000 people have died in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions since the fighting began. Human Rights Watch alleges that both the rebels and the Ukrainian army have used Grad (unguided) rockets and other questionable weapons on civilian areas, while on the rebel side there have been numerous reports of human rights violations. When the Ukrainian army recaptured the rebel-controlled city of Slavyansk in July, they found a mass grave containing 14 bodies. On Ukrainian Independence Day this summer, the rebels paraded prisoners of war through downtown Donetsk. On another occasion a pro-Ukrainian civilian was captured, bound and put in the middle of a Donetsk intersection so that passersby could kick and hit her. Almost all supporters of the Kiev government in the region have fled or gone silent.

Baryshnikov is part of a tight-knit group of local Russian activists who have been supporters of the pro-Russian cause in Donetsk ever since 1994, the year the Ukrainian government held an informal poll across eastern Ukraine asking residents if they wanted greater autonomy and if they wanted Russian to be considered an official state language. Respondents in Donetsk said yes to both but the results were ignored by the Ukrainian government at the time and each subsequent regime in Kiev since, Baryshnikov insists. “Basically, Kiev has been pretending for 20-plus years that these problems Donetsk has with Kiev don’t exist,” he says.

At Donetsk pro-Russia rallies, Baryshnikov says he played the “requisite intellectual”, leaving the politics to his associates. One such person was Pavel Gubarev, 31, the separatists’ initial “people’s governor” who, in his previous life, worked as an advertising executive and ran a company contracting out Santa Claus impersonators. Gubarev was arrested by Ukraine’s security service in March shortly after he became head of the pro-Russia movement. By the time he was freed in a prisoner swap one month later, he had been sidelined by new leaders and has remained on the fringes ever since.

On the morning I was supposed to meet Gubarev in October, Gubarev’s people suddenly announced that he had been hospitalised following a near-fatal car crash. They suspected foul play. The day before the crash, Gubarev had written on Twitter that he was preparing to make an “important announcement”. When I first talked to Baryshnikov about it, he was sure the crash had been the result of the brewing political tensions between the various separatist leaders. But a few days later he had changed his mind. There were lots of separatist checkpoints, some manned and some deserted, on the road that Gubarev was driving on, Baryshnikov said. Probably Gubarev’s driver had just been driving too fast and crashed into one of them.

Baryshnikov’s initial conviction that rival separatist forces may have been after Gubarev does not seem far off. In the eight months of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s existence, there have been so many power struggles and purges within the leadership, you would need a seriously detailed chart to keep track of all the wildly changing allegiances and rotating cast of characters.

On the military side, there has been Igor Girkin, nom de guerre Strelkov, a Muscovite who recently claimed to be a colonel in Russia’s FSB intelligence service, with a penchant for historical re-enactment; Igor “the demon” Bezler, a one-time Ukrainian cemetery attendant and another alleged Russian security agent, according to Kiev; and Givi, an Abkhazian-born former rope factory worker who is managing the rebels’ current defence of the Donetsk airport.

On the political side, Gubarev was pushed out by a local businessman named Denis Pushilin, a self-confessed former Ponzi schemer with a penchant for cobalt blue suits, who in turn was pushed out by Alexander Borodai, a Moscow political strategist with close links to the Orthodox and Kremlin-friendly oligarch Konstantin Malofeev. In August, Borodai announced he was returning to Moscow and that Alexander Zakharchenko, the head of a separatist military battalion called Oplot, would be taking over as the Donetsk People’s Republic’s prime minister.

The various names may blur together. But the players fall roughly into three categories: the long-time local Russia activists who have been with the cause since the very beginning; the opportunists who have seized the moment for money and fame; and the Moscow-approved figures who are trying to keep a handle on the local players.

One of the few old-timers to survive all the purges is Andrei Purgin, the Donetsk People’s Republic’s number-two official. A little man with a generous stomach and a Lenin-like beard, Purgin owns a few home-improvement stores in the Donetsk area but also spent years as the head of a pro-Russia activist group called the Donetsk Republic, an underground fringe organisation that existed in the confines of social networking sites.

Purgin likes to rattle off all the criminal statutes he and other members of the group have been investigated under over the years. Article 109: attempting a violent overthrow of the government. Article 110: promoting separatism. Article 161: fuelling inter-ethnic hatred. For four-and-a-half years, he was banned from travelling outside the country.

Sitting in the Donetsk Park Inn — another haunt for the DPR leadership — Purgin does not want to talk about Gubarev or any of the other old pro-Russia activists who have been pushed aside. But he is surprisingly open about the administrative role Moscow has played, and is continuing to play, in Donetsk.

While Borodai, the Moscow political strategist, stepped down as leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic in August, he is still very active on the ground, Purgin says. The ex-prime minister was back in Donetsk just three days earlier and remains an official adviser to the DPR leadership, Purgin says. “We’re using [Borodai] actively in our ties with [Russian] business and politicians. Essentially he’s our Moscow hand, through which we try to resolve certain issues . . . Our Russian brothers — our brothers living in Russia — will always be met with understanding here.”

Both Purgin and Baryshnikov are lukewarm on Borodai’s replacement, Alexander Zakharchenko, the former head of the pro-Russia Oplot battalion, the first major paramilitary group in Donetsk. “[Zakharchenko] was the logical choice,” Purgin starts before correcting himself. “There was no choice. He was the only one.” Baryshnikov is even harsher. “He doesn’t have enough intellect and isn’t very educated,” the professor says of Zakharchenko. “He doesn’t even have a higher education!”

 . . . 

On a crisp Tuesday in October, Zakharchenko and dozens of aides head off on a drive-by tour of Ilovaisk, a railroad town 20 miles outside of Donetsk that was caught in the worst of the fighting. Winter is quickly approaching and Ilovaisk is in terrible condition. All across the city, buildings were charred from artillery fighting and missing walls and roofs. Residents said they had spent most of the summer in their basements to avoid getting hit in an attack. The city’s main hospital stopped working for most of August because none of its doctors or nurses could get to work.

Jug-eared and barrel-chested Zakharchenko still looks the part of the fighter and has been slow to take on some of the deftness required of an elected politician. On the organised tour, he plays clumsily with a group of preschoolers for the local news cameras, kissing a few awkwardly on the head. He runs into trouble when a group of elderly women come up to him demanding to know when they will get roofs on their homes and pensions, and again at the local high school, when a graduating senior tells him she plans to leave Donetsk to study at a Kiev-controlled university. In response to the student, he launches into an extended soliloquy on the history of Ukraine. The student’s chosen university was part of Russia not too long ago, he notes, during the time of Catherine the Great.

Already Zakharchenko is running into some problems. On the day before his trip to Ilovaisk, about a hundred villagers from towns near the Donetsk airport had gathered at the rebels’ headquarters, questioning why they were still being caught in the middle of daily artillery fire and how they would survive the winter. “We have no money, no electricity, no gas,” Oxana Ivanovna, one of the protesters, told me. She and most of her neighbours worked at the airport but had lost their jobs there because of the fighting. “Our village is completely destroyed and no one is coming to see us.”

Yet when asked whether they wished to return to being part of Ukraine, she and other demonstrators said no. They didn’t even seem too anxious to get rid of the prime minister. “I like Zakharchenko,” insisted a protester named Svetlana Eliseeva. “We just want them to stop shooting.”

 . . . 

It takes just three hours to drive from Donetsk to Lugansk. But in separatist terms, you are travelling between two different countries, or even five if you count the three self-declared Cossack republics that have recently sprouted up within the territory. Two-thirds of the way through the journey, the checkpoints stop belonging to the Donetsk People’s Republic and start belonging to the Lugansk People’s Republic. The roads and towns are manned by completely separate paramilitary groups, with separate structures and commanders. The two republics require different sets of identification cards and even two different sets of press accreditation for visiting journalists.

If Donetsk has the feel of an Orwellian dystopia, Lugansk is post-apocalyptic. For nearly two months this summer, the city and surrounding region were pummelled by continuous artillery fire. Residents lived for weeks without electricity, telephone service or water. Most were confined to basements. Today nearly every city block bears some evidence of the fighting: homes reduced to their skeletons; buildings charred or gutted by artillery explosions; entire shopping centres burnt to the ground.

Across the city and outskirts, residents queue up at wells to collect water and at the city post office branches to try and get their pensions and social payments. An elderly woman waiting in line said all she had received in lieu of her pension since July was 1kg of buckwheat, 1kg rice and a few cans of Spam and tuna. Asked what sort of money he was living on, a police officer guarding one post office replied: “Enthusiasm”.

Things are so chaotic inside the Lugansk People’s Republic’s main administration building, it makes even the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic look like a slick operation. Inside the Lugansk building, ragtag groups of LPR bureaucrats scurry around the halls, plucked seemingly at random from their previous lives. Open one door and you will find David Katz, a 22-year-old law student who is now running international relations for the Lugansk People’s Republic’s judiciary. Open another door and you will find Anatoly Khoroshilov, the LPR’s sports and tourism minister, who is busy organising the Lugansk People’s Republic first-ever arm wrestling championship.

Presiding over it all is Igor Plotnitsky, prime minister of the Lugansk People’s Republic, who looks like a Godfather extra with the eyebrows of Brezhnev. From an outsider’s perspective, it would seem to make sense for the rebels to merge their two governments and consolidate their administrative and military power. But Plotnitsky is adamant that the LPR will keep its separate power structure. “We have a clear understanding that these are two republics, two separate republics,” he insists.

Plotnitsky is vague about how the LPR is managing to finance its budget and social programmes. He says he does not want to say the size of the LPR’s economy “for safety reasons”. Asked directly where the LPR is getting its money from, Plotnitsky recalls a scene from the Russian version of Pinocchio where Pinocchio is at the Karabas-Barabas puppet theatre. “Pinocchio asks: where do you get your money from? And the answer is, from big wallets. This, of course, is a joke,” Plotnitsky adds quickly.

How much of a joke it actually is is not clear. Like in Donetsk, there are many signs that Moscow is more present in the region than it initially seems. On one evening during my trip, a fellow western reporter and I run into half a dozen Russian men at one of Lugansk’s few working restaurants. After a few minutes of chatting, the men admit that they are, in fact, active Russian servicemen who had come to Lugansk to train the local population — claims that their dress, accents, appearance and subsequent behaviour appear to confirm.

 . . . 

In August, Stanislav Vinokurov, the LPR parliament’s deputy speaker, came to meet me in a Moscow café, dressed in fatigues, on one of the frequent trips he makes to Russia. It was the end of summer and the Ukrainian army was on the verge of encircling Donetsk and Lugansk. But Vinokurov was strangely optimistic that the situation would turn around. Sure enough, a few days later the rebel armies had driven Ukrainian forces out of key battleground towns, allegedly with the help of Russian soldiers, according to Nato and Ukraine’s defence ministry. A week later, Kiev and the rebels signed their September 5 ceasefire, essentially freezing the conflict.

When I meet with Vinokurov in Lugansk in October, he is in good spirits. But he is also blunt about the problems the LPR is currently facing. “People are working virtually without salaries. There is no banking system . . . We don’t have enough qualified medical professionals,” Vinokurov tells me. “Right now we are working on getting bread.” So far South Ossetia, the Georgian breakaway republic, is the only state to recognise the LPR’s existence. A letter of support the LPR sent to the Chinese government during the Hong Kong street protests in September never received a response.

Plotnitsky, the prime minister, paints a rosier picture. “We can live through this winter . . . And if it will be difficult for us, I’m positive our brothers in Russia will help us,” he says confidently. “It is written, if it is the Lord’s deed it will stand, but if it is made by human hands it will fall to pieces. I think the meaning is clear. If the birth of the republic is God’s handiwork, it will come to pass and live in spite of everyone. If it is the handiwork of men, it won’t survive.”

A few weeks after we speak, there would be fresh claims from Kiev of dozens of new tanks and trucks of military personnel crossing the border into Donetsk from Russia. For all the local rivalries, haphazard governing and administrative chaos on the ground, the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics may just survive through the winter. Whether this is God’s handiwork is another question.

Courtney Weaver is the FT’s deputy Moscow bureau chief

Photographs: EPA; AFP/Getty

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article