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The “heroes of Novorossiya”: where are they now?

Two years ago, a separatist movement in southeast Ukraine brought war and tragedy to the whole country. Though the crisis continues, the movement’s first leaders have gone their separate ways. Русский

Alexandr Litoy
2 March 2016
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To this day, we still don’t know the real circumstances behind the emergence of “Novorossiya”. This independent “new Russian state”, which was projected to hold sway from the breakaway state of Transnistria to the Russian border city of Belgorod, stalled amidst the increasingly violent conflict that began in southeast Ukraine after February 2014. As Russia annexed Crimea, the unrecognised “Peoples’ Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk (DNR and LNR) became Russian protectorates — a trifle in comparison to what the supporters of “Novorossiya” were hoping for.  Aleksandr Zakharchenko, de-facto head of the Donetsk People's Republic. Image still: CC via YouTube. The “heroes of Novorossiya”, the people behind the initial moves, have met with different fates. In Luhansk, the older field commanders (Alexei Mozgovoi, Evgeny Ishchenko, Pavel Dremov and Aleksandr Bednov) largely despised the LNR leadership. They are now all dead. Meanwhile, the “legends” of the DNR, most of them in their early 30s, have made successful careers in Donetsk (Pavel Gubarev, Mikhail Tolstykh, Arseny Pavlov, Igor Khakimzyanov), and maintain good relations with Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the self-declared head of the “republic”. This could be the calm before the storm. As the Minsk peace process drags on, influential commander of the Vostok battalion Aleksandr Khodakovsky is openly confronting Zakharchenko in the DNR, and accuses Russia of abandoning him.

The initial ringleaders of the separatist movement (Igor Girkin, Igor Bezler, and Vyacheslav Ponomarev) are out of a job, and spend most of their time arguing on social media. Meanwhile, the Russian citizens who influenced the “Russian Spring” (Aleksandr Borodai, Dmitry Steshin, Aleksandr Zaldostanov) remain at the forefront of Russian imperial politics. 

Igor Girkin (Strelkov)

The nationalist Igor Girkin, DNR de-facto minister of defence between May and August 2014, was one of the key figures in the Donbas separatist movement. His operation to seize the city of Slovyansk kicked off the conflict in earnest, in a region that was already in chaos. 

Girkin was one of the defenders of the White House, Russia’s parliament building in Moscow, during the constitutional crisis of 1993 and also fought in Transnistria, in a secessionist war against the Moldovan government, and in the western Balkans. A former FSB officer, Girkin worked in Chechnya for many years, where, according to human rights campaigners, he took part in punitive operations against peaceful civilians. Before hostilities broke out in Donbas, Girkin took part in the Russian annexation of Crimea. He left his ministerial post for undisclosed reasons and in circumstances that remain unclear.  

Girkin is now a public figure, leader of the “Novorossiya” movement in support of the “People’s Republics”, as well as one of the founders of the 25 January Committee, which aims to support separatists in the Donbas and unite nationalists across Russia. (Aside from Girkin, the committee includes prominent nationalist journalists such as Eduard Limonov, Egor Prosvirnin, Maksim Kalashnikov and Konstantin Krylov.) The committee has so far only issued several press releases, but its creation has made some waves.  Igor Strelkov (Girkin) on a set of Ukrainian playing cards depicting leaders of the Donbas separatist movement. Photo CC: Viktoria Pryshutova / wikimedia commons, 2014.Most national media in Russia have lost interest in Girkin, but he still gives lengthy interviews to “patriotic” websites. The former separatist leader is involved in raising humanitarian aid for the Donbas, as well as funds for uniforms and equipment for the separatists. 



Girkin is not altogether comfortable in this new role — he is used to combat operations, following orders, and most of all anonymity. This last issue is the most sensitive; in no way does Girkin want to be consider himself in opposition. He is dissatisfied with developments around Ukraine, believing the current leaders of the DNR and LNR to be mere mercenaries in the pockets of Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, and sees the self-styled Donbas republics as corrupt and despotic as Russia itself. 



Girkin-Strelkov is not comfortable in this new role. He is used to combat operations, following orders, and most of all anonymity

He accuses the current leaders of neutralising the most militant element of the separatist movement, and makes impartial addresses to those who still fight in the Donbas. He can regularly be seen bickering with Alexander Khodakovsky, Arseny “Motorola” Pavlov and other separatists. Girkin expressed his disappointment at the December 2015 demotion of Vsevolod Chaplin, a prominent conservative figure in the Russian Orthodox Church — Girkin claims that they were once colleagues. 

According to Girkin, Moscow has betrayed Donbas and “pushed it back into Ukraine” in its attempts to make peace with the west. For him, the Donbas is the “last frontier” of Russia’s defence against US aggression. He also regards Russia’s involvement in the war in Syria as a mistake and waste of resources.

Now sidelined, Girkin is increasingly reminiscent of Colonel Vladimir Kvachkov. This small-time adventurer, a veteran of several wars, tried to kill Anatoly Chubais, a prominent political figure of the 1990s, and then attempted to carry out a coup d’état, despite an absurd plan and complete lack of resources (he is now serving time in a prison camp). 

Aleksandr Borodai

Borodai, former prime minister of DNR between May and August 2014, is a political scientist and nationalist who also took part in the defence of the White House in 1993. He also saw combat in Transnistria, where he and Girkin met in the 1990s. Borodai has now left Donbas, explaining that he wished to hand power over to a native of the region, Aleksandr Zakharchenko.

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Unlike Girkin, Borodai considers the DNR and LNR to be real states. Of course, he would like more from “Novorossiya”, but the present situation suits him just fine. Borodai sees Girkin’s opinions as partisan and rooted in personal ambitions and grievances. Borodai is happy to tell scurrilous stories about his old friend — he even says that Girkin was tied up and forcibly ejected from Donetsk into Russia. 

 Borodai gives a new year's address on behalf of the Union of Donbas Volunteers, 31 December 2015. Video still: RusUnlimited / YouTube. Some rights reserved. For his part, Girkin believes that Borodai is in the pocket of Vladislav Surkov, Vladimir Putin’s supposed éminence grise whose remit includes looking after Donbas: Surkov is, in Girkin’s opinion, an opponent of Novorossiya who wants to make peace with Ukraine. Borodai has a different opinion: ‘When people make a fuss about Surkov “betraying” the Donbas, honestly, I want to take this person, shake him, beat his head against the wall and say ‘he’s the last person who would betray us’.”

Last autumn, Borodai set up the Union of Donbas Volunteers. In some sense, it’s a veterans’ organisation, although as Russia is formally not at war with Ukraine, its members would not be considered war veterans in Russian law. The Union’s charter states that “we must be ready to defend our motherland again, whenever necessary. And our motherland is wherever Russian people live.” The current separatist leadership supports the Union.

Dmitry Steshin 

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Steshin is a war correspondent and one of the most popular contributors to Komsomolskaya Pravda, a major Russian tabloid. Previously, Steshin was on the editorial staff of the ultra-right journal Russky Obraz (“Russian Image”). This journal had links with the Combat Organisation of Russian Nationalists (BORN), a right-wing terror group responsible for a dozen or so high profile political assassinations. Dmitry Steshin (left) with separatist commander "Sobr" take cover from sniper fire outside the village of Vostochniy in the Donbas, 2014. Photo (c): Andrey Stenin / visual RIAN. All rights reserved.Nikita Tikhonov, a friend of Steshin and his colleague on Russky Obraz, testified against Steshin in court during a murder case against BORN, accusing Steshin of putting him in contact with arms dealers. His evidence should have been enough to have Steshin charged as an accomplice of BORN, but for some reason this didn’t happen. 

“We must be ready to defend our motherland again. And our motherland is wherever Russian people live”

Steshin was also one of the main journalists covering the “Russian Spring” from a pro-Kremlin angle. In 2014, he received a medal “For Services to the Fatherland” for his reporting on the annexation of Crimea, and for several months after the annexation he made constant trips to the Donbas. His most colourful pieces appeared at the start of the civil war in Ukraine, when Girkin’s fighters captured Slovyansk. Indeed, Steshin and Girkin knew each other from Chechnya, where Girkin worked for the FSB and Steshin – as a war correspondent for Komsolmolskaya Pravda. They also met frequently in Moscow: their shared nationalist views and interest in firearms brought them together. 

Steshin is now busy glorifying Russian troops in Syria, but hasn’t forgotten Donbas. “As soon as the Syrian crisis is sorted out,” he said in an interview with the Russkaya Planeta website in November 2015, “we’ll start kicking those hunchbacks in Donbas and Ukraine back to where they came!”

Pavel Gubarev

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A history graduate and small-time businessman, Pavel Gubarev is a veteran of the Russian nationalist movement in Donetsk. He was elected the “People’s Governor” of Donetsk on 1 March 2014 at a pro-Russian meeting, quickly arrested by Ukrainian forces and then exchanged for Ukrainian special forces troops in May 2014. Gubarev’s wife was briefly DNR minister of foreign affairs, and from 2014-2015 Gubarev did not occupy any serious posts in the DNR.  Pavel Gubarev, former “people's governor” of Donetsk, August 2014. Photo CC: Den TV. Some rights reserved.

Gubarev runs a blog, and recently presented a memoir The Torch of Novorossiya, giving numerous interviews on the separatist movement. According to Gubarev, the current DNR and LNR leadership does not conform to the ideals of the “Russian Spring”, and the failure to incorporate the Donbas into Russia gave rise to the ensuing “civil war” in the separatist-controlled territories. Gubarev has not become disillusioned with in his ideas, and remains hopeful that the Donbas will become the catalyst for a new “Russian nationalist government” in Moscow. 



Gubarev hopes that the Donbas will become the catalyst for a new “Russian nationalist government” in Moscow

Although Gubarev, who is seen to be in the opposition, has not balloted for parliament, he is the co-founder of the Free Donbas bloc, one of two parliamentary groups registered for elections in the DNR. (In the DNR parliament, the Donetsk Republic group has 65 deputies, Free Donbas – 25.)

In January 2016, the head of the DNR Aleksandr Zakharchenko appointed Gubarev head of Yasynuvata district, a town just north of Donestk. Yasynuvata is an important rail hub, and thought to be under the control of the Vostok battalion led by Aleksandr Khodakovsky. Gubarev is yet to take his position: when he arrived in Yasynuvata, the municipal administration was blocked by young men in tracksuits. According to Gubarev, these “protests” were initated by Khodakovsky, who was using the train station to illicitly conduct business with the Ukrainian government. 

Oleg Tsaryov 

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Tsaryov is a businessman from Dnipropetrovsk who, in his 12 years as a deputy in Ukraine’s parliament, never once swerved from his pro-Russian position. He stood as a candidate in the early presidential election of spring 2014, and was attacked by Ukrainian nationalists several times during his election campaign. Tsaryov then set off to Donetsk, where he became one of the chief propagandists of the south eastern regions’ secession from Ukraine and the creation of “Novorossiya”.  Oleg Tsaryov, former member of the Ukrainian parliament and a chief ideologue of “Novorossiya”, at a briefing in Donetsk, 2014. Photo (c): Maksim Blinov / visual RIAN. All rights reserved.When Putin advisor Sergei Glazyev was involved in the situation in Donbas, Tsaryov was seen as his protégé. He was appointed to head the “Novorossiya Parliament”, based in Donetsk, whose work was intended to involve deputies elected in the territories controlled by the separatists. 

The idea of the parliament, however, fell through; other regions refused to secede from Ukraine, while the Donetsk and Luhansk regions had retained the political system that had functioned under Viktor Yanukovych. Neither the Donetsk nor the Luhansk elites were prepared to give in to one another, preferring to interact separately with their “advisors from the capital” — only the capital was no longer Kyiv, but Moscow. 



Donetsk and Luhansk elites preferred to interact separately with their “advisors from the capital” — only the capital was no longer Kyiv, but Moscow.

The “Novorossiya Parliament” only lasted until spring 2015 — there was no provision for it in the Minsk agreements. Tsaryov now lives with his wife and children in Crimea and is very active online, where he churns out anecdotes about his happy family life for his Facebook followers and commentaries about Ukraine for the Russian media. 

Mikhail “Givi” Tolstykh and Arseny “Motorola” Pavlov

Colonels in the DNR army, Givi and Motorola are examples of the Donetsk “success story” — they appear on DNR postage stamps, and are even part of local school life. They command the Somali and Sparta battalions, which, with their increased training, are considered elite units in the DNR.

Pavlov, 33, is originally from Ukhta in Russia’s Komi Republic. He served in the marines, and did two tours in Chechnya. He likes to pose for journalists, but his biography isn’t completely clear: according to Pavlov, he worked as a stone mason before the war, though there’s also stories to suggest that he worked at a car wash, and was even convicted for car theft while drunk. 


Givi and Motorola are examples of the Donetsk “success story”

Angered by the events of Maidan, in March 2014 Pavlov travelled to Kharkiv, where he participated in pro-Russian protests. Despite several shootouts and mass street brawls, Kharkiv avoided being dragged into the conflict. Pavlov then joined Strelkov’s brigade in Slovyansk. 

Both Tolstykh and Pavlov fought in Slovyansk, Ilovaysk, Donetsk airport, Debaltseve and other battles in eastern Ukraine. The Sparta battalion, commanded by Pavlov, flies the Russian imperial tricolour on the battlefield. 

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Pavlov’s family situation isn’t clear. In June 2014, in an interview to the Russian nationalist newspaper Zavtra, Pavlov mentioned a wife and five-year old child in Russia, and in July he celebrated a wedding to a Slovyansk woman more than ten years his junior with whom he now has a daughter. This was the first wedding in the DNR, and Girkin, Gubarev and other prominent separatists were in attendance. Mikhail Tolstykh (otherwise known as “Givi”), commander of the Somali Battalion in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. Photo (c): Irina Gerashchenko / visual RIAN. All rights reserved.Tolstykh, 35, is originally from Ilovaysk, and served two years conscription in the Ukrainian army, where he trained to the level of a tank commander. In his own words, he wanted to continue his military career in Ukraine, but wasn’t accepted due to a speech defect. 

At the beginning of 2014, Tolstykh, who is unmarried, moved his parents to Russia. In May 2014, he fought in Slovyansk, and in October he took command of the Somali battalion.

Tolstykh professes his loyalty to Zakharchenko in every interview, and recently began to criticise Khodakovsky on purely soldierly grounds. He is confident that combat operations will soon resume, and has declared his readiness to fight for the DNR’s control over the entire Donetsk region (of which it currently controls only the northern half). 

Igor “Demon” Bezler

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Igor Bezler, 50, is a retired colonel in the Russian army. Prior to the “Russian Spring”, Bezler lived in the small town of Horlivka, Donetsk, where he led a local paratroopers’ organisation, ran a funeral service and security for two local factories. In Ukraine’s 2012 parliamentary elections, Bezler provided security for Sergei Shakhov – a Donbas politician close to the Party of Regions. At the start of 2014, Bezler was involved in the Russian annexation of Crimea before returning to Horlivka, where he took the situation into his own hands.  Igor Bezler, whose forces held sway over Horlivka, Donetsk region. His forces were among those implicated in the shooting down of Malaysian Airliner MH17. Video still via Gorlovka.Segodnya / YouTube. Some rights reserved. Bezler spent most of 2014 controlling Horlivka, operating fairly independently from the DNR: he made contact with Ukrainian forces more readily than other field commanders, worked on prisoner exchanges and maintained Ukrainian banks in Horlivka, and allowed factories to continue paying taxes to Ukraine — he also allowed local residents to receive wages and pensions. At the same time, there is evidence to suggest that under Bezler’s rule, Horlivka’s factories were ransacked. There were several discussions about Bezler’s intenion to break off from the DNR and organise a “Horlivka-Yenakievsk People’s Republic”, though this project looked unrealistic — the population of these towns is roughly 350,000, roughly the same as Transnistria. In short, Bezler’s motives remain rather mysterious. 

For a period, Bezler’s forces would not take Ukrainian volunteers prisoner, and executed them on the spot

It seems Bezler hated Ukraine’s volunteer fighters. For a period, Bezler’s forces would not take volunteers prisoner, and executed them on the spot. Ukrainian regulars and security officers were treated reasonably in comparison.  

Ukrainian law enforcement has put out a search warrant for Bezler, and not only on terrorism charges. In Autumn 2015, a criminal case against Bezler was opened relating to the murder of Alexei Kudryavtsev, a volunteer in Ukraine’s Artemovsk battalion who was taken prisoner in July 2014. 

The appointment of Stanislav Kim (a former Maidan protester who had joined the DNR) as mayor of Horlivka outraged Bezler. The former colonel announced that he refused to accept both the rank of general in the DNR’s army and the St George’s Cross awarded to him by the separatists. In response, Bezler called Zakharchenko an alcoholic and a clown.

Igor Khakimzyanov

Little is known about the first defence minister of the DNR. Khakimzyanov, 35, is an economist by education, and, based on his social media profile, is interested in skiing. Two large interviews from March 2015 and January 2016 are the main sources of information about him. 

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Khakimzyanov joined the separatists in spring 2014 in Donetsk, where he was elected minister of defence in the seized regional administration building on 10 April 2014. He organised self-defence units at the start of the crisis.  Igor Khakimzyanov speaks to journalists of Russia 24 following his release in a prisoner exchange in September 2014. Video still: KOD TV / YouTube. Some rights reserved. It seems that Khakimzyanov has lived in Ukraine for more than a decade, but used to be an officer in the Russian army. As in the case of Bezler, this fact cannot be taken alone as evidence of long-term planning by Putin to start a war against Ukraine. Tens of thousands of Russian citizens have moved to Ukraine in recent years on family grounds. After all, professional soldiers are a big group in Russia.

On 6 May 2014, Khakimzyanov was taken prisoner by the Ukrainian army. A group of separatists opened fire on the newly-formed Azov volunteer battalion near Mariupol, which was commanded by Belarusian nazi Sergei Korotikh. Azov won this battle, and Khakimzyanov was taken prisoner. Leader of the Ukrainian Radical Party Oleh Lyashko humiliated Khakimzyanov, who was stripped, on camera — to the protest of Amnesty International. Khakimzyanov was exchanged along with other prisoners in September 2014. He continues to serve with the separatists, and is part of the leadership of the Cossack union “Region of Don Fighters”.

Vyacheslav Ponomarev

Ponomarev, 50, is a businessman who took over the administration of Slovyansk during Girkin’s rule. He was then “sent to the cellar”, as the separatists’ prisons are known, on charges of corruption, and was released during Girkin’s retreat from Slovyansk. 

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Ponomarev now lives in Moscow. Ukrainian media reported on a car accident involving Ponomarev in the centre of Moscow: he was seen shouting at the policeman who had arrived on the scene.  Vyacheslav Ponomarev at a Victory Day rally in Slavyansk, May 2014. Video still via Slavgorod / YouTube. Some rights reserved. The former separatist leader loves to photograph himself and shoot videos in front of the Kremlin and, like many prominent figures of the “Russian Spring”, spends his days embroiled in online arguments with Strelkov and occasionally collecting humanitarian aid for Donbas. 

Ponomarev’s page on VKontakte, a popular Russian social network, mainly consists of reposts of news from the war in eastern Ukraine. There don’t seem to be any obvious barriers to Ponomarev returning to Donbas politics, but resettlement in Russia seems to have suited him better. 



Finding a place in peace

After two years of war in Ukraine’s east, the DNR and LNR control territories and rule over several million people. While there’s space for ambitious people to build careers in the “People’s Republics”, the idea of a broader political project, of “Novorossiya” is not finished completely. 

Even the first leaders of the “Russian Spring”, freshly unemployed, continue to follow political news carefully. Some of these disgruntled nationalists have channeled their energy into new political groupings, but while Donbas separatists have received less support from the Kremlin than they wished, few of them will openly declare their move into opposition. While the situation on the ground remains unpredictable, they could be needed at any moment. Whatever their reservations, they may heed the call.

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