In the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9, the International Brigades were made up of ‘53 nations’ fighting against the Falangist forces of General Franco that were supported by the Germans and Italians. In eastern Ukraine, they like to play up the parallels with that mythical fight against Fascism.
Polish Volunteers serving in the International Brigades. Approximately 35,000 foreigners volunteered for the Republicans.
But when I spoke to Miroslav Rudenko, the former co-leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), the first thing he said was that it was not the separatists who had turned the conflict into an international one: foreign mercenaries had been fighting on the Ukrainian government side since March. He was, nonetheless, very glad of the support his side was getting from abroad.
‘Serbs came to help their Orthodox Christian brothers; socialists from France and Italy came as part of their struggle against capitalism and the multinationals,’ Rudenko told me. ‘Most of the foreign volunteers are idealists, which helps our people keep up their fighting spirit and increases their effectiveness. It’s thanks to them that we’ve been able to hold out, even against superior forces.’
‘The foreign volunteers help our people keep up their fighting spirit, which increases their effectiveness.’
‘Locals who support the DNR, they like the foreigners,’ says Ilya Znamensky, a left-wing Russian intellectual who has recently visited the Donbas. ‘They even hold them up as examples to their own people. It’s like, “These guys have come a long way to help us fight against fascism, and here we have all these drunken slobs knocking back beer on the streets while the real men are all at the front.” You hear this kind of thing everywhere, from the platform at rallies to the beer-sellers in the night kiosks.’
Foreign volunteers also figure prominently in Russian media propaganda; and separatist websites are full of interviews with them. Not that they necessarily get to fight. ‘They can’t wait to get to the front line, but it’s unlikely they’ll be sent there,’ began a story on Russia’s main news channel, about two young Spaniards who had come to support the separatists. ‘We’ve got enough fighters of our own, and they’re more use behind the lines. Let them watch and remember, so that when they go back home to Spain they’ll be able to tell people what Kyiv is doing to south-east Ukraine’. It is certainly true that few foreigners’ names have been on the lists of the dead, and prisoners.
This propaganda campaign has worked well. ‘He said how terrible it was to see the faces of children and old people who were hostages of the crisis, who had nowhere to go, nowhere to hide when the Ukrainian army started shelling Lugansk,’ another news channel reported of an interview given to the pro-Kremlin Vzglyad [The Viewpoint] newspaper by one of the Spanish volunteers. ‘“I was struck by the courage and determination of these people,” he said. “They are very serious about their dream of becoming Novorossiya and freeing themselves from the oppression of the illegitimate Fascist government in Kyiv.”’
Many of the Serbs are veterans of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Some foreigners do, however, get to the front. Many of the Serbs, for example, are veterans of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. And Vladimir Antyufeyev, the former KGB head in Transnistria (the breakaway state between Ukraine and its eastern neighbour Moldova), has helped set up the DNR’s Special Forces; and the self-styled republic feels a close solidarity with this and the other pro-Russian unrecognised states that were previously part of the USSR – South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The new International Brigades
In fact, people from all over the world have made a pilgrimage to fight for the Donetsk-Lugansk separatists: from Serbia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Israel, other ex-Soviet states, and even Brazil, Australia, and the USA – an unexpected bonus for Novorossiya’s propaganda machine. Andrei Rodkin, head of Russia’s diplomatic mission in Novorossiya, told me he had no accurate figures about their numbers, but it was clear that they made up only a small percentage of the fighters, although their presence is important for the locals’ morale.
‘Back in June the concept arose – spontaneously, and partly out of responses to questions from journalists – a concept of a new anti-fascist International Brigade,’ Rodkin explained. ‘The recovery of the Russian world is obvious to everyone, so it’s clear why volunteers have been arriving from other countries in the Orthodox, Russian language orbit. But Spanish people aren’t part of that world, and nor are anti-fascists from France or Italy.’
Aleksandr Borodai, a Moscow spin-doctor and one-time prime minister of the DNR, has also drawn a parallel between the situation in the Donbas today and the Spanish Civil War. The fact that then, the International Brigades were on the political Left, doesn’t deter the majority of Russian ultra-right groups from supporting Novorossiya.
Any war, it seems, will attract people who have already experienced the thrill of battle and find it hard to stop. Before Donbas erupted, Nikola Perović, a Frenchman of Serbian origin, fought for NATO in Afghanistan, and has no plans to lay down his arms even after peace comes to Donetsk. ‘I won’t go back to France. I’ll go on fighting for freedom in Iraq, against the Islamists who are killing Christians,’ he declares.
Rafael, an ex-policeman from Brazil, is portrayed in the separatist propaganda as untypical of the international volunteers, in having come from the other side of the globe. But after reading an interview with him, you realise that in fact he’s a very representative example of a foreigner in Novorossiya.
Rafael is into adventure of all kinds, and joined the French Foreign Legion in his youth, although he didn’t get to fight, and had to make do with accompanying aid convoys around Africa. His family was originally from Hungary, but he got interested in the Russian language and Russian culture from an early age, and even spent a year and a half in Russia, studying medicine. He doesn’t like Brazil: ‘America has too much influence there,’ he said. ‘They aspire to everything American, and our culture – family values, religion (though I’m not that religious) – it’s all being destroyed. For example, girls in Brazil – they’re not feminists, but they’re very self-centred, and can only think about an “American” future.’
Brazilian volunteer Rafael, an admirer of 'Eurasianist' philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. via VK.com
Aleksandr Dugin sees world history as a conflict between ‘traditional Eurasia’ and greedy, liberal, uncouth America.
‘I don’t like the fact that our left wing circles are dominated by Trotskyite groups,’ Rafael continued. ‘Instead of protecting workers’ interests they spend their time protesting against the FIFA World Cup and campaigning for transgender rights. And our workers don’t have a good standard of living. We’re supposed to have a socialist government, but there’s corruption everywhere. And benefits are miserly. If you’re black, and gay or disabled as well, you’ll live very well in Brazil, but if you’re a straight white man – forget it.’
It was predictable that with views like this and an interest in Russia, Rafael should have been influenced by the ideas of Aleksandr Dugin, an ultra-right pro-Kremlin philosopher who sees world history as a conflict between ‘traditional Eurasia’ and greedy liberal uncouth America. After the war Rafael plans to settle in Novorossiya.
It’s no surprise that some commentators have taken to calling the territory controlled by the separatists, ‘Duginland.’ There are ‘Duginists’ from France, Italy and Poland, as well as Russia, fighting in Donbas. And there are plenty of locals, Russians and foreigners with views like those of Rafael in Novorossiya.
‘I came to live in Ukraine 12 years ago. It was peaceful then, of course’, says Margarita Seidler, who works in the DNR’s propaganda organisation, speaking in excellent Russian. ‘I’d had my fill of life in the EU. I lived like everyone else there – did what I wanted, worked as a nurse, [ ] was into extreme sports and so on. And looked for the meaning of life in all those things. But I soon realised that I wouldn’t find it there... [ ] And, thank God, I converted to Russian Orthodoxy.’ Seidler condemns the EU for its gay parades and other manifestations of its ‘soullessness and sexual promiscuity.’
Anti-Americanism is almost Novorossiya’s national ideology, but the separatists are happy to allow ordinary Americans into their dugouts. An English-speaking volunteer who introduces himself as Hunter from Illinois, says in an interview that Kyiv should recognise Novorossiya, and that not all Americans support the US government’s policies. Hunter is fighting with ‘Vostok,’ one of the largest separatist brigades, which has a special rota for its international members.
I also learned from Aleksandr Zhuchkovsky, an ultra-nationalist from St Petersburg, who recruits volunteers to fight, that there is another US citizen on his way to Donbas; he describes him as ‘a marine with pro-Soviet views.’
Many former émigrés from the Soviet Union, motivated by ‘anti-American’ sentiments, are planning to live in Novorossiya.
According to Ilya Znamensky, many former émigrés from the Soviet Union, or their children, are also planning to come to Novorossiya, motivated by similar ‘anti-American’ sentiments. For example, the European Front project, aimed at Russian speakers living in Europe, talks about helping to collect ‘humanitarian aid’ (food, clothes, medicines etc.) for Donbas, but its leaflets show a tank heading for the Statue of Liberty, and a nuclear explosion beside it. European Front’s coordinator admitted to me that they are also in touch with volunteer fighters, but refused to elaborate on these links.
Not everyone who has gone to Donbas is happy with what they have seen there. Dmitry Metzler, who is active in the German branch of the Russian ‘National Liberation Movement’ founded by parliamentary Deputy Yevgeny Fyodorov, told me about one of his mates. ‘His impression was one of total chaos, beginning in Rostov-on-Don – there were criminal gangs and pillagers everywhere, drugged up on painkillers, harassing each other and everyone else. And there was rocket and mortar fire the whole time. I doubt if he’ll want to answer your questions.’
The largest ‘diaspora’ among the volunteers are the Serbs. It’s not difficult to understand why: they have been hardened by their local armed conflicts, and see Russia as their closest ally. Also, a lot of people in Donbas have family links with Serbia; Serbs have been settling in the region since the 18th Century.
Through social media, I contacted a Serb nicknamed Mačak Bucko. He told me he had fought for the breakaway Republika Srpska in the 1990s, and now he is fighting with the Donbas separatists. His main reason was the death of a friend, a local man living in Slovyansk killed by the Ukrainian forces. He thinks there may be as many as 200 Serbs fighting in Novorossiya.
Ultra-rightists from the Serbian Chetnik movement – the name has been used by nationalist groups at various times in the last 100 years – had their own military subdivision, with their own traditional uniforms, droopy moustaches and beards, but they recently returned home, arguing that the separatists were gaining ground and no longer needed them. There is also a Serbo-French group, organised by Nikola Perović, the Frenchman I spoke to. Mačak Bucko didn’t tell me what battalion he was fighting in, but said he was the only foreigner there. The Russian and Serbian languages are closely related, so he can communicate with his fellow fighters in a mixture of Serbian and English.
French volunteers in Donbass. Nikola Petrovic stands front row right. CC Rykov.ru
There are also many Hungarians among the international volunteers, and this too is easy to explain. The popular Hungarian far right Jobbik party is regarded as pro-Kremlin, and there are also separatist movements among ethnic Hungarians living near Ukraine’s border with Hungary. Most of the Hungarians fight in their own ‘Legion of St Istvan’ (Stephen), described by its man in Moscow, Aleksandr Kiselyov, as ‘a right wing traditionalist organisation linking Russians and Hungarians.’
‘We believe that Hungary was treated badly during the 20th century, losing too much of her lands,’ said Kiselyov. ‘Russians and Hungarians are the two divided nations of Europe. They both had empires and they both lost too much.’ He told me that 30 Hungarians had been wounded in the current conflict, and one ethnic Hungarian living in Donbas had been killed.
However, not all the European volunteers are right-wingers. They also include Italian communists, and many of the Spanish are part of the ‘Carlos Palomino Brigade’, named after an anti-fascist activist who was stabbed to death in 2007 during a clash with neo-Nazis in a Madrid metro station.
Both Ukrainian and Russian leftists are meanwhile deeply divided about Novorossiya. Some have been telling their European comrades that it is the Kyiv government that is fascist; others that it is the Donbas separatists. The first version is more convincing for Western leftists, given that the USA and NATO support Kyiv.
It would be rash to regard Novorossiya as an historical anomaly, a kind of Jurassic Park for hotheads and weird ideas. For Russia and Ukraine this is a flashback to 1993, when right wingers, from monarchists to neo-Nazis, and socialists of a Soviet-Stalinist bent turned out to defend the Russian Parliament building from the police and army, who were loyal to Boris Yeltsin.
It would be rash to regard Novorossiya as an historical anomaly, a kind of Jurassic Park for hotheads and weird ideas.
This phenomenon of international volunteers rushing to the Donbas, follows the twists and turns of the propaganda pumped out by the Kremlin for global consumption; and which is widely reflected in Western media. Moscow is hoping to attract sympathisers in various spheres, from political parties to marginal groups, by appealing to a wide range of sentiments and ideas: anti-Americanism in a pseudo-leftist guise; protection of ‘traditional family values’ and religion; Slavic unity; antagonism to a unipolar world – just about all of these Kremlin propaganda clichés have surfaced in Novorossiya in the form of armed foreigners. The conflict in eastern Ukraine has been described as a new-style ‘hybrid’ war. Putin’s International Brigades are yet one more part of that mix.
Get our weekly email