DONETSK, Ukraine—I met Roman Lyagin, the self-proclaimed election commissioner of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, two days before the separatists’ May 11 referendum. Lyagin was showing a French TV crew around his office, located on the second floor of a building seized by pro-Russian demonstrators, barricaded behind sandbags and barbed wire. Patiently and deliberately, the young man reeled off the number of polling stations and local election commissions, quoted the United Nations Charter, and explained that the referendum wasn’t about independence at all, but simply the Donetsk people’s assertion of their right to self-determination. No, Lyagin said, he wasn’t concerned that not a single country—not even Russia—was sending election observers. After all, more than 400 journalists from around the globe were accredited to report on the vote.
At that moment, something clicked. I realized that my colleagues and I weren’t simply doing our jobs as journalists—we were also unwitting participants in a media circus that would help to legitimize a breakaway republic that had only been declared a month earlier. Just the fact that we were lining up for hours to receive press credentials and packing the separatists’ news conferences was a validation that the DPR existed.
On the Sunday of the referendum, a casual news consumer could easily have believed that the Donetsk vote was no different from separatist plebiscites in Scotland or Catalonia. The night of the referendum, Lyagin appeared before a backdrop reading “Donetsk People’s Republic Election Commission”—in Russian and English—and announced that 89 percent of voters had supported greater autonomy. The next day, the DPR declared itself a sovereign state and asked to become part of the Russian Federation.
The legal fast track to self-recognition was vitally important to the separatists, who now claim a popular mandate in future appeals to the Kremlin. But the problem with the DPR is that it doesn’t resemble any other national liberation struggle because there is no nation to liberate. Russian speakers are in the overwhelming majority here; Russian is spoken and written everywhere; and homegrown bosses have run the region’s factories and political machine since Ukrainian independence. No big surprise, then, that the phase of unarmed protest against the provisional government in Kiev barely lasted a month before pro-Russian gunmen started storming government buildings, provoking a slow-motion “anti-terrorist operation” led by the Ukrainian military.
While the Kiev government cites polls showing 70 percent of the people in the Donetsk region still support Ukraine’s unity, anecdotal evidence suggests that a significant portion of the population backs the separatists. People turned out in droves to take part in the referendum—fake or not—and voiced genuine anger. “After they started killing us in Slovyansk, Odessa, and Mariupol, we don’t want to live in this country anymore,” said Anatoly Gutnik, a miner who was guarding an outdoor polling station in Dobropolye on May 11. When I asked him why armed men had seized buildings in the first place, he answered: “So people would listen to us.”
The Ukrainian authorities brand the separatists as “terrorists” who receive material and logistical support from Russia. Russian state media comically insist on calling them “supporters of federalization.” And the separatists themselves—who get terribly upset at being called separatists—refer to themselves as “militiamen.” Perhaps the most accurate label would be “counter-revolutionaries”—not only against the Maidan protest that ousted Donetsk native Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency, but against the Velvet Revolution in Eastern Europe 25 years ago that hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Built on the Donetsk coal basin, giant mines and metallurgical plants employed millions of workers during the Soviet era. After Ukraine gained independence in 1991, the transition to capitalism was accompanied by layoffs, banditry, and widespread poverty. After two decades of living in a corrupt and unstable country, Ukraine’s proletarian underclass doesn’t so much want to join Russia as return to the Soviet Union. Boris Dekhteryenko, an auto mechanic from Makeyevka, told me he missed the good old days. “We had advanced socialism,” he said, without a trace of irony. “It was a happy childhood. Ice cream cost 20 kopeks, and a miner could earn enough in a month to buy a Lada.”
The proletarian revolution in the Donetsk rust belt contrasts with the citizen revolt on the Maidan in Kiev. Russian provocateurs were seen bussed in from across the border to the first protests in March. Even those demonstrations could hardly be called peaceful, as protesters tried to storm government buildings from the start, and a pro-Ukrainian activist was killed in clashes on March 13.
Kremlin-controlled television channels, watched throughout the east, laid the groundwork for the armed phase of the rebellion. The participation of irregulars from Russia gives the Kremlin plausible deniability about direct involvement, even though the military commander of the separatist forces, Igor Strelkov, has been identified as a Russian military intelligence operative. Vladimir Putin—after first denying, and then confessing, the use of Russian servicemen in the annexation of Crimea—has undermined his assertion that the Kremlin had nothing to do with the Donetsk uprising. A not-so-subtle Russian troop buildup on the Ukrainian border has put additional pressure on the Kiev government.
When I first visited Donetsk at the end of March, I was surprised by the hostility demonstrators expressed toward me when I tried to interview them. Reporting from Serbia after the 1999 NATO bombing campaign was easier, because people—no matter how angry—wanted to express an opinion. At the Donetsk protests, I felt like I was facing an army of zombies programmed by Russian state media to rail in unison against the “Kiev junta” and its Western masters. Today those people are armed with guns.
The imagery and language of the Soviet victory in World War II is Putin’s opiate of the people. For lack of any ideology of his own, the Russian president relies on the great battle against Nazism to unify his own country and win new friends. The “fascist” label has stuck with the interim government in Kiev, even though it is a total misrepresentation of the Maidan protest, which was a pluralistic coalition of civic forces—including a right-wing nationalist fringe—that rejected Yanukovych’s Kremlin-sponsored kleptocracy. Fascists do not run Kiev, and they don’t have the remotest chance of winning in the May 25 presidential election. A recent poll showed far-right candidates Oleh Tyahnybok and Dmytro Yarosh each getting less than 1 percent of the vote.
The Maidan protest was Ukraine’s late version of the 1989 revolutions that swept Eastern Europe out of the Kremlin’s reach. Putin, as a KGB agent in East Germany, witnessed how people power brought down the Berlin Wall. There was nothing “constitutional” about the way that the regimes loyal to Moscow fell—but there was something fundamentally democratic about it, just as it was in Kiev this winter. Now Putin is making Ukraine pay the price by having to fight a Soviet zombie state within its borders.