Novorossiya Theory Meets Novorossiya Reality in Donetsk

July 8, 2014
Russian poster glorifying Col. Igor Strelkov

A press conference in Donetsk today organized by Russian ultranationalist leftist Sergei Kurginyan, together with pro-Russian separatist fighters in southeast Ukraine turned into a shouting match as the fighters accused this Muscovite championing their cause, who has been finding them supposedly private channels of military aid, of being out of touch with their war and its realities. Separatists were forced to retreat from Slavyansk last weekend.

Yesterday, Kurginyan had denounced Strelkov for his retreat from Slavyansk and claimed he left the citizens there to be supposedly savaged by Ukrainian forces — although so far residents seem to be relieved to get food and water and services being restored to normal.

Kurginyan was particularly furious about the reported masses of weapons left behind in Slavyansk — pro-Kiev sources have been publishing numerous pictures on social media. (For reports of weapons left behind by separatists, see our Ukraine LiveblogThe Interpreter).

Today’s news conference devolved into a total circus when it was revealed that the seemingly low-level fighters talking to Kurginyan were in fact Pavel Gubarev, “the people’s governor” of Donetsk and Igor Bezler, one of the notorious military leaders of the pro-Russian separatists, a former lieutenant colonel in the GRU (Russian military intelligence); Kurginyan had simply failed to recognize them in their camouflage. Gubarev had darkly hinted on his VKontakte page yesterday that “Any person who criticizes the Commander-in-Chief during war-time is a criminal.”

As Kurginyan shouted at the group in reproach for Strelkov’s decision to lead his men out of Slavyansk, Strelkov’s lieutenants calmly but firmly explained how they had to choose their battles and regroup, and had been insufficiently helped by Russia. Kurginyan’s YouTube channel “Essence of Time” contains the full hour-long version but blurs out some faces; Gurbarev’s shorter version reveals the faces. The Interpreter has provided a translation of excerpts and a summary:

One of the separatist fighters who gave his name as “Yury Yurchenko” begins by making their case to Kurginyan.

“Yurchenko: I looked in the eyes of those old people we left behind [in Slavyansk] at night, and I reproach myself but I consider the responsibility, I am convinced, ultimately rests on the authorities of Russia respected by me — and it’s a heavy one.

Kurginyan: And not on you?

Yurchenko We accept it more than you.

Kurginyan: Then why did you leave?

Yurchenko: I’ll show you! Here’s your help. Here are these rusty rifles. Thanks for them!

Kurginyan: So why did you leave 12,000 rifles there?

Yurchenko: But did you actually see them? What, the Ukrainians showed them to you?

Kurginyan: No, not the Ukrainians. Other people. Your own militiamen.”

Kurginyan continues to insist that it was one of their own militia who had shown him the rifles; he was wearing a mask because he was remaining behind and his name could not be given out. Another fighter then begins to explain the situation to him; Kurginyan does not recognize him, which adds to the absurdity of the encounter:

“Pavel Gubarev: I ideologically share some of your views, I share your patriotic positions. I’m also for the Red Orthodox Project. I’m also a patriot. We have a lot in common. But the criticism directed recently at Igor Ivanovich Strelkov, well, with your perspective, you’ve put it in a bad light, in a sense, it’s lack of understanding of the military sense of the situation in Slavyansk.

Kurginyan: Are you a military man?

Gubarev: I was there.

Kurginyan: Are you a soldier?

Gubarev: I. Was. There.

Kurginyan: What is your rank?

Gubarev: Private.

Kurginyan: So, you as a private can assess my military competence.”

The “private” — the rank Gubarev says he holds as a sworn-in fighter for the “people’s republic” — explains that he talks to people every day fighting in Slavyansk, and Kurginyan interrupts him to ask if they are still fighting. Gubarev acknowledges they left already, but some remain.

“Gubarev: Yes, they are fighting now. Why, do you think they put down their weapons?

Kurginyan: But 12,000 weapons were put down!

Gubarev: No, all the separatists continue to fight. And you came out with criticism of the only man who is capable of continuing the war for Novorossiya [Strelkov].

Kurginyan: I invited you as a guest, you’re very polite, but who sent you here?”

Kurginyan demands to know why Strelkov himself could not come and explain things, the separatist explains that they have to organize the defense in Donetsk.

At this point a man who had been crouching down out of view takes the floor. He is introduced as “Mikhail” and gives his title as “chief of staff” of the militia; he is none other than Igor Bezler. While he is filmed from the back of his head and is wearing a cap and later glasses (and in other versions of the video his face is blurred out), occasionally he turns to the side, and his lisping voice, known from other famous videos (his takeover of the police forces of Gorlovka and his “fake execution“) is unmistakeable. But Kurginyan clearly fails to recognize who he is.

Novorossiya press conference 8 July 2014. Igor Bezler (L), Sergei Kurginyan (R) and Pavel Gubarev in background.

Novorossiya press conference 8 July 2014. Igor Bezler (L), Sergei Kurginyan (R) and Pavel Gubarev in background.

“Bezler: I personally took out all the weapons down to the last one. There were no 12,000 automatic weapons left there.

Kurginyan: Is Russia helping you? Yes or no? Yes or no?

Gubarev: No. Unless you mean that rusty tank.

Kurginyan: What, Russia didn’t give you one automatic rifle, not one machine gun? Well, you are outrageously lying. In the interests of Strelkov, who wants to compromise Russia.”

The separatists then say Kurginyan himself has been caught in a lie by his claim about the “12,000 rifles”, but he insists he has seen them in “all kinds of places” which he can’t reveal for security reasons. He also said that there were recently modern vehicles sent and new weapons — not rusty ones.

Bezler then tells him one in three of the rifles don’t work, or were slated for destruction in 2001, one in five of the grenade launchers work, one in four of other weapons systems simply don’t work. “Some of these weapons are from World War II,” he adds.

Only half way through the press conference does Kurginyan finally learn that he is talking to Pavel Gubarev; he never seems to figure out he was talking to Bezler.

“What kind of expert are you?” cry the separatists, when the jig is up. “You dropped down here, and you live in the clouds,” says Gubarev acidly about this Muscovite theorist of people’s revolutions.

Gubarev continues to be conciliatory, saying he has sent thank-you letters to everyone who has sent help, and that he invites to the Donbass “patriots who are ideologically close to the Russian Spring.”

Kurginyan then invites in his representative, who is toting a rifle (news accounts say he was supplied bodyguards), and asks if Gubarev remembers him, as a liaison for transferring some aid, but he doesn’t. They discuss how in Slavyansk, nothing is left except one tank that is damaged and out of order.

“Gubarev: You are sitting here with people who have been in the Russian Spring since day one. You shouldn’t be shouting. You should discuss things constructively.”

He denied that Russia had supplied large amounts of help, especially with BTRs.

“Kurginyan: Russian technical assistance has been supplied by the citizenry, not by the government. Yes, in the beginning, it went horribly. And you did really receive very bad stuff, one out of four not working and so on. But in the last 2-3 weeks, the situation drastically changed for the better. You know that perfectly well. And I won’t get into how that changed because of this representative of civil society sitting here before you. But everything I’m saying about the military equipment I know.

Bezler: We’re talking here about only three tanks and three BTRs. For Slavyansk.”

Kurginyan concedes that the supplies have gone “terribly” and “outrageously” — before July 3rd, but now they are going better. “One of my tasks is to convince Russian civil society to get you more Fargots [MANPADs], Kornets [anti-tank missiles] and Iglas,” he says, before asking for forgiveness on behalf of civil society for “not doing enough for you.” Gubarev then reprimanded him again for his attacks on Strelkov: “You understand perfectly well, from a military perspective, a lot depends on Russia here.”

At one point as Kurginyan is ranting, an aide comes up and whispers something to Gubarev and he turns away; Kurginyan interrupts himself and asks sarcastically, “Are you having a meeting now?” “There’s an important matter,” says Gubarev. Then deadpans, “There’s a war on.”

Kurginyan then launches into a rant involving the in-fighting of various ultrarightist groups in Moscow and St. Petersburg. He tells the separatists that he is extremely concerned about “a negative image campaign” started by ultranationalist figures such as Yegor Prosvirnin that Strelkov would make “a better Nemtsov or Navalny.”

“Strelkov should refute this immediately,” cries Kurginyan. “This was said on TV Rain!,” noting the last remaining independent TV station in Russia.

“Strelkov isn’t a professional PR agent he’s a military commander,” explains Gubarev — he doesn’t want to get involved in the ultranationalist group politics of Moscow. Kurginyan persists, demanding that he get some kind of retraction of the claims that Strelkov’s ultimate aim is to march on Russia itself. Gubarev once again offers him a chance to visit Strelkov and speak with him directly; Kurginyan suggests that Strelkov should come to him, and Gubarev witheringly replies:

“The hay does not come to the cow.”

Kurginyan declares Gubarev “a boor,” and the meeting deteriorates. “This doesn’t just smell; it stinks,” says Gubarev, calling the scene “a provocation.” The separatist leaders then begin to walk out, calling Kurginyan himself a provocateur.

Shouting, Kurginyan explains that when “the bastards” (i.e. other ultranationalists not in his own movement, as well as liberals like Nemtsov or the journalist Yuliya Latynina) say things about Strelkov’s supposed ultimate ambitions, it hurts the effort to get them military assistance.

“You said — or rather it was said about you, by bastards — that your goal is Rostov. So you must refute that,” he insists as they turn their backs and leave. Otherwise “you are disrupting your supply. Disrupting!”