How Russia Sells Itself to the Long-Demoralized People of Donbas

In Stakhanov, a Cossack Rebel and Local Radio Mix Nostalgias for Russia’s Greatness and Soviet Goodness

While analysts of Russia’s assault on Ukraine debate the veiled question of President Vladimir Putin’s motives, little is hidden about how the Kremlin and its proxy forces are selling themselves to the long-demoralized people of southeastern Ukraine. As Moscow and the rebels work to solidify the two “people’s republics” in the Donbas region, their theme is a mix of nostalgias—for the theoretical equality of Soviet life and the greatness of Russia.

Nowhere are these more vivid than in the mid-sized city of Stakhanov and on its FM radio station. Among the Donbas localities ruled since spring by a patchwork of Russian-sponsored militias, Stakhanov is both typical and odd. This mining and industrial city of about 120,000 people (before the war began) is only thirty miles west of the provincial capital, Lugansk. But it is ruled by Russian Cossack fighters who openly disdain the Moscow-backed Lugansk People’s Republic.

Stakhanov’s commander is Pavel Dremov, a thirty-eight-year-old bricklayer who declared in a recent speech that “We’re not fools—neither [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko nor Putin are interested in an honest country!” In September, he and his colleagues proclaimed Stakhanov an independent Cossack mini-state that would eliminate corrupt officials as what Dremov called “traitors stealing from the people.”

Cossacks: Russian Auxiliaries

Dremov is a member of the Don Cossacks, a Russian nationalist community whose forebears formed cavalry regiments for Russian czars. In recent years, Putin has appointed the community, centered around the Don River of southern Russia, to provide auxiliary forces for Russian security agencies. Don Cossacks have spoken of their desire to re-establish the autonomous republic they ruled in past centuries across much of what is now southernmost Russia and Ukraine. Like many rebel commanders in Donbas, Dremov was living in Moscow when the Ukraine crisis began, and left his job there to join the fight. (Dremov told Agence France-Presse he was born in Stakhanov, and twenty years ago fought as part of Russia’s forces to establish the rebel enclave of Transnistria, in Moldova.)

Dremov told AFP this autumn that “If I had to obey someone it would be my ataman [Don Cossack supreme commander], Nikolai Ivanovich Kozitsyn.” The European Union imposed sanctions on Kozitsyn after Ukraine’s intelligence agency, SBU, released telephone recordings of him giving orders to his fighters in Ukraine. They appeared to record Kozitsyn directing his men in May to detain international monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and receiving reports from his fighters on the shooting down in July of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17.

Stakhanov’s FM radio station used to broadcast Avto Radio, a Moscow-based program of pop music, listener call-ins, and raffles for new cars. After Dremov’s arrival, the station became Kazache (“Cossack”) Radio. It stars an unnamed woman as its chief propagandist for a Russian future in Donbas. She broadcasts a daily “Militant’s Diary” that mixes romantic Russian poetry and literature with brutal propaganda to offer a Soviet-style vision that, she says, is the region’s only salvation.

Stakhanov’s Soviet Legend

While Cossacks proclaim their leading role in making Russia great, they have no tender feelings for the Soviet Union, which systematically, often violently, repressed Cossack communities for their czarist loyalties. But in Stakhanov, Dremov’s Cossacks must coexist with the city’s history as an icon of Soviet propaganda. In 1935, Aleksey Stakhanov, a miner in the city (then named Kadievka), set a record by digging 227 tons of coal in a single shift. The Communist Party (which had staged Stakhanov’s record by organizing other workers to support his production) made Stakhanov a national hero and the founder of a movement to encourage Soviet workers to multiply their output.

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Aleksey Stakhanov, right, in a photo that the USSR used to promote its “Stakhanovite Movement” to boost work production. (Wikipedia/CC License)

Ukrainians even in the Russian-oriented city of Kharkiv have torn down monuments of Soviet heroes such as Lenin, but Stakhanov still celebrates its “shock worker.” A muscular bronze statue of him in the city center shows him striding home from work. A city website declares approvingly that the statue is “at the center of the all the city’s events,” and is decorated year-round with fresh flowers laid by admirers.

Kazache Radio’s newscast often divides the news into the “good” and the “bad.” A recent good news item celebrated a victory by Lugansk People’s Republic forces in a battle with Ukrainian “Banderovtsy.” (The label is used by Russia and its allies to deride pro-independence Ukrainians as followers of Stepan Bandera, who led a Ukrainian independence movement in the mid-1900s. Bandera was imprisoned by Nazi Germany during part of World War II, and allied with it at other times during his fight—an association that Russia uses to declare much of the Ukrainian pro-independence movement “Nazi” or “fascist.” Bandera was assassinated by a Soviet KGB agent in 1959.)

The bad news, according to Kazache Radio is usually about “horrors committed by the Ukrainian army.” One recent newscast accused Ukrainian troops of “drunken debauchery.” Another item claimed that the Ukrainian loyalist mayor of the port of Mariupol was organizing battalions of hardened-criminal prisoners to protect the city. “You can imagine what they’ll do when they get drunk on moonshine,” the news anchor warned.

The station’s Militant Diarist begins each of her episodes poetically: Good day dear radio listeners. You know, I awoke today in a good mood. All around me I see a beautiful autumn and I want to talk to you about things that spontaneously pop into my head.

Russian Propaganda’s Virulence

One of the things that pops into her head is the kindness of Donbas’ people and the inhuman cruelty of Ukrainian soldiers. Her images reflect a Russian propaganda war whose extreme virulence is not often reported in international media. In one recent broadcast she claimed that Ukrainian troops “killed all the men, raped the women and girls, and slashed open the bellies of pregnant women in the village of Saur. In Krimskoe and Shchastia [villages], Ukrainian soldiers snatched young girls who were later found dead with signs of torture on their bodies.”

To back these unsupported accounts, she reads from a Soviet ethnic Tatar writer, Musa Calil, whose poems depict horrific realities of World War II. Her selection casts Ukraine’s current army as Nazis who kill children in their mothers’ arms.

Each diary episodes ends with an almost religious message: “I love you with all my soul, peace to you all.” Each episode contains a utopic description of Donbas as Novorossia (New Russia), a state of social justice, without corrupt business magnates, providing its people with free medical care and education, and generous pensions and salaries. This is no dream, she says, but a real possibility “that has been worked out by economists and can really be built,” if only Donbas will align with Russia and join Vladimir Putin’s Customs Union.

Irena Chalupa covers Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the Atlantic Council.

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Image: A separatist fighter northeast of the city of Stakhanov shows his identification card to reporters at a traffic checkpoint. It identifies him as Igor Gribanov, a soldier in the Second Cossack Battalion of the Great Don Army, a Cossack paramilitary organization headquartered in the Russian city of Novocherkassk. In recent years the Russian government has used Cossack paramilitaries as police auxiliary forces, and thousands of Russian Cossacks are fighting with the Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine’s Lugansk and Donetsk provinces. (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)