Translated by Ollie Richardson for Fort Russ
7th May, 2016
We were not preparing this interview in advance, and didn’t pre-discuss the questions. It all happened sort of spontaneously. In the morning we worked in 3rd separate special battalion of the Republican Guard. As it seemed to us to be an exact copy of some elite military unit of the heyday of the USSR. Although it was created on a former industrial base, not prepared for military service. Soldiers’ dormitories, infirmary, an armory with statutory and alarm tags…
On that day, in the battalion, the memorial plaque was unveiled for Colonel Eugene Kononov. The battalion was named after him and the head of the Republic came to this sad event. We plucked up the courage and asked Alexander Zakharchenko:
We worked in Donbass since March 2014. We earned entry onto the SBU search list…
Here Alexander interrupted our speech, and warmly shook hands with us:
“Don’t worry, you’re in good company!”
And yet, we are the only ones who have never done an interview with you…
“We can correct this,” the head of the DPR told us, “so I’ll see you at four o’clock.”
Wife is the main intelligence officer
Exactly two years ago we were in Slaviansk, the city was preparing for the referendum. We remember how people were waiting for the “Crimean option.” Is there any regret or frustration? You were also in the thick of things…
“After receiving the results of the referendum, I already knew how many people voted in favor of the DPR and how many against. I built my “Opolot” platoon, thanked people, and said we won. All thought it would be like Crimea, and no one expected such a terrible war. Crimea gave us hope on accession to Russia. Then there was a bloody battle at the airport, overhead passes of combat aircraft on the cities… And everything was flipped upside down. No feeling of regret and bitterness, another way was given to us. It leads to historical justice through war.
Frankly speaking, we graciously envy Crimeans, but if our fate is like that, we accept it with honor. Sooner or later we will become a part of our great Motherland. It’s one thing to enter in a state of euphoria, and another to go through such trials. It happened like that. And we have to fight, and to build at the same time. We are good at war and building too, but would like to build faster. And fight faster too. It’s my character with which I always battle with and don’t win always.”
It is even eventually possible to simultaneously build and fight?
“It is difficult. War is instant decisions, life depends on this. And peace building is a time-consuming, slow process and meticulous. But we have too much associated with the war, economy, and politics. It is slightly easier from this. And war is still in first place, and we’d like to reverse this.”
And it must be learnt…
“and I have to learn a lot, to memorize, and to ask. The most difficult thing is to learn to listen. If you don’t know how to listen, you will not be listened to. I debate less than in 2014, and I began to understand many issues. But the debates become tougher, their level of quality has changed (laughs).”
Are there some debates between those who were here throughout all the war and those who started to come back in recent months? We all remember your phrase, but such mean and honest… In Novoazovsk, in October 2014, you had a meeting with voters and told them literally: “We’ll ask everyone: why did you leave your native land when the trouble came?”And then they started to come back. And who knows what goes on in their mind. It is said that they have access to power.
“We now have another selection into the civil service. Earlier, we used to take professionals and we didn’t think much if they were patriotic or not. But now we ask: “What did you do before?” In the domain of the economy, when issuing licences, priority goes to the people who were remained here. But I noticed another thing that was specifically interesting. I have friends, neighbors, and also my wife, who is the chief intelligence officer of societal opinion. Many “returnees” from Ukraine go to the militia voluntarily. They have some feeling of betrayal inside, guilt that they want to redeem. But there are also obvious enemies. We do not have enough professionals in the state government. There are, but actually they are now in trenches. Or in Crimea, or Moscow. There is no reserve human resources. Therefore, in the administration, 73% of vacancies were staffed by students. Many who served and fought. And we will change our officials for our students.”
Did you succeed to clean up the country’s “wild” units, the so-called “Indians”? What is the situation with the “Makhnovism” [anarchist – O.R]?
“Despite it looking paradoxical, but of the 4000 Cossacks, a little more than 300 were arrested. And then almost all of them were released. 17 people remain. Let’s face it. How does the regular army differ from us? They cut the hair of an 18-year-old boy, he walks in formation, is lead by the hand, and educated in an environment of unity. This is the army. We serve people who have life experience, fighting for their beliefs. That is very difficult to make and educate. And it is very difficult to separate one from the other – and the fact that this man has done heroic military service. But I can say that the groups that are at war and skillfully maraud, are not present in the republic anymore.
What is currently at the front? Why do the Ukrainians occupy the demilitarized “grey areas”?
“There is a problem that i’ve seen with my own eyes, I won’t name the inhabited settlement. Hiding behind OSCE six cars, the Ukrainians entered their BMP, start to make trenches, knowing that we will not fire at them, standing a kilometer away, now 300 metres. As soon as we begin to conduct any active hostilities, they are recorded like that: 57 shellings from our side, 19 attacks from the Ukrainian side. But for some reason nobody says that, on Sunday, Dokuchaievsk was fired at by two tanks. And that our 57 attacks were a response to the actions of the Ukrainians. Near Avdiivka for example. In this area is a water treatment plant that supplies water to us and Avdiivka. We departed on the proposal of the OSCE. But why, when we departed did they occupy these territories?
When we begin to return, the OSCE howls like in the cartoon “Mowgli”. Remember the Jackal Tabaqui?If it down to our will, we already long ago would have been near Kiev… But it is this anger that pushes me over the edge. How to deal with it? This morning we were discussing whether we have to beat or be more gentle because of the OSCE. But, you know, softly does not work! Remember the story of Shirokino? Our gesture of good will, especially since it was an offer from the Russian peacekeepers from the coordination center. And then suddenly last week there was an announcement – “the Ukrainian army established control of Shirokino!”. So it was already 1 year ago since we were there! This is a success for the Ukrainian army.”
They shouldn’t be there.
“Neither in Brussels nor in Berlin did anyone protest, nor reviled Petro Poroshenko. I think that sooner or later there will be skirmishes in the “grey zone”, after which we will be accused of disrupting the Minsk agreements. And I’ll explain why they need it. After being involved in the Minsk agreements, they lost. To Ukraine, these agreements are like death, that’s why they do not fulfil them. And they will never bring change to the constitutional. They will not pass the law on “special status” because it says to “coordinate” with others. But they will not “coordinate” with the heads of DPR and LPR; they think of the Republic as a “temporarily occupied territory”. And they will start another war… We are ready for it. And if some hothead in Ukraine will try to start it, it will be his last decision in the current government he will make.”
Is there the sense that they are testing the line of defense?
“They do this all the time. In Ukraine, the Ministry of Defence thinks that their genius plans are unknown. But we know everything. There are only three areas of impact – the South, Gorlovka, and Donetsk – the joints between brigades. American drones are flying out of Italy and it’s not in vain that they are hanging in the air over our cities and recording everything. Plus the presence of the red cross, UN, and OSCE. We recently arrested a current employee of SBU operating under the guise of the UN.”
That is, the UN is not bothered that they gave cover to a scout?
“They called me. Supposedly, there is a convention, and we have no rights. I said to them, verbatim: “We are not a member of the United Nations. If you accept the recognition as an independent state, we will sign the convention and we will abide by it”. Then they hung up and never called back. They’re used to dealing with Papuans and purchasing whole countries for beads and two iron knives. So we understand where they will attack and are waiting to strike. Frankly, I’m sick of it. They change the expected date each month. Have you heard the saying – “there is such a profession as defending the Homeland”? Now, everyone has such a profession. You can be a good robot, but you are not a person. Here’s the difference between us. We are for the truth, they lie.”
Have you ever come across an opponent who deserved your respect?
“Well, this happened once somehow. I saw Ukrainain paratroopers draw fire on themselves. But on Saur-Mogil our guys called fire on themselves 11. I saw UAF soldiers taken prisoner dragging their wounded or killed commanders, not abandon them. This was worth a matter of respect. But I’ve also seen a commander betray his soldiers and try to escape. This is a whole other deal. How is it possible to come across some who deserve respect? Well, everything aside, we are of the same blood. I do not take into account the rabid idiots from the Carpathian mountains who came down to buy matches and got taken into the army. Poltava, Sumy, Kiev, Krivoy Rog, Kharkov… They have the same concepts of honor, conscience, and achievement that we do. Many simply are drugged or fooled.
Talking to with prisoners, I remember how they were surprised to look at the city. They can’t understand how we put asphalt here: “How?! You’re supposed to be Russian bears with balalaikas running around drunk”. And there are cinemas, theatres opened, beautiful girls go to the cafe. They’re like in a parallel reality. In one universe the Donetsk is basements, cannibals, bears addicts, and criminals. In the other world, there’s what they see with their own eyes. And they can’t understand what cosmic flows brought them here. It’s a shock. If all of Ukraine saw this, the number of mentally ill would increase several times in one day.”
Mothers of Ukrainian soldiers periodically come to you to take their children home. They all see it too.
“And then they speak in Ukraine. But not all. I’m afraid fear is such an adhesive thing. It holds down both the mind and muscles. But still, one person in the kitchen whispers to another, who tells someone else, “Aunt Clara said to Aunt Sime that Larisa Petrovna sells mink coats”. But this of course is not enough. There should be informational support. I’m not a professional in this, I don’t know how to do it.
But they can see our city, roads, parks, children, weddings, birthdays, and vintage cars. Roads are being repaired when they had not been done for 23 years. Gas is now available where it was not in the Soviet Union. 70% of the mines are dormant, but we produce more coal than before. We removed the “crony lava” combined grade… We are not a subsidized region like Yatsenyuk said. We don’t need their 15 billion, or how ever much they gave. Have they even been around to the Donbass that they judge? There are people here who can think, who haven’t not lost common sense.
We have many problems that need fixing. But look at Ukraine. Where is the fighting? Only in Donbass. Are all the other areas are thriving? There are no falling shells, no cut down forests, or burnt schools. What makes it so bad are utilities and the economy. We have the blockade, and we are not able to receive food, fuel, or medicines. But we solved the issue by filling our market. If for us recently isolated products were cheaper there, now isolated products are more expensive than here. Vaccines weren’t taken care of Ukraine, but we did it here. We pay pensions and salaries, we’ve restored houses, and at the same time we are fighting. Let the Ukrainians ask their government why this is so.”
They say that even the flow of people that commute from here to Ukraine has decreased.
“Before we went to them to overstock, and now they come to us. The exchange between our countries, despite everything, is increasing.”
But, nevertheless, the vector of development of the Republic is still orientated towards Russia?
“If I live to see the moment when we and mother Russia will have one flag and anthem, I’ll be able to say that I fulfilled the purpose for which my mother and father brought me into this world. Global geopolitics is arranging everything that points to the fact that we should all be together. There are many threats that our children and grandchildren need to address. But how they are prepared for them depends on us. I’m not talking about actual war, but economic, political, and information wars. But we must pass it on to our heirs in a state that is in their fist. We are ready for anything, any challenge, any confrontation so that it will be understood this a state that is a leader against which all others will be measured. No matter who we are – I as the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic or you as journalists — this is our task as men in the first place. If together we solve it, then sitting as old grandparents we will say, “It’s good that we thought about returning Alaska in time”. Just kidding.”
What does the republic’s economy consist of?
“We are transitioning from being the commodity sector, which of course is prevalent, to production. Our engineering still hobbles for the objective reason that we are not recognized. Any equipment must be certified, which we can’t do. Now a greater emphasis is placed on agriculture. We are modernizing the mines, so that lower capacities can produce more coal. But besides this, we have clay, rare earth metals, and deposits of silver. And we have rich fish resources after restoring an estuary to the sea of Azov that was filled in the 90’s – it was a nursery for sturgeon. We caught the first sturgeon there two months ago, using the memory of where the fish spawns…”
In Russia, there is almost no sturgeon left in the Caspian sea.
“But we have some. And the war helped us in this. In the span of two years we increased the fish “herd”. In Russia, there is import substitution, but we have a closed cycle. If there is grain, it should have its own flour and bread. You should try to realize the final product, rather than the raw materials. If there are seeds, it is necessary to make oil. There is a process, but it is not completed in one hour. From Ukraine we got only entertainment, but the chemical industry, pharmacology, and metallurgy remained from the Soviet Union. It had to be reanimated. But of course you need at least minimum recognition from the Russian Federation. Then it will be easier for us to implement finished products.”
Russia recognized your passports.
“I personally checked.”
But some say that “Russia ditched Donbass”.
“No. There is maximum help even though Russia, our common homeland, has enough of its own problems. We were surprised to see that they did not reduce the amount of humanitarian assistance or supply of raw materials. Russia is helping to restore the destroyed cities including, according to the plan, amounts to two thousand to four thousand houses. It’s a shame that we are building and reconstructing. While the roof was being put on, two walls were blown up. It’s true. You know, there is a worm gnawing away inside… I would love to one day order opening fire at the face of that rascal I see every day on TV. Many friends were killed. This is the feeling of many men. If in April 2014, we were not angry, in April 2016, the mental burden we have is quite different. We do not forget anything and anyone. Will be sure to ask for our fallen friends . There is this local proverb: “Donetsk always comes for her own.”
Forgive the metaphor, but there are different arrows for the bow – those that piece armor, those that pierce cain mail…and there are hunting and fish-head arrows that get stuck in the boar and let him bleed out. The faster he runs, the more blood he loses. In the end, if falls onto his side. Donbass is such an arrow which has stuck in Ukraine.
“I want it to be the spear that stabs right into the heart so the boar immediately drops. But this arrow isn’t even in Ukraine. This arrow is not meant to drain Ukraine. Ukraine was sold out; someone else deserves to be bled. Unfortunately, through the skin and fat of Ukraine. Through them, it needs to get to Brussels and Washington, but right now the fat is suffering. The arrow is messy, broken, but the tip sits. But a grenade launcher is better, for that one Pig left – you, Petro, the Pig.
Now inside of our people have awakened those feelings, those interior spirits that are characteristic only for us. The same spirit that helped to break the neck of the French, the same that filled Ivan Susanin, who was among those who defended Brest, those who threw themselves on the bunkers in order to direct planes against the fascists, Poltava, the battle of Kulikovo – the millennial free spirit – bang! — it’s been woken up.
Imagine that this “caught” all of Russia. And we’d say, “Stop, we are indeed the descendants of those glorious ancestors, which passed all this down to us. And we can pass it down too”. We will pass on to our children what our ancestors left us. And then this country will be impossible to kill. That’s all! We don’t need the Philadelphia marshes or prairies of Texas.
Organizing a new world order, we will occupy a place that we previously claimed and which we were worthy enough to get. I’d like to see it with my own eyes. If my grandson gets to see it, I’ll come down, have a look, and say: “Well thank God!” And I wont be asked to go back tell my grandfathers and great grandfathers: “I did what I could. I’ve come to you with an open spirit. Punish me for that of which I am guilty.”
The most important is for everyone to think the same thing — from the Far East to the Baltic sea. Everyone must overcome the fear of death and deprivation. I gain energy from our ancestors. We drove the “cyborgs” around the streets last year and a grandmother appropriately said: “I do not need this pension. You need to buy a tank. We’ll just sit here in the basement and survive somehow. You will have to tell us when we take Kiev, and Poroshenko is in jail”. That’s a weight sacrifice. The majority of young people today would never utter these words. And we can’t cheat this grandmother.
But the young are now fighting in the same places where they once fought against the fascists.
“In the same trenches. The war is for my dead ancestors. Pride in those ancestors that survived, and the pride for the country that was able to win and for the people who withstood it all. But above all, this war means responsibility – the duty not to fail. Then our children won’t have to ask what they will those who left to Crimea, Moscow, or Kiev: “Dad, where were you when they destroyed our Homeland?” Our sons won’t ever have to ask that.”