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The Russian annexation of Donbass territories dramatically changed the fortunes of the local quasi-elite that emerged as a result of the 2014 “Russian Spring.” Local figures are being sidelined by appointees from Russia; regional officials, vice-governors and ex-mayors of Russian cities have been given seats in “governments.” Some “heroes” of 2014 are trying to find themselves in local politics, while others are building their careers “on the mainland”. In most cases, these are stories of epic failures; the Kremlin's risky adventure has not brought success even to those sincerely devoted to it. The initial bet on adventurers who were supposed to destabilize eastern Ukraine has been replaced by the Kremlin “handlers’” desire to simply reproduce Russian realities on the seized territories with a “vertical” of bureaucratic power which is a better fit for former Ukrainian cops and “regionalists” than for “Novorossiya”ideologists. 

  • Gubarev: “people's governor” without portfolio and with arrested wife

  • “Fathers of the DNR” deprived of parental rights

  • From the Donetsk steppe to the steppes of Kalmykia

  • Yanukovych's security officers and tough managers

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Gubarev: “people's governor” without portfolio and with arrested wife

Before 2014, Pavel Gubarev was not a remarkable figure. He owned a small advertising agency working with the Party of Regions and did not shy away from playing Santa Claus at New Year's corporate parties. In his memoirs, he described the political line of his biography: joining a Russian nationalist circle in a student dormitory, participating in RNE training camps in Russia, where he played rugby as part of the team“Khokhly” (derogatory term for Ukrainians), and serving as a deputy from a pro-Russian party on a district council. But it is unlikely that all these frivolous details made him a weighty figure at a local level, rather creating a reputation of a freak.

Everything changed in the spring of 2014. During the pro-Russian unrest in Donetsk, Gubarev advanced as a rally leader, led the seizure of administrative buildings, and was elected “people's governor.” Analysts emphasized his close ties to the business group of the Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev, who had financed the rise of pro-Russian proxies to power in Donetsk through his security chief, Igor Strelkov-Girkin, at the behest of the Kremlin. His wife Ekaterina Gubareva met a group of Strelkov's fighters on the Ukrainian border, who then seized Sloviansk. Subsequently, Strelkov exchanged Gubarev, who had been arrested by the SBU, for officers of the Ukrainian Alfa special forces.

Pavel and Ekaterina Gubarev
Pavel and Ekaterina Gubarev

But Gubarev's further career did not go well. Together with Ekaterina, he created the Free Donbass movement in October 2014, which claimed power in the “DNR.” However, the activity of the quarrelsome Gubarev, who began to criticize the state of affairs in “Novorossiya,” was disliked by the leaders of the “DNR” - first by Alexander Zakharchenko, and then by his successor Denis Pushilin, as well as by the Kremlin curators. In late 2014, “unknown assailants.” tried to assassinate Gubarev. In 2015, Gubarev was not allowed to take control of the town of Yasynuvata; in 2018, when he tried to run for the office of the “DNR” head he was forced out of the “republic” altogether, and his Free Donbass party was taken over by Pushilin's people. Ekaterina, a former deputy of the local “parliament,” retained her position in local politics.

The couple saw the February 2022 events as their second chance: Gubarev went off to fight, but his wife suddenly resurfaced in the occupation administration of the Kherson region, where she took charge of social issues. Obviously, financial and “humanitarian” aid with which the Russian authorities tried to buy loyalty of the local population began passing through her hands. The position was lucrative, and the outcome was predictable: soon after the Russian troops abandoned Kherson Gubareva was arrested by Russian law enforcers and charged with embezzling 60 million rubles. It is not clear where the money went. The fate of Gubareva herself also looks uncertain: there are reports that she is under house arrest, which Ekaterina has denied.

The position was lucrative, and the outcome was predictable: Gubareva was arrested and charged with embezzling a large sum of money

Clearly, the Gubarevs have once again failed to fit into the Russian system that they fought so hard to establish in Ukraine. Gubarev's rise in 2014 was due to the chaos in which Donbass plunged, as well as the activity of “private-state” partnerships like the Malofeyev-Strelkov duo, which had been initially given charge of “Novorossiya”. The Gubarevs, unlike Denis Pushilin, head of the “DNR,” who established useful contacts in the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation and the United Russia party, failed to acquire serious patrons. After the annexation of Donbass and its incorporation into the all-Russian “vertical of power,” no room was left for such figures,way too exotic for the Russian bureaucracy.

“Fathers of the DNR” deprived of parental rights

The fate of another pro-Russian activist of the “Russian spring”, Andrey Purgin, is no less telling. It was he who, back in 2005, co-founded the organization Donetsk Republic, which promoted the ideas of Donbass separatism as a response to the victory of the Orange Revolution. Purgin's organization was patronized by local authorities represented by the Party of Regions, as well as by handlers in Moscow. Activists of the “Donetsk Republic”were trained in the camps of Alexander Dugin's Eurasian Movement and received funding via that channel. The criminal cases launched against the separatists under Yushchenko were quietly dropped after Yanukovich came to power. Already in 2012, Purgin's associates were engaged in the distribution of passports of the future “Donetsk Republic”.

Andrey Purgin
Andrey Purgin

In 2014, all of Purgin's previous biography should have ensured him a leading role in the “DNR.” Indeed, at first, he became the head of the first “DNR parliament,” but then he fully repeated Gubarev's fate – he was gradually removed from all levers of power and squeezed out of politics. Purgin was even imprisoned in one of the local “basements”: in September 2015, he was dismissed as head of the “DNR” People's Council in favor of Denis Pushilin, and then arrested for “destructive actions.” His supporters then wrote that the “ideologically-minded” Purgin, unlike the “systemic” Pushilin, was an opponent of the Minsk agreements, which provided for the reintegration of Donbass into Ukraine. Later, Purgin attempted to create the “Republican Movement of Donbass” as a legal opposition to Pushilin but was denied registration. At the same time, the local press accused Purgin of being a secret agent of Ukrainian influence.

A similar fate befell another ideologist of Donbas separatism, historian and journalist Roman Manekin. In 2017, he tried to publish information about Russian citizens, former “militia”volunteers, arrested in the “DNR,” was detained and tortured by the Donetsk MGB, and left the “basement” with ruined health. Three years later, Manekin was arrested again for criticizing Pushilin and imprisoned for 2.5 years as a “Ukrainian spy.” He was released in November of this year.

Roman Manekin
Roman Manekin

Even before 2014, the ideologues of separatism in Donbass formed a rather marginal group in the service of the Party of Regions, compared to whom Party of Regions politicians looked quite respectable. Donetsk politicians kept the separatists to themselves as a scarecrow for Kyiv. After Yanukovych came to power, when he pretended to be engaged in European integration, it was convenient for the Party of Regions to shift the task of promoting anti-Western propaganda and combating “Ukrainian fascism” onto them. At some point, the Donbas separatists made contacts with Russia, but their marginal nature did not change; using them as ideological cover, the Kremlin seized power in the region and sent them to the dustbin of history.

From the Donetsk steppe to the steppes of Kalmykia

Foreseeing the impossibility of a career in the “people's republic” they themselves created, the more far-sighted activists of Donbass separatism decided to try their luck in “mainland”Russia. The departure of Vladislav Surkov, the former curator of Donbass, also contributed to this.

Dmytro Trapeznikov was one of the first to make such a “transition”. Before the war, a functionary of the football club Shakhtar, owned by oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, then a minor official in the city administration, Trapeznikov managed to become an influential person under the “DNR” head Alexander Zakharchenko, holding the positions of first deputy of his “administration” and deputy prime minister of the “government.” After Zakharchenko's death in September 2018, he was the acting head of the “DNR” for two months, but then left Donetsk after losing power struggle with Denis Pushilin.

Dmitry Trapeznikov (left) and Alexander Zakharchenko
Dmitry Trapeznikov (left) and Alexander Zakharchenko

Trapeznikov surfaced unexpectedly in Kalmykia, where he was appointed city manager of Elista in September 2019. He became a protégé of the new head of the republic, Batu Khasikov, to whom he had been introduced by his former Donbass patron Vladislav Surkov. The appointment of a man without roots in the region and with a smeared reputation to an important post in the national republic sparked protests from the local public. Rumors of the unpopular Donbas nominee's imminent resignation circulated for a long time, but in the end Trapeznikov remained in his chair until February 2022, when Khasikov transferred him to work in the regional government.

Less impressive was the career of another of Zakharchenko's associates, Alexander “Tashkent” Timofeev, one of “DNR's”economic supervisors who was responsible for various shadyschemes. After the death of his boss (according to one version, “Tashkent” may have been involved in the murder of Zakharchenko), Timofeev left for Russia, and in 2021 he found himself in the dock for extortion. Together with his accomplice Igor Sosnovsky, a former advisor to ex-Ukrainian Prime Minister Azarov, Timofeev promised to solve the problems of a certain Shpak and to get the criminal case against him dropped, citing his wide connections in the Russian security forces. The swindlers asked $4.5 million, but Shpak realized he was being tricked and turned them in to the FSB. As a result, the former Donetsk “overseer” went to jail for 3.5 years. After the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Timofeyev began asking to be sent to the front (and perhaps his request, given the mass recruitment of prisoners for the war, has already been quietly granted).

Yanukovych's security officers and tough managers

The most successful are “people of the system”, former Ukrainian security officers or politicians. The proximity of Putin's Russia and Ukraine under Yanukovych probably had acertain effect. The Party of Regions tried to copy the Putin model of social management in an effort to achieve a political monopoly and impose it on the entire country. British historian of Ukrainian origin Taras Kuzo considers this to be the key topic of Ukrainian political history of the early XXI century: “When the Donetsk clan tried to come to power through rigged elections in 2004 or to copy Russian authoritarian system and resocialization in 2010-2013, Ukrainians made two democratic revolutions,” he wrote in his book “Putin's War against Ukraine”. However, within Donbass the experiment was quite successful, and the “LNR”-”DNR” cadres confirm it.

Former SBU officer Leonid Pasechnik, who had received a state award from President Yushchenko, ended up heading the “LNR”. Since 2014, the state security agencies in the “DNR”have also been headed by former members of the Ukrainian security forces. The “Minister of Internal Affairs” is former Ukrainian police colonel Oleksiy Dikiy. In 2011-2014, he was the head of the department for combating drug trafficking in the Directorate of Internal Affairs for the City of Donetsk. In April 2014, new Interior Minister Arsen Avakov appointed Dikiy as head of the directorate for combating organized crime, but he soon defected to the Donbas separatists and took part in the seizure of the regional prosecutor's office and the building of the Directorate for Combating Organized Crime. After the annexation of the Donetsk region by the Russian Federation, Dykiy received the rank of Russian police general.

Leonid Pasechnik
Leonid Pasechnik

“Since 2015, the “DNR” Ministry of State Security has been headed by veteran KGB and SBU officer Vladimir Pavlenko. At the time of the Russian Spring, he was already retired and worked as an official in the mayor’s office of Sloviansk, where he joined Igor Strelkov's militant group in April 2014. He also retained his post after the annexation of the region, which suggests his close ties to the Russian special services. Military journalist Dmitry Durnev notes: “The MGB of the so-called DNR is a completely closed body independent from the local authorities, which is directly supervised by people from Moscow. The “head of the DNR” has no influence over MGBdecisions, but he can make requests”.

The “DNR” and “LNR” parliaments are headed by professional politicians from pro-Russian parties. Denys Miroshnichenko, a former activist in the youth organization of the Party of Regions, who supervised youth policy, has held the post of “speaker” in Luhansk since 2017. During the Euromaidan, he was known for recruiting “titushki” (thugs) from among Luhansk football fans for the Anti-Maidan. Almost every second deputy of the “People's Council of the LNR” had been building a career in the ranks of the Party of Regions or the Communist Party of Ukraine before 2014. As for the “parliament of the DNR”, since 2018 it has been headed by Vladimir Bidyovka, a former deputy from the Communist Party of Ukraine in 2012-2014. Specific local cadres are also being recruited to head the branches of Russian parties opening in the annexed territories. Igor Gumenyuk, a political adventurist with a colorful biography, headed the Russian Communist Party's regional committee in Luhansk, having been expelled from the Communist Party back in the 1990s for “links to criminal bourgeoisie”. He subsequently went through several party memberships, including one in Arseniy Yatsenyuk's liberal Front for Change.

Denis Miroshnichenko
Denis Miroshnichenko

After the annexation of the new territories in Donbass, new representatives of the former Party of Regions have been joining the ranks of “tough professionals”. For example, Konstantin Ivashchenko, director of the local Azovobschemash plant controlled by Yanukovych's friend Yuriy Ivanyushchenko, also known as the crime lord Yura of Yenakievo, became head of the Mariupol administration. Ivashchenko was a city council deputyfrom the Party of Regions, then from Viktor Medvedchuk's Opposition Platform - For Life. According to the Ukrainian media, after the Russian invasion, Ivashchenko set up a scheme to loot equipment from the destroyed Azovmash and sell it as scrap metal. The metal was then shipped by sea to Rostov. The man selling his own plant as scrap metal turned out to be an ideal candidate for the new authorities.

A man selling his own factory as scrap metal turned out to be an ideal candidate for the new authorities

The legacy of the Party of Regions plays an important role in Donbass history: having once monopolized power in Donbass, this group literally scorched the political field in the entire region, allowing only marginal forces like the “Donbass separatists” or obedient satellites like the Communist Party of Ukraine to exist there. At the time of the collapse of Yanukovich's rule and the beginning of the Russian intervention, these marginal forces, augmented by similarly styled nationalist radicals from Russia (“Novorossiyans”), came to the surface and even briefly gained power. Later, they were joined by business groups and ex-security officers linked to all sorts of criminal economic activities, junior partners of the Party of Regions bosses, engaged in money laundering, smuggling, illegal coal mining. After the Kremlin wagered on the annexation of Donbass, the need for the former (“ideologists”) disappeared, but the latter (“systemically-minded”) got an opportunity to join the Russian world based on the principles of the criminal milieu. The history of the Donbass elite is instructive - as a lesson of the past for Ukraine and as a projection of the future for Russia. By remembering Donbass and its leaders in 2014, it is possible to assume what will happen if after the collapse of the current Russian system, which the Party of Regions tried to copy at home.

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