Strange times throw up strange heroes — and in Russia’s proxy war with Ukraine, none is more enigmatic than the Donetsk rebel leader Igor Girkin, better known by his nom de guerre of Igor Strelkov.
In a few short months, Strelkov has gone from being an obscure military re-enactor to the highest-profile rebel leader in eastern Ukraine. But at the same time Strelkov’s fame and outspoken criticism of Vladimir Putin for failing to sufficiently support the rebels has earned him the enmity of the Kremlin. Moreover, Strelkov’s brand of sentimental ultra-nationalism, extreme Orthodoxy and Russian Imperial nostalgia offer a frightening glimpse into one of Russia’s possible futures.
In the West, we are used to seeing Putin cast as a dangerous adventurer and nationalist. But to Strelkov, and to the millions of Russians who have come to admire him, Putin isn’t nearly nationalist enough.
Within weeks of his arrival in eastern Ukraine in May this year, apparently on his own initiative, Strelkov quickly became the highest-profile rebel leader thanks to his discipline and military bearing. A veteran of wars in Bosnia, Transnistria and Chechnya, Strelkov is a reserve colonel in the Russian army and a former (and possibly current) officer in Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU. With his clipped moustache, pressed fatigues and careful charm, Strelkov styles himself on a pre–revolutionary Tsarist officer. In May he mustered a 2,000-strong local defence force in Slavyansk, banned his troops from swearing and ordered two of his own men to be summarily executed for looting. He wrote a manifesto calling his troops ‘an Orthodox army who are proud that we serve not the golden calf but our Lord Jesus Christ’ and declared that ‘swearing is blasphemy, and a Russian warrior cannot use the language of the enemy. It demeans us spiritually, and will lead the army to defeat.’
Russian state television built Strelkov up as a hero. The nationalist writer Egor Prosvirnin praised him as the ‘Russian God of War’ who ‘drinks the blood of foreign mercenaries to the last drop, and then asks for more’. Russian bloggers designed a spoof of the poster for the film ‘300’ depicting ‘300 Strelkovites’ in heroic poses.
And then, in mid-August, Strelkov mysteriously resigned his post as ‘defence minister’ of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic — along with two other Russian citizens who had been the civilian heads of the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. All three rebel leaders were replaced by Ukrainian citizens.
The most obvious explanation for the reshuffle is that Moscow is preparing a negotiated settlement where the Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine — or Novo-Rossiya, ‘New Russia,’ in Russian nationalist parlance — will be given some degree of autonomy within Ukraine. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — from young soldiers’ Instagram selfies tagged to locations inside Ukraine to the Russian regular soldiers taken prisoners of war on Monday by Kiev’s troops — Moscow has also continued to insist that it is not a combatant in Ukraine. Clearly, having Russian citizens at the helm of supposedly autonomous rebel republics and their armed forces was a diplomatic inconvenience to the Kremlin which needed to be fixed — and pressure was put on Strelkov and his cronies to quit.
But there’s another, deeper meaning to Strelkov’s fall from favour. Though he’s often portrayed as a stooge of Moscow, Strelkov has in fact been consistently critical of the Kremlin’s failure to act decisively to annex eastern Ukraine as it annexed Crimea in spring. ‘Having taken Crimea, Putin began a revolution from the top,’ Strelkov wrote in June. ‘But if we do not support [this revolution] now, its failure will sweep aside both him and the country.’ Strelkov’s close associate Igor Ivanov, the head of the rebel army’s political department, has also furiously denounced the ‘-Chekist-oligarchic regime’ of Vladimir Putin and has also predicted that Putin will soon fall, leaving only the army and the church to save Russia from chaos.
This mix of militarism, religion and a mystical faith in Holy Russia’s imperial destiny to rule over lesser nations has deep roots. Ivanov was until recently head of the Russian All-Military Union, or ROVS, an organisation originally founded by the White Russian General Baron Pyotr Wrangel in 1924 after the victory of the Bolsheviks in the civil war. Its guiding motive was to preserve the Tsarist ideals of God, Tsar and Fatherland. For much of the 20th century, ROVS was the preserve of elderly emigré fantasists — before a new generation of post-Soviet nationalists like Ivanov breathed new life into the organisation as a home for Russian ultra-nationalists who hate Putin’s brand of crony capitalism.
A similar outfit is the Narodny Sobor, or People’s Assembly, which describes itself as an ‘Orthodox-Patriotic organisation devoted to fighting “liberasts” and western values, to promoting Orthodoxy, and to preserving the traditional family’, according to a recent study by Professor Paul Robinson of the University of Ottawa. In Russia, the Narodny Sobor has, along with the Russian Orthodox church, successfully campaigned for a tsunami of conservative legislation to be passed by the Duma, from banning swearing on television and in films to prohibiting the spreading of ‘homosexual propaganda’. The head of the Narodny Sobor’s Ukrainian branch is Igor Druz — a senior political advisor to Strelkov who has denounced the Kiev government as ‘pederasts and drug addicts’.
On the face of it, Strelkov and his ilk and Putin should be on the same side. They share a nostalgia for a lost Russian greatness — indeed Strelkov has a degree in history and was until recently an enthusiastic military re-enactor, playing White Guard and second world war officers. And this year, in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, Putin has abandoned years of hard-edged pragmatism and economic prudence and moved towards the kind of mystical, Orthodox nationalism so beloved of the ROVS and Narodny Sobor crowd.
Yet as Putin prepares to sign off on some kind of compromise peace deal with the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, there will be millions of Russians brainwashed by months of state television’s patriotic propaganda who will agree with Strelkov that Moscow is selling the rebels down the river.
Strelkov himself has little chance of becoming a serious opposition figure to Putin; he is too stiff and too weird for public politics. But Putin’s main challenger, when he comes, will be someone of Strelkov’s stamp.
We tend to think of Vladimir Putin as being most politically vulnerable from the left — from the liberal, western-orientated professionals who came out in their hundreds of thousands on the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg three years ago to protest at Putin’s third term. But in truth Putin’s real vulnerability is from the right — from the racist football fans who rioted unchecked through central Moscow in 2010; from prophets of a Russian-led Eurasian empire such as Alexander Dugin, who was in the radical nationalist opposition to Putin before falling temporarily into step with the Kremlin in the wake of the Crimea campaign; and from militaristic ultra–conservatives on the Russian religious right.
Owen Matthews is the author of Stalin’s Children and Glorious Misadventures, and headed Newsweek’s Moscow bureau from 2006 to 2012.