“We want to join a Russian Empire:” Discussion with the Leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic

July 8, 2014

CGI’s Ukraine Crisis Interview Series is part of our larger After Ukraine program that examines the global consequences of the Ukraine crisis. Through it, we seek to answer questions about the meaning of regional values, both social and political, in addition to the changing understanding of sovereignty and national borders in post-Cold War Europe and the rest of the world.

The After Ukraine program, conceived in the beginning of the crisis, finds itself right in the middle of it—and with a lot more questions than answers. Our Ukraine Crisis Interview Series will attempt to get at some of these answers through free expression of opinions from all sides. In the coming weeks, this series will feature exclusive interviews with figures at the center of the crisis in Ukraine, as well as commentators from different sides of the conflict.

CGI approaches these interviews from a neutral perspective, and hopes readers will welcome the opportunity to hear from critical players in this crisis in their own words.

In the first installment, CGI spoke with Denis Pushilin, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, about his immediate goals and long-term outlook for the breakaway region. Among the highlights are Pushilin’s expressed desire for DPR to be part of a revived Russian Empire, and an agreement for DPR to receive gas from Russia at subsidized prices.

Center on Global Interests: You’ve previously said that you wanted to unite all Russians. First, whom do you consider Russian? And how are Ukrainians different from Russians?

Denis Pushilin: We’ve never felt that there was a difference between Ukrainians and Russians. We feel ourselves to be Russian, because “Russian” is not a nationality—this is important to understand. It’s an outlook on life, a shared mentality and heritage, partly based on Orthodoxy, that has been lost since the Soviet Union dissolved.

CGI: Aside from Orthodoxy, what other values do you think characterize the “Russian” people?

DP: We’ve all heard of what has become known as the “great Russian soul.” Many of the values that are foreign to us were imposed by the West, especially the importance of wealth and extravagance. The pursuit of it causes people around the world to betray and kill one another. Our relationship with money is fundamentally different from that of the West and the new authorities in Kiev. We have always put human values first.

To give another example, unlike the Americans and even the Europeans, we don’t judge something as being good or bad; we just say it’s different. We don’t think homosexuality is appropriate for our society, but we don’t tell other countries what to do. Everyone has the right to do decide what works best for themselves.

CGI: Are your differences with the government in Kiev more ideological or economic?

DP: Everything has piled up at once. While at first we were just discussing our official language and what monuments we would have, today we’ve realized that our region has become the stage of a geopolitical battle between the United States and Russia. We have lived in peace since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, we’ve been hearing nice words about democracy while watching the destruction of Iraq, Libya and Yugoslavia. All the color revolutions followed the same scenario, and this includes Maidan.

It’s clear that the latest revolution has benefited the United States. I don’t mean to say all Americans are bad, because that can’t be true in principle. I can’t entirely blame the U.S. leadership, either—even the president is subject to pressure and manipulation. But all the recent wars that have been started have sustained the life of the U.S. military-industrial complex.

CGI: What misconception do you think the U.S. has about DPR that you would like to change?

DP: The false conceptions are obvious. We’ve been portrayed as terrorists. But where have we carried out any terror? We’ve stayed on our own territory and defended our homes after our peaceful request for a referendum—a right guaranteed in Article 5 of the Ukrainian Constitution—went unheard.

Many of us supported federalization. The problem was that Kiev began trying to impose which language we should think and speak in, the language in which we should teach our children. I studied both Ukrainian and Russian in school and have no problem with either one. But if I’m forced to only speak Ukrainian and give my children Ukrainian text books, then I will refuse to give up Russian.

The skewing of recent history is another big problem. Our history textbooks have been revised so many times in the last few years that you start to feel sorry for the history teachers. The most recent textbook devotes only half a page to World War Two, which we remember as the Great Patriotic War, but almost five pages to the Orange Revolution. Are these events really comparable?

CGI: Under what conditions, if any, would DPR agree to remain a part of Ukraine?

DP: That was an option until the most recent events that took place. Today Kiev is acting worse than Nazi Germany—even the Nazis didn’t bomb their own cities. The turning point was in Odessa, where people were burned alive in a building. That showed the extent to which perceptions had become distorted among the Odessan youth. Just a few months ago these people had been going to the same universities and night clubs, and now one side was throwing Molotov cocktails and posing for pictures with burned bodies. But Kiev officials supported their behavior, and Yulia Tymoshenko even congratulated them for fighting against separatism. After that, we can’t talk about a single Ukraine. It no longer exists.

We don’t want to separate from Ukraine and form a new little country. We want to join a big country—for me, personally, it’s the Russian Empire. I don’t see anything bad in imperialism. If you look back, throughout its entire history the Russian Empire never had a single colony. After adding a new country to the empire, it made that region its equal. Some of the countries that are now trying to teach us about democracy, like the United Kingdom, still maintain commonwealths and territories abroad.

CGI: You participated in the December 2013 repeat parliamentary elections and got 0.08% of the vote. Why do you think you have the support of the people today?

DP: I ended up running in a region near Kiev where no one knew me. It became more of an experiment. I was against Yanukovych and Donetsk was against Yanukovych, but we had to get rid of him in a peaceful way. But the government coup created a bad precedent that brought more of the same people to power. Maidan ran on an anti-oligarch slogan, yet what do we see now? [President Petro] Poroshenko, [Dnipropetrovsk Governor Ihor] Kolomoisky and [Donetsk Governor Serhiy] Taruta are all oligarchs.

CGI: Russian President Putin has been calling for a dialogue between Kiev and southeastern Ukraine. If the new authorities really are fascists, why do think Russia wants you to negotiate with them?

DP: At that time, Poroshenko had not given direct orders to attack the southeast. But now he is displaying fascist behavior by using the army against his own people. At the same time, Poroshenko is not an independent player. I believe his actions are dictated by the United States.

CGI: How would respond to the idea that Russia’s end goal is to orchestrate a frozen conflict in Ukraine?

DP: First of all, we need to put an end to the genocide that is being carried out against us. Right now they’re [Ukrainian military] using heavy artillery against peaceful civilians, mostly those who speak Russian and are Orthodox. There can be no further discussions on the issue until then.

CGI: If your region gains autonomy, would it orient itself toward Russia?

DP: We want to be oriented toward the Eurasian Economic Union. All of our industry is currently tied to the Customs Union, which is why a free-trade agreement with the EU essentially means death for our region. Even in this short time span, our car manufacturing output has fallen by 60%. At the same time, we don’t have enough time to reorient our industry to the EU and we risk becoming a mere supplier of raw goods.

CGI: There have been reports about infighting among separatist leaders and troops. Can you describe your relationship with the Donetsk fighters and with their leader, defense minister Igor Strelkov?

DP: Our relations are great. Strelkov represents the great Russian—even imperial Russian—officer. The internal discord is a normal phenomenon for a people’s uprising made up of many different groups. I think the panic has been inflated by the Ukrainian media. We have one goal: to lead a battle of resistance against attacks on our territory. The only disagreements are about how to best carry that out.

CGI: What about you relations with the Luhansk Peoples Republic, and its leader, Oleg Tsarev?

DP: Our relationship is one of cooperation because we have the same goals: we held a referendum on the same day, we’ve adopted the same laws and our constitutions are very similar. Right now, however, there is no talk of merging. If other regions of Ukraine decide to become republics—and I think some of them will—then we can start thinking about creating a confederation of the republics of Novorossiya and discuss the possibility of having a single government.

CGI: Why do you think DPR would become economically viable?

DP: We could become a platform for economic experimentation by eliminating corruption in our tax system. We need to revive the infrastructure that had been built here by multiple generations, which would only take several years. We have the kinds of factories that don’t exist on the Russian territory, which is why it’s important for us to have economic cooperation with Russia—especially if we can get discounted gas. We’ve already discussed a preliminary agreement with Russia at $260 per barrel, which could come into effect once the military operations end.

We also have no problem with Europeans building factories on our territory, as long as they follow environmental standards. We are peacefully oriented and don’t consider anyone an enemy, including western Ukraine. There was no animosity among the people, but it has been created by the politicians.

CGI: Finally, what would you like the average American to know about the current crisis from your perspective?

DP: America once had its own fight for liberation. But today it has fallen under the influence of economic interests and energy politics, which has been the main source of conflict not only in America but across the world. These are unnatural and unnecessary values.

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