One morning in May, my photographer Max and I hired a driver and set off for the quiet, terrified countryside around the city of Donetsk in search of clarity. After a week in Ukraine, we had discovered that it was impossible to understand what was happening in this restive region from Washington, Moscow, or Kiev, and equally impossible from Donetsk: There was one building besieged by separatists, surrounded by a calm and indifferent city.
As soon as we left the city limits, we came across a giant blue truck and a few dozen armed men in fatigues. Around them buzzed a flock of photographers. We hopped out of the car and went to investigate, but it turned out clarity would be elusive here, too.PHOTOS: The Soldiers of the Donetsk People's Republic
These were the men of the Vostok battalion, a group of fighters who wanted the region to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. They had just pulled back from a nearby firefight with what they said was the Donbass battalion, a pro-Kiev militia. But some of the Vostok men believed they had been fighting Right Sector, a right-wing group that has been active on the Maidan and was then vilified by the Kremlin as the muscle behind a fascist junta in Kiev.
The blue truck was loaded up with the casualties of battle: three Vostok boys, two civilians. A man with a gaping chest wound was left sprawled on the side of the road. He had swastika and S.S. lightning bolt tattoos right above the gash. The Vostok men explained that he was a member of Right Sector.
“How do you know he is Right Sector?” I asked.
“Because he’s Right Sector,” one of the Vostok men answered.
“But how do you know?”
“We just know,” he said. “Also, he had a red armband.”
There was no armband now.
Another fighter pointed out the swastika to me.
“See? He’s a fascist,” he said.
If there were any Russians in the group—as Kiev alleges—I couldn’t tell. Most of the men were masked and refused to talk. The ones who did were either locals or mercenaries from South Ossetia. (Russia fought a war to support their bid to secede from Georgia in 2008.) Everyone seemed to have a different uniform with a different homemade insignia and a different gun. Many were in sneakers. They were not the fighting force of the Donetsk People’s Republic, nor were they affiliated with the fighters in Slavyansk, another rebel stronghold. Perhaps the only thing I could ascertain that afternoon was that what had started as a Russian geopolitical gambit had evolved into something else entirely.
For all the reports that these fighters were cynical Russian puppets, everyone seemed to have their own reason for being there. The area was flooded with war junkies, veterans of Afghanistan and Chechnya for whom, ever after, nothing made as much sense as war. The Vostok men I spoke to seemed to be fighting for something very primal and very urgent. Many had left their jobs in order to, as they saw it, defend their women and children, their land from an onslaught of fascism from the West. Their stories became more and more lurid as the morning dragged on: The fascists had attacked women, they had attacked children; a building had caught on fire; no, it had exploded. The man with the tattoo was from the Donbass battalion, he was from Right Sector, he was a German sniper. There was only one thing they all agreed on: Their enemies had come to kill women and children as part of an anti-Russian genocide.
“I have kids,” a fighter named Dmitry told me. “The new generation doesn’t understand what fascism is, so the old men have to do the fighting.” Behind his balaclava, his eyes twinkled at the joke: He was 33. “I’m not thinking about anything but protecting my family.” The other men, Dmitry said, were just like him. A miner, two teachers. He gestured vaguely at the men resting on the grass. The men jokingly called him their press secretary, and he offered to give me a more comprehensive interview if I took a romantic stroll with him through Donetsk that night. The men laughed, I demurred.
We stood by the side of the road. The sun had turned hot. Some of the troops went back to camp in a motley flotilla of minivans. An ambulance came by and two fighters rudely loaded the dead fascist onto the gurney. “Vermin,” one hissed, and kicked his head into place.
As Dmitry and I talked, I noticed a Vostok fighter in fatigue pants, a t-shirt, and a bulletproof vest pacing around with a Kalashnikov. He had a long, scraggly blond beard and was peppered with tattoos: a rune on one elbow, and, on the inside of his right forearm, a swastika, just like the one on the chest of the supposed Right Sector soldier. I asked Dmitry about it, but the man spotted me pointing to my arm.
“Come here,” he growled, beckoning angrily.
I remained frozen in place.
“Don’t you go spreading your lies,” he barked as he strode toward us. “This isn’t a swastika. This is an ancient Slavic symbol. Swa is the god of the sky.”
I stared, silently.
“It’s our Slavic heritage,” he said. “It’s not a swastika.” Then he turned and walked away.
In the nearby mining town of Yenakiieve, Max and I met four women gabbing under a tree as their children played around them. They asked us if we knew what was going on—the constant, and constantly unanswerable, question in the area.
“There are so many rumors going around, and everyone interprets them in their own way,” one of the women told us. “The result is panic.”
Their main source of information is Russian television, which, under the Kremlin’s direction, has whipped local residents into a frenzy, warning them that a mob of child-eating fascists was on its way from Kiev to rape, pillage, and murder the Russians of the Donetsk region. Many of the reports range from manipulation to outright lies, such as claims that Ukrainian troops are killing local priests. Ukrainian television wasn’t worth watching, either. It contradicted their worst fears, thereby exposing them to danger. It was also waging its own information war. Recently, the Ukrainian press blamed an explosion that killed eight in the city of Luhansk on the separatists; it turned out to be the work of a Ukrainian-fired rocket. That, and Ukrainian television called Donetsk residents “terrorists” and “separatists”; the latter term had for some reason become a slur in the region. (“I’m not a separatist!” one local told a colleague and then proceeded to explain that he wanted to secede from Ukraine.)
Whenever Max or I expressed doubt about a rumor, the women were stunned at our ignorance. “You haven’t seen it? It’s on the Internet!” There was also the loose network of kin and kith and other versions of the grapevine, known here as the “pinafore radio” or the “BBC,” as in babka babke skazala: “one grannie told another.” “My relative works in a mental institution, and he told me that they were taking patients’ passports for the election, so they have high turnout,” a very dismayed woman told me inside the seized administration building known as the Donetsk People’s Republic. “That information is one hundred percent!” (Later that day, we would hear from Denis Pushilin, chairman of the Supreme Council of the Donetsk People’s Republic, that what was actually happening was that local cancer patients were being kicked out of clinics and told not to come back until they voted. I had a feeling that information, too, was 100 percent.)
Regardless of where it was coming from or the percentage of its purity, the information was alarming, and, given their isolation, the women of Yenakiievewould be foolish not to at least take precautions. So they were preparing bomb shelters in their basements. One day, they saw a helicopter in the sky and were convinced it was coming to spray them with poisonous chemicals.
They were also too scared to let us photograph them, fearing that someone would see the pictures and come and kill them. The problem, of course, is that they were, to some extent, right. Because of men like Dmitry, Kiev’s armies were on the way, and in the weeks that followed, bodies began stacking up, not all of them fighters.
Late one afternoon, I met with Vasyl Arbuzov and Alexander Kovzhun, advisers to Serhiy Taruta, the local oligarch who had been appointed governor of the Donetsk region by the provisional government in Kiev. We sat drinking sparkling water overlooking the city from the top floor of Taruta’s Hotel Victoria, which serves as his team’s headquarters. I asked them the question I had been asking everyone: “What is going on?” For all its simplicity, few people could answer it. Arbuzov and Kovzhun were no exception, underscoring how hard it is to solve a crisis that defies basic understanding.
“We also don’t quite understand what’s going on,” Arbuzov said. “We can only figure stuff out a few days after it happens.”
“There’s a sense that time is on fast-forward,” Kovzhun said. He told me a story about how he had walked over from his office at the Donetsk regional administration building to the local TV station—a seven-minute walk—to talk to the producers there about his boss’s upcoming appearance.
“What will you be asking him about?” he asked the producers.
“About the seizure of the administration building.”
Kovzhun had just been at the building and it had still been under Kiev’s control. That’s what he meant by time on fast-forward.
The night before I was to fly out of Donetsk, I had dinner with a few friends from my Moscow days who were also there to report the story. Unlike me, they had been in town for weeks, but they too had trouble cutting through the fog. That night, there were rumors going around that the separatists were going to try to take the Donetsk airport in the morning. Max and I exchanged nervous glances: Our flight to Kiev was at seven o’clock in the morning. When we got there, though, there was no sign of any separatists. The brand new airport gleamed peacefully in the early morning sun. We got some water, boarded the plane, and were off.
Two days later, the Ukrainian army attacked the airport, which had briefly come under the control of the rebels. The separatists lost some 50 fighters. The following night, one of the advisers to Alexander Borodai, the Moscow p.r. specialist who had become the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic, approached a group of Russian journalists having dinner in Donetsk. Max, who had returned by train— there are no more flights to Donetsk—was with them. The adviser asked if any of the journalists were interested in accompanying the bodies of 33 rebels across the border to Russia—that is, home.
I asked Max if Dmitry was among the dead. The Ossetians told him that he had gone missing in the fight for the airport, but no one had found his body. “He’s disappeared, but there’s no corpse,” Max texted me from Donetsk. “You can’t write that he’s dead.”
Julia Ioffe is a senior editor at The New Republic.