Back in May, I met Igor Bezler, whose voice is said to be on the leaked recordings of an intercepted phone conversation between him and a Russian minder, in which Bezler apparently says, "We have just shot down a plane," which, he clarifies, is "100 percent civilian." Bezler, known as Bes, or "demon," is a separatist leader in Ukraine, commanding a rag-tag army of police force deserters and teenagers when he isn't busy fighting with other rebel leaders.
I took my friend Max Avdeev, a Russian photographer, out to the rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine. As we drove into the rebel stronghold of Gorlovka, a small town in the Donetsk region, we were stopped at a checkpoint by a bunch of middle-aged men in tank tops and Kalashnikovs who asked to see our IDs. We showed them our passports and press accreditation from the Donetsk People's Republic and they suggested that, if we want to take pictures and interview people in Gorlovka, we check in with the town boss, who was holed up in the seized police station.
Max and I made our way through a wall of tires and barbed wire and armed men, as well as a crowd of desperate-looking foreign reporters, whom the boss didn't even want to see as they were all enemies. Thanks to Max's Russian passport, the rebels thought we were sympathetic reporters from Moscow.
Inside the police station, the armed men sat us down at a desk, where they were watching Vladimir Putin speak from the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, and told us to wait. There were sandbags everywhere, plywood and broken windows, homely fliers bashing the fascist junta in Kiev, and, off to the side, a room stocked with giant jars of homemade picklings and preserves. We waited and waited, as heavily armed men in balaclavas rushed around, doing their best to seem incredibly, purposefully busy. One of the young men guarding us, who probably hadn't reached 20 yet, wanted to know why Putin was dallying and not helping them. "Why isn't he coming?" he said.
Suddenly, Bezler appeared, a wiry man flanked by an entourage armed to the hilt. He was wearing his trademark fatigues and cap, and a blue-and-white striped Russian sailor tank. His sharp blue eyes and plentiful mustache looked almost pinned to his creased and leathery face, a battle-hardened Mr. Potato Face.
Bezler barked a greeting at us and very politely asked us to wait a little longer.
"Do you guys want tea?"
"Get them some tea," he barked at no one in particular, and the scurrying began. "Milk? Sugar?"
Then he and his retinue rushed away.
When Bezler came back, he sat down at the desk in front of us and, after giving us permission to operate in his town, launched into a tirade about the known knowns of this conflict.
"What do we know?" he began, briskly and crisply, speaking to us as if we lined up in front of him, standing at attention. "We know for a fact—our reconnaissance confirmed this—that the Ukrainian army are barbarians who don't bury their dead. They just strip them down for weapons and valuables and leave them, like dogs. We know this for a fact." He encouraged us to look at the organization and discipline of his troops, explaining that this comes from having an experienced commander.
I began to ask him to tell us more about him.
"Do you know who I am?" he said. "I am Igor Nikolaevich Bezler. You can find plenty of information about me on the Internet."
"Is it accurate, though?" I asked.
"99 percent of it, yes."
So who is Igor Nikolaevich Bezler, or Demon? Since we have his blessing to rely on the Internet, we will. Bezler was born in Soviet Crimea and went to a military academy named for Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police. He has Russian citizenship and the Ukrainian equivalent of a green card. According to his Wikipedia entry, Bezler served in the Russian armed forces and then "fired into the reserves." Other sources claim that he served in the GRU (the Defense Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate). Still others say he fought both in Afghanistan and Chechnya, which Bezler will neither confirm nor deny. Similarly, he will neither confirm nor deny whether or not he has a family. "What's the difference?" he said in an interview with Russia's RIA News service. "They'll be safer this way. If they exist."
After retiring from Russia's military, Bezler returned to his native Crimea, then moved to Gorlovka. There he worked as a security guard at a machine plant, then as the director of a funeral home from which he was fired after four months. Bezler alleges that this is because he refused to pay a bribe of some $2,000 to the town mayor and his deputy.
His wayward life snapped into focus when "little green men" appeared in Crimea. Bezler raced down there, and, by his own account was very active in the events that led up to Russia's March annexation of the peninsula. "Crimea was always Russian land," he told RIA. "It became Ukrainian because [Nikita] Khrushchev made it so. No one asked the Crimean people's opinion."
Invigorated by a duty well-executed, he returned to Gorlovka, where, in April, he released a video of himself importantly talking into a cell phone and barking orders at a row of defecting local cops. "I am a lieutenant colonel of the Russian Army," he tells them. "Your mission: keeping the peace, not allowing looting, not allowing unsanctioned seizures of buildings." The video was made, he said, in order to recruit policemen into his unit, but it is also the pageantry of a man who has finally found his purpose.
Bezler likes releasing videos. In June, he released one showing the execution of two blindfolded men by firing squad. "For three days," he says with his characteristic lisp, "the Ukrainian junta has refused to trade Ukrainian officer for the person [a rebel] they captured...I waited for three days, and now I have no time left. As a result, now Mr. Budik and Mr. Vasyuchenko will be executed [by firing squad]. ... If my person isn't freed in an hour and a half, another two prisoners will be executed. In another hour and a half, two more."
On Bezler's command, shots ring out and the men fall.
"One of the executed stands in front of you," Bezler told his RIA interviewer in July, moving the captured Mr. Budik into view. Mr. Vasyuschenko, he said, is also still alive. "They were dummy bullets."
When the Demon isn't going to bed at 10:30 and waking up with the Soviet anthem on his lips, he's creating problems. Almost as soon as the Ukrainian government restarted its offensive against the rebels at the beginning of this month, Bezler took advantage. He moved from Gorlovka to the regional capital of Donetsk, and tried to seize power there. He and his men attacked the Donetsk police headquarters, and the situation quickly devolved into a firefight between Bezler's men and those of Alexander Borodai, head of the Donetsk People's Republic, the self-declared separatist entity. Borodai, once an ally, was forced to brand Bezler "a terrorist."
He's also big into taking hostages (he's got 14) and shooting down planes, and then bragging about it. Asked by his RIA interviewer on July 16 how many planes his forces have shot down, he replied with trademark bravado: "Four." He added, "We can't find them all because they fall into Ukrainian [government-controlled] territory, but we've posted photographs of parachutes. We found six of them."
After listening to Demon ramble while we awkwardly sipped our tea from thin, melting plastic cups, Max asked him if we could take his picture. After a long negotiation, he agreed, but said we could only photograph him if his face was concealed with a balaclava.
"There's enough of my face on the internet," he explained.
"But then what's the harm of one more picture of it?" Max asked.
"You want the picture or not?" he barked.
Max withdrew his objection.
Bezler's men brought him a balaclava, he tugged it over his head, and looked at Max. We were surrounded by the Demon's army, watching us quietly as their boss talked.
"Okay, would you mind turning a bit, please?"
"A little more?"
"That's it. I don't have time for this," he barked and burst up from behind the table, offended at having to model and pose in front of his troops. "This is nonsense."
He tore off the balclava and was gone. We never got that picture.