This story is over 5 years old.


Who’s Who in the Donetsk People’s Republic

To help you sort out the motley crew of leaders in eastern Ukraine’s rebel republic, here's our guide to who’s who, who’s in, and who’s out.
Image via Wikimedia Commons

An alleged Russian spy, a former Santa-for-hire, and a foul-mouthed former manager of a soap factory, to name just a few — the leaders of the “Donetsk People's Republic” are a motley bunch.

Now that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has declared an end to a brief ceasefire and renewed his government's fight against eastern separatists, you’ll want to be sure to not confuse Pushilin with Ponomaryov, or Gubarev with Girkin.


To help you out, here's the VICE News guide to who's who, who's in, and who’s out in eastern Ukraine’s rebel republic.

The founding father of the DPR: Pavel Gubarev
Rise to (and fall from) power:
Standing on a makeshift platform in front of a crowd of a few hundred people outside the Donetsk city administration building, 31-year-old Pavel Gubarev, kitted out in a tracksuit and baseball cap, was voted in as the “people’s governor” by a quick show of hands on March 3.

His “election” came little more than a week after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country on February 22 amid violent anti-government demonstrations, which killed more than 100 protesters and 16 police officers.

Don't get too excited about Ukraine's new 'peace plan.' Read more here.

Led by Gubarev, a crowd of protesters chanted “Russia, Russia, Russia” as they pushed by unenthusiastic riot police and took control of the administration building, which ended up changing hands various times in a matter of weeks.

Self-declared "people's governor" Pavel Gubarev, center, of the Donetsk People's Republic. (Photo via AP/Dmitry Lovetsky)

After seizing the helm of the separatist movement, Gubarev sought a referendum on the territorial status of the region and the non-recognition of steel and coal oligarch Sergey Taruta as the Kiev-appointed governor of Donetsk. But Gubarev’s ambitions were brought to an abrupt halt when Kiev arrested the fledgling rebel leader in early March on charges of “advocating separatism” and “illegal seizure of power.”


During his time in captivity, Gubarev’s Facebook page spewed out fiery updates on the situation, calling on local men to take up arms and defend their land against the “Kiev junta” and “fascists” from the west.

After nearly two months in captivity, the self-declared “people’s governor” was eventually freed on May 7 as part of a prisoner swap between Kiev and the separatists. But Gubarev returned to a rebellion that had marched on without him.

Russian Roulette: Separatists shoot down Ukraine plane. Watch here.

Having been effectively relieved of his leadership duties by his deputy Denis Pushilin, a sulky Gubarev at first spurned Donetsk to hang out in the rebel-held city of Sloviansk. He re-emerged in the region’s administrative capital a few weeks later, but never regained his previous traction.

On May 29, Gubarev’s men were ousted from the city’s administration building by the Vostok Battalion, a heavily armed unit of the DPR’s recently formed army answering to Russian citizen Igor Girkin (aka Igor Strelkov), the rebel republic’s newly appointed defense minister.

Life before the DPR:
A longtime advocate of pan-Slavism, Gubarev joined the Russian National Unity Party — which played a key role in the Putin-backed putsch in Crimea — in the early 2000s. But Gubarev had little practical political experience before assuming his DPR post. He had previously worked as a Father Frost children’s entertainer — the Slavic equivalent of a Santa-for-hire.


In or out:
Essentially out. While his fiery Facebook posts and YouTube rants continue, the ousting of his men from the administrative building was a clear signal that he has little real influence in the power structures of the DPR these days.

The Russian agent: Igor Girkin
Rise to power:
Known by the nom de guerre Strelkov — meaning “shooter” in Russian — Igor Girkin is a shadowy figure that the Ukrainian government and its Western allies allege to be a member of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence directorate.

Sporting a clipped mustache and pomaded hair, Girkin arrived in Sloviansk in early April and was quickly endorsed by Sloviansk “people’s mayor” Ponomaryov as the leader of the fighters defending the city from a Kiev-backed anti-terror operation.

Shortly after, leaflets were distributed across the DPR declaring that Girkin was the commander of all the rebel fighters in the region, known collectively as the “Donbas People’s Militia.” His appointment as the “defense minister” of the DPR was one of the first acts of his old friend Aleksander Borodai as the DPR’s prime minister.

While the DPR’s defense minister is a bit media shy, he meticulously maintains a profile on the Russian social media site VKontakte, posting precise updates on the situation in Sloviansk. His profile also contains a link to a page that details how volunteer fighters from Russia can travel to eastern Ukraine, and how others can donate money and aid.


Girkin’s neighbors in Moscow have described him as “polite” and “quiet” — a stark contrast to the assessment of Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who called the Russian rebel a “monster and a killer” and added him to a wanted list on charges of premeditated murder and sabotage.

Life before the DPR:
Girkin has not spoken with the Western press, but in an interview with the pro-Kremlin Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda he said that prior to coming to Donetsk he led a unit in the uprising in Crimea, which led to the southern peninsula’s annexation by Moscow in March. He is also believed to have participated in the wars in Transnistria, Chechnya, and Bosnia.

Not content with hanging out in conflict zones and gathering intelligence, Girkin has also spent his spare time dressing up in old-school military gear. Photos on blogs and social networks show him at battlefield re-enactments kitted out in knight’s armor and wearing a World War I-era uniform.

During the 1990s, Girkin wrote for the right-wing Russian newspaper Zavtra, which is run by the anti-Semitic Russian nationalist Alexander Prokhanov.

In or out:
Definitely in. Strelkov is one of the most powerful rebel leaders.

The foul-mouthed “people’s mayor” of Sloviansk: Vyacheslav Ponomaryov
Rise to (and fall from) power:
Known for his chilling blue-eyed stare, gold-toothed grin, and baseball cap, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov rose to prominence after heavily armed pro-Russia rebels seized the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk in April.


A 49-year-old political unknown, Ponomaryov first appeared in the media spotlight when he told journalists that Nelly Shtepa, the city’s elected mayor, had “fucked off.”

Shtepa, who spoke out against the gunmen who took over the city, was arrested in April and held by the rebels in the cellar of the city’s state security service building. She wasn’t the first, or the last.

Ponomaryov quickly developed a habit of chucking people he deemed hostile to his regime into the basement. VICE News correspondent Simon Ostrovsky and eight officials from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe were among his high-profile detainees. They were later released, but Ostrovsky, who was beaten and accused of being a spy by the rebels, reported seeing at least “a dozen other nameless captives.”

Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-declared "people's mayor" of Sloviansk, speaking at one of his many press conferences.

When he wasn’t detaining opponents, Ponomaryov’s other favorite pastime was holding press conferences, where he would deliver long rambling rants to the assembled media, including occasional ominous warnings to journalists about where they would end up if they stepped out of line.

In one of Ponomaryov’s more colorful outbursts, he referred to Ukraine’s new president Petro Poroshenko as a “chocolate faggot” and an “ambassador of the devil,” adding that he would like to “punch him in his fucking ugly mug.” In another rant he declared Sloviansk “the capital of the DPR,” remarking that he didn't need the help of the other rebel leaders.


Ukraine president promises an 'adequate response' after rebels shoot down military plane. Read more here.

But Ponomaryov’s power-mad behavior caught up with him in the end. On June 10, amid rumors of child rape, looting, and a rampant drug problem, he was detained by his own forces on the command of the DPR’s defense minister Igor Strelkov. The ostensible reason given for his arrest by the DPR was "engaging in activities incompatible with the goals and tasks of the civil administration,” but most likely it was just because his psychopathic habits were getting out of hand.

His tearful mother, who said that her son was detained on his way to work, has pleaded for his release to no avail — he hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

Some reports suggest that he has been executed, but if Ponomaryov is alive he might be lingering in the very same cellar that he once threw his adversaries in.

Life before the DPR:
Ponomayrov, who shared a house with his pensioner mom right up until his arrest, previously worked as the boss of a soap factory. The self-appointed people's mayor has also claimed to have served in the Soviet army in Afghanistan and in its Artic-based Northern Fleet.

In or out:
This political liability is definitely out. If he hasn’t already met a sticky end, it’s likely he will soon.

The chairman of the DPR: Denis Pushilin
Rise to power:
A Donetsk local, born in Makiyivka, Pushilin made his power grab in March after Gubarev was incarcerated in Kiev.


Pushilin was one of the driving forces behind the rebel-held “referendum” that led the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to declare independence from Ukraine on May 11.

In the DPR constitution published just days later, Pushilin — who previously held the role of “deputy people’s governor” — was promoted to the position of “Chairman of the Supreme Soviet” (speaker of parliament) for his efforts.

DPR Chairman Denis Pushilin, left, with the rebel republic's Prime Minister Aleksander Borodai at a press conference on May 29. (Photo via AP/Ivan Sekretarev)

He has been spotted in Moscow on several occasions since then, including in a meeting with high-profile Russian nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who recently created a scandal when he instructed aides to rape a pregnant female journalist in front of a crowd of press.

With a penchant for shiny blue suits, Pushilin is well ahead of Gubarev and Ponomaryov in terms of style, but his fashion sense and Russian friends haven’t managed to keep him out of trouble.

As Ukraine’s eastern conflict has escalated the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet has increasingly been forced to take a backseat in decision making, whilst the DPR’s new leaders Prime Minister Aleksandar Borodai and Defense Minister Igor Stelkov — both Russian citizens — call the shots.

In recent weeks there have been two attempts on the Pushilin’s life by unknown assailants. The first attempt, a shooting, killed his assistant, whilst the second, a car bomb outside Donetsk administration building, took out three of his aides. Publically Pushilin has said the attacks on his life are a provocation by pro-Ukrainian forces, but the assassination attempts have fueled longstanding rumors of a rift in the rebel leadership.


Life before the DPR:
Becoming a breakaway rebel leader is not Pushilin’s first dalliance with politics. In the 2012 parliamentary election he stood as a member of the obscure “We Have One Goal” party but failed to gain a seat after winning only 0.08 percent of the vote.

After completing his military service in the Ukrainian army in 2000, Pushilin worked a host of different jobs including as a casino dealer and a financial product salesman. He also worked for a successor company to MMM, the corrupt Russian Ponzi scheme that swindled thousands of people following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Denis Pushilin, the leader of the DPR, appealing for Russian assistance on May 28.

In or out:
Unclear. This failed-politician-turned-rebel-leader’s suave style won’t save him for long. Two attempts have already been made on Pushilin’s life, and the third likely isn’t far off.

The political scientist: Aleksander Borodai
Rise to power:
Russian citizen Aleksander Borodai, a self-proclaimed political scientist and conflictologist, was named as the “prime minister” of the DPR on May 15.

Borodai — who carries a pistol in a holster on his hip and goes nowhere without an escort of burly, heavily armed Caucasian security men — has said that he came to eastern Ukraine as part of his patriotic duty on the invitation of the rebel republic’s defense minister Igor Girkin. The two reportedly met in Transnistria and worked together in Crimea, Chechnya, and other conflict zones prior to taking up arms together in Ukraine.


Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, discussing the release of OSCE monitors that had been detained by the DPR.

Immediately after becoming prime minister of the DPR, Borodai said that he was on a mission to “restore order” to the self-declared republic and announced the formation of a rebel army answerable to his buddy Girkin.

Borodai has repeatedly called for an armed Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine, and has also appealed to Moscow for humanitarian aid. Neither request has officially been met, although a stream of Russian fighters and weaponry, including RPGs and tanks, has flowed into the country across the porous eastern border.

Life before the DPR:
Before arriving in Donetsk, Borodai worked as an adviser to Crimea’s prime minister, Sergey Askyonov — the frontman of the Putin-backed putsch that led to Russia’s annexation of the southern peninsula. Prior to this, he worked as a consultant for Konstantin Malofeyev, a Moscow-based oligarch rumored to be financially sympathetic to the rebel uprising in Ukraine’s east. Malofeyev is a Russian Orthodox private equity magnate who has risen to prominence in recent years as the Kremlin has placed greater emphasis on conservative beliefs.

Borodai worked as an editor at the Russian ultranationalist newspaper Zavtra in the 1990s.

In or out:
Definitely in, this shadowy figure might have been a latecomer to the uprising, but now he calls the shots in the DPR.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @Harriet Salem

Photo via Wikimedia Commons