"This war is part of a larger evolutionary process," Sergei began. "Before any rebirth, there must be a killing off."
The militiaman goes by the moniker "Yarosvet," meaning "Bright Light." His comrade, also named Sergei, goes by "Sunrise." I met the rather unusual soldiers in April at their pagan shrine hidden in a forest on the outskirts of Donetsk City in eastern Ukraine, where a war between local separatists and the central government in Kiev has been raging for over a year now.
A tall post carved with the face of a bearded god stands embedded within a circle of rocks. The idol is Rod, who's supposedly the ultimate creator. Similar idols depict the blacksmith god Svarog, who they say forged this world with his anvil and hammer, as well as the goddess Lada, who was apparently also Mary, mother of Jesus. The circle marks the exact center of the Meta-Universe, Sunrise explained.
The soldiers are part of Svarog Battalion, which they claim was once a militia of a thousand pagans led by Oleg Orchikov, a local father of four. They share the pan-Slavic nationalism that drives much of the fighting around here, but what sets them apart is their belief in a larger religious meaning to the conflict.
"Being pagan means understanding that we are one with nature and our ancestors," Bright Light explained. That unity expresses itself in a monotheism where a single god manifests itself in a multitude of deities. The soldiers here believe that mankind is on an evolutionary quest, led by the Slavic race. The goal is to attain knowledge—enlightenment—through a series of rebirths until mankind evolves into Rod himself.
Directing the Slavs on their sacred mission is, or at least was, Orchikov. The commander led his men in battle against the "un-people" of the Ukrainian Army from the start of the war until he was thrown in jail in November by the Donetsk People's Republic, the Russian-aligned government he was fighting alongside. Orchikov is there still, awaiting charges, according to his men. They seem resigned to disbanding for now, but if and when Orchikov comes back, it seems clear they would unite again under him.
"There are accusations of murder and looting," Bright Light explained. "Of course, this is all false." He believes his commander is a victim of politics. "He was too independent," the soldier continued. "We had been rising to power more and more. We had our signs everywhere. There are people who don't want any good to exist in the world."
As proof of the conspiracy, he referenced the flag of the DPR. "The black band is at the top above the blue and red bands. Black is evil. Black is like coal, under the ground. Black is a heavy color, and so it presses down on the other colors from above. The flag is reversed. It is a Satanist flag. The Satanists reverse everything."
He pointed to a patch on his shoulder: the DPR flag upside-down. "This is the correct arrangement. When the flag is reversed to reflect the normal order, everything is going to change for the better."
At this point, my taxi driver, who had been standing by casually listening, chimed in. "This is true. I've heard many regular people say that the black looks unnatural at the top."
"Yes," Bright Light affirmed. "They can't explain why it is wrong, but they know it in their hearts."
For the members of Svarog Battalion, that is the only true way to understand anything. "Your head can trick you, but not your heart," he elaborated. "Your mind has been brought to you from the outside—from books, from TV, from the others. But your heart has never been spoiled by any outside information."
The members of Svarog Battalion also believe that they have been undermined by the local ecclesiastical authority. "The Orthodox Church doesn't like us because we want to enlighten people," Bright Light explained. "We respect them, as we respect all religions because there is only one God and we worship the same God. But if you look at the Bible, it contains all these horrible things in the Old Testament like the daughters who rape their father, and all these killings. It's horrible what they believe in and how they trick people and make them pay to the church because they want sheep. Still, we never made trouble with them."
In Orchikov's absence, Svarog Battalion has had a high attrition rate. The remaining soldiers have been sent by the government to two existing, more traditional battalions. "They wanted to divide us," Sunrise lamented, "divide and conquer. They wanted to make us fight one another. Instead, we must unite to fight against evil."
The pagans believe that evil is ignorance. "It's something that you don't know yet," Bright Light said. "Evil is when there is too much of something. When people love a child too much, they spoil him. Too much love can be bad."
Their objective is to find a balance. "There is a part of woman in every man, and a part of man in every woman. When you listen, it's your woman part, and if you start fighting, that's your man part. When a man and a woman find each other, they become one. A woman gives her earth energy to a man, and a man gives his sky energy to a woman."
"It sounds like Yin and Yang," I commented.
"Yes, the Yin and Yang symbol is actually a Slavic symbol that the Chinese took from us. Actually, we are the true Chinese. Seven thousand five hundred and twenty-three years ago there was a war between the Slavs and pseudo-Chinese. The Slavs won." As an admission of defeat, he added, the pseudo-Chinese built the Great Wall of China to imprison themselves for their new Slavic masters. "Just look at the Great Wall of China," Bright Light insisted, "and you'll see that the arrow slits are turned inward, not outward."
Along with the Yin-Yang symbol, the pagans of Svarog Battalion sport interlocking circles representing the beginning of the Meta-Universe, and multicolored swastikas.
"The swastika is an ancient Slavic symbol that represents the unity of Slavic tribes," Sunrise stated. "It goes the opposite way of the Hitler swastika. It is going clockwise, like the sun. That means it's constructive. Counterclockwise is destructive—which leads to rebirth."
When we finished talking, the men walked over to the edge of the Meta-Universe. They prayed to the idols with their arms outstretched. Then they walked in circles around Rod—counterclockwise first, then clockwise.
"What did you pray for?" I asked as we shook hands and said our goodbyes.
"We praise them," Bright Light replied. "but we never ask for anything. They always know what to give us. Only they know what we need."
Follow Roc's project collecting dreams from around the globe at World Dream Atlas.