Ukraine’s pagan pro-Russian rebels dream of a new Eden

Lily Hyde, Donetsk A pro-Russia militia in Ukraine has ambitions far beyond the ousting of the Kiev government

In a grassy clearing in rebel-held east Ukraine, pagan Slavic supremacists in battledress, some cradling Kalashnikovs, raised their arms around a bonfire and prayed for victory over Russia’s enemies.

Carved wooden idols representing pre-Christian Slavic gods overlooked a scene at odds with Moscow’s insistence that the pro-Russian rebel cause is a struggle against Nazi values.

Oleg Vargan — not his real name — is the commander of the 700-strong Svarog battalion. He said he had never wanted war, but had long dreamt of the spiritual awakening of the Donbas region of east Ukraine once it was cleansed of non-Russian enemies, and looked forward to the creation of a Russian state stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

“First we had perestroika, a process of reconstruction,” he said. “Now we have a process of killing off, and then we will have a process of renewal. It’s important to go through this killing off process first, because the cancerous cells have to die. This is the evolutionary road.”

The self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic has attracted a strange mixture of idealists, opportunists, plotters and dreamers to its pro-Russian cause. None is stranger than the leaders of the vegetarian Svarog battalion.

Taking their name from a Slavic pagan god, and their ideology from Slavic and western mystics, neo-pagans, revolutionaries and racial theorists, they believe that white people are the pinnacle of evolution, that Hitler found the true Aryans in Ukraine, and that Russian Slavs (Jesus Christ among them) once ruled the world and will do so again; as soon, perhaps, as 2017. Aids, ebola, Ukraine and, oddly, even Hitler, are all dismissed as a “commercial Jewish project”.

Five years ago, their main aim was to revive the impoverished Petrovsky district in Donetsk, where most of the population of 80,000 worked in the mines or were unemployed. Vargan, 41, a father of four, said that he had fought police, priests and doctors as he tackled everything from fracking to abandoned buildings and corruption

“Our land is being attacked, our homes are being destroyed, and peaceful citizens are being killed. So we have full, cosmic rights to take up weapons,” he said. “The Russians have never been attackers, they have always been defenders. Russians are victorious liberators from rotten parasites and fascists and other scum.”

The battalion is based at a former mining academy. Recruits are trained in everything from sniping to the ancient, sacred meanings of the Cyrillic alphabet.

Drinking and smoking are banned. Most are local men, but Vargan said that the battalion had also attracted volunteers from Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Vargan himself served in the Russian army, with the rank of sergeant.

Their belief in the superiority of the Slavic race makes justifying the fight against the Slavic Ukrainians a little difficult. “It’s all foreign mercenaries fighting us,” said Kassak, a martial-arts teacher and Vargan’s right-hand man. “They are un-people. By the level of their evolutionary development they haven’t reached the level of people.”

Svarog’s leaders are already looking forward to continuing their grandiose plans for Donbas and the world after the fighting is over.

“Of course we can pay more attention to spiritual awakening when we have peace,” he added. “We’ll build schools, we’ll re-establish our industry, we’ll start organic farming.”

A comrade, Vitaly Brednev, went further. “We’ll resurrect the garden of Eden,” he said. “Come back and visit.”