Europe

Ukraine: Are 2014 pro-Russia rebels fighting 1920s war?

Separatist troops in Donetsk with Novorossiya flag Image copyright AFP
Image caption Separatist militants in Donetsk sport the tsarist-era "Novorossiya" flag

Imperial symbols nearly a century old are inspiring the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

As Ukrainian troops advance on the rebel-held strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, what keeps the separatists going?

Their military leader Igor Strelkov (real name Igor Girkin) insists the rebels under his command will fight "to the end". New volunteers are still being recruited in Russia.

A powerful song - O righteous God - has become an anthem sung today by the rebels on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine. But it was born nearly 100 years ago during the Russian Civil War, sung by the soldiers of Gen Mikhail Drozdovsky, a White Guard commander.

Gen Drozdovsky was a Russian nationalist-imperialist, whatever that meant at the time. He fought against the Communist Red Army and was killed in 1919.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Rebel commander Igor Strelkov (centre) is a Russian nationalist reviving tsarist-era ideas
Image copyright AP
Image caption A rebel sympathiser holds a map showing the old tsarist "Novorossiya" territory slicing through Ukraine

Today, the half-forgotten general is the hero and inspiration for Igor Strelkov. Before joining the eastern Ukraine campaign Strelkov, a 43-year-old former Russian secret service operative, was a military re-enactment enthusiast.

He was particularly fond of re-enacting the battles of the 1918-1922 Civil War, where he would play the role of a White Guard officer.

His favourite online forum is antikvariat.ru, dedicated to the trade in military memorabilia. Now the forum hosts, among other things, an online competition for the new insignia for "Novorossiya" - a tsarist-era name given to eastern Ukraine by the self-proclaimed "people's republic" fighters.

Reviving history

Image copyright AP
Image caption Moscow: The pro-separatist party A Just Russia parades the "Novorossiya" flag

It is not entirely clear how the old slogans and ideals of Gen Drozdovsky are applicable today, and even less clear how the slogans of the anti-communist White Army can be merged with the anti-fascist slogans of the Bolshevik Red Army, also revived by the rebel movement.

But the Civil War appears to have a strong romantic appeal for many of the separatists.

"Our Russian fighter volunteer corps is based on the ideals of the Russian White Guard, and most of our fighters are nationalists. They are idealists, they are defending the Russian people against the genocide it is facing. We are Russian imperial-nationalists," says Yevgeny Mazepin, a spokesman for the Russian separatists fighting in the Luhansk region.

"The Russian Civil War has not ended. We hope to end it in Kiev."

Until this year, most Russians thought their brutal civil war ended long ago, in the 1920s, consigned to history. But today Ukrainians are having to live through it again.

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