Hiroaki Kuromiya. Pavel Gubarev as a “Little Russian”

Pavel Gubarev is known for leading the rebellion against Kyiv in the wake of the flight of Viktor Yanukovych, then President of Ukraine, on 21 February 2014. Soon after, on 3 March, he achieved fame as the self-declared “People’s Governor [Народный Губернатор] of Donetsk [Donets’k].” Already known as the leader of the armed group, Donbas People’s Militia (Народное ополчение Донбасса), which he created in late February. he had earlier resurrected the old Russian imperial concept of “New Russia” (Новороссия) and created a political movement from it. Gubarev was still rather young (31) in 2014 when he sought to take leadership of the rebellions brewing in southern and eastern Ukraine in general and in Donets’k in particular. He was an angry man, adamant that a coup had taken place in Kyiv and that the new power in Kyiv was a “junta” supported by the West. In fact he seems to have long been an angry man, at least since he was sixteen. His memoirs recently published in Russia make for an interesting read [1].

His life is typical of those of many people in the Donbas. He was born in 1983 into a family of workers in Severdonetsk (Сєвєродонецьк/Северодонецк), a city in Luhans’k Oblast’ with a population of a little more than 100,000 at that time. Both of his parents worked in the city’s big chemical factory “Azot.” Gubarev does not say so explicitly, but his mother came from a Ukrainian family, whose ancestors had fled the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and settled in Slobozhanschyna. His father’s family descended from Don Cossacks. Gubarev emphasizes that both of his families were thus descendants of freedom fighters. He is the oldest of five siblings and tells us that a simple worker family like his could afford to have five children only because of the benevolent Soviet system (p. 35).

Before he entered Donets’k National University, he studied at the Severodonetsk Collegium of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, by his own admission a school for talented children, and graduated with good records (his average grade of 4.9 [out of 5.0, I assume]). He entered the Collegium in 1997 when the language of instruction was not yet exclusively Ukrainian. (According to him, the following year, the school switched to instruction in the Ukrainian language only. Therefore he and his like-minded mates called themselves “the last of the Russians” [последние русские]). The best of the graduates were allowed to enter the parent university in Kyiv without taking an entrance examination. He chose instead to matriculate in the History Faculty of Donets’k National University.

Gubarev does not say what he thought of the Collegium, to which he later refers as this “notorious center of Ukrainianness ” (махровый центр украинства), when he entered in 1997. In the present book he angrily recalls that even in his home town “where no one ever spoke Ukrainian” (на мове никто отродясь не “розмовляв”), the “total Ukrainization” (тотальная украинизация) of the middle school began in 2001–2002 under “pro-Russian” (пророссийский) President Leonid Kuchma. One wonders what motivated Gubarev initially. Did he simply want to succeed, or did his parents wish him to succeed, in a new, independent Ukraine? Was this the reason why he went to study at the Collegium, an elite school that represented “Ukrainianness” by his own admission? One also wonders whether his siblings followed suit.

It is not clear when and how he became alienated from Ukraine. He notes that he has been an avid and passionate reader since he was fifteen [2]. He counts more than 2,000 books in his personal library. He even expresses his gratitude for all he has from reading books (“Спасибо вам, книги”) (p. 72). According to his memoirs, already at the age of 16, he was being questioned by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) (p. 42). This means that in 1999, within a year or two of matriculating in the Collegium, he had begun to take an openly hostile position toward the Ukrainian state. Gubarev does not discuss what led him to take a radical position. He declares that he “loves the Ukrainian speech, songs, traditional Ukrainian culture as a whole” (Я люблю украинскую речь, песни, традиционную украинскую культуру в целом). It is political Ukrainianism (политическое украинство, украинизм) that he says he came to abhor (p. 38). In 1998 when he was fifteen, he started working for his uncle, a carpenter, earning in a week more than his mother made in a month at her factory. At the age of sixteen, still studying at the Collegium, he left his home, rented a flat, and began to take part in the activity of the “Russian National Unity” (Русское национальное единство), an ultra Russian nationalist organization founded in 1990 by Aleksandr Barkashov. Subsequently Gubarev participated in military-patriotic camps (военно-политические лагеря) in Russia with Russian officers with experience of fighting in Chechnia (pp. 40 and 89). One can’t help but wonder whether Gubarev left home because of disagreements with his parents about political life in Ukraine.

In the present book, Gubarev defines himself as both “red and white,” meaning both left (socialist) and right (fascist). This convenient amalgam allows Gubarev to adopt for his politics whatever is convenient from the history of Russian imperialism and Soviet Communism: autocracy/dictatorship, terror and violence, Russian nationalism, and the like (pp. 49 and 70). He even advocates creating a new oprichnina following the example of Ivan the Terrible and Stalin (p. 356). Gubarev calls his ideology a “synthesis” of red and white (p. 71). He declares that he does not object to “Mazepists-Euromaidanites” (мазепинцы-евромайдановцы) calling his philosophy “fascist”: it is not his problem but theirs. (p. 42). However, this doesn’t prevent Gubarev from calling supporters of the Kyiv government “Nazis” (нацисты).

Gubarev’s ideology is not great Russian chauvinism. Rather it is a nationalism based on Russian civilization (русский цивилизационный национализм) which includes Ukraine and Belarus’. It also includes all kinds of other nationalities (“Russian Greeks,” “Russian Yakuts,” “Russian Tatars,” and the like). It is an explicitly imperial ideology that incorporates the achievements of Kiev-Novogorod Rus’, Muscovite Rus’, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union (pp. 284–85). Curiously Gubarev frequently uses the term “little Russians”(малороссы) and “Little Russia-Ukraine” (Малороссия-Украина) (pp. 286–87). He casually mentions that when he took part in military-patriotic camps in Russia, his Russian colleagues often jokingly “trolled” them and sometimes treated them with some arrogance (шутливо троллили и порой относились с некоей заносчивость), even though the ideology of the “Russian National Unity” was based on the notion of the triune Russian people (триединый русский народ) and the “Little Russians-Ukrainians” were its inseparable unit (p. 40). He emphasizes that his conception of New Russia is a synthesis of Great Russia and Little Russia (плод синтеза Великороссии и Малороссии) (p. 266). Like Little Russian Nikolai Gogol’ (Николай/Микола Гоголь), Gubarev seems to have struggled with his own identity, even though he rejected Ukraine and firmly identified himself with Russia (defined in imperial terms).

Completely alienated though he appears to have been from the education at the Collegium, Gubarev nevertheless graduated with an excellent record and matriculated in Donets’k National University where he studied history. He chose history because he believed that it would prove an “important front of struggle for the Russian Future” (важный фронт борьбы за русское Будущее) (p. 42). From 2000 to 2005 he led the Club of Lovers of New Russia History (Клуб любителей истории Новороссии) in the dormitory of the History Faculty [3]. The Club worked to criticize and undermine Ukrainian historiographical conceptions in university lectures and seminars. At a seminar on Иvan the Terrible (Иван Грозный), for instance, the Club prepared to attack the thesis that Ivan was a “senseless bloody despot” (безумный кровавый деспот) and an “executioner and sadist” (палач и садист) (p. 45). Although why Gubarev took issue with this is not clear, he apparently wanted to emphasize that Ivan was the creator of the Russian Empire: Ivan vastly expanded the Muscovite territory, even conquering lands that had not been associated with Rus’ (Kazan/Казань and Siberia, for example), and for this reason, Ivan’s era should be considered the beginning of Muscovite/Russian imperialism. In any case, Gubarev favors Ivan’s oprichnina! In a different class on Ivan Mazepa, he and his Club members bombarded the instructor (who, according to Gubarev, considered Mazepa a man of European orientation) with awkward questions. They turned the class into a trial on Mazepa (p. 46). Gubarev does not give details, but clearly he toed the Russian line of Mazepa as a “traitor” to the Russian cause. Gubarev even proudly notes that in 2005 his Club fought a bloody fight (дрались до крови) against those who came from the western regions of Ukraine to Donets’k National University (p. 60).

Gubarev is proud of having challenged the history instructors at the Donets’k National University. He says that he and his Club members routinely won against them because they studied the sources carefully and made strong arguments (И как правило, выигрывали, потому что аргументы были сильные, и источники мы хорошо изучали). He claims that this was the reason the university administration applied pressure and had them evicted from the dormitory, and sought to expel them from the university on the grounds of poor academic performance [4].

In his book, he does not present “strong arguments” based on careful readings of sources. He takes strong issue with the teleological views of Ukrainian history starting with Rus’ (when a thousand years of Ukrainian fight against Asiatic Muscovites originated) and Bohdan Khmel’nits’kyi/Богдан Хмельницький (a national liberation leader for independence from Poland) and ending with today’s aspirations for European integration. His own historical views are equally teleological, however. He speaks of the inevitability of the unification of “Russian lands,” but ignores the fact that Khmel’nits’kyi fought not only against the Poles but against the Muscovites as well, depending on the political circumstances of the time. Gubarev complains, echoing the statement made by Russian President Vladimir Putin in April 2014 [5], that in the Russian Empire there was no concept of Ukraine and Ukrainians: there was Little Russia and Little Russians. Yet, like Putin, he fails to note that the concepts of Ukraine as a territory and Ukrainians as separate from Russians were not permitted in Imperial Russia. Gubarev seems to believe that Ukrainian concepts were artificially created in Austrian Galicia in the fight against Russia and therefore are accidental byproducts [6]. Yet he completely ignores the fact that modern concepts of Ukraine and Ukrainians emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century precisely in today’s eastern and central Ukraine or Little Russia. The Galicians for their part had initially resisted these concepts.

Gubarev was and is still angry that his notions of the history of his land are not supported by his fellow citizens. At his University he and his Club were violent rebels. Like many “little Russians” before him, Gubarev became an imperialist. Like many “little Russians,” he, too, is disappointed by the way the Empire treated them. He bitterly complains about Moscow’s lack of support for his “fight for freedom” in the Donbas in 2014, especially Moscow’s apparent unwillingness to incorporate the Donbas into the Russian Federation as it did Crimea. Still clinging to his imperial illusions, he professes the historical legitimacy of “New Russia.”

Gubarev’s account also reveal many interesting reflections on his life as a “little Russian.” For example, he unequivocally states that in his beloved Donbas there was never any ethnic discord (Не было здесь национальной розни). He admits that his radical views attracted few followers in Donetsk until after the Euromaidan “coup” [перверот]. He is keenly aware of the Cossack heritage of his family and his beloved land. He insists unconvincingly that the Cossacks of his land always considered themselves “Russians,” yet he admires the success of Ukrainians in appropriating the history of the Cossacks (Кстати, огромное достижение украинской пропаганды как раз и состоит в том, что она подмяла под себя весь казацкий дискурс) (p. 210). Even though he is a Russian nationalist, he feels now, as he did as a participant in the Russian military camps. that he is not treated fairly by the Russians themselves. Moreover, just as many “Little Russians” before him did towards Russia, Gubarev carries a big chip on his shoulder with regard to the “West,” especially towards people in the western regions of Ukraine and the “lumpen intelligentsia of the cities west of the Donbas” (люмпен-интеллигентщина городов западнее Донбасcа) [7]. He denounces them for allegedly considering themselves superior and more cultured and refined, and for belittling the people of the Donbas as “dipsomaniac second-class humans, genetic trash and brainless carcasses” (запойные недочеловеки, генетический мусор, безмозглые туши) (p. 15).

After the university, instead of pursuing history, Gubarev pursued politics and business, first attending the Donets’k Management Academy (Донецкая академия управления) in 2007–2008, which he left after a year, and then moving to Kharkiv where he completed the study of government (государственное управление) at Kharkiv Regional Institute of the National Academy (Харьковский региональный институт Национальной академии при президенте Украины). After a brief stint as a political activist, he became disillusioned with politics and became a businessman. Until 2014 he ran a relatively successful advertising agency (Патисон). In February 2014, he plunged headlong back into politics. In the present book, his anger is vivid, particularly against the Euromaidanites, who were American pawns, according to him. He is equally angry with Yanukovych and his supporters for neglecting to develop a proper political ideology and instead plundering the Donbas for the enrichment of themselves. He is barely able to hide his deep disappointment and even anger with Moscow for failing to support the Donbas fighters strongly enough [8].

It will be a pity if this book strengthens pervasive stereotypes and prejudices about angry people in the Donbas. Remarkably, however, even this memoir, written by an angry anti-Ukrainian “Little Russian,” demonstrates well the subtle dilemma and ambiguity in which many “little Russians” still find themselves caught today regarding their place in Ukraine and Russia [9].


[1] Павел Губарев, Факел Новороссии. Санкт-Петербург: Питер, 2016.
[2] He lists many authors that influenced him, starting with Nikolai Danilevskii, Fedor Dostoevskii, and Ioann Kroshtadskii and ending with Ivan Il’in, Nikolai Trubetskoi, Lev Gumilev, and Konstantin Tsiolkovskii.
[3] In a interview he gave in June 2015, Gubarev called this Club an underground circle (подпольный кружок). “Россия наступает на старые грабли,” (accessed 20 January 2016).
[4] See “Россия наступает на старые грабли.”
[5] Putin said: “[Н]апомню, пользуясь терминологией ещё царских времён, это Новороссия: Харьков, Луганск, Донецк, Херсон, Николаев, Одесса не входили в состав Украины в царские времена, это всё территории, которые были переданы в Украину в 20-е годы советским правительством.” (accessed 20 January 2016). Putin failed to note that in fact there was no territory called “Ukraine” under the Tsar. So his statement makes no sense. Moreover, “New Russia” normally does not include Kharkiv or Luhans’k, which had been incorporated into Russia much earlier than other cities.
[6] See “Россия наступает на старые грабли.”
[7] Marta Studenna-Skrukwa argues that this sense of cultural alienation has fed separatism in the Donbas. See her Ukraiński Donbas. Oblicza tożsamości regionalnej (Poznań: Nauka i Innowacje, 2014).
[8] It should be noted, however, that his account of the beginning of the war in the Donbas in the spring of 2014 is of much interest. While he emphasizes the initiative the Donbas, or rather Gubarev himself, took in starting the armed struggle, it is clear from his account that Moscow played a key role from the beginning.
[9] One of the latest polls (conducted November 2015) shows that nearly half (47.6 percent) of people in the Ukrainian government-controlled Donbas answered negatively the question: “Are you ready to defend your country?” 15.8 percent answered that they would take up arms, and 24.3 percent would defend the country in the volunteer movement. The corresponding figure in the western regions of Ukraine are 18.1, 29.8, and 37.7 percent respectively. The same poll shows that 35.4 percent of people in the Donbas considered the on-going war in the Donbas a civil war between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian citizens of Ukraine, 22.5 percent a war between Ukraine and Russia, and 10.8 percent a separatist insurgency supported by Russia. The respective figures for the western regions are 5.5, 44.5, and 38.1 percent. Likewise, 43.7 percent of people in the Donbas consider the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic representatives of the Donbas population, 35.6 percent terrorists, and 20.5 percent find the question “difficult to answer.” See Центр Разумкова, “Громадяни України про безпеку: оцінки, загрози, шляхи вирішення проблем. Результати соціологічного дослідження” , pp. 21–22.