Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Makin of Christian Taliban in Ukraine

THE RECRUITMENT POINT for volunteers in Dmytro Korchynsky’s holy war is located in the basement of a building in central Kiev, on Chapaev Street, in what used to be a billiard club. Anyone can sign up, and the location isn’t secret — its address and phone number is on the Internet.

Inside, lying on the billiard tables, are toy Kalashnikovs, which recruits can use to shoot at targets on the wall. Behind the bar, shelves are lined not with liquor bottles but with Molotov cocktails left over from the violent protests that ousted the government a year ago; the firebombs may be useful in the next stage of Ukraine’s upheavals.

Along with being a recruitment center, the former billiard club also serves as the headquarters of Korchynksy’s political organization, “Bratstvo” (in English, the Brotherhood). I find Korchynsky in a side room furnished with a large billiard table, worn-out leather sofa, armchairs and a piano. Lying on the piano are the notes of Chopin’s funeral march and the lyrics to the German national anthem, whose first verse, beginning “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,” harkens back to the Nazi era. It is perhaps an unfortunate choice of song for a political figure that is often described as an extremist, ultranationalist and fascist.

Dmytro Korchynsky Dmytro Korchynsky (Tomasz Glowacki ) Tomasz Glowacki
Korchynsky does not pretend to be moderate, but he doesn’t appreciate the worst epithet used against his forces.

“We are not Nazis,” he tells me. “We are patriots and nationalists.”

Korchynsky is nearly a caricature of a Russian-hating Ukrainian nationalist. His silver hair contrasts with his dark, bushy mustache, which is turned down at the edges in the Cossack style. The St. Mary’s Battalion, which is one of more than a dozen private groups fighting alongside the Ukrainian Army against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, is Korchynsky’s creation. It is also one of the more unusual volunteer formations in the ragtag forces taking on the separatists, incorporating an ideology that manages to mix Christian messianism with Islamic jihadism.

The religious thread is not entirely surprising — Korchynsky and his men are devout Orthodox Christians. It was in the 1990s that Korchynsky learned the advantage of mixing religion and politics when he fought in the Caucasus region alongside Muslims, who were battling Russia for independence.

Korchynsky points approvingly to Lebanon. There, Hezbollah participates in government as a political party, while its paramilitary wing wages war independent of the state (and is thus considered, by the United States and the European Union, a terrorist organization). Korchynsky believes that sort of dual structure would be beneficial for Ukraine. He sees himself as the head of an informal “revolutionary community” that can carry out “higher order tasks” that are beyond the formal control of government.

That’s the theory. In practice, Korchynsky wants the war in eastern Ukraine to be a religious war. In his view, you have to take advantage of the situation: Many people in Ukraine are dissatisfied with the new government, its broken institutions and endemic corruption. This can only be solved, he believes, by creating a national elite composed of people determined to wage a sort of Ukrainian jihad against the Russians.

“We need to create something like a Christian Taliban,” he told me. “The Ukrainian state has no chance in a war with Russia, but the Christian Taliban can succeed, just as the Taliban are driving the Americans out of Afghanistan.”

For Korchynsky and the St. Mary’s Battalion, the Great Satan is Russia.

KORCHYNSKY WAS BORN to fight Russia.

He is the descendent of a noble Polish family that, in the late 18th century, fought in the Kosciuszko Uprising, which was a doomed attempt to liberate Poland from the Russian empire. The Poles lost, and Korchynsky’s family moved to what was called the Kresy, or borderlands, in what is today Ukraine. As a Ukrainian, Korchynsky is continuing his family’s war against the Russian empire.

In the early 1990s, he was one of the founders and leaders of a right-wing, nationalist organization known, somewhat awkwardly, as the Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian People’s Self Defense. When an uprising erupted in late 2013 against Ukraine’s corrupt president, Korchynsky immediately joined the fight, which was centered on the main square in Kiev, known as the Maidan.

On Dec. 1, 2013, Korchynsky led his newly formed paramilitary unit, the Jesus Christ Hundred, as it stormed the presidential administration buildings. He was photographed on a bulldozer as demonstrators tried to break through a police cordon on Bankovskaya Street.

Korchynsky, Dec. 1, 2013. ( Not everyone supported Korchynsky and his fighters. Opposition politicians, including Vitali Klitschko, who is now the mayor of Kiev, tried to stop them. Amid the melee, Korchynsky’s detractors shouted that he was trying to provoke violence. At the time, there were rumors he was a Russian agent trying to create a pretext for a crackdown. Korchynsky’s response: “In Ukraine, you can say four things about any more or less well known figure: that he is an agent of Moscow, he is homosexual, a Jew, or that he stole money.”
In March 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, and Korchysnky tired of what he saw as passivity in the new government of Kiev. In September, Korchynsky formed a battalion made up of fighters from the Jesus Christ Hundred. The new battalion would defend Mariupol — the City of Mary — and so he named it St. Mary’s in the city’s honor.

The day I met with Korchynsky at his headquarters in Kiev, recruits were sitting on the high bar stools filling out their paperwork and collecting the necessary documents to register with the Ministry of Internal Affairs. (Technically, the private volunteer battalions fall under the ministry’s control, though they operate independently.) Members of Bratstvo register these recruits, help them fill out their paperwork, and then send them to the base in Mariupol, a city in southeastern Ukraine. There they get a few weeks of military training at most.

The volunteers that come to the billiard hall are eager to get into the fight, and some of them arrive with backpacks, dressed in homemade military uniforms. They are here to fill out enlistment forms for the battalion.

The recruits are young, mostly between the ages of 18 and 25 years old. Only a few have served in the regular army. Many have never held a gun. Some don’t have the medical documents needed for official enlistment in the battalion, but this isn’t a problem, because Korchynsky’s wife is a member of the Ukrainian Parliament — and simultaneously responsible for medical care in War Sector “M” — the area in and around Mariupol.

Once they’ve enlisted, the recruits are sent almost 500 miles from Kiev, to the battalion’s base in Mariupol, which lies on the coast of the Azov Sea. The battalion’s base there is set in a series Soviet-era buildings and hangars. Above the base flies a flag with the image of Christ. In the main hall, once used by a local yacht club, the battalion’s volunteers have created a chapel. On the wall are crosses and icons — the most important icon is one depicting the Virgin Mary, painted by the wife of a fallen volunteer. The brothers, as the fighters call themselves, recite the Lord’s Prayer even during military briefings. As they pray, the commander joins the ranks of the soldiers to signify that no one stands between them and God.

Guidebook cover for the Brotherhood (Marcin Mamon)
Copies of the Catechism of Brotherhood, which for the battalion is a sort of ideological and religious guidebook, are lying everywhere at the base — in the offices, in the rooms where the fighters sleep, and in the dining room. It’s the cover that’s most striking. It depicts a young woman in a military uniform, her face obscured like a jihadi fighter. In one hand she holds a Kalashnikov. Her other hand is raised, index finger pointing to the sky, a gesture common to Islamic fighters.
Above her is the emblem of the Brotherhood, which is also pinned to the uniforms of fighters in the battalion. The emblem includes an early Christian Orthodox symbol of Jesus. Underneath is the Latin inscription: “In hoc signo vinces,” which means, “In this sign you will conquer.”

Just as Islamic extremists selectively highlight Quranic passages that endorse violence, the St. Mary’s Catechism opens with the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” The Catechism then adds its own interpretation: “Christianity should be treated like a sword, and not as a pillow.”

And like the jihadi emphasis on the glories of martyrdom and life in the afterworld, the Catechism explains that only those who follow the path prescribed by the Brotherhood shall receive the highest reward in heaven: “The end of the world is joyous, the destruction of the solar system will be a great celebration, and the second coming of Jesus to earth will be unexpected, and the terrible Final Judgment will become joyful. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.”

Poster in the living quarters of the Brotherhood. (Marcin Mamon) Marcin Mamon
Korchynsky has grafted onto the fighters the idea that their mission is about more than just defending Ukraine — they are involved in a civilizational struggle against a force of evil. The battalion’s iconography even shares imagery associated with the Islamic State. On the door to one of the rooms where the militants live is a picture of a fighter wearing a cap with a drawing of the Ukrainian national symbol, the tryzub (trident). In one hand he is holding the decapitated head of a man with the Russian flag coming out of his mouth. The text of the poster says, in Ukrainian, “Don’t regret.”(An anonymous blogger who writes on Facebook under the pseudonym Bulba Bulba, created it, I later learned). It’s just a joke, a blue-eyed fighter wearing a balaclava and holding a gun tells me.
A chaplain known as Father Volodymyr attends to the spiritual needs of the battalion. Tall, slender, and quiet, he’s not much more than 30 years old. He comes from Mariupol, and he persuaded some of his parishioners to join the battalion. He used to be a monk in the Russian Orthodox Church, but when the war broke out he joined the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He could not have done otherwise, he says.

When the fighting first started, he saw supporters of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic bullying young girls on Ukrainian Independence Day simply because they wore traditional Ukrainian embroidery. One time, he says, the separatists brutally punished a woman for wearing the embroidery. They drove nails into her feet and forced her to walk through the street. It was pure evil, he explains, and is why it’s now necessary to fight. Father Volodymyr invoked the words of St. Paul, who said, “if you do that which is evil, be afraid; for he bears not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that does evil.”

Today the sword is the Kalashnikov, the weapon of choice for the fighters of St. Mary.


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