One afternoon in late October, Kalashnikov-armed pro-Russian separatists led two accused rapists into the House of Culture in Alchevsk in the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic for a “people's court,” twisting their arms behind their backs so they were forced to bend over as they walked. One read out the evidence gathered against the first man by the rebels' military police unit, arguing the 37-year-old had threatened a 15-year-old girl until she agreed to have sex with him. Then he asked the 340 local citizens and rebels assembled in the hall to vote to sentence him “to the highest form of punishment according to the laws of wartime, death by firing squad.”
The crowd voted to send the first man to redeem himself on the front line, where rebels continue to clash with government forces. It sentenced the second man, accused of at least three rapes since 2008, to death. A video of the people's court caused an uproar in the Ukrainian and Russian media, especially one fragment in which Mozgovoi suggested that women should “sit at home and cross-stitch” and ordered that “any girl who goes to a bar will be arrested.”
But while critics have accused Mozgovoi of facilitating mob rule, communist and Marxist commentators have cited his outspoken opposition to the corrupt, oligarchic government that has plagued Ukraine as proof that he is the best hope to turn the pro-Russian rebellion into a social revolution. Although the armed seizure of buildings in eastern Ukraine in April was accompanied by frequent calls for a social welfare state, communist and other left-wing activists have been marginalized by pro-Russian activists who are more nationalist in their rhetoric. The Communist Party wasn't allowed to run in last month's rebel parliamentary elections and in the end was given a meager 3 seats out of 100 by the ruling coalition, its leader recently told The Nation. Many left-wing activists have said the uprising has turned toward Russian chauvinism rather than social reform.
For his part, Mozgovoi said he does not believe in ideologies but rather “popular democracy” and argued that the recent judicial spectacle had been misunderstood. “To create the mechanisms for a people's government, we need to create precedents like we're doing with the people's court,” he told The Nation.
But the jury is still out on the leader: Is he a socially-minded revolutionary propagating a radical form of direct democracy to eradicate years of corrupt government? Or a populist warlord conducting reckless justice and ruling his fiefdom with an iron hand?
A descendant of the Don Cossack warriors who lived in the borderlands of the Russian empire, Mozgovoi was born in the Luhansk region, studied music and sang in a choir, served seven years in the Ukrainian army and worked in the construction industry in St. Petersburg. Returning to Luhansk in February as protests for European integration raged in Kiev, Mozgovoi joined other pro-Russian activists in holding rallies and camping out in the city center, where he first began putting together the group that would become his military unit, the Ghost Brigade.