The cross and the sword: The making of a Christian Taliban in Ukraine
This is part three in a series by the same author called ‘Ukraine’s Private Battalions’. Part one, on Feb. 26: In Midst of War, Ukraine Becomes Gateway for Jihad. Part two, on Feb. 27, 2015: The Life and Death of a Chechen Commander. Part three, on March 18: The Making of a Christian Taliban in Ukraine. Photos in the series are by Tomasz Glowacki and Marcin Mamon. See all the photos by going to the original stories on The Intercept.
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.
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.
KORSHYNSKY 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.
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.
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.”
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.
THE CHRISTIAN TALIBAN of Ukraine are not fighting for heaven on earth, but for Mariupol, perhaps the most dismal place under the sun. Mariupol is an impoverished city, painted in shades of gray and dominated by Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks and small, dilapidated houses. A few hundred yards from the sea, industrial garbage and plastic is washed up by the waves in big heaps. The residents of Mariupol gather this garbage to burn in their furnaces.
Yet this port city of half a million people is now a key piece of territory in the war in eastern Ukraine, and is largely expected to be the target of the next major Russian offensive. The residents of Mariupol suffer from the bad luck of being in a strategic location.
I arrived at the St. Mary’s base in February, which was marked by a series of deaths for the battalion. The first man to die was “German.” He was killed Feb. 10 when Ukrainians attacked the separatists’ positions near Mariupol, hoping to relieve desperate Ukrainian troops who had been encircled near Debaltseve. German led the battalion’s assault on Pavlopol, a key spot for defense, just outside of Mariupol. German was shot; the bullets pierced his vest, and he died before paramedics could reach him.
German’s real name was Kiril Geinc. The origin of his nickname is simple. He came from a family of ethnic Germans living in Russia. He was a citizen of Russia and had no Ukrainian passport, but fought on the side of Ukraine out of personal conviction. He was buried with honors in Kiev.
The members of the battalion all use nicknames. The Chief of Staff is “Partisan.” His deputy is “Syndicate.” Then there’s “Professor,” “Virus,” “Psych,” “Alligator,” “Shepherd,” “Horse,” “Sun,” and so on. Partisan explains that the nicknames are just a convenient way to communicate. But there is another reason: The battalion includes volunteers from areas occupied by the separatists, and they prefer not to disclose their real names for fear of endangering their families.
A few days after German was shot, “Quiet” and “Amen” died in a car accident. On the day of his death, Quiet was only 22 years old. He came from Transcarpathia, in western Ukraine, and had only recently joined the battalion, but he was a top student and had learned to shoot well.
Amen had served in the battalion since the early autumn of 2014. He spent the winter in forward positions, rarely returning to the base. He was the most experienced fighter in the battalion and participated in numerous raids behind enemy lines. “He survived so many bombings and battles with the enemy, and yet he died in a car accident,” Syndicate said. “Fate is fickle.”
The third victim of the car accident wasn’t from the battalion, but he was a loss for the cause. Leonid Suchocki was a legendary Ukrainian Army tank driver. Separatists feared him like the plague, and his old Soviet T-64 tank, from 1967, was called “black death.”
The battalion’s military equipment is almost exclusively made up of Soviet relics produced in The fighters have one BRDM-2 armored vehicle, essentially a museum piece, and several Ural military trucks that have been heavily used. The BRDM has weak armor, so volunteers have welded a metal cage around it, hoping to provide additional protection from enemy attack.
The pride of the battalion is a new Toyota Tundra pickup painted in camouflage. Most of the other volunteer battalions can only dream of such a vehicle. Syndicate would nonetheless prefer something that runs on diesel, because the Tundra burns too much gasoline, which is always in short supply.
The battalion has set up checkpoints along the road to Novoazovsk, a strategically located port town near the border with Russia. If pro-Russian forces take the city, and the port, it would bring them a step closer to creating a land link between Crimea and Russia.
The main checkpoint, about 10 miles from the base, is surrounded on two sides by concrete slabs and is built of anything and everything that can be used for fortification, giving it the look and feel of a scene from the “Mad Max” films. This checkpoint is the last one before the front lines with the Russian separatists.
Inside, the checkpoint is a mess. It’s filled with field blankets, boxes of ammunition, and jars and bowls of food, mainly sauerkraut, potatoes and bread. Religious icons and children’s drawings decorate the walls. The fighters are rarely inside. Usually they are standing at the checkpoint — often in rain, sleet and snow — wearing balaclavas, with white rosaries pinned to their uniforms. They check passing cars and the occasional buses that travel between the front lines. Driving in this area is not safe. On Jan. 13, on the road from Mariupol to Donetsk, rockets fired by Russian separatists hit a bus carrying civilians. Twelve people were killed.
The St. Mary’s checkpoint is often under fire. Russian soldiers and rebels of the Donetsk People’s Republic are about three miles away, in villages and the forest. When the shooting starts, the St. Mary’s fighters retreat to their bunker, which consists of metal containers buried in the earth and lined on the inside with wood planks. The outside is covered with concrete slabs and camouflaged with earth.
Partisan, the battalion’s chief of staff, is deeply frustrated. He’s been fighting for nine months now. He fought in Donetsk and Ilovaisk, where in August of last year the Ukrainian Army suffered a severe defeat. Several hundred soldiers, cut off from arms, ammunition and supplies, surrendered to the Russians. “Many times we’ve agreed to a suspension of hostilities, but we’re the only ones who observe it,” he says. “And if we don’t shoot at them, they shoot at us, and we can’t shoot back.”
To the northeast are the separatists. To the southwest, it’s still Ukraine, but the residents living in in the small villages on the way to Mariupol are strongly pro-Russian. So the fighters are in essence surrounded on all sides, and expect attacks from every direction. In Mariupol itself, the residents speak Russian, not Ukrainian, and many support the separatists, preferring to live in Russia, where the state at least pays salaries and pensions.
When the fighting for Mariupol starts, it’s expected that many of the city’s residents will pull out weapons hidden in their homes and fire on the Ukrainians who are defending the city. It’s a seemingly doomed situation, so the St. Mary’s fighters rely on religion to guide them.
“Everything with us is based on faith in Jesus Christ,” says Partisan. “We believe that only a religious community can win in today’s world, and in a society where all our values ??have declined in importance, and only faith survives. War makes this evident. There is no place for atheists when there are mortars and rockets firing.”
FOR ALL HIS TALK of religion, Korchynsky is in many ways the ultimate pragmatist. His alliances have always been more practical than ideological. In the 1990s, he fought in the Caucasus because he hated Russia, not because he loved the Muslim fighters there. “We understand that if we do not want the front line to be in Crimea, we should keep the front line in the Caucasus,” he told me. “And that is why we should help the resistance movement in the Caucasus.”
He still has contacts with fighters in Chechnya, as well as with Muslims from the Caucasus now in Ukraine.
“I don’t want to divide people based on religions,” he says, “Because what we have in front of us is a much worse enemy — the Russian Federation. We should strike Russia together with our allies.”
I asked Korchynsky how a man like him — contesting the political order in Ukraine — gets along with his wife, a member of the parliament. He replied that his wife understands that the country’s key problems can’t be solved in parliament. The most important thing is to continue the revolution, but it’s useful to have friends in the government. “Sometimes it helps get something done, like gets someone out of jail, or gets the authorities to give us extra weapons,” he says.
Even his religious rhetoric is practical. Korchynsky would prefer to speak about Crusaders and the Crusades, but that would require a detailed and long explanation. He says he uses the terms Taliban, Hezbollah and al Qaeda because he wants to speak a language understood by the world.
I asked what distinguishes his organization from Islamic jihadists. The radical Islamists in Afghanistan and the Middle East are, according to Korchynsky, interested in destroying the world order. Not so with the St. Mary’s Battalion.
“We really like civilization,” he explained. “We want to have hot water in the bath and a functional sewage system, but we also want to be able to fight for our ideals.”
Korchynsky wants to move the war to Russian territory, and he says his people have already formed underground structures there. Like the Islamic State, one day his “brothers” will receive orders and begin their work.
“We will fight until Moscow burns,” he says.
The material for this story is part of a documentary film being developed for Germany’s WDR, “Die Story.”