Volunteers are also helping Ukraine’s army and promoting patriotism while hoping to curry favor among the remaining residents of this Donetsk Oblast mining city.

Soldiers stationed in Dzerzhynsk, which had a pre-war population of 35,000 people, say volunteers’ soft approach works better than the military leadership’s heavy-handed and inefficient one.

Dzerzhynsk has become more Ukrainian-looking since November, the last time the Kyiv Post visited.

The colors of the national flag, the country’s coat of arms and patriotic slogans can be seen all over the city, including on the statues of Communist leaders Vladimir Lenin and Felix Dzerzhinsky.

A Ukrainian soldier operates an anti-tank machine gun at a roadblock about one kilometer away from separatist-held Horlivka on May 12.

A core group of 50 pro-Ukrainian activists assist the army and organize rallies. They did not give their last names for fear of reprisals from the pro-Russian element.


Money and supplies for Ukrainian checkpoints in Dzerzhynsk come from all over the world.

But the patriots say the city’s authorities are anti-Ukrainian. There are videos showing Dzerzhynsk Mayor Volodymyr Sleptsov speaking at Kremlin-separatist rallies in early 2014.

Dzerzhynsk’s city council did not respond to Kyiv Post requests for comment.

Some former separatist activists like Serhiy Palahuta have ostensibly switched sides. But one volunteer believes Palahuta is working for the local authorities rather than for the Ukrainian cause. A YouTube video shows Palahuta speaking in support of Kremlin-backed forces last year.

Alla and Volodymyr Golovenko, who help the Ukrainian army and other volunteers in Dzerzhynsk on May 12.

Volodymyr, a retired coal miner from a local Protestant family, provides lodging for volunteers from other regions and coordinates efforts to help the army in Dzerzhynsk.

His activities are risky. Once the minibus in which he was driving to a Ukrainian checkpoint with other volunteers was shelled by Kremlin-backed forces.


“I have always wondered why this place is so badly organized,” Volodymyr says.

He believes the reason is the Soviet mentality that does not allow the city to develop and contrasts it with the more Westernized city of Lviv. Volodymyr wants Ukraine to become more European and also looks to the United States as a source of inspiration.

Another retired coal miner, Oleh, supplies vegetables from his garden, other food and construction materials to Ukrainian roadblocks. In February he was driving in his car to visit one and saw a separatist group attacking it. He says his car was fired at by Kremlin-backed fighters. He barely escaped. His car is riddled with bullet holes.

A Ukrainian soldier stands guard at a roadblock about one kilometer away from Horlivka on May 12.

Oleh, a joyful man with a mustache, has a penchant for poetry and often recites poems condemning Russian aggression and extolling Ukrainian patriotism.

He says the town has deep Ukrainian roots and is wondering why Dzerzhynsk, named after Communist secret police head Felix Dzerzhinsky, and its streets should bear the names of Bolshevik leaders.

The predecessor of Dzerzhynsk – Shcherbinovka – was founded in the 19th century and named after Zaporizhian Cossack Anton Shcherbina, who had settled there.


Soldiers in Dzerzhynsk prefer the volunteers to the military’s bureaucratic approach with little care for servicemen.

One problem: The government only gives one uniform for a year,

Andrei Bakhtov, commander of the Dzerzhynsk-based Mirotvorets (Peacekeeper) volunteer battalion, said that soldiers “try not to wear (the boots) that the motherland gives us. We want to save our feet for the war. It’s more efficient to give those boots to separatists – let them suffer.”

Volunteers do a better job of getting soldiers what they need, Bakhtov said.

Improvement in the army’s approach came after Yury Biryukov and other volunteers were invited by the government to oversee military supplies last year.

Yevhen, a 57th brigade officer who goes by the nom-de-guerre Elephas, also said that the army’s “long bureaucratic” chain of command thwarted supplies.

Yevhen and other soldiers did not give their last names because they are not authorized to speak to the press.

A mother and her child pass by the burned city hall after it was hit by a separatist tank in downtown Dzerzhynsk on May 12. The Donetsk Oblast coal mining city is only a few kilometers away from Russian-controlled Horlivka.

Army regulations have become obsolete and do not allow the military to buy infrared cameras – something that is supplied mostly by volunteers, he said. Oleksiy Mazepa, a spokesman for the General Staff, disagreed and said the army is being supplied with infrared cameras by the government.


Serhiy and Yevhen – soldiers being treated at the local hospital — said that the food and clothing they get from the army are not good, a claim that Mazepa also disputed.

Soldiers currently are entitled to a half liter of water per day, as well as honey and lard, and cheese rations have increased, he said.

Kyiv Post staff writer Oleg Sukhov can be reached at [email protected].

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