By Tim Whewell
Since the start of the conflict in eastern Ukraine eight months ago, the Kremlin has denied any direct involvement, including sending Russian troops. But there are Russian fighters on the ground who are proud to announce their presence – and to discuss their ideas of “holy war”.
Even when the morning sun catches the gold domes of its Orthodox churches, the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, stronghold of the pro-Russian rebels, doesn’t look much like Jerusalem. Trolley-buses trundle through the dirty snow, past belching chimneys and the slag-heaps from the coal-mines on the edge of town.
But through the smoke and grime, Pavel Rasta sees a sacred city – and he’s fighting for it, Kalashnikov in hand, just like the Crusaders fought for the heart of Christendom centuries ago. He may be a financial manager – most recently working in a funeral parlour – who’s never held a gun before in his life, but he sees himself as the modern version of a medieval knight, dedicated to chivalrous ideas of Christian purity and defending the defenceless.
And the defenceless, for him, are the citizens of eastern Ukraine, mainly Russian-speaking, who are under attack, as he sees it, by a ruthless Ukrainian government intent on wiping them out culturally, or even physically.
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