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Meet the ‘nobodies’ who said no to Putin

Denis Pushilin (front center), a chairman of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, speaks during his press conference in the seized regional administration building in Donetsk, Ukraine, May 8 2014. EPA/MAXIM SHIPENKOV

On Thursday, separatists in eastern Ukraine told reporters that they would go ahead with plans for an independence referendum on Sunday – despite Russian President Vladimir Putin suggesting they shouldn't.

That's a surprising move for people often accused of being Russian proxies: One political analyst described them as "nobodies" in an interview with The Post's Griff Witte.

So who are these men now defying both Putin and Kiev? Here's a rundown of a few of the major separatist names in Ukraine's east.

Denis Pushilin

Denis Pushilin, a co-chairman of the self-appointed Donetsk People's Republic, speaks at a news conference in Donetsk, Ukraine, Friday, May 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Pushilin, perhaps the most well-known of the separatist leaders, is a 32-year-old Donetsk native who has told reporters he has previously been a security guard and candy salesman. Perhaps his most noteworthy job, however, was working with an infamous fraudster Sergei Mavrodi – a man referred to as "Russia's Madoff" – on a Russian Ponzi scheme, MMM. University educated and smartly dressed, Pushilin has become a key public face for separatists as chairman of the Donetsk People's Republic.

“People want the referendum, and it’s not just a few people, its millions of people who want the referendum, who need to give this vote for their ideals," Pushilin explained to journalists on Thursday. "Even if we don’t conduct a referendum, the people themselves will conduct a referendum.”

Pushilin is one of five separatist leaders who had sanctions imposed upon him by the European Union.

Vyacheslav Ponomariov

Rebel leader Vyacheslav Ponomaryov speaks during press conference in the occupied regional administration building in Slaviansk, Ukraine, 26 April 2014. EPA/IGOR KOVALENKO

After leading an assault on the Mayor's office in Sloviansk on April 14, Ponomaryov took the mayor hostage and set up in his office. There's little concrete information about the self-appointed People's Mayor of Sloviansk, however: His age, for example, appears to be a mystery. He is known to have been a Soviet Army veteran, and had a short career making soap before going into politics, his spokesperson says. His style – gold teeth and baseball caps – is a contrast to Pushilin.

“People who come to power in an armed overthrow of the government are criminals,” Ponomaryov told Bloomberg Businessweek last month.

Valery Bolotov

The self-styled mayor of Luhansk region Valery Bolotov (C) holds an ignition key for a "Tigr" in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, May 7, 2014. The Tigr, a military light armored vehicle, was donated by the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia to pro-Russian activists. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Bolotov declared himself the “People’s Governor of Luhansk" at the start of May. He has also become known as the leader of “the southeast army” according to Itar-Tass, and he is said to be a retired military leader.

Bolotov was also included on the EU sanctions list.

Roman Lyagin

Roman Lyagin, leader of the separatist "republic's" election commission, sits on boxes of ballots at the commission headquarters in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, May 8, 2014. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Lyagin is the chairman of the Central Election Committee of the Donetsk People’s Republic. He recently told the BBC he was working 24 hours a day in preparation for the referendum and had 20,000 people ready to vote.

Pavel Gubarev

Activist Pavel Gubarev speaks to demonstrators during a rally in front of the regional administrative building in Donetsk, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Hundreds of demonstrators waving Russian flags have stormed a government building in Donetsk in the eastern Ukraine. The region is the home area of fugitive Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country after massive protests in Kiev. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)
Activist Pavel Gubarev speaks to demonstrators during a rally in front of the regional administrative building in Donetsk, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 5, 2014.  (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

The 31-year-old declared himself the "people's governor" of Donetsk back on March 3 – before being promptly arrested by Ukrainian officials. He was recently released in exchange for a number of officers of the Security Service of Ukraine.

Gubarev was known as an amateur boxer and businessman in the past, but there are reports of darker ties too: Timothy Snyder wrote at the New Republic that he was known as a "neo-Nazi and as a member of the fascist organization Russian National Unity."

Ekaterina Gubareva

Appointed as foreign minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Gubareva is the wife of Pavel Gubarev. According to one interview, she is the mother of three small children.

German Prokopyev, Andrei Purgin and Sergei Tsyplakov

While little is publicly known about these three, they were included on the EU sanctions list. Itar-Tass reports that Propopyev is one leader of the "self-defense forces in Ukraine’s south-east," while Purgin is listed as the head of Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Tsyplakov is part of the DPR leadership.


Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.



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