Denis Pushilin, co-head of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, speaks to supporters during a rally in Donetsk’s Lenin Square on Sunday. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Before he became leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic — a renegade regime that has spread chaos and fear across eastern Ukraine — Denis Pushilin sold shares in a Russian pyramid scheme.

His comrade-in-arms, the hostage-taking “people’s mayor” of Slovyansk, operated a small soap factory.

Today the two men threaten to sink this region into anarchy with their violence-fueled quest for autonomy from the pro-Western government in Kiev.

But as recently as a month ago, the leaders of the People's Republic were unknown to just about everyone in Donetsk, even on the fringe that separatist politics
normally inhabit in this once-tranquil industrial region.

“I know every Donetsk politician of every variety. Even the marginal ones,” said Ihor Todorow, a political analyst at Donetsk University. “These people — neither me nor anyone else has ever heard of them. They’re nobodies.”

The leaders’ lightning-fast rise from utter obscurity to fathers-of-the-republic status reinforces already intense suspicion that the uprising roiling Ukraine’s east has little to do with genuine separatist sentiment and everything to do with meddling by this country’s eastern neighbor, Russia.

There’s plenty of other evidence to support the theory of Russian subversion, not least the mysterious and disciplined men in camouflage who, armed with high-grade weapons, show up to storm government buildings.

But here in Donetsk, the civilian faces of the separatist movement are seen as equally telling tip-offs of Russia’s role — and equally important to Moscow’s plans.

The Donetsk People’s Republic’s political leaders may be figureheads who were thrust into their jobs by handlers from Moscow and exercise little power of their own. But they offer a veneer of popular legitimacy to a campaign whose core goal appears to be destabilization of the state.

“These people have no ideology,” Donetsk Gov. Serhiy Taruta said in an interview. “Chaos is their idea.”

At that they have been quite effective. The People’s Republic has taken over government buildings in about a dozen towns and cities across eastern Ukraine, with new ones falling daily as security forces stand idly by.

But the People’s Republic has made no effort to conduct the people’s business. The work of local government — trash collection, street sweeping, pension payments — continues to be carried out by the region’s regular municipal employees. In some cases, militants and bureaucrats even occupy the same buildings, with workers scrambling around barbed-wire-ringed barricades to report for duty.

In other places, city hall has become a dangerous no-go zone for anyone not aligned with the militants.

Taruta, an oligarch who was appointed governor by the pro-Western central government, has not been able to show up for work at the regional administration building in Donetsk since pro-Russian militants stormed it on April 6. Pushilin, the former pyramid scheme salesman, has been occupying the governor’s 11th-floor office ever since.

Even those who work with Pushilin daily say they know little of his background.

“I never met him in the past, and I wasn’t interested in what he did in the past,” said Klavdia, Pushilin’s spokeswoman, who gave only her first name. “But I know that now he is a great leader who cares about the future of his people.”

Pushilin was among five separatist leaders added to European Union sanctions lists on Tuesday. Reflecting just how little is known about the men, the E.U. was unable to say where or when four of them were born, as is customary when announcing sanctions. The only exception was Pushilin, about whom only the most basic details are known.

Born in Makiivka, a suburb of Donetsk, the 32-year-old has said in interviews that he was a security guard and candy salesman before turning to work at MMM, a company that runs a notorious Russian Ponzi scheme.

He told Russian journalists that the scheme, which has cost its customers millions of dollars, was intended to strike a blow to the “financial slavery” of modern capitalism. “We want to put the world upside down, to break this system,” he said.

But in person, the slight, soft-spoken and well-tailored Pushilin hardly cuts the figure of a radical. He was the featured speaker Sunday at a separatist rally in Donetsk’s Lenin Square, which attracted a meager crowd of several hundred in this leafy city of a million people. When Pushilin spoke, the crowd responded with dutiful applause but hardly seemed moved to revolution.

Still, Pushilin outlined an ominous plan that could bring far deeper unrest to this already unsettled region — with Russia’s help.

The People’s Republic, he said, intends to hold a referendum on regional autonomy on May 11. “Then we will receive sovereignty,” he said. “What we do with this sovereignty will be up to us.”

While the referendum is widely regarded as a sham — preparations are underway in only three cities, and local authorities have denounced it — pro-Ukrainian officials here fear that it could give Russia the pretext it needs to send in troops. Russia has threatened as much, repeatedly accusing the government in Kiev of dismissing demands among eastern Ukrainians for greater autonomy.

Vyacheslav Ponomariov, the gold-toothed “people’s mayor” in Slovyansk, has already called for Russian troops to roll into Ukraine to protect the region’s Russian speakers from the Ukrainian government. That is despite the fact that the vast majority of the violence here has been perpetrated by the separatists.

And much of it has taken place in Slovyansk, where city hall has been transformed into a grim holding ground for hostages, including Ukrainian troops, international monitors, journalists and local politicians. Bodies bearing the marks of extreme torture have been turning up in a nearby river .

Ponomariov’s dirty campaign of terror follows a short career making soap. A Soviet navy veteran, he bounced from one business to another before he and his fellow separatists stormed city hall on April 14, his spokeswoman said. He was selected to be the people’s mayor because he has “the respect of his peers.”

Yet it is unclear whether his violent tactics are winning the separatists any greater support among the population of southeastern Ukraine. Polls show the opposite, as concerns over security spike.

Kovalenko Roman represents the traditionally pro-Russian Party of Regions on the Donetsk regional council and is sharply critical of the government in Kiev, which he accuses of not doing more to devolve power to the local level.

But asked about the mysterious separatists whose power to disrupt life in Donetsk grows by the day, he can only shake his head.

“I can’t understand how a couple thousand people can be terrorizing the whole region, even the whole world,” Roman said. “Something is wrong with this.”

William Booth and Alex Ryabchyn in Donetsk and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.