The Faces of Pravy Sektor in Ukraine

Apr 28, 2014 at 9:22 AM ET

Militias are now the predominant force controlling events in eastern Ukraine. Despite an agreement that Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union reached on April 17 in Geneva, the pro-Russian militants holding cities in eastern Ukraine hostage did not disarm or vacate the administrative buildings they occupy. And in the last week, the conflict has only intensified. A Russian military commander leading a group of separatists kidnapped European OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) observers in Sloviansk, the same city where days earlier five separatists were killed.

On the Ukrainian nationalist side, there are also armed, passionate believers—those of the Pravy Sektor, or Right Sector. Known for being one of the groups involved in some of the most violent clashes during Euromaidan earlier this year, they’re a somewhat unpredictable entity. They fight for Ukraine, but not under the national army’s banner; however, in accordance with the Geneva agreement, Pravy Sektor members in Zhytomyr willingly surrendered 21 boxes of Molotov cocktails to the state Security Service. And though they are the scapegoat for Russian justification of the invasion of Crimea—”look at those anti-Semitic, ultranationalist fascists” imply Russian officials—Pravy Sektor members have actually been documented helping local rabbis and photographed erasing anti-Semitic graffiti.

They’re hardly all angels, in a complex situation. Vice journalist Simon Ostrovsky was kidnapped by pro-Russian separatists last week and accused of being a spy for the Right Sector, which he details here. But here are the real members—photographer Eugene Nikiforov documented the faces and stories of some of these men, and why they fight.

Igor, whose last name was not given, is a 44-year-old member of the Pravy Sektor in Truskavec. He’s very open about his distrust of the current Ukrainian government because of what happened during Euromaidan, when now-ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s Berkut riot police shot and killed multiple protesters.

Igor’s response, when asked why he doesn’t join the national army: “These people stood against us during the Maidan. They followed their orders, but they fought against us. There were moments on Hrushevskoho [where violent street riots occurred in January and February] when we were very close to each other. We tried to approach them, talk to them and ask them questions. I only saw the cruelty and hatred in their eyes, especially the Berkut during the confrontations. We adhered and continue to adhere to the rules that apply in times of war, according to which there is no place for humanity, and yet we still expressed and continue to express humanity. [The Berkut] didn’t express any humanity, they only expressed unjustified brutality. I will not serve with the same person who stood on the wrong side of Maidan, because I can never trust him.”

Igor says one goal of the Pravy Sektor in this uncertain new era is to eliminate the mafia structure of the old government. Yanukovych and the previous governments were well-known for endemic corruption, demanding a massive cleanup operation that the fledgling interim government has to tackle. Igor believes that cleanup trickles down to the structure of the Pravy Sektor as well. “There should be a completely new structure,” he says. “Many think we are a criminal gang, but we are not.” The group accepts all volunteers, as long as they’re not drug addicts, alcoholics or mentally unstable, according to Igor. It’s important for stability.

“We need to learn how to act in a non-chaotic environment,” he says. “During Maidan, on the barricades, it was chaotic. We all worked according to principles of self-defense and self-organization with no designated military strategy in place. Now we need such strategy.”

The immediate goal is to stop pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine from taking over more of the country. “We are gathering people to go to eastern Ukraine to neutralize the provocateurs,” Igor says.

Though he’s clearly gearing up for a long fight, he also has ideas on rehabilitation. “The people who were shot at in Maidan square are now suffering from mental disorders,” Igor says. “They can be reeducated on how to control their aggressions in order to avoid harming others.”

Andrey, 18, from Kiev, decided to join the Pravy Sektor because his father is a member. “Still, I didn’t want him to know about it, so I tried to stay in different parts of Maidan square to avoid seeing him,” he says.

During those days, some of the makeshift equipment he was given included a slingshot. “As far as I know, a lot of equipment is being purchased now via donations,” he says, and speaks of some days in the office when dozens of volunteers show up—and others where there are none. According to Andrey, “[Pravy Sektor recruiters] don’t care about the nationalities of the people. The most important is that they’ll be patriots of Ukraine.”

As for why they fight? “Our goal is to fight over Crimea,” he says. “We consider Crimea’s occupation temporary. Another goal is to prevent and to stop the provocations in eastern Ukraine. Many consider and call us terrorists, but look at me, am I a terrorist? It’s just that at some point I couldn’t sit and watch the unfolding events on TV anymore. We don’t really like talking to the media because they tend to distort information.”

Oleg, 47, is a member of the “Maidan self-defense” group from Vinnytsia in central Ukraine. Like Igor, Oleg and other members of this group won’t join the national army. “We need to be sure who’s got our back,” he says, “and we don’t trust the people who stood on the wrong side of Maidan’s barricades.”

“We believe that we have to fight against [a situation similar to Crimea] taking place in the East,” Oleg says. “The new recruits are being trained in bases in Kiev, where they acquire their combat skills. I can teach basic training myself, because in the past I fought in Afghanistan.”

They may have the experience and some of the resources, but Oleg still sees flaws in the current structure. “The main problem is that the people joining the civilian units can not unite under one single umbrella organization,” he says. “Self-defense is a separate organization and so is the Pravy Sektor. They can’t unite. In my opinion, it’s because there is no single leader.”

The multiple splinter groups may make it difficult to fight under one united banner of Ukraine, but they have convictions—an intense devotion to patriotism—in common.