Igor Ananeyev, a 37-year-old ex-cop, left his shift at a rebel base in the eastern Ukrainian town of Alchevsk one night in September and went to meet a girl.

She was 15, the same age as his son, but that did not stop Ananeyev. His wife, who had left him earlier in the year, was living in Kiev. And his son was sleeping at a dormitory for the children of the fighters. Night had just settled when he brought the girl, “Nastia,” back to his apartment. She asked him if he had anything to drink, so he pulled a bottle of vodka from his fridge. They smoked a bit of weed. Then after getting her drunk, he brought her into his bedroom. 

"She was young," he explained to me when I met him months later. "It all happened quickly." The next morning, he dropped her off at work, and gave her a cell phone as a "present." One day later, his rebel comrades arrested him and told him it was "the end." He knew they meant the end of him. He wrote a confession. He prayed. He drew a picture of god.

Nearly a month and half passed, and then he landed in the People's Court of Novorossiya, a makeshift tribunal presided over by a local warlord named Alexey Mozgovoy, and adjudicated by several hundred locals. Ananeyev and a second man, Vitaly Krovtsov, faced the death penalty for child rape. There were no witnesses called, no lawyers present, and no real evidence put forward. In the end, Ananeyev and Krovtsov's fates were decided by a show of hands. Several members of the crowd were reportedly drunk.

Mozgovoy’s battalion, the “Ghost Battalion,” soon uploaded video of the October 25th trial to YouTube. It opens with a shot of the two suspects being led, hands behind their backs, up the steps of the local House of Culture, past white columns, and into a pink-walled theater. Cheesy, dramatic rock music blares. Inside, the suspects sit at a desk, stage left, next to red curtains. Three camouflaged rebels, one with a black scarf covering his face, officiate from a bench in the center.

"I ask, in accordance with wartime law, to sentence Ananeyev Igor Vladimirovich ... to the highest degree of punishment: execution by firing squad," one of the rebels says to open the trial. "The decision will be made by the people of Novorossiya. Means of decision: a simple majority of votes." Mozgovoy, on the far left in a black cap, then takes the microphone and calls the court "the perfect form of people power." 

Rebel justice in wartime eastern Ukraine's has been cruel since its inception. Igor Strelkov, the erstwhile supreme commander of the separatist movement in Donetsk, famously had looters shot in secret military tribunals. But this "People's Court" seems different somehow. Watching the video is like getting into Marlow's boat and embarking down the river into a modern-day Heart of Darkness. The "People's Court" shows a process unfold: You watch ordinary people grapple with morality, mortality, and justice, unencumbered by legal procedure. It hints, not so subtly, at the precariousness of civilization. Guilt becomes a slippery concept. We have two child rapists, a maniacal ruler, and a complaisant population: Who is more in the wrong and why?


This unsettling state of moral ambiguity has deep roots. 

Ukraine inherited a Soviet-era system where the judge hands down rulings; there have never been official jury trials. Under former President Viktor Yanukovych, the courts were merely instruments. Verdicts were decided before hearings—what mattered was not guilt, but the size of your bank account. Before Ukraine’s revolution this spring, 66 percent of Ukrainians considered the judiciary "extremely corrupt"—the highest of all institutions in the country.

Once eastern Ukraine’s separatists began seizing territory in April, state institutions—the shaky justice system included—crumbled. The self-styled People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk have yet to establish any laws of their own. Into the vacuum have come warlords and rebels, with their own twisted ideas of how to replace the old courts. Most of the time it involves summary justice, arbitrary detention, and widespread torture. Mozgovoy’s “People’s Court” may sit on the civil end of this dark spectrum.

In early November, two colleagues and I set out for Alchevsk to meet the infamous commander and get some answers about what actually happened to Ananeyev and Krovtsov, and why. Mozgovoy received us in his office on the second floor of his headquarters, in a building that used to belong to the local newspaper. He wore fatigues, and his clear blue eyes peeked out from under an olive green cap. He sat behind a desk with seven cell phones on it, and two rifles rested against the wall behind him. Propped in the far corner of the room, opposite a fake lemon tree, stood a real silver sword.

Alexey Mozgovoy, Commander of the pro-Russian Separatist "Ghost Battalion" Maria Turchenkova

A native of eastern Ukraine, Mozgovoy always wanted to be a soldier, and his years in the Ukrainian army left him unfulfilled. After leaving the service in the late 1990s, he worked odd jobs and dabbled in music. He even wrote some poetry—strained verses about his mother, about love, about angels. (Spoiler: It’s not very good.) He had been working in Russia when protests broke out in Kiev. The separatist movement in the Donbas emerged as his calling. 

In February, he left his job, returned home to Luhansk, and began recruiting fighters. He proved himself a ruthless commander, and an effective self-promoter. He once roadtripped to Moscow to lobby nationalist Russian lawmakers to support eastern Ukraine’s rebels. Eventually he came to control Alchevsk, a town of roughly 100,000 near the war’s northern front. 

As the war in Ukraine has dragged on, the feverish Russian nationalists (like Strelkov) who led the first charge have largely been pushed out and replaced with bland and pliant stand-ins. Mozgovoy is one of the few exceptions. He still clings to the idea of "Novorossiya," and speaks of building a socialist system of "direct democracy" and "people power" in his future republic. He fancies himself a bit after Lenin, and a bit after Nestor Makhno, a famed Ukrainian anarchist. At the People's Court, he suggested arresting women for visiting bars, saying that "a woman should be mother and homemaker" and commanding the women in town to "stay home and bake pies." (He told us this was merely a scare tactic, but we did not stay long enough to see who still dared go to the bars.)

Mozgovoy folds his hands as he speaks. He told me the People's Court was an “experiment.” Ukraine, especially the Russophile eastern regions, is notoriously paternalistic, trained by years of Soviet rule to avoid civic duty. By calling the People's Court, Mozgovoy wanted to awaken civil society. "People must feel responsibility for life," he said, stroking his grey-streaked goatee. "Otherwise life passes by our citizens."


In the end, Ananeyev got off relatively easy. The crowd decided to send him to the front lines, where he would fight for his life. Krovtsov did not. Amidst cheers and applause, 271 of the 290 present voted to have him shot. Both men now await their punishments at a rebel base in town. 

Neither man denies his guilt. Krovtsov, with a black beanie and a black eye, told us he is "ashamed" when two colleagues and I met him in the base's shady courtyard. The tattoos on his hands speak of a life of crime—a total of 14 years in Ukrainian prisons on several separate charges. In town, women know to avoid him. (His captors believe that he avoided even harsher sentencing under the old authorities because of ties to the corrupt local police.)

When we asked Ananeyev what he thought of this new court, he answered that the People's Court was an improvement on the old system. "It's not ideal," Ananeyev said. "But it's better than when the courts were paid for." It's impossible, of course, to know how much the presence of his captors influenced his answer.

But even his father, Vladimir, agreed that there was something to the idea. "It's difficult, but perhaps it's the right approach," he said when we met him outside his aging apartment block. "They just need to refine it." The problem, he said, was not the court itself—the people should decide—but the lack of procedure. "What punishment can there be,” he asked, “if we have no laws?" It was a fair point. It’s hard to say what is ultimately more barbaric: the unequal justice of corruption or the vengeful justice of the collective id.