A separatist leader in eastern Ukraine has admitted to burning down a village at the height of fighting more than a year ago, while praising a proposal for restoring the place.
Aleksandr Zakharchenko's remarks came as his pro-Russian separatist group, which calls itself the Donetsk People's Republic, held a Youth Socio-Political Forum that was billed as a platform for local students to present a range of project proposals.
Students from the so-called Donbas National Academy of Construction and Architecture presented their concept for the tiny village of Kozhevnya, once home to around 69 residents, according to Census data.
The area was the site of some of the fiercest battles between Ukrainian national forces and separatists in the summer of 2014.
The Russia-backed separatists held the village until July 23, 2014, when troops loyal to Kyiv forced them to retreat. At the time, a separatist representative told Interfax news agency that the populated areas had been abandoned and that no separatists had been killed in action.
It was not until his January 25 admission that Zakharchenko explained how they pulled it off: by burning everything to the ground.
"This village was a milestone for me. ... It was our first offensive. Unfortunately, in the course of fighting we practically destroyed this village," he said. "By burning down houses, we saved our lives and the lives of our people":
Fighting in eastern Ukraine broke out in April 2014, and more than 9,100 people have been killed in the conflict. More than 1.4 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced, while more than 600,000 others have fled to neighboring countries.
Russia-backed separatists continue to control swaths of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and a shaky, internationally brokered cease-fire is largely holding, but a long-term solution remains elusive nearly two years after the onset of the separatism-fueled violence.
New Republican Values
In his eight-minute speech, Zakharchenko spoke not only about physical rebuilding but also about the return of what he called "cultural values."
"In the Soviet Union, which the majority of you don't remember...the ideology of that state was good. Of course, there were some exaggerations, a lot of shortcomings, but the things that were done were done for the people," he said.
Zakharchenko went on to suggest that children were raised on "true" values back then -- those of "family, loyalty, brotherhood, and love for the motherland."
Millions of Ukrainians died during Stalin's orchestrated famine known as the Holodomor in 1932-33, when the Soviet leadership aimed to collectivize land and labor and at the same time eliminate its perceived opponents.
But according to Zakharchenko's reading of history, the West imposed its own values on the Ukrainian people after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
"Now we understand that we are raised on Coca-Cola, Mickey Mouse, blue jeans, and so on, on Playboy, on a democracy that implies that the family could have two dads or two moms," he said. "This is absolutely unacceptable."
The latest Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the situation in eastern Ukraine accuses the separatists who control parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of killings, torture, ill-treatment, illegal detention, and forced labor.
A former commander of separatists in Donetsk, Russian Igor Girkin, recently said that he executed four people in the city of Slovyansk in 2014 -- killings he said were carried out in accordance with Stalin-era laws.
Zakharchenko, a university dropout with a technical-school education, tried to end his speech on an inspiring note. He said that creating the so-called "republic" -- which is not recognized as an independent state by any country -- should be a source of pride.
"You are proud of us for doing it and we will be proud of you for having done it," he said.