July 10, 2014
SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — Late one afternoon last month, as separatist militia fighters and Ukrainian forces exchanged fire, a small-time thief by the name of Aleksei B. Pichko left his home on the southern edge of Slovyansk and headed for an abandoned residence at 17 Sadovaya Street. He had been drinking, and wanted to “see what could be stolen from there,” according to documents recovered at the rebel headquarters after their retreat over the weekend. Mr. Pichko, 30, never returned. An order signed and stamped by the rebels’ powerful commander, Igor Strelkov, detailed Mr. Pichko’s fate: death by firing squad for pilfering a pair of pants and two shirts. “They told me they took him to the S.B.U.,” said his mother, Maria Pichko, referring to the headquarters in this former separatist stronghold. “I don’t know anything more.”
The death sentence makes reference to a Stalin-era Soviet law, and in it Mr. Strelkov warns ominously that crimes “committed in the zone of military activity will continue to be punished ruthlessly and decisively.” Mr. Strelkov, a native Muscovite whose real name is Igor Girkin, is a figure as mysterious as he is fearsome. On Thursday, he made his first public appearance after months of fighting, attending a news conference in the provincial capital of Donetsk alongside Alexander Borodai, another Russian citizen leading the uprising here.