KIEV, USSR — A massive shining steel arch stands overlooking the Dnieper River, built more than a decade ago to symbolize the ``reunification of the Ukrainian and Russian people.'' The natives of this graceful city sneeringly call it the yarmo (yoke), for them only an ugly expression of Russian oppression.
Not far away, on Kreshchatik, the leafy main boulevard, a crowd roiling in constant debate gathers around the flagstaff in front of City Hall. The blue-and-yellow Ukrainian nationalist banner has flown there since mid-July, when it was carried by a massive crowd celebrating the Ukrainian parliament's declaration of sovereignty.
Wreathes of flowers and sheaves of wheat are piled at the base of the flag. A nationalist organizer hands out applications for citizenship in the independent ``Republic of the Ukraine.''
``The time has come to restore our own things, to build our own national state, to feel like a real people,'' Ivan Myendik, a young engineer from Lvov says after proudly filling out the form.
Until this spring, Ukrainian nationalism was a political force largely confined to the western part of the republic, the area formerly part of Poland. But here, as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, the demand for separation from the union has won broad support - enough to force the traditionally conservative, and powerful, Ukrainian Communist Party to back sovereignty, at least in name.
Sergei Pravdenko, a liberal Communist deputy in the parliament, comes from Dnepropetrovsk in the southeastern Ukraine. He returned recently to visit voters in a Cossack village in his district. When he was running last March, no one spoke to him about Ukrainian independence.
``On the contrary, it was I who spoke to them about these issues,'' he recalls. ``Now they speak very resolutely about the independence of the Ukraine, without even any of my reservations. I was very surprised.''
``Maybe Moscow has some illusions'' that the eastern Ukraine will not break from it, he says, ``but Moscow had illusions about Lithuania also.''
The most visible expression of nationalist strength is the Rukh, the Ukrainian Peoples Movement for Perestroika, the broad front formed last year. Rukh captured 108 seats in the spring elections to the 450-member Supreme Soviet. Rukh organizers say they have since won over about 30 Communists. Mr. Pravdenko puts himself among about 70 Communists who vote ``9 out of 10 times'' with the Democratic Bloc, as the Rukh-led opposition is called. He puts hard-core party strength at 240 seats.
The Rukh ``understands sovereignty as complete secession from the union,'' explains Communist Party Secretary Anatoly Savchenko. The party sees it as a purely economic issue, ``as the more effective use of the resources and potential created in the republic.'' But, he hastens to add, ``both groups criticize the dictatorship of the command economy, the dictatorship of Moscow, and believe that if we had not had these negative things, development would have been more efficient.''
In the Rukh headquarters, Sergei Odarich, the 23-year-old former mathematics student who runs the movement's secretariat, speaks in calm, considered tones.
``We believe that without political independence we won't be able to attain economic independence,'' he says. ``That is why we are against joining any unions or blocs until after the Ukraine is really an independent state....''
By Rukh's account, the July 16 Communist vote for the declaration was the result of a combination of popular feeling, clever Rukh tactics, and miscalculation by the Communist leadership.
The shift in public opinion came only after the parliament was convened and people could see, in live TV broadcasts, that Rukh leaders were not the ``cannibals the party press represented them as,'' Mr. Odarich says. ``In only one day, the eastern Ukraine became our supporters.''
When the parliament convened, then-party leader and parliament chairman Volodymyr Ivashko tried to force a quick discussion of sovereignty. Unlike Volodymyr (Vladimir) Shcherbitsky, his despised predecessor, Mr. Ivashko is a new-style party leader, known for his flexibility and praised by some in Rukh for his openness, although also criticized for his indecisiveness.
Rukh, which wanted to increase support for its more radical views, forced a delay. It controlled the drafting committee, forcing the Communists into the position of offering amendments. While about 60 Communist deputies, including Ivashko and all the leadership, were in Moscow in July for the Communist Party Congress, Rukh put it forward.
The declaration gained backing from the Communist Party's right wing, Odarich says, ``which wants sovereignty so democratic ideas emanating from Moscow ... do not cross the border.'' The Communists left behind in Kiev were people ``used to obeying orders and were angry they were left alone.''
Ivashko angered the Communists and Rukh alike when he refused a demand that he return for the debate and instead sent a piqued letter of resignation from both his party and parliamentary post, taking on instead the post of deputy leader of the Soviet party.
The parliament voted overwhelmingly for the declaration with only three amendments - a reference to both Ukrainian and union citizenship; allowing the government the right to issue currency; and declaring that Ukrainian soldiers in the Soviet Army should serve only in the republic, rather than forming a totally separate army.
Liberal Communist Pravdenko argues as well against ``emotionalism'' in favor of ``economic calculation,'' but he doesn't trust Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's offer of a new union treaty. He envisions the Soviet Union becoming like the European Community, while party leader Savchenko says he thinks it should be a federal system closer to that of the United States.
Since the July vote, the Communist Party has scrambled to redefine the declaration to mean economic self-management, from the enterprise to the republic.
Andrei Pecherov, a Communist deputy who heads the parliamentary commission on planning, budget, finance, and prices, argues against the widespread belief that the Ukraine will be better off economically without ties to the union. It doesn't take into account the cost of defense, scientific research, and other indirect benefits, he says. And the artificial price system means the Ukraine's agricultural riches are underpriced, along with the oil it gets from Russia.
But the young Rukh activist handing out applications is confident the Communist Party is ``moving much closer to our position.'' Eventually, ``they will reach the idea of the indivisibility of political and economic sovereignty.''