Why eastern Ukraine will not follow Crimea to Moscow

The gravitational pull of Russia is being challenged amid generational change and a renewed sense that Ukraine is home.

Segey Kozlov / AP
Pro-Ukrainian activists demonstrated a huge yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag during a rally in support of Ukraine's territorial integrity in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on Mar. 13, three days ahead of the referendum vote in Crimea.

Sergei Nakonechniy was sitting in a cafe in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk when a middle-aged woman rose from a nearby table and stormed toward him. She pointed to his camouflage jacket, which bore the insignia of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army – a controversial World War II anti-Soviet movement.

“Your fascist badges and uniforms are provoking the whole conflict in this country,” she shouted at the pro-Ukraine activist and journalism student.  “All of our problems are because of you and your fascist friends from western Ukraine. You should be ashamed!”

With Crimea effectively part of Russia, if perhaps not legally, Mr. Nakonechniy and other residents of Ukraine’s pro-Russian eastern regions are now the new focus in the battle for the future of this country of about 46 million. But Donetsk and the industrialized region around it, known as the Donbass, are less likely to follow Crimea’s example due to an array of constraining factors – not least among them a generational divide between youths like Nakonechniy and their parents who still harbor an affinity for Russia.

A former Soviet industry hub

Unlike Crimea, the Donbass has a stable economic base from its industrial output and coal resources – an inheritance from its Soviet past.

Older generations in the Donbass nostalgically remember the Soviet Union, when the coal miners, steel workers, and laborers in the region’s heavy industries were heralded as heroes building a utopian, communist future. They were rewarded with vacations on the Black Sea resorts and received special food packages with high-quality delicacies not available in state-owned grocery stores.

For many in Donetsk, the antigovernment protests in Kiev and across western Ukraine seemed to be a dismissal of the respect they deserved in building the Soviet state. So when Russian President Vladimir Putin said in his March 18 speech, which announced his decision to annex Crimea, that USSR dissolution was one of the century’s biggest tragedies, people in Donetsk felt he was acknowledging them.

Nakonechniy’s father shares those sentiments. A construction worker, he lives and works in Moscow, and stopped speaking to his son three months ago – after the shock of learning that he had participated in the antigovernment protests on Kiev’s Maidan square. 

In Donetsk, Euromaidan activists have tried to stage rallies to support Ukrainian unity. At their height, the numbers have reached into the hundreds – a scenario that would have been impossible in pre-referendum Crimea, where opponents to joining Russia had all but been forced underground.

People of all ages attended the rallies in Donetsk, according to Katya Zhemchuzhnykova, a young local pro-EU activist. But there is a large portion of the pro-Europe supporters who are young, like Nakonechniy, and “identify themselves as Ukrainian and as being born in independent Ukraine,” Ms. Zhemchuzhnykova said.

“They might speak Russian, but they see themselves as Ukrainians,” she said.

Moscow’s gravitational pull

Many people here feel similarly bound to Moscow, if not by citizenship then by a deep historic bond. Pro-Russia demonstrators greatly outnumbered a pro-Ukraine group on March 13, when a violent clash in the city center left one person dead and scores injured. Today, people with Russian flags guard the statue of Lenin in the city’s central square.

“For us, watching the destruction of Lenin statues around Ukraine was heartbreaking,” said Lyudmila Kanchanovskaya, a local teacher. “We have a lot to be grateful for what he did for us. He gave hundreds of millions of Russians an education…. We may not be the Soviet Union anymore, but we shouldn’t forget his role in our history and just remove him.”

But at the same time, support for a full-out split with Kiev is much more measured here, even among the pro-Russian activists.

“As I see it, there are now two options for Ukraine: become a federation or completely disappear as a country,” says Sergei Buntovskiy, an activist from Russian Bloc, a pro-Moscow political party. “But dividing the country? No one wants this, the older generations or the younger ones. If a referendum were held today, I think only 30 percent of the population would agree to it.”

Russian troops would also not be as widely supported here as they were in Crimea, Mr. Buntovskiy said. “I think more than half of the population would be very scared by troops arriving in Donbass.”

“Crimea has a stronger history of the nationalist question than we do here,” said Ms. Zhemchuzhnykova, the pro-EU activist. “We are more mixed here because so many different Soviet people came here to work. That may save us from Russia trying to use ethnicity as a tool in this game.”

The language flashpoint

If Kiev grants rights and guarantees to eastern Ukraine, many residents say, a future under the Ukrainian flag is possible.

Those who are in favor of closer ties with Russia reject what they say are nationalist tones from the new government in Kiev. They want equal rights for Russian speakers, spelled out in laws that would allow commercials, signs, and most importantly educational institutions, to use Russian.

“Right now, students have to write dissertations in Ukrainian,” said Buntovskiy, who is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the Donetsk National University. “If I write a research paper in Ukrainian, my potential audience is about 30 million. If I write it in Russian, that number grows about 5 times.”

Language issues are a driving force in the debate for Ukraine’s future, and the new Kiev government has played a part in fueling the tension. Shortly after being sworn into office, the parliament passed a law that essentially barred equal status for the Russian language in regions like Donetsk. The interim Ukrainian president, Oleksandr Turchynov, vetoed the law in an attempt to deescalate the situation.

The interim government in Kiev this week signaled that it was examining legislation to allow for more regional autonomy, which could allow individual districts to decide for themselves about language and other local issues. For many younger eastern Ukrainians like Buntovskiy, these sort of changes are the only way to remain part of Ukraine. But Kiev must “cease trying to make Ukraine a nationalist dictatorship,” he said. 

Many in the older generations here, who remember what communist life was like, feel ready to join Russia because they think they will have a better, more stable life, Buntovskiy said. For them, it’s not a matter of feeling more Russian or more Ukrainian. Often, they simply say that they feel more Soviet, and that is largely what has driven the divide between the generations. 

“We are Soviet people here, and we shouldn’t be shamed for that,” Kanchanovskaya said. “In the west, they have their heroes, who fought against our grandfathers [in World War II]. “But they aren’t heroes to us. We have our Soviet heroes, and we are proud of them.”

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