A Country Divided

12.15.13

Poor Ukrainians Rally For Russia

At a rival protest in Kiev this weekend, impoverished workers from eastern Ukraine turned out to show their support for the government and stronger ties with Moscow even as the pro-EU crowd grew ever more jubilant.

They were poor. Their clothes looked cheap and worn, their faces tired; their feelings were hurt. A group of workers and miners from Kirovsk, an industrial town in eastern Ukraine, were among thousands of protesters walking on Sunday morning towards the anti-Euro rally in Kiev’s Mariinsky park, to demonstrate their support for Ukraine’s president, Victor Yanukovych, and for friendship with Russia. Two parts of Ukraine spoke out in Kiev’s squares this weekend; both had the right to be heard.

To most of the pro-government protesters, residents of the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, Kiev’s divorce with Moscow would mean unemployment, more poverty and hunger. For the past month, they had felt heartbroken watching “the other Ukraine” on the news, as hundreds of thousands of pro-EU protesters declared that “Ukraine would not be a province of the Russian empire any longer.” The Maidan camp with all its E.U. flags, where U.S. Senator John McCain addressed the crowd this weekend, and where Ukrainian nationalist songs ring out, is “an ideologically hostile place, aiming to cause a schism of Ukraine,” said Aleksander Lukyanenko, an unemployed man and member of the Party of Regions, which led the anti-EU factions.

But just as Lukyanenko and his friends were about to step into the crowded park, a young hipster handed them a flier. It was a copy of a letter from the Maidan, distributed by the opposition to participants in the pro-government rally. “The Maidan does not stand for NATO, the USA or Europe,” the flier said. “We stand here so that a pension would be big enough to live a dignified life. We stand here, so that hospitals would have enough medicine. We stand here to have justice in our state, where bureaucrats would not steal but work for people.” The flier encouraged the Maidan’s rivals to join the other protest, if they wanted, clarifying that it stood for bigger values than just free visas to Europe. “Maidan tse lubov”—the Maidan is love, opposition activists said.

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This recent episode of 'Darkroom' dives into the roiling protests in Ukraine.

The provocations and hostility expected this weekend between tens of thousands of protesters from the “Eastern camp” and “Western camp” did not happen. One thing the ruling Party of Regions achieved by bringing over demonstrators to Kiev was to show to the international observers covering Kiev’s protests how hopelessly poor their supporters were. Lines of hungry people waited to have a plate of buckwheat mixed with pieces of canned meat and a cup of hot tea at the pro-presidential rally. There was no sign of Cossacks in traditional clothes cooking giant balls of tasty soups, no stands with volunteers serving vegetables or slices of traditional smoked pork fat—all that festive atmosphere stayed at the Maidan. Neither were there scientists or academics reading free lectures on economy or political science, nor even any volunteer medical centers.

One thing the ruling Party of Regions achieved by bringing over demonstrators to Kiev was to show to the international observers how hopelessly poor their supporters were.

Red Cross volunteers provided free medicine to both pro-Western and pro-Eastern camps in Kiev this weekend. “I advised some especially sick-looking visitors from eastern Ukraine to quietly walk away from here to the Maidan and have some oranges, have a plate of healthy borsch,” said Sergei Gromada, a Red Cross volunteer working in the “Eastern camp.”

On Saturday night, the contrast between the two camps grew especially significant. At 8:30 p.m. more than 100,000 people were packed into the Maidan, rocking and rolling at a live concert by one on Ukraine’s most popular bands, Okean Elza. Young people rapped in Ukranian, and Okean Elza sang its famous “Get Up!” song it had performed during the Orange Revolution. One block away, in the European Square, the site of pro-president rally earlier that day, only a few policemen and their dogs milled about.

The historical events taking place on the Maidan in the past month played a serious role in the lives of thousands of Ukrainians, including the musicians of Okean Elza. At a dinner before their concert on Saturday night, the band members shared with The Daily Beast the reasons why they decided to perform on the revolutionary square. Earlier that day, the band welcomed protesters of the pro-presidential rally to their concert on the Maidan.

Their friend and former administrator, Yuriy Bolotov, was arrested last month at a peaceful protest outside the presidential administration and kept in jail for 10 days. “Our civil position is more important than anything; we once again perform together, after years of contradictions inside the band,” said Yuri Khustochk, a band member. The bands members stood in a circle hugging each other. “I am overwhelmed with feelings tonight,” the band’s leader, Vyacheslav Vakarchuk, said minutes before coming on stage to sing for love between all Ukrainians, East and West.