Crisis in Ukraine

Pro-Russian Protestors in Ukraine Dream of Soviet Glory Days

Protestors who took over buildings in Eastern Ukraine and declared independence are riding a wave of nostalgia for lost Russian—and Soviet—glory.

Maks Levin/Reuters

DONETSK, Ukraine—If you stand on Shevchenko Boulevard outside Donetsk City Hall, which was stormed by around a thousand pro-Russian activists on Sunday, you start to question the reality of modern geopolitics. Has the Cold War really ended? The scene is a vista of Soviet flags and iconography; Stalin smirks at me from flags banners; the color red dominates my eye line while the blue and yellow of Ukraine is barely in evidence. Just around the corner a huge bronze statue of Lenin looms over the city’s main square.

I feel like I am in the 1980s as I make my way through the crowds, exploring this latest chapter in the Ukraine crisis that has upset the equanimity of Europe and the United States. “Where are you from?” they demand. “Americanski! Americanski!” A few scream at me. “Nyet, Ya Anglichanin” [No, I am British], I reply with a pre-prepared phrase. This doesn’t really improve things. Several of the younger men around me debate whether they should hit me, which is worrisome because there are only about half a dozen police present, and there are rumours that many have joined the protestors.

The crowd is not violent but the atmosphere is ugly. Hundreds of men wearing balaclavas and surgical masks stand around holding bats and sticks, talking amongst themselves, drinking, smoking and glowering. An acrid smell of smoke hangs in the air. In front of the City Hall building hundreds of tires have been piled up to form a barricade that is manned by yet more masked men. Dozens of protestors stand on the building’s balcony just above a banner that stretches the length it with the “People’s Republic of Donbass [the Donetsk area]” written across it.

The protestors have spelled out their demand: they want secession from Ukraine or at the very least a referendum. They want to be Crimea. As soon as the protestors stormed the building on Sunday they declared the region an independent republic; many of them have called for Russia to send a protective military force into the region.

Here in Donetsk, close to the Russian border, Russia’s influence and ability to influence events is considerable. Secession demonstrations have also started in nearby Karkiv and Lugansk. Moscow has urged the Ukrainian government not to intervene militarily for fear of sparking a civil war and it claims it is motivated by concern for Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population. Meanwhile, Kiev accuses Moscow of trying to destabilize the country and claims that many of the protestors are provocateurs in its pay.

This last accusation is at the heart of pro-Russian grievances here. Several protestors are at pains to say they have not been paid by anyone and are indigenous to Donetsk. They have, they say, not been bussed in from anywhere. Their anger is palpable. But many of the protestors seem too organised and too well equipped to be merely the result of a spontaneous eruption of the citizenry.

The people here claim they have been victimized by a hostile media and a gangster neo-Nazi government in Kiev. I see flyers of crudely photocopied images of Ukraine’s President Oleksandr Turchynov with a swastika scrawled across his forehead. They say that the government in Kiev has not been elected and that they will boycott the upcoming presidential elections.

Kiev and the EuroMaidan revolution are reviled here. Every five minutes or so a great roar of “Ro-Si-Ya! Ro-Si-Ya!” goes up and old ladies wave their handbags in the air while their masked counterparts wave their bats and sticks in accompaniment. Hatred for international media is intense but not, it seems, universal. Nearby a Russia Today television crew is filming and a cry of “Russia Today Tells The Truth! Russia Today Tells The Truth!” spreads through the crowd.

As the demonstration winds down I make my way through the wide streets of central Donetsk. Masked men gather on corners; a couple of teenage protestors have drunk themselves into a stupor on a bench near a 24-hour pub and the avenues are quiet once more.

Anger mingles with a sense of victimization on Donetsk’s streets, but the overriding emotion is one of mawkish nostalgia. For many of the people here the Berlin Wall never came down, or at least it shouldn’t have done. It is something that I have run into again and again in my travels across Ukraine. At pro-Russian demonstrations I have attended in different cities the modern day Russian flag, while popular, always takes a clear second place to the flags of the USSR and of the Russian Empire before it. The yearning for a vague idea of “glory” that will come with being part of a greater Russian “whole” runs through everything.

This morning life continues. I get on the trolley into the center of town and the only sign of abnormality is the camouflage-attired activists clutching their bats like the commuters clutch their briefcases. But up by City Hall the people in the crowd are, if anything, more aggressive than last night; they are angry and they aren’t going anywhere soon.