The Ukrainians who are nostalgic for their Soviet past
- 8 June 2014
- From the section Magazine
The crisis in Ukraine has prompted people to reflect on the historic ties between Kiev and Moscow and left some with a feeling of nostalgia for the Soviet era.
At the headquarters of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, the minister for information tells me about his holiday. "I've just come back from East Germany - it was such fun!" says Alexander Khryakov excitedly.
Among the minister's holiday adventures was a musical car journey down memory lane. "I got chatting with a German taxi driver, about the old days, and before I knew it the driver and I were singing the national anthem of communist East Germany."
Then, Khryakov had taken part in an "I Love East Germany Festival" - not everyone's idea of holiday fun perhaps, but then he has fond memories of the German Democratic Republic. He did his military service there - he was a musician in the Red Army Band.
Like Khryakov's East German holiday, the Donetsk People's Republic is in many ways a nostalgia trip. It calls its parliament the Supreme Soviet - like parliament back in the USSR. The walls of its headquarters are festooned with dramatic posters from World War Two, imploring the Soviet people to rise and up and kill the fascist aggressor.
And when I speak to one of the leaders of the People's Republic, Denis Pushilin, he invokes the past to explain why Russian volunteers are coming to help pro-Russia groups here fight against Kiev.
"We and Russians, we're one people. We were born in the same country, the Soviet Union, we grew up with the same ideals, we have the same heroes. It was our fathers and grandfathers who defeated the Nazis," he says.
But a glorious past does not guarantee a successful future. Kiev has labelled the Donetsk People's Republic, and its sister breakaway state the Luhansk People's Republic, "terrorist organisations". It suspects that both are part of a Kremlin project to destabilise and divide Ukraine and it has vowed to crush them.
In recent days Ukrainian forces have stepped up their military operation against the separatists in the east of the country - there has been fierce fighting between government troops and pro-Russia militants.
The city of Donetsk has remained relatively calm but many people have left town fearing that heavy fighting will break out here soon.
"Where have all the children gone? There are usually so many kids out enjoying the sunshine," says pensioner Nadezhda Petrovna.
I'm sitting with Nadezhda and her husband Yuri Petrovich on a park bench near the headquarters of the People's Republic. Like many of the people I've spoken to in Donetsk, they are critical of central government but they don't believe breaking away from Ukraine will make their lives any better.
Yuri is dismissive of last month's local referendum on independence from Kiev.
"It's like children who shout out: 'We want to be more independent. We want to do everything ourselves.' But those children still want their parents to feed them and buy them clothes - it's exactly the same situation. The People's Republic still expects Kiev to pay all our salaries and our pensions - it hasn't got its own budget."
Yuri used to be a coal miner until he had an accident down the mine and lost a leg - now he receives a disability allowance.
"How is the People's Republic going to find the money to pay that?" he wonders. I ask whether he would like Donetsk region to become part of Russia. He doubts that would make things any better.
"Russia already has lots of its own coal mines, and it's closed many others down. Why would Russia want to take responsibility for us and our coal mines too?"
But the leaders of the Donetsk People's Republic are counting on help from Moscow. "We've asked Russia to despatch a peacekeeping force. If there were Russian peacekeepers here and a no-fly zone over our territory, this would help the situation," Pushilin tells me.
I ask Pushilin whether the inauguration of a new president in Kiev will change the situation - could negotiations with President Poroshenko resolve the conflict? "Dialogue is possible but only about two things - a prisoner exchange and the withdrawal of all Ukrainian military units from our territory," he replies.
Kiev is unlikely to agree. For now, the conflict rages on. This week Ukraine's acting prosecutor general announced that since the violence began in eastern Ukraine, more than 180 people have been killed.
The prospect of air strikes and heavy artillery in their city terrifies Nadezhda Petrovna and Yuri Petrovich but they are trying to remain positive.
"My neighbour told me that the Almighty had turned against us but that's not true. He's never abandoned us. He loves Ukraine. And I believe there will be peace in our land. We don't deserve to die," says Nadezhda.
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