Luhansk: The Ukrainian city where Lenin still stands
- 17 December 2013
- From the section Europe
In the centre of Luhansk, I see no barricades, no pro-Europe protest camps. What I do see makes me think I'm back in the USSR.
As I walk around the town, I count four Lenin statues, I take a stroll down Soviet Street and Young Communist Lane. All the street signs and the shop fronts are in Russian. But then Russia is close by; the EU feels very distant.
At the Luhansk Locomotive Factory, they're looking east, not west. That's hardly surprising when you consider who buys all their trains.
"My factory is practically 100% dependent on the Russian market because all of our production goes to Russian Railways. It is the only customer we have," General Director Pavel Cesnek says.
The locomotive factory is one of many enterprises in eastern Ukraine - the country's industrial heartland - which rely on Russia for customers. And the company doesn't want those economic ties with Moscow damaged by any deal with the EU.
"Political aspects are one thing," Pavel says, "but most important for the workers is how to live, how to stay alive, how to get your salary on time and feed your family. That would definitely be harder without Russia."
As I leave the factory, one of the workers, Vladimir, comes up to me and accuses Europe of double standards. He tells me that the same group that destroyed the Lenin statue in Kiev earlier this month has also made anti-Semitic and anti-Russian remarks.
"Europe looks on and calls this democracy," Vladimir says. "But since when has fascism become democracy? Where are Europe's moral values? What's happened to Europe? Has she gone blind?"
At the little bread shop down the road, they've just delivered a batch of freshly baked loaves and pensioner Valentina Semyonova is queuing up for hers. I ask Valentina what she thinks of the anti-government protests in the capital. She fears closer ties with the EU would raise prices and make life harder.
"Those protesters on Independence Square are fools," Valentina says. "If I was president I would chase them off the square and unite Ukraine with Russia - and with Putin. The EU would just milk us for all we've got. We'd get nothing in return."
Not everyone in Luhansk is anti-Europe. I witness an argument on the street where the council is recruiting volunteers to go to Kiev to support President Viktor Yanukovych. One passer-by accuses the people signing up of doing it for money. She backs the protesters. But she's a minority in this town.
I go to meet the mayor of Luhansk, Sergei Kravchenko. He's a member of President Yanukovych's party. Mayor Kravchenko assures me there are plenty of things about Europe he likes, such as the standard of living and the rule of law. But he sees no benefit for his own town in provoking Russia through an Association Agreement with Brussels.
"Russia's been playing hard ball recently," the Mayor tells me, "and making it difficult for us to export our goods there. If Russia were to block our exports completely, then 22,000 jobs will be lost in this town alone. We must consider that."
And yet it's not Russian pressure that people in Luhansk resent most. It's the pro-European protesters in Kiev and western Ukraine.
"I think the three regions of Eastern Ukraine - Luhansk, Donetsk and Kharkiv - should break away from all those nationalists in the west of the country," shop assistant Alexei tells me.
"Put up a border! Turn ourselves into a separate country. If I could afford it, I'd go to Kiev and help the riot police crush that revolution. Those protesters should be put to work down the coal mines."
I tell Alexei that what he's suggesting - dividing Ukraine into two - sounds like a new kind of Berlin wall.
He shrugs his shoulders.
"Well, we'll be fine here in the East," he assures me. "We've got all the industry, we've got all the coal. Everyone else is living at our expense."