Oleksandra, 25, is originally from Donetsk but had to move because of the war. We met in a café in the trendy, student part of town, Podil. She told me how she left her home in June, before the military actions in July. However, there had already been the devastating battle at the airport. Unlike fellow Donetsk native, Sergei [interview 2], Oleksandra was in support of Maidan, and was actively involved in the protests.
DOM- How do you feel about the revolution?
OLEKSANDRA- It was worth it over all. But there were questions I kept asking myself. A lot more work has to be done, as there is still corruption. The revolution was just for one time, but it needs to continue. Most of Ukraine changed afterwards and people started to understand the country a lot more, and began to look after it. They realised if they want good stuff they need to work for it on different levels. It united Ukrainians. Not necessarily the country, but the people, even those who had left to other countries. There are few people who are fully ethnically Ukrainian, but it’s more about the feeling of being a part of Ukraine. It is about being a citizen.
There is a lot of Russian propaganda, specifically saying that if you [identify as] Ukrainian you are a nationalist. When the Ukrainian army circled the towns of Donetsk, the Russians spread the message that the Ukrainian army are Nazis. But this is ridiculous, because they are just protecting their country! Protecting the areas they could protect. The Russians also said that the Ukrainian army are being overly aggressive and saying things like they were purposefully killing babies.
D- Do independent fighters in Donetsk say they are Russian or Ukrainian?
O- I don’t know. I think some say they are Russian. But it was never an issue before 2014. It was never even spoken about. It was a forced idea by Russia. I had lived there my whole life and never had an issue. A lot of people watched Russian TV and the Russian media was using this to scare people.
In 2014 pro-Ukrainian activists had demonstrations in Donetsk. It was made up of students and journalists, none of whom had any weapons. Meanwhile pro-Russian demonstrators had weapons and even looked like criminals. They attacked the pro- Ukrainians. In March, a young a young journalist was killed during a pro- Ukrainian demonstration, by a pro-Russian activist who stabbed him to death. The police did nothing. He was the first death in Donetsk. The demonstrations were peaceful and sincere. We had a chance to voice our opinions, unlike everyone in Crimea. But the other side was very aggressive.
D- What did you do in the demonstrations?
O- We were walking and singing, “Donetsk is Ukraine”. But we were often attacked by pro-Russians and so people started to become afraid to show their Ukrainian side. People were even attacked outside their homes and work.
D- Were some pro-Russians non-violent and had a valid reason for supporting Russia?
O- Maybe a few. But there is this perception that everything is better elsewhere. Like, my pension is bad in Ukraine, but it would be better in Moscow. But this was all word of mouth and not based in fact. Some people I know actually went to Russia as refugees, thinking it would be paradise. But when they arrived, they didn’t have many opportunities and they realised life wasn’t so good out there.
D- Was their a big divide?
O- Yes. But there were many people in between. Many older people started to become pro-Russian. Usually people had concrete views, either pro-Russian or pro-Europe, but now most people are confused because promises haven’t been followed through. The self-proclaimed government don’t have the opportunity to move forward, and so their support is getting smaller. They tried to instigate taxes and business but it didn’t work out. I hear from friends that lots of shops and businesses are closed. It’s half alive, half dead. It’s become militarised too. You have to be home at 10pm and there’s people walking around the street with weapons.
D- Who are these people?
O- Rebel fighters, militia, Russian fighters who claim they are not Russian. The Green Men.[These are soldiers who mysteriously appeared out of nowhere, without any indication of what country they came from. Most suspect they are Russian, although the Kremlin denies this, claiming they are local self-defence groups.] We think they were hired from Chechnya.
D- Is the war dying out?
O- I don’t know. I think locals just want peace. But broadly it depends on Russian strategy. I don’t think its dying out, I think its just in a quiet phase. We don’t know the mind-set of people planning it all. It’s hard to predict. I don’t think it will end so easily. There are stories about people negotiating with captives. Although Ukraine agreed to release their captives, in line with the Minsk Agreement, the Donetsk People's Republic agreed but never followed through, because they don’t have permission from Russia. But Russia says they’re not involved, so I don’t think it’s going to end soon.
D- That’s how you see Ukraine in the next few years?
O- Sort of. It’s kind of like with Georgia and Abkhazia, or Moldova and Transnistria, but its different because of the open war.
D- Do you think Ukraine will unite again?
O- In time, yes. But I’m thinking optimistically, because I still have things at home I want to get! [She laughs]
D- How were you treated when you first came to Kiev?
O- I was treated well. I have family here, so I didn’t feel it was unwelcoming. But there are stories of people being mistreated or not being able to find a flat. I never had this problem. I do keep getting asked how come I know Ukrainian so well! But this is just a stereotype! [People from Donbas and Luhansk stereotypically only speak Russian] I think most young people can speak or understand Ukrainian. Some people in Western Ukraine hide the fact that they can speak Russian. But they understand.
Outside the café, Oleksandra tells me how she has family still in Donetsk. Some people, it seems, just want to try and carry on living as normal a life as possible, even in very abnormal circumstances. She was speaking to me in such a cheery manner, that I found it quite surreal compared to the heavy tones of previous interviews. She even smiled happily as I took her photo!
I meet Valeriy, a former soldier who had been fighting in Donbas for 3 years. He apologises for his bad English and tells me that he only learnt it after trekking through Europe a few months beforehand. He told me how he had walked all around Europe and spoke to people on the way, which taught him enough conversational English to get by. It was a strange thing to do, and I wonder if it was a coping mechanism, and to see the rest of the continent he felt most attached to. Unfortunately Valeriy was also very ill when I was speaking to him and we had to cut the interview short after he endured multiple trips to the toilet to throw up..
DOM- Did you think the war was going to be big?
VALERIY- When the war started we thought it would be finished in 3 months max. But it is still going on.
D- Why did you want to fight?
V- it is my country. It is my problem. I must stop terrorists in Russia from entering Ukraine. In the first year of war it was very… it was original war, very intensive. After 2015, 2016 and now… (He shows me a video on his phone of a battle with tanks shooting towards a building)
It’s a raid, you understand? We attack and win against terrorists [Rebel fighters in Donbas]. But when we start to win, Russian soldiers entered Ukraine and started beating us. They attack, we [went] back.
D- Why do you think Donbas wants to be independent??
V- In Donbas stay many Russian people. The Donbas people cannot think. They cannot make decisions because Russian military are staying in Donbas. It’s a hybrid war. [A term I hear mentioned several other times.]
D- When you talk, are you speaking in Russian or Ukrainian?
V- Ukrainian. Only Ukrainian.
D- But you understand Russian?
V- Of course. It is very cool because in war they can’t understand us but we can understand them.
D- Why do you prefer to speak in Ukrainian?
V- Because I am Ukrainian man! It is my language.
D- How do you feel about the Kiev revolution?
V- Revolution will be in mentality. This revolution in Kiev is the beginning. But after. It must be in the mentality of whole people of Ukraine.
D- So it was good?
V- I hope so.
Valeriy calls up a high positioned friend in the police force, who will be able to drive him back home after he is forced to go to the toilet once more. We end the interview there and I hoped to see him again, unfortunately time didn't allow us to. But I was able to interview another soldier later on.
I met Sergei, an artist from Donetsk, immediately after Artem. The talk was very different, and Sergei was quite anti-Maidan. He was an eccentric character, and our interview was cut short due to the early closure of the subway station. Thus half of it was conducted weaving through the night time streets of Kiev in an attempt to make it to the last train. I didn't manage to capture everything he said, but here are his reasons for not supporting the revolution.
SERGEI, 30- Imagine Ukraine and Russia as Great Britain and Ireland, except Britain was bloodier in keeping Ireland and Scotland under control [than Russia]. Ukraine was traditionally a village society and culture, and the Russian Empire built many cities in Ukraine. I lived in Donetsk until I was 20. Afterwards, I moved to Kiev to study at the Art Academy, and have lived here for 10 years. Nobody expected the current situation to escalate this way. We watched what happened to Yugoslavia, but didn’t expect it to happen here. We were wrong. I knew the history so did not support Ukraine or Russia, but both sides thought I was against them. I knew that Ukraine is a territory that was always under control of some empire. Indeed, Ukraine appeared to be independent until the gall of the Soviet Union. Before then it was just several regions. Lenin created several states that were free to leave if they wanted, but Stalin didn’t support this idea. In many ways, Ukraine was united by Lenin, and Ukraine needs to thank Lenin for this and Kristoff for the Crimea. Before, Crimea was part of the Russian empire but they gave it to Ukraine for simplicity. It made no difference, since it was all USSR; one country. All of Western Ukraine is thanks to Stalin. The Soviet Union created republics like Lithuania, Poland etc. Without the gifts of the Soviet Union, Ukraine would be a lot smaller. At the end of the Soviet Union it was the biggest it had ever been in its existence, since land that once belonged to Poland etc. was given to Ukraine. During the 16th century there were two banks to Ukraine: West, which was under control of Poland, and East, which was under control of Moscow. And now it is the same story. The differences in mentality on the borders are the same as the start of the 20th century when the Russian empire collapsed, and the Ukrainian National Republic existed from 1917 to 1921. The country has collapsed in the same way now as it did at the start of the 20th century. Donbas has always been a working region, supported by the Soviets, and now it is supported by Russia.
I met Artem in a Cuban themed bar in central Kiev. He immediately started discussing EuroMaidan...
A: I enjoyed the revolution and it’s atmosphere, it was clean and friendly. We called it the Revolution of Dignity. Maidan was supposed to represent the ideas of Europe, and European solidarity. It was about cultural progress and getting away from Soviet culture. But it was actually the most perfect representation of Soviet ideas! Everyone brought what they could to Maidan and took what they needed. There were groups who sent out things that were needed. They fought with communism against Russian ideology. Ever skill came together, doctors helped the injured, and handymen built barricades. It was the perfect example of communism in a good way. I felt safe in Maidan. When I was there, I felt like Kiev belonged to me, it was a feeling I never had before. I cherished it. It was a natural way of living, you could lay down anywhere, and there was even security which made sure no drunk people were around. (Before the shooting) People were really showing that the protest was for a good cause, and kept it clean, even picking up trash. But when the violence started, I didn’t dully join in as I value my life. I watched everything on live stream, via Facebook and Youtube. I wanted to be one of those people fighting and join in. But it’s easier to die for a cause than to live for a cause. This is the mantra I live by. But I respect the sacrifice those people made.
My TV crew and I were walking around interviewing people, one day before Maidan, on the anniversary of the Orange Revolution. Everyone said there was no way there would there be another protest, as the result from the last one was minuscule. They made a mistake once and wouldn’t make it again. This programme we made didn’t even air!
Artem was clearly pro-Maidan, but I wanted to see his view on the current conflict in the Eastern region of Donbas. Whilst the pro-European Maidan protests were taking place, a pro-Russian separatist group in Donbas, the Donetsk People's Republic, sprung up as a reaction against the Maidan protestors. They wanted to create an independent state, separate from the rest of Ukraine but closely aligned with Russia instead.
D- Why do Donetsk want to be associated with Russia?
A- We have a meme where this granny wants to die in the Soviet Union. Lots of old people have this romantic view of the USSR. It was powerful and stopped blitzkrieg. Logically, it’s all about borders. West Ukraine has business in Poland, Slovakia etc. East has business with Russia. We are between two major superpowers; the EU and Russia. We are like a bridge. I think because of all this shit they should just go to Russia. But it’s funny because Russia doesn’t want them; they are not economically viable like Crimea. Historically there has always been Central/West and East Ukraine and each president has been favoured by one side. In terms of language, East thought Russia should be the native language, whilst West thinks Ukrainian should be.
So there’s been tension for a while; in the presidency, the language and even football teams. Russia said that Kiev was being over run by Nazis that are coming to kill Russians, and need to protect their government. Meanwhile Russia bribed military to enter and it was easy because everyone was already barricaded in, terrified. Russia made everyone [in East Ukraine] scared and convinced them that they always hated Ukrainian speakers.
Being Ukrainian isn’t about territory or language. It’s about being a diverse and loving family. I blame eastern Ukrainians for being absurd and too scared of Nazis, which are actually really small in number. They think Kiev makes the rules and mistreats them. That is bullshit! We saw some people who fled from the eastern regions to Kiev, in expensive cars and even brought flats! It’s obvious that there’s a lot of local corruption, which gets blamed on the Central Ukraine government. Every third wealthy person in Kiev is probably from the Donbas region.
My main idea was that there was healthy tension between the areas. But because of language and corruption, this increased. We never wanted to cut ties with Russia, we see them as a brother, but consider ourselves European. Basically I think our government and the Russian government overreacted. Then the current president came along. He’s a businessman who claimed to know stuff, but people ended up not liking him. I think we can work towards something, but you need leverage to do good stuff. Maybe he wants to do good things, or maybe he just likes playing with Ukrainians. In the end there’s never a good candidate. It’s either better or worse. Like in America.
Russia is paranoid of America and used these protests to destabilise Ukraine and to make sure that the US doesn’t build a military base nearby. They aimed to destabilise Ukraine for the next 20 years, enforcing fear into the Eastern part and then using that moment to annex Crimea. Crimea was always the main target as it’s good territory. They used the troubles in Donbas to make Crimean’s scared, so that it was easier to annex it.