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!