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Ukraine - A Nation Split by Language and History

Ukraine is a country divided by language and history. Western Ukraine, which speaks Ukrainian, was under benevolent Austro-Hungarian rule until World War I. Russified Eastern Ukraine was under Russian imperial domination for centuries. VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky recently visited coal mining regions in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east and Ukrainian-speaking west, and reports that miners are united on economic issues, but differ on the emphasis they place on divisive cultural issues.

Mykhailo Kazybrid is the head of the independent coal miners union at Mine Shaft Number Eight in the Western Ukrainian town of Sosnivka. Having worked in mines for more than 30 years, he is concerned some could be closed, devastating the local economy and people's lives.

Kozybrid and his wife of 44 years, Hanna Fedorivna, agree that eastern and western Ukrainian miners are united by difficult working conditions and equally low pay.

"If we talk about the economy, it is the same in Lviv Oblast and the Lviv Coal Basin along with the economy in the Luhansk and Donetsk Basins. They are all one and the same," he says.

One-thousand kilometers east, in the industrial city of Makiivka near Donetsk, 30-year mine veteran Nikolai Vorobyov now works mostly above ground in an electric shop.

Vorobyov is an ethnic Russian, but has only distant relatives in Russia. He is married to a Ukrainian, Liubov. Both believe that solutions to Ukraine's economic problems are better addressed by Kyiv, the capital of independent Ukraine, not Moscow - the seat of the former Soviet empire.

He says that is the way it should be and he says some people suggest greater authority should be given to regional authorities. He says local rule is desirable, would be much easier and would help to spot problems - each family, as they say, settles their own problems.

Graffiti in Makiivka says Ukraine's eastern Donbas mining region is Russian, though public opinion surveys indicate only a small local minority holds such views. In Donetsk, some streets still carry the names of bloody Soviet-era functionaries and a monument to former secret police chief Felix Dzerzhinsky still stands.

In western Ukraine, streets are being renamed in honor of Ukrainians who fought against foreign occupation, and Lviv has erected a monument to nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, who is portrayed in the east as a Nazi collaborator, though he spent most of the war in a German concentration camp and his forces fought both Nazis and Soviets.

Hanna Kazybrid moved to Chervonohrad with her husband 44 years ago from the far eastern Ukrainian city of Artemivsk. She says her compatriots back home do not understand the sentiments western Ukrainians have for their native language and struggle for independence.

She says she has argued with her sister about the issue and told her, 'You are Ukrainian!' She said, 'I cannot speak Ukrainian.' But how is that, Kazybrid asks, she is of Ukrainian stock.

Liubov Vorobyova explains that eastern Ukrainians are simply accustomed to Russian, and that language should not divide people from one another.

She says it all depends on the country having a good steward. She says instead of inventing linguistic barriers, it is better that he deal with the economy; to develop industry more so that people can work on production.

Ukrainians nationwide complain equally about unemployment, lousy roads, water cutoffs, cold apartments and overall dilapidation, saying such things weigh upon their human dignity.

Some parts of eastern Ukraine were under Russian domination for more than 350 years and many local residents say a sound Ukrainian economy will resolve all cultural issues.

Ukrainians in the west, however, spent only about 50 years under Moscow's influence. For them, the Ukrainian language and history are precious spiritual values damaged by the very forces that undermined not only the economy, but the liberty of their nation.