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Donetsk, Ukraine Locals Divided Between Soviet Past, Eurocentric Future

  • Patrick Wells

In Ukraine's eastern city of Donetsk, locals remain divided about Crimea's recent vote to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. Residents are debating whether to hold a referendum on the future of their own region.

In central Donetsk, a core of pro-Russian activists can be found under the giant statue of Lenin, collecting signatures and money for their campaign.

Many are pensioners filled with nostalgia for Ukraine’s Soviet past and worried about what a future under the country’s new Europe-facing prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, might mean. “Everything is unknown, we don't know what will happen to us," he said. "He doesn't tell us anything.”

And it’s not hard to see where this nostalgia for Soviet rule might come from. The boulevards of this divided city are filled with beautiful Soviet libraries, theaters and opera houses. There are also monuments to the dead of World War II, an event that still profoundly shapes the world view of many people here.

But among the younger generation, those legacies have faded. Lenin’s statue now faces a McDonald's fast-food restaurant packed with young students, many of whom question Russia’s stated motive of protecting ethnic Russians in Ukraine.

"We want Ukraine to be able to choose its course on its own. And that is the main point now," Yaroslav Kosak, a politics student said. "I think many people regardless of their views on the European Union, on NATO, have this feeling: that we do not need this ‘protection’ because in fact we are protected against nobody."

At the fortified local government headquarters, the pro-Russian group ‘Eastern Front’ arrived to try to lobby administrators toward a referendum. Some couldn’t mask their grievances against the West.

“I remember how Voice of America and Radio Liberty destroyed my motherland, the Soviet Union," complained Nicolai Solntsev, an Eastern Front member. "The successors of these stations are still here in Ukraine preaching about freedom of speech and human rights. I don't want to speak to you."

With renewed pro-Russian protests planned for this weekend, the new government in Kyiv must do all it can to convince Russian Ukrainians here that it will look out for their interests. Otherwise, it risks losing this region entirely.