Two cities embody Ukraine’s tug of war between East and West


A woman waves Ukrainian flags next to pro-Russian activists at a rally in Sevastopol on Sunday. (Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia’s grab for Crimea is raising the specter of the Cold War. But the story of the crisis is also one of divided loyalties, competing visions and the struggle for national identity in a country caught in a vise between East and West.

It is, in some respects, a tale of two Ukrainian cities: Kiev and Sevastopol.


Tents are set up around Kiev’s Independence Square on Tuesday. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

An elderly man holds a Russian flag in a street in Sevastopol on Tuesday. (Andrew Lubimov/AP)

An ancient city of 2.8 million people at the heart of what is now Ukraine, Kiev experienced 3 1 / 2 centuries of domination under Moscow’s rule before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Ukraine’s sprawling capital, the site of the Independence Square protests that ousted the pro-
Moscow government here last month, is home to many who see this as a historic moment to shift more fully to the West.

By contrast, Sevastopol was born and raised on Russian military might, an 18th-century city where Ukrainian identities were never more than half-formed. As home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and where the Russian language dominates, it continues to look toward its benefactor in Moscow.

In Kiev, even before the start of the crisis, two streets whose names once glorified Moscow had been rechristened with the names of historical figures heralded in Ukraine as thorns in Russia’s side. On another grand boulevard, Stalin-­era towers now house the Spanish retailer Zara, Germany’s Adidas and Britain’s Marks and Spencer.

The boulevard feeds into Independence Square, the epicenter of the pro-Western movement that brought down Viktor Yanu­kovych’s government. It is a bilingual capital with an ethnic-
Russian minority, but in recent weeks, the pro-Russian voices have been mostly silenced.

“Ukrainians are discovering their national identity,” said Svetlana Smirnova, a 27-year-old actress visiting memorials to protesters who were killed in clashes with police at Independence Square. “I have nothing against the Russian people, but we don’t want a society like theirs, and that is what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants for us. Europe is not a paradise, either. But for us, it means the chance for a real democracy. It means hope.”

About 550 miles southeast, Sevastopol is different.

As the showcase of Crimea, a region now effectively under Russian control, Sevastopol’s cultural orientation aims overwhelmingly to the east. Squares, boulevards and monuments honor Russian generals, poets and writers, as well as ordinary Russian soldiers and sailors who died defending the city in legendary battles past.

At the end of Lenin Street, just a block or two from the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, is a monument to Pavel Nakhimov, the Russian admiral from the 19th-century Crimean War. Today, it has become the site of almost-daily concerts and political rallies, all favoring unification with Russia. Russian flags fly everywhere; not a single blue-and-yellow Ukrainian banner is in sight.

There are still those in Sevastopol and throughout Crimea, including ethnic Russians and minority Tatars, who hold tight to their Ukrainian nationality and have been unnerved by the calling of a referendum this Sunday on whether the region should join Russia. But there is also anger aimed at Kiev and the pro-
Western forces that toppled Yanukovych and are seen by some as overeager to forsake Ukraine’s roots.

“I am Russian,” said Leonid ­Ryazantsev, 34, a furniture maker walking through Nakhimov Square who was born when Ukraine was still a part of the Soviet Union. “That’s what it says on my birth certificate. That’s what it says my parents are. That’s who I am.”

‘We need Europe’

The crisis in Ukraine was accelerated by the fall of Yanukovych, a Putin ally who rejected a sweeping trade deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow. But Ukraine did not exist until the Soviet Union’s collapse, and so, in many ways, the crisis is also about the country’s emerging national identity, torn between the democratic E.U. and authoritarian Russia.

In general, western and central Ukraine are more oriented toward Europe, while the country’s south and east show more affinity for Russia. Crimea has remained a particular outlier, a historically distinct region that shares with Russia a degree of kinship unmatched by any other part of the country.

But in the industrialized east, where pro-Russia activists briefly took over the regional government building in Donetsk but were pushed out by forces loyal to the new government in Kiev, economic and cultural ties to Russia remain strong. Factories there make chemicals and components for pharmaceuticals and airplanes that are produced in Russia, using low standards of quality that effectively bar them from Western European markets. If Putin does not extend his grip into the region by force — as many in Kiev fear he will — he may yet do so more passively, fermenting dissent through an economic blockade.

“There is a heated debate about Ukraine. What is it? Is it a nation at all?” said Felix Schnell, a professor of Eastern European history at Berlin’s Humboldt University. “There is an old Russian idea that the Great Russians in Russia have two little brothers. The white Russians, Belarus, and the little Russians, Ukraine.”


Those who died in clashes in late February are honored in Kiev's Independence Square. (AP Photo/David Azia) (David Azia/AP)

In Kiev’s Independence Square, where many of the protesters who opposed Yanukovych remain ensconced in tents, such notions are heresy. Pictures of the dozens who died in the protests are tacked onto impromptu shrines. Among those still holed up are die-hard Ukrainian nationalists from the right-wing Pravy Sektor, or Right Sector, movement. Donning camouflage, waving their trademark black-and-red flags and, occasionally, wearing black balaclavas to hide their faces, they man checkpoints and virtually control this part of the city.


Members of the Pravy Sektor train in Independence Square in January. (David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters)

They represent the narrow segment of protesters who seem to align with Putin’s stereotype of them as far-right, anti-Russian extremists. But many in Kiev — including a chunk of the anti-
Yanukovych demonstrators — speak Russian as a first language. On Kiev’s news racks, fashion and health magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Vogue are still largely in Russian. Some of the top-watched TV shows are Russian-language soaps.

Here, though, Russian speakers still feel Ukrainian. For pro-European residents such as Valentin Gunchenko, a lawyer, Yanukovych’s shift away from a trade deal with the E.U. was simply a last straw — something that robbed young Ukrainians like himself of their future.

The trade deal is far more than an economic agreement. In exchange for access to E.U. markets, it would force Kiev to embrace new laws to root out corruption and compel broad reforms of the judicial system. “We need Europe,” Gunchenko said. “What we don’t need is Russia.”

Resentment in Sevastopol

By comparison, in Sevastopol, many residents harbor a simmering resentment about attempts to impose “Ukrainization” on the population.

The city was founded by Catherine II of Russia, and thousands of Russian veterans and naval officers retire here every year. But all official documents are written in Ukrainian, which many in the city neither read nor speak.

Nikolai Muller, 33, a construction worker who has lived in Sevastopol all his life, said he had to pay a professional translator to fill out the registration form when he got a new car. And when traffic police gave him a ticket recently, he again had to pay someone to read it to him.

Anyone in their mid-20s or older was alive when the Soviet Union fell. Most people have done their entire education in Russian. Ukrainian-language classes have become obligatory in recent years, but some residents say they have refused to learn it.

“I would not study it, because I have never felt Ukrainian,” said Muller, who has two young sons. “I used to work for Ukrainian troops, but even then all I spoke was Russian.”

The city’s Nakhimov Square is a sliver of Russia. A large building housing technical services for the Black Sea Fleet has a plaque noting that Russian author Leo Tolstoy once stayed there when it was a hotel. Another corner of the square is home to Moscow House, a cultural and commercial center whose window bears a letter written by the Russian Consulate in nearby Simferopol. It advises residents seeking Russian citizenship to “Please be patient and follow the news.”

Pro-Russia sentiment is everywhere, while support for Ukraine is not readily apparent.

Yet, even in Sevastopol, there are those who want to stick with Ukraine.

“In my soul, I am a Ukrainian who spends the majority of his life speaking Russian,” said Dima ­Belotserkovets, the son of a Ukrainian mother and a Russian father who works as an aide to an opposition politician in the regional parliament.

He predicted that the Sunday vote would be rigged. “It will be like in Russia, a 147 percent turnout,” he said. “The results are already written.”

Morello reported from Sevastopol.

Anthony Faiola is The Post's Berlin bureau chief. Faiola joined the Post in 1994, since then reporting for the paper from six continents and serving as bureau chief in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, New York and London.
Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department.
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