DONETSK, Ukraine — A sign on the balcony of the occupied administration building reads, “Mother Russia. Help your children of the Donbass.”
Russian flags decorate what is now the headquarters of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” which suggests that the self-declared heads of that republic don’t have their hearts in it, or at least not in its genuine independence.
But the true colors of the revolution here are orange and black, in stripes, forming the St. George ribbon. This is the badge of the Great Patriotic War, known in the West as World War II. The pro-Russian separatists of Donetsk, and their supporters and allies, portray themselves as the true inheritors of the Soviet sacrifice and victory in the war — as opposed to those who have taken power in Kiev and now head Ukraine’s government.
The war is seemingly uppermost in everyone’s mind. Standing on the plaza in front of the occupied building, behind a barricade of old tires, Sergei Latokho, 62, says his father fought in the war. And now he’s supposed to take orders from the fascists in Kiev. How are they fascists? “It’s just like 1932,” he says. He’s off by a year, but he’s referring to Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.
There’s a very popular word here: “comrade.” Just a year ago, even Russian President Vladimir Putin was using “comrade” in a wry or sarcastic sense, but that’s not the case here. “Comrades!” shout the speakers, and it’s just like old times. It’s a good word, of course. In Russian, it’s “tovarishch,” which was the favored greeting in the communist days even though it’s related to the words for trade or trader.
Yelena Russkaya, a 54-year-old doctor, was all in favor of the protests on the Maidan, the central square in Kiev. They were against corruption, she says, and that was admirable. But then the government fell and was overtaken by this “junta” now in power.
“I love Ukraine,” she says. “I moved here in 1982. I’m just sorry that it has come to this.”
There’s a lesson not only from World War II but even from World War I, she says — “Don’t touch the Russians.” In other words, don’t mess with them.
Three pro-Russian protesters, in a pedestrian underpass, drunk to the point of staggering, try to sing the Russian national anthem but can’t find their way through all the words.
A girl of about 9, in a pink skirt and pink coat, rollerblades back and forth along the walkway outside the occupied building, her face a portrait of determination.
Purposeful agitators come out of the building with heavy sacks full of documents, which they load into the back of a truck. Presumably someone will go through them to look for compromising information about the regional officials whose offices have been taken over. One man comes out carrying a desktop computer.
A “self-defense” squad gathers around the open trunk of a car. Some members wear face masks; some carry clubs. They are fishing for something inside. They strive to radiate ferocity.
“Goodness is the most important thing. Goodness,” says Galina Artamonova, 70, a retired builder. Her cousin lives in America, by the ocean — New York, that’s where it is. Her best friend’s daughter lives in Colorado, and when she came back to visit, Artamonova made her some blini — pancakes — which she took back with her on the plane all the way to America so she could enjoy some good Ukrainian cooking.
“Goodness,” Artamonova says, and it hardly seems like a disruptive sentiment, or maybe it’s the most revolutionary idea here.