KIEV — More than two decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse gave birth to an independent Ukraine, a new generation is coming of age just as a separatist crisis is threatening to split this country in two.
Unlike their elders, however, younger people here have no memory of Soviet life, and most see themselves, despite their divided country, as Ukrainian.
That view will undergo one of its first tests Sunday when citizens go to the polls in a presidential election that could determine Ukraine’s future as a sovereign nation. Pro-Russian separatists in the rebellious east have pledged to stop the vote, and violent clashes have increased in recent days between those who look to the West and those who want to join Russia.
The starkest gap may be less geographical than generational: between Ukraine’s youth, who grew up seeing themselves as citizens of Ukraine, and older people whose formative years were stamped with the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union in a multiethnic federation dominated by the Russian language and Russian culture.
Many in the new generation of Ukrainians — most of whom, like their parents, switch fluidly between the Ukrainian and Russian languages — say the spirit of democracy, accountability and civic unity could counter the corruption that has plagued Ukraine since independence in 1991.
But the election in this country of 44 million comes after weeks of violence, raising questions about whether voters will be able to cast their ballots in some parts of the east. The outcome will influence whether Ukraine pursues a federal form of government that would give regions far more autonomy, as Russia wants, or whether it leans toward the European Union and perhaps aligns with NATO.
For many who are too young to remember the era when a trip to Moscow was a visit to their capital, nationality is as simple as their Ukrainian passport.
“I am not even the same age as my country,” said Daria Mykhailova, 20, a student at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev who speaks to her mother in Russian, to her father in Ukrainian, and has relatives scattered across Russia. “I was born here, and this is where I belong.”
Polls show that most young people in Ukraine — a quarter of the population is 24 or younger — do not blur the boundaries between themselves and their powerful neighbor, even if they disagree about how best to relate to Russia, a crucial economic lifeline for many in Ukraine’s industrial east.
But many Russian leaders see Ukraine as something less than a full-fledged nation. Generations of Soviet Ukraine’s best and brightest rose to the top of the Soviet hierarchy, including leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev.
“Kiev is the mother of the Russian cities. Russian language, Russian religion, Orthodox Christianity was born on the territory of Ukraine as it stands now. We do not consider ourselves foreigners,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Bloomberg TV this month.
“We have been one nation for more than 300 years, even before that,” he said. “The Slavs brought their religion there more than 1,000 years ago. It’s absolutely impossible to miss the psychological, historical, family feeling, if you wish.”
For centuries, Ukraine’s territory was trapped between European and Russian empires, and apart from a brief window after World War I, its independent existence as a country came only after 1991. The north and west are largely Catholic and Ukrainian-speaking. The south and east are more Orthodox and Russian-speaking, although the groups are deeply intermingled and many ethnic Ukrainians are Orthodox.
After Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country Feb. 22, the parliament quickly moved to repeal a law that gave official protections to the Russian language, heightening fears among Russian speakers that their rights could soon be trampled. The change was aborted by Ukraine’s acting leadership, but not before the damage had been done.
“I’m for a united country, but the Donetsk region should be part of a federation,” said Roman Danilevskiy, 20, who is studying engineering at National Technical University in the eastern city of Donetsk and was drinking beer with some classmates at a cafe one recent evening.
“Half of Ukraine is Ukrainian, but half the country speaks Russian, and that’s why we lost Crimea,” Danilevskiy said.
Russian leaders cited threats to ethnic Russians in Ukraine as justifications first for seizing Crimea in March and then for defending the pro-Russian separatists who have taken government buildings in key cities across the east in the weeks since.
Even in the east, where a hastily organized, separatist-backed referendum May 11 led to the separatist leadership declaring the independence of the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, most people want a unified country, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last month. Seventy percent of people in the east, and 58 percent of Russian speakers there, wanted borders to remain unchanged, the survey found.
“The pensioners are deciding what the young people should do,” said Lira Gladkih, 18, a history student at Donetsk National University. “But for us, it’s not the way. We don’t want to live in the U.S.S.R.”
She said she would vote Sunday if it is safe enough to do so.
However, the likelihood of a successful vote in the east Sunday appeared nearly impossible, as election officials stayed away from their offices Saturday after being visited there in recent days by gunmen who threatened violence and abductions. One regional official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly, said officials are trying to ensure that at least one polling station will be open in Donetsk, a city of nearly 1 million.
Among older people in both east and west, attitudes toward being Ukrainian differ from those of their offspring. According to a July 2013 survey by the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, 58 percent of Ukrainian residents between the ages of 18 and 29 identify first and foremost as Ukrainian citizens, versus identifying as citizens of their regions, cities or the former Soviet Union. The same is true for only 46 percent of those 55 and older.
“To be a Ukrainian and to live in a country like Ukraine is a great honor,” said Nikolay Yaremchuk, 69, a former Soviet fighter pilot who lives in Kiev but was stationed across territory that now lies deep inside Russia. “I’ve never been abroad, and I’ve never been interested.
“At that time, we didn’t consider Russia a different country,” Yaremchuk said. “The Soviet Union was our motherland, so Russia was our motherland as well.”
The progress toward stronger national identity is slow-moving, one expert said.
Independence in Ukraine, unlike in the Baltics, “was not the result of a national revolution of massive struggle. It was just historic luck, and we joined the process,” said Alexander Shulga, a researcher at the institute that conducted the survey.
“Only now we have the formation of the core of a political nation which has started to live in its country, to identify themselves as Ukrainian citizens, to see that Ukraine is one country and to say that they feel responsibility for their country,” he said.
But the divides remain deep enough to pose a serious threat to unity.
When Valentin Onyshchenko, 22, a university student who speaks in Russian to his parents but identifies as Ukrainian, posted photos on Facebook of himself protesting the government last fall, some of his Russian friends quickly “started being rough and inappropriate,” he said. “We just stopped talking,” Onyshchenko said, and eventually they unfriended him.
At the Center for Slavic Culture in Donetsk, close to a rebel-held television tower that has been broadcasting Kremlin-backed channels, many older people said they see differences between themselves and their children and grandchildren.
“It’s true, there’s a difference. The young generation wants to live in Ukraine, and the older generation wants to live in Russia,” said Valentina Gardienko, 70, a retiree who voted for self-rule in the referendum.
And at a small pro-separatist demonstration in Donetsk, some said they did not see Ukraine as a country.
“I have nothing against Ukrainians. I have a lot of relatives here,” said Pyotr Belykh, 65. But he said he mistrusts the “western Ukrainians” who he said were not “genuine Ukrainians.” He blames them for stirring up trouble and dividing the country. Ukraine, he said, is an artificial concept.
“There were no Ukrainian borders in 1991,” Belykh said. “There was only one Soviet border.”