Babushkas in ‘liberated’ Ukrainian city remain staunchly pro-Russian


A pro-Russian supporter talks to a Ukrainian police officer in Mariupol. (Maxim Shipenkov/ European Pressphoto Agency )

The stout matron with her hair in a bun was known as “Baba Natasha,” and as Ukrainian soldiers closed in to arrest her, she allegedly lobbed a grenade.

Authorities described Nataliya Valentynivna Hruzdenko, 46, as the head of a terrorist cell of pro-Russian separatists operating in the working-class city of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine.

By some accounts, that was more an aspiration than a fact for the laid-off factory worker.

But it is undisputed that Hruz­denko, who spent nearly half her life as a citizen of the Soviet Union before it collapsed in 1991, played a role in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Acquaintances say her primary function was ensuring that food supplies reached rebel fighters.

Few in Mariupol, where separatists occupied several government buildings until the army ousted them about two weeks ago, are surprised that a middle-aged woman was in cahoots with a gang of armed revolutionaries.

Older Ukrainian women with adult memories of being proud Soviet citizens are among the most intransigent opponents of the European-oriented government in Kiev. Ukrainians call them the babushkas, the Russian word for grandmothers, regardless of whether they have grandchildren. Many dedushkas, or grandfathers, are staunchly pro-Russian, too, but the babushkas are considered particularly formidable.

Mariupol’s babushkas came out in force when Ukrainian troops massed to retake the city in May. The matrons stood on the road to block tanks and armored personnel carriers. Residents say the vehicles just went around them and onto the roadside.

But the incident reinforced perceptions that the babushkas are resolute in their belief that they belong in the Russian Federation, not in Ukraine.

Several dozen meet daily in a park outside what’s left of city hall, which went up in flames during a battle in May. They rail against Kiev and pore over copies of a free tabloid titled “I Want to Be Back in the U.S.S.R.”

Some Ukrainians see in the babushkas and dedushkas a symbol of the government’s failure to show how life in an independent nation can be better than it was under a communist regime that has since fallen. The benefits of gravitating to the West can be a hard sell to some who live in the underdeveloped, Russian-speaking eastern half of the country, or who retired after working for the Soviet state and now get a Ukrainian pension that is a fraction of what their counterparts in Russia receive.

“Most of them aren’t working. They’re either unemployed or retired and living on small pensions,” said Yevgeniy, a local blogger who is nervous enough about Mariupol’s churning loyalties that he requested that his last name not be published. “The authorities never provided enough opportunities for people who have the will and the energy to live life. So somebody comes along and manipulates their unhappiness.”

That assessment resonates in Mariupol, a gritty, industrialized city of 500,000 people on the Sea of Azov. Two steel plants are the biggest employers in town. One plant is named Ilyich, in honor of Lenin. Many educated young people have left in search of a better life.

In the unrest that has roiled the region, Mariupol has gone through a succession of military sieges and separatist occupations. Pro-Russian groups took control of city hall in mid-March. After a mob attacked a Ukrainian army base in the city a month later, the government moved to retake Mariupol in May, attacking the occupied police headquarters. In the ensuing firefight, the station went up in flames. At least 20 people died. Then the military withdrew, and the separatists reasserted themselves.

For many residents, the month that followed was a nightmarish ordeal marked by a toxic blend of militant ideology and common criminality. Gunmen demanded that businesses pay a “tax” to fund separatist activities. Rebels set up barricades around commandeered redoubts on tree-lined streets. ATMs were looted, so banks stopped dispensing money. Those who openly opposed the rebels were threatened.

Many residents huddled in their homes, venturing out only to buy necessities.

Not Galina Golubova, 45, a civil activist who told people attending pro-Russian rallies that they were being manipulated. For that, she said, armed militants chased her through town and visited her at home to accuse her of being a traitor to her Russian heritage. Fed up, she said, she approached a rebel and told him to pass along the message that she had a hand grenade and would blow up herself and anyone who threatened her again.

“There was mass schizophrenia here,” she said over coffee in an outdoor restaurant that was cleared shortly after she left when a grenade was discovered on the premises.

The Ukrainian military claimed to have “liberated” Mariupol on June 14, when troops moved in and killed five separatists. Those who survived fled or, many suspect, have gone underground. The army has largely withdrawn from the city, though it maintains checkpoints and returns at the first hint of trouble.

Markets have reopened, and children congregate in playgrounds. But the pitched battles of the past few months have scarred the city. Buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes, windows are shattered from gunfire. City hall, the police station and a bank are burned shells. No police officers patrol the city.

Few feel safe.

“We didn’t feel secure before, and we still don’t,” said Victoria, 30, who was too wary to give her last name, as she sat with her 3-year-old son on a public beach.

The babushkas and dedushkas who gathered outside city hall on a recent day were so afraid of being arrested for expressing their opinions that they would not provide their last names, either. As they traded rumors, imagining the worst from the military that serves the nation in which they live, their anger flared.

“This is not Ukraine,” said Igor, who is 50. “I consider myself a citizen of the Donetsk People’s Republic.”

The army is still conducting a mop-up operation, like the one that led to the arrest of Hruz­denko on June 17.

Vladislav Dorgalu, a 24-year-old engineer who said he works with the Donetsk People’s Republic rebels in a non-military capacity, said Hruzdenko was an ordinary woman laid off from her steel factory job.

“She was a family woman,” he said, recalling that she once argued against setting up barricades because that would disrupt traffic. “I think she changed after the government shelled the police station on May 9. So I believe she could have resorted to armed resistance as she was being captured. Her generation had passion for their ideals.”

Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department.

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