Sloviansk—Every now and then I can hear distant explosions and bursts of gunfire. But most of the time, here in the center of Sloviansk, which since early April has become eastern Ukraine’s separatist stronghold, everything is quiet. Since the small town is chopped up by barricades and many businesses and factories have closed down, there is not much going on, so that when the wind blows you can hear it shimmer the leaves of the silver birches that line the streets. If you were looking for war here, it would be hard to find.
Ice creams are still getting through the checkpoints around town and there is a steady stream of people buying them. As I chose a chocolate bear, Irina, aged fifty, who sells them, told me that she liked being here among people, because the worst thing in this situation was being at home, alone and anxious.
When we come to look back on the Ukrainian conflict, it will be hard, if it moves from its current low-level state to a full-blown war, to say that such-and-such a date marked its beginning. Was it the day that some forty people died, many after being trapped in a building that then caught fire in Odessa? Was it the day that seven people or was it more than twenty or perhaps more than one hundred died in Mariupol, another Black Sea town? For people here the numbers they believe depend on whether they follow the Russian or Ukrainian press and, since both are lying and distorting slivers of truth, it is not surprising that people are being dragged down into a vortex of war.
But while it will be hard to agree on a date, it is already easy to say what is happening in people’s heads. Six months ago everyone here just went about their normal business. They were worried about the things that everyone worries about, and here especially: low salaries, scraping by, collecting money for all the bribes one has to pay, and so on. And then something snapped. The rotting ship of the Ukrainian state sprung a leak and everything began to go down. In people’s heads a new reality has gradually begun to take shape and, in this way, everyone is being prepared for war.
This hit me on May 9. Across the countries of the former Soviet Union this is Victory Day, the day when the dead of World War II are remembered and elderly men and women, dressed in their uniforms and bedecked with medals, are honored. In Sloviansk the ceremonies began in front of the Lenin statue in the town square. The old men and one woman stood in a line while those antigovernment leaders who seized power here on April 12 stepped forward to make speeches to about a thousand people. Given that the Ukrainian army has surrounded the town I was surprised by the emptiness of what was being said.
Pavel Gubarev, a rebel leader who had just been released in a prisoner exchange with the Ukrainians, exclaimed: “Fascism! It is coming for us again!” Then he talked of “New Russia,” the old phrase that Vladimir Putin has revived to describe these lands, which were added to the Russian Empire by Catherine the Great. “Eternal glory!” he said, his voice rising and falling in dramatic cadences, referring to the fallen of World War II. Then as though at a religious service, or as if they were taking part in a mystical experience, the crowd began to respond in unison: “Glory! Glory! Glory!” Then Gubarev said: “Glory to the heroes and victors of the Russian Spring!” by which he meant the anti-Ukrainian revolt in the east. The crowd responded: “Glory! Glory! Glory!”
At this point came a distraction. Five armored cars captured by the pro-Russian forces here drove down one side of the square and then appeared on the other side, but they could not do a victory lap around it, because the roads are blocked by concrete and other barricades. With rebel militiamen sitting on top they drove up as far as Irina with her ice cream, and then clumsily, in a cloud of exhaust fumes, had to back up to get out again. The salesgirls from the Eva cosmetics supermarket and others ran out to cheer on their men, kiss them, and give them cigarettes.
So, victory in 1945 and 2014 ran seamlessly into one another. At the same time Russian television, which many people had on in the background at home or in shops, was showing live footage of the huge military parade in Moscow, and later in the day, of Putin celebrating in newly annexed Crimea.
Now we moved off. Everyone began to walk in procession to the war memorial. Victims of this new conflict, said one man in a speech, “would be lifted to the heavens on the wings of angels.” Then, briefly, flags were dipped for a moment’s silence. They were the banner of the new self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Russian flags, Communist flags, and variations of old Russian imperial and tsarist flags.
Then I spotted a new one that I had never seen before. It was white with a big blue snowflake in the middle. Thinking this might be the flag of a new and significant political movement, I shoved through the crowd to get to the man who was holding it. He told me that it was the flag of “Fridgers of the World” and that from Siberia to the Baltics “they are supporting us.” It took me some time to understand who the “Fridgers” are. They are people in the refrigeration business across the former Soviet Union who have an online forum to discuss issues relating to refrigerators and their maintenance.
Walking away from children and old ladies weeping as they laid flowers at the eternal flame, I ran into sprightly Anatoliy, who is eighty-six years old, and whose chest was decorated with medals, including one featuring Stalin. He had been too young to take part in World War II, he told me, but had seen action in 1956 in, as he described it, “the war with Hungary.” He described the anti-Communist revolt there as having been organized “by the remains of the pro-fascists,” and thus it had been absolutely right to intervene.
When I asked him about the current conflict he again talked of fascism. “We want a free Ukraine,” he said, “but the Banderas want to take control over the whole of Ukraine. We just want justice.” He was using the term taken from the name of Stepan Bandera, the wartime leader who at times collaborated with the Nazis and later fought the Red Army as it retook western Ukraine, fighting fellow Ukrainians in the Red Army, among others.
Josip Vissarionovich, he said, referring to Stalin, would never have let the country get in such a mess. He had a writing table, a couple of chairs, and a pipe. But “these presidents now surround themselves with gold. They have golden toilets and golden chairs.” He was talking about Ukraine’s leaders in general but I was surprised by his reaction when I asked him about Putin, whom many in the Russian-speaking east see as a savior. In terms of gold, he said, “our presidents pale into insignificance next to him.”
On the sunny morning of May 9 I had seen and heard much of what you need to understand the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The simmering anger at being ripped off by the rich and politicians had melded into a narrative of fighting fascism and playing a part in a grand and glorious story of liberation and victory that was setting much of the east alight.
Anatoliy’s face was smudged with lipstick. As a veteran he had been given flowers by children and kisses by women. I said I hoped I could be like him at his age and he said, “Your wife would kick your ass!” before briskly setting off home.
On the edge of Sloviansk the road was blocked by Ukrainian armored cars. We stopped and got out slowly; the soldiers shouted from a distance of 150 meters that we should put our hands on the top of the car. From the trees there was more shouting. Then they yelled, “Just get out! Go! Go!” We turned and sped away, making a detour through the villages to reach the main road to Kharkiv (Kharkov in Russian), which is Ukraine’s second city.
Here we met Sasha, a garrulous liaison officer with Ukraine’s Border Guard service. Its members look after the frontier while the army is behind and around them. We went to Hoptivka, twenty miles north of Kharkiv, to the frontier of Russia. Here Sasha showed us tank traps and a sandbag position. Then, a couple of miles away, we met soldiers who were keeping an eye on the Russian side of the border across a field. They had an armored car, which they had dug into position, and a mobile armored antiaircraft vehicle, which was under some trees. There is a big Russian base at Belgorod on the other side of the border and the Ukrainian soldiers told me that if Putin decides to invade, their position is only fifteen minutes flying time away. So, by the time Russian fighter jets are airborne, and they find out about it, it will probably be too late for them to do much. Still, the officers at this modest position appeared relaxed. They said they did not believe that Russia was going to invade and that the real threat, according to one of them, was “more from people acting inside the country.”
Back in the historic city of Kharkiv this is certainly what pro-Ukrainians were thinking. I went to see Natalka Zubar, a civil society activist. She said that local polling showed that support for separatist forces was about 12 percent. About half of the people in town were ambivalent, but unlike in the neighboring Donetsk and Lugansk regions far more people here were actually prepared to fight a Russian invasion. As Ukrainian defenses seemed puny, I wondered if people were training and preparing to fight a partisan war after any invasion. “Yes, of course,” she said. “It’s not a secret.” Then she added, referring to the collapse of the police in parts of the east, that unless they started “to act against separatists, people will begin to do it themselves.”
The next day, weaving past the potholes on a suburban road, I found a sports hall where some eighty men were being trained in the arts of street fighting on behalf of Ukraine against separatism. The trainers were former military officers and men with combat experience from the Maidan, Kiev’s central square, where Ukraine’s revolution played out over the winter. Groups of men were charging other groups who were defending themselves with shields. Arms and legs flailed and then they went back to their starting positions. There were no guns here. After it was over, some of the men hung around in the parking lot. They had had a tip-off that a group of their separatist enemies was about to try to seize a building in town, and if they did (which they did not in the end), this group was going to defend it.
As we chatted, Serzh, a former officer in the Soviet and Ukrainian armies, told me that many of his colleagues had combat experience from Afghanistan and other cold war–era conflicts such as Angola. I asked him if they were thinking of training people for a partisan war on behalf of Ukraine. “We aren’t thinking about it,” he said, “we have been doing it for a month already.” He told me that in preparation they had been burying supplies and equipment. “Ukrainians are very skilled partisans,” he said. “It’s in our blood.”
The city of Kharkiv was tense. Gennady Kernes, its controversial mayor, has in recent times kept Kharkiv under tight political control. He backed Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former president, until he was ousted in February. Then Kernes made his peace with the new government and came out firmly against separatism. On April 28 someone tried to assassinate him. He was not killed but he was removed, at least for now, from the political scene. No one knew what would happen next. On May 1 the Communists, many of whom tend toward the pro-separatist camp in the east, organized their traditional rally and this was thought to be the perfect cover for seizing the regional administration headquarters. Hundreds began shouting outside the building, which was protected by lines of riot police. Strolling about nearby I bumped into a couple of Serzh’s friends. “Just keeping an eye on things,” one said cheerily.
Inside the building Igor Baluta, the regional governor, was feeling ever more confident as the day wore on. As the crowd began to drift away he told me that the headquarters had not been stormed because not enough men who were prepared to launch an assault had turned up. So, he thought, we had passed a critical moment in the history of the city. When I asked him about the riot police, he said they had been surveyed. Those who were prepared to follow all orders were out front. Those whose loyalty was questionable were behind them.
It is not hard to see why he needs to know who is prepared to defend him and who is not. Leaving Kharkiv on the road south back to Sloviansk there is a major checkpoint on the outskirts of the city. As we stopped I noticed a huge menorah on the side of the road and realized that we were at Drobytsky Yar, where the Nazis murdered thousands of Jews in 1941. There is now a memorial complex here. I asked the policeman who checked my documents about this and he said, “Yes, this is where the Jews were shot during the war.” Then using the term the separatist rebels use to describe the government in Kiev, which took power after the fall of Yanukovych, and which he was serving, he said, “Soon the Kiev junta will be brought here.” He meant that the “fascists” of Kiev should be shot and exterminated the same way the Jews had been here.
Back in Sloviansk I bought food for Viktoria, who is twenty-eight years old. She lives in a dilapidated apartment block 150 yards away from a rebel barricade. I bought pasta and rice for her, her husband, and their two-and-half-year-old daughter, not because I thought they were in imminent danger of a real, all-out siege, but because she had told me that they had only $15 left. She was getting maternity leave support from the state, but because the Ukrainian government is bankrupt, that small monthly payment is about to end, she said. The furniture factory where her husband works has been closed since the beginning of the conflict and so he is not being paid.
She told me that if she wanted to be a schoolteacher after her maternity leave, she would have to bribe the right person to get a job. She asked me if in Britain we had to bribe people to pass exams and to get into university. We talked about Rinat Akmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, who according to Forbes is worth over $12 billion. His fortune has been made here in the east, and if he wanted to he could probably build a new house for every single person in the entire region. In fact he famously owns one of London’s most expensive pieces of property.
Talking to Viktoria I understood how Ukraine’s endemic corruption and the fact that so many of its politicians were also oligarchs have simply sapped the life from the state after almost a quarter-century of independence. The problems Viktoria described to me are the same for almost everyone from one end of Ukraine to the other. And now people are looking for saviors.
The problem is that they are finding radically different ones. When Yanukovych balked at signing a political and economic deal with the European Union in November, he set off the Maidan revolution. Many of those who came to protest were desperate about the state of the country and thought that if Ukraine switched from the European option to the Eurasian Union proposed by Putin—which would have been dominated by Russia—there would never again be any hope for them. They triumphed. Putin smarted—and then like a coiled snake he struck back.
Crimea, where he began, was simple to take. It is a compact territory, was long an undisputed part of Russia, and he had thousands of troops there with the Russian Black Sea fleet. With Kiev in post-revolutionary chaos, the Russian media began pumping up the rhetoric about a fascist threat and within weeks it was all over. Crimea was annexed on March 18. The eastern part of the mainland has proved far more complicated, though. Opinion polls have shown that the majority do not want to become part of Russia, but most people, like Viktoria, are just fed up and want change and believe that Russia, where many and perhaps most have family, can help them. On May 11, people in Sloviansk and other parts of the east under rebel control voted in a referendum organized by the rebels. Viktoria told me she had voted for the rebel option but said that, in the end, “It doesn’t matter if I live in Russia or Ukraine. All I want is a good salary. Now I can’t even afford a new pair of shoes. I just don’t want to be anxious about money for bread.”
Over at the nearby rebel barricade I went to chat with the men who had made themselves a comfortable shelter with a table and chairs. A few of them have guns, but many do not. On the table was a vase of flowers. As we sat there a couple came by, walking their dachshund, called Rich. They had come to drop off some picnic plates and napkins. These were added to the other supplies that the people who live in this neighborhood had bought for the barricade. Suddenly a car drove up and three local men got out with musical instruments. They were touring the barricades. They began to sing. A line from one song from World War II went: “Under Balkan stars I will dream of my Smolensk!” A line from another, from the Afghan war, went: “Under the stars of Jalalabad, we cursed our damned war!”
Then something happened. All the men jumped up, got into their cars, and roared off. Ten minutes later they were back. Two suspicious men had been spotted on a nearby roof. Everyone here believes that the town has been infiltrated by snipers (some of them women), and other evildoers from the Right Sector, a small Ukrainian extreme nationalist group. Indeed, they believe that the town is surrounded by Right Sector men pretending to be soldiers. In this case the two men were from the municipality and were trying to repair something.
The day of the referendum was pretty orderly in Sloviansk, but much less so elsewhere. What was clear was that only people who support the rebels were going to vote. One woman, who does not, said there was little point in voting in a referendum in which the result would be declared as 86 percent in favor and which would soon be followed by a second, on the question of joining Russia. The next day the rebels in Donetsk and Lugansk duly declared that 89.7 percent had voted in favor of their proposition, which is credible. However they also claimed that 74.9 percent of eligible voters had voted, which seemed most unlikely to me. There were no proper lists and large parts of Donetsk and Lugansk are not under their control.
One of the biggest problems of the referendum was that it was not clear what people were actually voting for. The ballot asked: “Do you support the act of state self-rule of the Donetsk (or Lugansk) People’s Republic?” Yes, agreed one election official, the meaning was “slippery.” Many whom I asked said they were voting for a federal Ukraine. But many thought they were voting for independence or joining Russia. The next day rebel leaders called for their regions to be “absorbed” into Russia.
The authorities in Kiev rejected the referendum as a farce, as did Western governments. The Russian foreign ministry said that it respected the “will of the people.” Whatever anyone says, however, in Moscow, Brussels, or Washington, in Sloviansk the scene is set. Angry people in town, fed up with years of poverty and abuse by their rulers, now believe they are surrounded by neo-Nazi storm troopers. But the Ukrainian soldiers on the outskirts of town, on the hill with the television tower, with whom they are trading gunfire and mortar shells, are also angry and on edge. They believe that Sloviansk is full of Russian special forces with terrifying Chechen auxiliaries (I saw neither) rather than locals sitting at a table with a few old guns and a vase of flowers. It will be hard to pull the sides apart now and to remake Ukraine in a way in which Viktoria and everyone else I met can prosper.
Just as the rebels say that the government and the people who support it are fascists, the government says that all the rebels are terrorists—and in fact neither is true. Between a few in government with an extreme right-wing past and a few in rebel territory who have used extreme violence to seize power, the vast majority of people in the east are simply downtrodden and trapped. Nothing good will come of this conflict for Viktoria, or the Ukrainian soldiers, or Sloviansk’s few hundred armed men. In Kiev, politicians flail, not really knowing what to do, all the while gearing up for Ukraine’s presidential election on May 25. For now that seems as if it might be taking place in another country. It may take months or years of conflict, however, for those in the east to find out if it is another country.
As the election of May 25 approached, not only did they not feel represented by politicians but, when it comes to what the Donetsk Republic is about, they were deeply confused. Some thought they had voted for autonomy within Ukraine, hence meaning that they could still vote for the country’s president—if they were not prevented from going to the polls, which in places like Sloviansk they certainly would be.
—May 22, 2014