Accessibility links

Breaking News

In Donetsk, Some Ethnic Russians Raise Voice -- For Kyiv

Mikhail Stoyanov is ethnic Russian but supports the Maidan protesters.
DONETSK, Ukraine -- In a scruffy, bohemian cellar bar in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, a group of local Russian speakers clinks drinks in a politically tinged celebration.

But the 20 friends are not raising a glass to Moscow.

They are toasting victory after 2,000 residents joined them on March 4 in a pro-Ukraine demonstration to condemn Russian military incursions on Ukrainian soil.

The demonstration and post-rally toast belie the picture often painted of a Ukraine neatly divided into a pro-Russian east and a European-leaning west.

In this industrial city, where pro-Moscow sentiment runs strong, not all ethnic Russians or Russian native speakers enthusiastically embrace Moscow's foray into Ukraine -- or reject the new authorities in Kyiv who were swept to power on a months-long wave of street protests dubbed Euromaidan.

At 23, Mikhail Stoyanov is as old as independent Ukraine. He is ethnic Russian. He voted for Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's now ousted pro-Moscow president, in 2010. When riot police broke up one of the first Euromaidan protests in Kyiv, he approved.

Four months later, he is firmly on the other side of the barricades and has awoken to the idea of national Ukrainian identity.

"At some point, something just clicked. I understood that I’m not just some amorphous resident of Ukraine with a job, a house and something else. I realized I am a citizen who understands he lives in a particular country," Stoyanov said.

Stoyanov had local football ultras as friends who got him thinking about ideas of Ukraine as a nation with a distinct history. Last December, he traveled for the first time to western, Ukrainian-speaking Lviv on holiday with his girlfriend and was charmed by locals who welcomed him even though he spoke Russian.

Ukraine's East-West Divide: It's Not That Simple

His acquaintances at the Kyiv protests recounted different things to what he was told here. And he was shocked by the shootings of protesters in Kyiv last month.

Russian TV Stations

As anti-Euromaidan disinformation became the norm during the uprising, Stoyanov says he was able to create a picture using multiple Internet sources, instead of relying on television that in eastern Ukraine is beefed up with Kremlin-friendly Russian stations. With Russian military action in eastern Ukraine still a possibility, his views have hardened further -- and he says he will leave for Kyiv if the city falls under Russian sway.

Stoyanov now wants to decorate the music store he runs with a Ukrainian flag, but fears that it might attract attention -- and even worse, invite an attack on the property.

To be sure, not all residents are on the same page as Stoyanov. While the west and capital has reveled in revolution, attitudes in Donetsk are still very much in flux, with pro-Russian stances here emboldened by Kremlin military action in southern Crimea.

At the same time, a second pro-Euromaidan rally this week on March 5 marked an unusually big turnout in Russian-speaking Donetsk -- a city that voted overwhelmingly for Yanukovych in 2010 and where residents glowered as the Euromaidan protests gripped Kyiv. Pro-Euromaidan and pro-Ukrainian rallies have often been attacked.

At the demonstration, several thousand pro-Ukraine supporters -- heartened by the big turnout the previous day -- met on Lenin Square while pro-Russian demonstrators gathered nearby, divided only by a thin line of riot police. Pro-Russia demonstrators chanted “Russia! Russia!” and pelted the pro-Ukrainians with eggs and bags of flour before attacking them as the pro-Ukrainians dispersed. It resulted in dozens of injuries.

Pro-Russian demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest rally in Donetsk on March 6.
Pro-Russian demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest rally in Donetsk on March 6.

A huddle of football ultras from clubs tried to protect the pro-Ukrainians from assailants and themselves had to be bussed away in police vehicles for their safety. “It’s war,” said Svyat, 25, a Russian-speaking football ultra of Dynamo Kyiv who lives in a town near Donetsk and was there on March 5.

He says ultras of all stripes have united to support the revolution. Nonetheless, he does not support any of the current political leaders of Ukraine. He believes they are cut from the old, “corrupt” regime. He believes Ukraine needs a new leader that could unite the country.

Dark Humor Springs From Russia's Crimea Foray

“[Football ultras] have a united national idea. We want Ukraine to be honest. We don’t want radical representatives of west Ukraine. We don’t want to take from the rich and give to the poor," Svyat said.

"We want to live alongside rich people, so that they pay taxes and behave like citizens like me. I am waiting for a third political force that could support the Ukrainian national idea.”