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Love On The Barricades: Ukraine Crisis Makes Couples … And Breaks Them Apart

Wedding bells in the "Donetsk People's Republic"
Wedding bells in the "Donetsk People's Republic"

There's a new power couple in the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic."

Meet Arsen Pavlov, aka "Motorola." Short in stature, and with a gap-toothed smile and a sling around his injured right arm, he is called a "legendary rebel" by Russian media. In an interview with the Russian nationalist magazine "Zavtra," the 31-year-old claims to have taken a train to Ukraine from his home in the central Russian republic of Komi when fighting broke out between armed pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian troops.

Meet Yelena Kolenkina. Tall, with long black hair, and a handgun hanging at her side, she's a Slovyansk local who has become perhaps the most prominent female face of the pro-Russian separatist movement. Aside from appearing regularly on LifeNews -- an ardently pro-Russian online video news site believed to have ties to the Russian security services -- she has recorded a series of amateur videos accusing the Ukrainian government of atrocities.

On July 11, the two were married in what separatist leaders say was the first officially recorded wedding in their unrecognized "republic."

More than 400 people have reportedly died since armed pro-Russian militants believed to be backed by Moscow began seizing cities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine in April. On the day of the wedding, separatists in Luhansk ambushed a Ukrainian convoy, killing at least 19 soldiers.

But amid the crisis, which has seen brutal violence both in Kyiv and in eastern Ukraine, Motorola and Kolenkina are hardly the first love story.

Romance on the frontlines has been on display since December, when protesters took to the streets of Kyiv to protest then-President Viktor Yanukovych's last-minute decision to reject closer ties with the European Union.

On January 25, amid intense fighting between pro-European protesters and Ukrainian riot police, Marina and Andriy tied the knot and then headed straight to Independence Square -- the center of the protests -- to celebrate.

In early July, Oleksandr Ponomaryov was badly wounded in fighting against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Upon seeing him in the hospital, his fiance, Yelena, resolved to marry the Ukrainian soldier at his bedside. Barely able to lift his head up, but with a wide grin on his face, Oleksandr and Yelena said their vows alongside another couple in a similar predicament.

Idyllic love stories don't always have happy endings, of course. And, the sharp divide created between opposing sides in the Ukraine crisis has also driven a wedge between some.

Lidia Pankiv, a 24-year-old journalist and pro-European activist, began the most unlikely of relationships, when she agreed to date a smitten riot police officer who had noticed her among demonstrators on the frontlines. But brought onto Ukrainian TV to speak about the love affair, she said she had "grown to hate him" for the role he had played in carrying out the "criminal orders" of the Yanukovych administration that had left two of her friends and some 100 others dead.

And Graham Phillips, an ardently anti-Kyiv freelancer for RT, the Russian state-run English-language news outlet, has written extensively about how the Ukraine crisis has caused his Ukrainian ex-girlfriend -- who he says he still adores -- to cut all ties with him.

But more often than not, it is likely to be the more banal -- wives in different zip codes, for instance -- that ends relationships.

Motorola told LifeNews he decided to marry Kolenkina after she turned up with her mother to care for him following an injury in a firefight. "Do you need a son-in-law?" he asked the mother.

"Absolutely!" she answered.

It is not clear if he has yet informed his other mother-in-law, wife and child -- the ones that, according to an interview in "Zavtra" from early June, he apparently has in Komi.

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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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