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Reporter's Notebook: Dnipropetrovsk Defies East Ukraine Stereotypes

Resident of Dnipropetrovsk take part in a pro-Ukraine rally earlier this month.
Resident of Dnipropetrovsk take part in a pro-Ukraine rally earlier this month.

Zoom out on the map of Ukraine. Dnipropetrovsk is very much an eastern city.

The three-hour drive east to the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk takes less than half that of the trip northwest to Kyiv.

It's also on the upper edge of Novorossia, the area once conquered by the Russian Empire and settled by its nobility -- providing a strong enough link for Russian President Vladimir Putin to make a historical claim to the land.

In 2010, over 60 percent of the larger region's population voted for former President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled Ukraine after antigovernment protests in February.

But the first sign that the country's fourth-largest metropolis does not fit the "East-West" dichotomy -- often used to explain Ukraine's split between those seeking to embrace Europe and those pining for closer ties with Russia -- is right in the city's center.

Lenin Square is now "Heroes of Maidan Square:"

On February 22, the day a new government took over in Kyiv, protesters in Dnipropetrovsk tore down the city's Lenin monument. They were following the example of more than 100 other cities -- almost all located in the west -- that viewed Lenin's presence as a symbol of the Kremlin's continued influence two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union.

WATCH: The Lenin Monument Is Toppled In Dnipropetrovsk

A short ride on the tram -- an ancient specimen that screeches along Chkalova Street – takes visitors to the regional administration building. Outside, Andriy Denisenko, a leader of the ultranationalist Right Sector movement, holds an informal press conference.

The group has become a favorite bogeyman of Moscow, which derides Kyiv as being driven by "fascists."

Right Sector is normally associated with support in western, Ukrainian-speaking cities, such as Lviv. So Dmytro Yarosh, a marginal presidential candidate and the group's founder, surprised some when he announced in April that he would be moving its headquarters to Dnipropetrovsk. At the time, he said it was to better "monitor" events in the east, but perhaps he was returning to his roots. After all, the far-right leader, who often uses a translator rather than speak Russian himself, was born in the region.

Denisenko, a close associate of Yarosh, announces that members of his organization caught three apparent separatists painting the white, blue, and red Russian flag on a city landmark.

"We recorded this infraction, called the police and gave these people to the security services," he tells RFE/RL, before nonchalantly adding the punchline: "It's true, there were three of them, so first we painted them -– one white, one blue ,and the third in red -- in the colors of the favorite flag of the occupiers." (Right Sector later released a video of the event)

Regional Power Brokers

Armed men in fatigues are ever-present inside the regional administration building. Their leader, Yuriy Bereza, the 44-year-old chief of Dnipropetrovsk's self-defense forces, is philosophical about the growing role of pro-unity militias only loosely tied to Kyiv.

"Who will help Ukraine solve its problems?" he asks RFE/RL, as he begins an anecdote that he says explains the country's formerly self-defeating mindset. "There are two paths. One is realistic and the other is a fantasy. The realistic path is that aliens come and solve all Ukraine's problems. The second is a flat out fantasy -- we do this all by ourselves."

Doing it "by ourselves" was Kyiv's logic when it appointed influential businessmen as governors of eastern regions. They were supposed to provide a backstop against any latent separatist sentiment. But some regional power-brokers have been accused of hedging their bets and allowing separatist movements to spread.

Not Ihor Kolomoyskyy. The billionaire owner of PrivatBank and governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region has offered bounties of up to $10,000 for the capture of Russian "saboteurs" and has organized defense units like the one led by Bereza that man armed checkpoints on major roads throughout the region. Although many here credit him with providing security, there has recently been concern in Ukraine about the country's increasing reliance on inexperienced militias.

INTERACTIVE MAP: Separatist Hotspots In Eastern Ukraine

But, with voting in country set for May 25, the armed groups may provide the only source of security for residents of Donetsk and Luhansk who hope to cast a ballot. Separatists in these regions, who say the vote is illegitimate, have attacked polling stations and threatened campaign workers. It is unclear how many polling stations will actually be able to open on election day in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Bereza says his forces are prepared to defend at least five districts in Donetsk that are holding votes. When asked how, he answers simply: "with weapons."

Residents of Dnipropetrovsk are not expected to face difficulties voting, but in testament to the counterintuitive vein running through the city, many tell RFE/RL they are excited about the election but not about the candidates.

Oleh Hardievskiy, a 48 year-old anesthesiologist who has put his career on hold to help patrol a checkpoint about 30 minutes outside the city center, says he will be voting for the frontrunner, chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko, despite his preference for another candidate. Reasoning that the "chaos" in Ukraine will end after the elections, he mostly wants to avoid a second-round runoff.

WATCH: Oleh Hardievskiy On The Upcoming Election

Poroshenko's support stood at 33 percent in a recent poll of the Dnipropetrovsk region (nationally, he stands at about 44 percent).

Back downtown, across the street from the former Lenin memorial, a get-out-the vote concert features kindergarteners singing Ukrainian folk and American pop music.

Above the din, Lidia Maksimova, a 35-year-old bank worker, says it is morally "impermissible" not to vote, although she'll be choosing the "none of the above" option.

What about former Prime Minister and Dnipropetrovsk native Yulia Tymoshenko?

"Votes won't be coming to her, because she lost our trust," snaps Maksimova.

A recent poll put her at about 6 percent -- two points less than her nationwide average, but still the closest to Poroshenko.

Inna, a 40-year-old teacher who says she'll probably vote for Poroshenko although she's also not particularly impressed with the candidate selection, says people here think Tymoshenko, who carefully honed her image as a crown-braided Ukrainian warrior, shunned the city because of its position in the east.

"For her home city Tymoshenko did nothing through all her years in power," she says. "Unfortunately that's how it is and it was deliberate."

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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.