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In The Shadow Of Lenin, Two Ukraines Face Off In Kharkiv

Russian-speakers argue with Kharkiv's supporters of the anti-Yanukovych revolution outside the regional administration on February 25.
KHARKIV, Ukraine -- Wielding batons and riot shields, masked Euromaidan supporters have occupied the regional administration building in the eastern city of Kharkiv for several days. They vow to remain until "corrupt" officials resign.

Across the city's main square, a few hundred pro-Russia demonstrators shout insults like "scum" and deride them as "fascists." They have also set up an encampment under a towering statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, which they claim to be guarding against vandalism from Euromaidan supporters. Russian flags flutter in the wind as pop anthems from Vladimir Vysotsky and the Perestroika-era rock band Kino boom out of speakers.

To get a sense of how Ukraine's Russian-speaking eastern provinces are reacting to the dizzying overthrow of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych's regime, Kharkiv is a good place to start. In this industrial city, the first in Ukraine to recognize the Bolshevik authorities in 1917, Stalinist architecture is ubiquitous and the Russian language is omnipresent.

Once the capital of Soviet Ukraine, Kharkiv is decidedly pro-Moscow and many here have watched uneasily as a bloody street uprising in the capital ushered in a new, pro-Western leadership.

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Many, like Valentina Morder, 68, a pensioner in a wooly hat, worry that the parliament, now in the hands of the opposition, will now restrict the rights of Russian speakers.

"Everyone should be able to speak in the language that their mother sang to them as a child. My mother sang in Russian. She worked here before the war and after the war. I've worked [here] for over 40 years," Morder says. "Why should someone tell me that I have to live a certain way."

The parliament has already scrapped a law that gave minority languages in select regions official status, a move that touched a nerve in predominantly Russian-speaking cities like Kharkiv.

Against The Old, Corrupt Order

But even in Kharkiv, the Euromaidan and the new government in Kyiv have their supporters.

Artyom, a 33-year-old manager at an eco-friendly fuel company who declined to give his last name, says he is fed up with widespread corruption. He has demonstrated against Yanukovych, supports the new authorities, and says it is only a matter of time before others here do too.

"I'm feeling positive. These people sooner or later will understand it all. It's not even that important that every single person understand," Artyom explains. "It's important that most of the people here in Kharkiv unite and come to understand what happened -- especially in Kharkiv."

Likewise, Roman, a 28-year-old scientific researcher, says he never supported Yanukovych and agreed with the pro-Western protesters in Kyiv who ousted him. But he also expressed concern about what he called the revolution's "violent" methods.

Noisy Standoff

As night fell on February 25, tension rose as numbers swelled on both sides of the barricades. Police in riot gear stood on alert as anti-Maidan activists lined up in crowds across the street from the regional administration.

The crowd chanted "Russia, Russia!" and "Berkut!" -- the latter a supportive reference to the riot police disgraced in many parts of the country for their association with the brutal crackdown in the capital that claimed scores of lives.

They made rude gestures and shone green laser pens at the pro-Maidan activists guarding the administration building -- and who roared back "Ukraine, Ukraine!"

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Standoffs like these have been nightly occurrences since the Self-Defense Maidan security brigade occupied the regional administration on February 22 and blockaded the office of Kharkiv Oblast Governor Mykhaylo Dobkin with a black sofa.

They have pledged that the building will not be looted or vandalized on their vigil, but refuse to leave until Dobkin and Kharkiv Mayor Hennadiy Kernes, both allies of Yanukovych, leave their posts.

While Dobkin can be dismissed by authorities in Kyiv under the 2004 constitution, Kernes is an elected mayor -- and is in power until 2015.

Police are stationed outside the regional administration, but appear to be maintaining their neutrality.

A Way Forward?

Meanwhile, the ultranationalist Right Sector group, which rose to prominence during three months of anti-Yanukovych protests, has established a presence on the ground floor of the administration building.

Vitaliy, a 30-year-old man wearing a balaclava, is perched on a windowsill and looks out over gathering crowds of angry residents. He says his mobile-phone-repair business is being crushed by an institutionalized culture of bribery, and vows to fight on until the local authorities are removed.

"When they've all left, then we will vacate the building. They gave it to us officially," Vitaliy says. "We didn't seize this building. We didn't burst in here fighting. We were allowed in here from the first day. And from the first day there have been attacks on us."
Pro-Maidan security guards sit on a black sofa blocking Kharkiv Governor Mykhaylo Dobkin's office in the regional administration building.
Pro-Maidan security guards sit on a black sofa blocking Kharkiv Governor Mykhaylo Dobkin's office in the regional administration building.

Others complain that virtually all basic bureaucratic procedures require a bribe in Kharkiv. Getting a drivers license, for instance, requires a $200 payoff.

For Russian-speakers like Morder, however, there is apprehension at the ascendancy of parties associated with the west. She confesses she only voted for Yanukovych in the 2010 election as a viable option against his rivals.

"I'm not to blame for what Yanukovych did. I'm not to blame for what someone else did. When we elected Yanukovych, we didn't vote for him -- we were voting against them, the western part of the country. We just didn't want this violence," she says.

"And now it turns out that we were right. Neither me, nor you, nor this woman traveled over there with batons."