Donetsk should not be separated from Ukraine - we are one country! Artyom Makarov
Donetsk citizens surrounding and protecting the statue of Lenin after pro-Russian TV broadcasted the news that Right Sector was coming to destroy it.

If you follow the news like I do, you will notice that the situation in the Ukraine is nowhere near to being solved. As the war rages on, the top leaders of both Ukraine and Russia, as well as of Europe and the United States, are meeting on the beaches of Normandy to commemorate the immense sacrifice of D-Day. I can only hope that being once again confronted with this tragic event, a solution can be found and the end for the bloodshed will be close.

[Author’s note: Over the course of writing this article, a Ukrainian transport aircraft has been shot down by anti-aircraft missiles fired by the pro-Russian forces as it was coming to land near Luhansk. This cost the lieves of 49 Ukrainian servicemen. Bloodshed continues…]

Last month, I had the chance to talk to Artyom Makarov, a 23-year old Ukrainian student from Donetsk. Artyom finished his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in the now war-torn city, and he is currently attending another Master’s program in Nürtingen, Germany. Although it has been some time since he had been home, Artyom still keeps in touch with his family and friends back in Donetsk. Nevertheless, we brushed over many topics concerning the crisis in his country: the ethnical divide, fascism and propaganda, the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, the fighting in his home region and of course, the future of Ukraine.

On roots

“Originally, I was born in Russia, in a town called Armavir, Krasnodar region. This was still at the time of the USSR. After its breakup, my family moved to Donetsk.” Even though more than twenty years have passed since the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed and disintegrated, Artyom believes the connection to the former Soviet ideology is essential when looking at the events today.

His mother comes from West Ukraine, while all of his father’s family is Russian. When asked, Artyom has a clear self-image: “I am Ukrainian, of course. However, there is still a part of Russia in me.”

On the divide

“While Ukrainian is the official language, in Donetsk I would say 97% of people speak only Russian. This is due to history. And while there is not a big difference between the languages (Russian dialect in Donetsk and the official Ukrainian is similar), it is very different to Moscow Russian.” However, the difference is not only linguistic, but also cultural. “People in East Ukraine have different view on life than those in the West.”

“People in Donetsk, and Russians in general, are thinking that people from West Ukraine are either cruel to Russians or that they hate Russians due to the events connected with the Ukrainian independence in 19. and 20. century. That is simply not true. People in West Ukraine are totally different; they are even nicer to you than people from the East regions. They do not really care what language you speak: Russian or Ukrainian.” Still, old feuds and misconceptions, overshadowed by an unstable government, fuel the ethnic divide.

On Fascism and TV

I asked about Bandera. “During the WWII, Bandera was considered a hero in the West Ukraine. They even wanted to create a shrine to him in Kiev. But according to the USSR history, Bandera was definitely not a hero. Russians treat Bandera as the gangster who killed Red Army generals and officers. He was supposed to have a deal with the German Wehrmacht.”. Nevertheless, Artyom has a clear idea of who Bandera was and continues to be: “I am sure about his involvement with crime. After, he became a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism and I will not deny that some nationalist parties exist. But what country does not have radical parties, right?”

“Many people on the streets in East Ukraine are afraid of “Banderovci”

He goes on to say that “the TV set is a good instrument for manipulation of ordinary Ukrainian citizens.” Russians are broadcasting pro-Russian news and Ukrainians are broadcasting pro-Ukrainian news. Without the presence of the free and objective press, the citizens have no way of knowing which side is telling the truth. Fear and hatred go hand in hand.

On the generation gap

What about Artyom’s friends? Did he lose some to the divide? “Actually, all people my age or younger, we are thinking of one Ukraine. Donetsk should not be separated from Ukraine, it is impossible. We are one country!”

“However, all our parents are for the separation. They are pro-Russian.”  It is a left-over phenomenon from the USSR, he says: “They cannot think about Russia as an aggressor country or a country that is taking the wrong political steps.”  Then he adds that their parents are watching pro-Russian news.

On situation in Donetsk

“Now, everybody does not know what to do, there are no jobs – only for men with guns. Every day, gunmen in Donetsk region are robbing shops, companies and even ordinary people. There is a military group called the ‘Donetsk National Republic’ or ‘DNR’, which is taking everything for free, if it is within their interest. They are taking cars away from car dealers, food supplies, cigarettes... Often, they capture government institutions to steal more guns. This is done mainly to support the illegal military groups in the region. It is happening every day and now even ordinary people, who have never held a gun in their hands, are armed.”  The police force has largely disbanded and joined sides. Amidst the power vacuum, crime has risen. A Kalashnikov is all one needs to dictate the rules. “Due to the average monthly wages in Ukraine, it is very hard even for highly educated professionals to earn enough money. Not only for spending, but also saving; the salaries are really so low. However, if you or your parents can save at least a bit, you will definitely move away, because there is no perspective, no changes in the nearest future. The only opportunity that exists now is for people with guns, especially in Donetsk.”

On Kiev

On the other hand, Artyom thinks that “Kiev and West Ukraine have the potential to develop. There are a lot more opportunities in Kiev. It is the cultural capital of Ukraine. I have recently talked to people from Kiev and they have stated that there are no problems anymore. It is generally quiet and the situation is stabilizing. If you are talking in Russian, no one will beat you, but I cannot say the same about East Ukraine. Speaking Ukrainian in Donetsk can put you in danger!”

On Crimea

“That was fast. No one expected such a rush.” However, Artyom mentions a story about a large and unusual man caught on the Russian-Ukrainian border trying to enter Ukraine. Allegedly, his mobile phone contained messages indicating he was coming to Ukraine for war. “This was still during the Maidan. No one paid attention, no one could believe it. Two weeks later the Russian Army just came to Crimea, without a shot. That is how unexpected it was.”

“It an undeniable fact that there are a lot of Russian people in Crimea, who were dreaming about moving to Russia. They wanted to make Crimea Russian.”  He says it certainly was not 96,77% as was the outcome of the internationally condemned referendum, but he is sure that more than half of the population was for the annexation. “Putin now has a big liability which he should somehow cover. Crimea is a resort without industrial infrastructure. However, there was a big strategic motive from the point of tactical army allocation.” Russia’s Black Sea fleet has its home base in Crimea, and there are other major military bases, now taken over by the Russian Army, located on the peninsula. “Hence, the Russian government was resolute on taking over Crimea due to strategic considerations, and not due to saving the Russian nation from ‘banderovci’, as was being aired by the pro-Russian media.”

“The economic impact on Russian economy will come later.” An integration of a territory, no matter how small relative to mainland Russia, puts increased economic strain on the country. Russia’s largest income comes from the sale of natural gas to Europe. While shutting off the flow is a powerful bargaining tool, it could also become a costly technique if applied for a longer period of time.

On the European Union

“Russians came to ‘protect people’ with very advanced and heavy weapons. Ukrainian Army does not have such weapons. Everything was sold. That is the main problem of our country: CORRUPTION!”  When asked whether Ukraine should join the European Union, Artyom had no illusions about his country: “I do not think we are ready yet. First, we have to solve our internal problem and then we can look forward to joining the EU. EU will also not take us now as it is itself facing economical issues. First, we have to fight the corruption, which is accompanying us from our very independence. We have to change the entire government and whole government structure. Soon, we will have a new president, but 445 deputies are staying on. Nothing will be changed until we change them all. ”

On mafia

Another big problem is the mafia. “There might be a few bandits in West Ukraine, but in general it comes all from the East. In fact, the former president Yanukovich, who comes from East Ukraine, was also a prominent member of a major criminal circle. Did you see the pictures of his palace?”  Yes, I have: golden toilets and a private zoo, more reminiscent of the tsars than a leader of a democratic country. “Now, all the people that do not have any conscience or morality are using the situation in the East Ukraine to steal as much as possible. They use guns to intimidate the ordinary people. Since you cannot call for any help, because there is no more police or even the police are taking the side of criminals, the gangsters roam freely, doing what they like.”

On the future

In regards to the current situation, do you wish to return back to Ukraine? “Yes, I would like to return. But our country still has a long way to go and I cannot say when it will be stable enough for me to go back.”  The Donetsk region has recently voted in a self-organized referendum for independence. In an overwhelming majority, which is questioned by many media outlets, the Donetsk National Republic was created. What if it decides to join Russia, just as Crimea did? “I will not be Russian. I am Ukrainian. If I cannot be a citizen of my own country, I will then ask for asylum here, in Germany.”

This article is to serve as a unique insight to situation in Ukraine today, as viewed through the eyes of a young Ukrainian. In no shape or form does it express, or try to express the entire truth. Despite that it is my wish that the conflict will come to an end as soon as possible and that the ordinary people can go back to their lives, work and families. We may only hope for a swift solution. We may only pray for Artyom to be given his country back. 

Edited by: Hanna Starchyk