I doubt where the official numbers come from, those that say that Ukraine is evenly divided between those who support the West, and those who feel their identity is closely linked with Russia.
Maybe this might be the case in western Ukraine, in Lvov, or even in the capital, Kiev. But western Ukraine has only a few key cities. The majority of people in this country of around 44 million are concentrated in the south, east and southeast, around the enormous industrial and mining centers of Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk and Krivoi Rog.
There is Odessa in the south, and Kharkov, “the second capital,” in the east. And people in all those parts of the country mainly speak Russian. And they see, what has recently happened in Kiev as an unceremonious coup, orchestrated and supported by the West.
The car is negotiating a bumpy four-lane highway between Kiev and Odessa. There are three of us on board – my translator, Dmitry from the Liva.com site, a driver and me. Having left Kiev in the morning, we are literally flying at 160 kilometers an hour toward Odessa.
Earlier, the driver had told me: “We either keep to the speed limit, or just keep a stack of 100 hryvna notes (about $9), so we can bribe our way if the police stop us.”
The wide fields of Ukraine, formerly known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, look depressingly unkempt. Some are burned.
“What are they growing here?” I ask.
Nobody knows, but both of my friends agree that almost everything in Ukraine is now collapsing, after the decomposition of the USSR, and this includes both industry and agriculture. The roads are not an exception, either.
“They only built facades during the last decades,” explains Dmitry. “The core, the essence had been constructed in the Soviet era. And now everything is crumbling.”
Before reaching Odessa we leave the highway and drive northeast, toward Moldova and its small separatist enclave, called Transdnistria.
There, the river Kuchurgan separates the Ukrainian town of Kuchurgan and the Transnistrian city of Pervomaisc.
I see no Russian tanks at Pervomaisc, no artillery. There is absolutely no military movement whatsoever, despite the countless Western mass media reports testifying (in abstract terms) to the contrary.
I cross the bridge on foot and ask the Transnistrian border guard whether he has recently seen any foreign correspondents arriving from the United States or the European Union, attempting to cross the border and verify the facts. He gives me a bewildered look.
I watch beautiful white birds resting on the surface of the river, and then I return to Ukraine.
There, two ladies who run the ‘Camelot Bar’ served us the most delicious Russo/Ukrainian feast of an enormous borshch soup and pelmeni.
A Russian television station blasts away, and the two women cannot stop talking; they are frank, proud, and fearless. I turn on my film camera, but they don’t mind.
“Look what is happening in Kiev,” exclaims Alexandra Tsyganskaya, the owner of the restaurant.“The US and the West were planning this; preparing this, for months, perhaps years! Now people in Ukraine are so scared, most of them are only whispering. They are petrified. There is such tension everywhere, that all it would take is to light a match and everything will explode.”
Her friend, Evgenia Chernova, agrees: “In Odessa, Russian-speaking people get arrested, and they are taken all the way to Kiev. The same is happening in Kharkov, in Donetsk, and elsewhere. They call it freedom of speech! All Russian television channels are banned. What you see here is broadcast from across the border. They treat people like cattle. But our people are not used to this: they will rebel, they will resist! And if they push them to the edge, it will be terrible!”
Both women definitely agree on one thing: “We say, ‘Don’t provoke Russia!’ It is a great nation, our historical ally. It has been helping us for decades.”
And the same words in Odessa are even written on huge banners: “Kiev, people are not cattle!”
Odessa, that architectural jewel, an enormous southern port, is now relatively quiet, but tense. I speak to the manager of the historic and magnificently restored Hotel Bristol, but she is very careful in choosing her words. I mention Western involvement in the coup, or in the ‘revolution’ as many in Kiev and in the West call it, but she simply nods, neutrally.
The city is subdued, as well as those famous Potemkin Steps: Renowned for one of the most memorable scenes in world cinema that of, the silent film Battleship Potemkin directed in 1925 by Sergey Eisenstein.
As Helen Grace once wrote: “The Odessa steps massacre in the film condenses the suppression that actually occurred in the city into one dramatized incident, and this remains one of the most powerful images of political violence ever realized.”
One only hopes that Odessa never again falls victim to unbridled political cruelty, such as was visited on the people by the feudal, oppressive right-wing Tsarist regime, at the beginning of the 20th century!
A babushka looks exhausted and subdued. She is slowly digging into dark earth, all alone, clearly abandoned.
I spotted some dilapidated houses in the village that we had passed just a few minutes earlier, and I asked the driver to make a U-turn, but he clearly did not see any urgency and continued to drive on: “You will see many villages like this,” he explained. Dmitry confirmed: “Such villages are all over Ukraine. There are thousands of them; literally, you see them whenever you leave the main roads.”
This one, this village, is called Efremovka, and the name of the grandmother is Lyubov Mikhailovna.
We are somewhere between the cities of Nikolayev and Krivoi Rog.
All around us are the ruins of agricultural estates, of small factories, and houses that used to belong to farmers. Wires are missing from electric poles, and everything appears to be static, like in a horror science-fiction film. Only Lyubov Mikhailovna is digging, stubbornly.
I ask her how she is managing to survive, and she replies that she is not managing at all.
“How could one survive here on only 1,000 hryvnas per month ($80)?” she laments. “We are enduring only on what we grow here: cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes…”
I ask her about the ruins of houses, all around this area, and she nods for a while, and only then begins speaking: “People abandoned their homes and their villages, because there are no jobs. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the entire Ukraine has been falling apart… People are leaving and they are dying. Young people try to go abroad…. The government is not even supplying us with gas and drinking water, anymore. We have to use the local well, but the water is contaminated by fertilizers – it is not clean…”
“Was it better before?” I ask.
“How can you even ask? During the Soviet Union everything was better, much better! We all had jobs and there were decent salaries, pensions… We had all that we needed,” she answers.
Looking around me, I quickly recall that Ukraine is an absolute demographic disaster: even according to official statistics and censuses, the number of people living in this country fell from 48,457,102 in 2001 to 44,573,205 in 2013. Years after its “independence,” and especially those between 1999 and 2001, are often described as one of the worst demographic crises in modern world history. In 1991 the population of Ukraine was over 51.6 million!
Only those countries that are devastated by brutal civil wars are experiencing similar population decline.
‘What are they fighting for?’
Krivoi Rog, or Kryvyi Rih as it is known in the Ukrainian language, is arguably the most important steel manufacturing city in Eastern Europe, and a large globally important, metallurgical center for what is known as the Kryvbas iron-ore mining region.
Here Krivorozhstal, one of the most important steel factories in the world, saw outrageous corruption scandals during its first wave of privatization. During the second privatization in 2005, the mammoth factory was taken over by the Indian multinational giant, Mittal Steel (which paid $4.81 billion), and was renamed Arcelor Mittal Kryvyi Rih. Since then, production has declined significantly, and thousands of workers were unceremoniously fired.
According to the Arcelor Mittal Factbooks (2007 and 2008), steel production decreased from 8.1 million tons in 2007, to 6.2 million tons in 2008. In 2011, the workforce decreased from 55,000 to 37,000 people, and the management is still hoping that even more dramatic job cuts (down to 15,000) can be negotiated.
By late afternoon, we arrived at the main gate of the factory. Hundreds of people were walking by; most of them looking exhausted, discouraged and unwilling to engage in any conversation. Some shouted anti-coup slogans, but did not want to give their names or go on the record.
Finally, a group of tough-looking steelworkers stop, and begin to discuss the situation at the factory with us, passionately: “Do you realize how little we earn here? People at this plant, depending on their rank, bring home only some $180, $260, or at most some $450 a month. Across the border, in Russia, in the city of Chelyabinsk, the salaries are three to four times higher!”
It is hard to get any political sense from the group, but it is clear that opinions are divided: while some want more foreign investment, others are demanding immediate nationalization. They have absolutely no disputes with Russia, but some support the coup in Kiev, while others are against it.
It is clear that, more than ideology; these people want some practical improvement in their own lives and in the life of their city.
“All we have heard for the past 20 years is that things will improve,” explains the first steel worker.“But look what is happening in reality. Mittal periodically fails to pay what is due. For instance, I am supposed to get 5,700 hryvnas a month, but I get less than 5,000. And the technology at the plant is old, outdated. The profits that Mittal is making – at least if some of it would stay here, in Ukraine, and go to the building of the roads or improving the water supplies… But they take everything out of the country.”
The next day, in Kharkov, Sergei Kirichuk, leader of the left-wing Borotba (Struggle) movement, told me: “People all over the world are fighting against the so-called “free market,” but in Ukraine, to bring it here, was the main reason for the ‘revolution.’ It is really hard to believe.”
State of war
The border between Ukraine and Russia, near the town of Zhuravlevka, between Ukrainian Kharkov and the Russian city of Belgorod, is quiet. Good weather, wide fields and an almost flat landscape, guarantee good visibility for several kilometers. On the 28 of March, when Western and Ukrainian mass media were shouting about an enormous Russian military force right at the border, I only saw a few frustrated birds and an apparently unmanned watch tower.
The traffic at the border was light, but it was flowing – and several passenger cars were crossing from the Russian side to Ukraine. What I saw, however, were several Ukrainian tanks along the M-20/E-105 highway, just a stone’s throw away from the border. There were tanks and armored vehicles, and quite a substantial movement of Ukrainian soldiers.
An old Soviet Zaporozhets car with Ukrainian license plates, carrying an entire family apparently from Russia, stopped right next to one of the tanks. A man, his wife and their two children began shouting something at the soldiers. The family laughed for a while, and then their ancient sedan slowly took off toward Kharkov.
The local press was, however, not as amusing. “State of War!” shouted the headline in the Kyiv Post. “We lifted up to the sky 100 jet fighters, in order to scare Moscow,” declared the Today newspaper.
The reality on the ground differed sharply from the ‘fairytales’, paid for and propagated by Western mass media outlets and by the ‘free Ukrainian press’.
In the east in Kharkov, Soviet banners flew in the wind, next to many Russian flags. Thousands of people gathered in front of the giant statue of Lenin on those windy days of March 28-29. There were fiery speeches and ovations. The outraged crowd met the proclamations that the Western powers had instigated the “fascist coup” in Kiev, with loud shouts of “Russia, Russia!”
Old women, Communist leaders, and my friend Sergei Kirichuk, the left-wing leader of Borotba, as well as people from international solidarity organizations, made fiery speeches. Apparently, the government in Kiev had already begun to cut the few social benefits that were left, including free medical assistance. Several hospitals were poised to close down soon.
People were ready to fight; to defend themselves against those hated neo-liberal policies, for which (or against which) none of them had been allowed to vote for.
“In Crimea, people voted, overwhelmingly, to return to Russia,” said Aleksey, a student. “But the West calls it unconstitutional and undemocratic. In Ukraine itself, the democratically-elected government has been overthrown and policies that nobody really wants are being pushed down our throats. And… this is called democracy!”
In an apartment of the Borotba movement, a young leader and history student, Irina Drazman, spoke about the way the West has destroyed Ukraine. She reminded me of a Chilean student leader and now an MP – Ms. Camila Vallejo. Irina is only 20, but coherent and as sharp as a razor.
“There is great nostalgia for the Soviet Union,” she says. “If only it could be reshaped and the concept improved, most of the people in Ukraine would be happy to be part of it again.”
And that is exactly what the West is trying to prevent: A powerful and united country, one which can defend the interest of its people.
Standing in front of a police cordon in Kharkov, Aleksandr Oleinik, a Ukrainian political analyst, says: “The essence of what is now happening is based on the doctrine of the United States, which has one major goal: To wipe out from the globe, first the Soviet Union, and then Russia, regardless of its form; whether socialist or capitalist… As is well known, these goals were already defined in the early 1980s, by Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his report to the US State Department, titled: “Game Plan: A Geostrategic Framework for the Conduct of the U.S.-Soviet Contest.”
Playing Ukrainian game
For the West, what is happening in Ukraine may be a game; a geopolitical game. The same game it is playing in Venezuela, in Syria, Zimbabwe, Cuba and China, to name just a few places. Victory would be the total domination of the planet.
Those lives of regular people, of those billions of “peons,” matter nothing.
In Kiev’s Maidan, the main square where the “revolution” or the coup took place, right-wing groupings are hanging around, aimlessly. Some men and women are frustrated. Many even feel that they were fooled.
Thousands were paid to participate in what was thought would bring at least some social justice. But the interim government began taking its dictates, almost immediately: from the United States, from European Union and from the institutions such as IMF and World Bank.
Now thousands of disgruntled ‘revolutionaries’ feel frustrated. Instead of saving the country, they sold out all their ideals, and betrayed their own people. And their own lives went from bad to worse.
The tension is growing and Ukraine is on the edge. There is serious internal drift – inside the right-wing movements, especially after several recent political assassinations. There is growing tension, even confrontation, between conservative, oppressive forces and those progressive ones. There is tension between Russian speakers and those who are insisting on purely the Ukrainian language being used all over the country.
There are political assassinations; there is fear and uncertainty about the future. There is increasing a negative role being played by the religions, from Protestant to Orthodox. Nobody knows what will follow the coup. Confusion and frustration, as well as social collapse, may well cause a brutal civil war.
All photos by Andre Vltchek.