The Many Identities of Eastern Ukraine

Last Update: 4/16/2014 12:21 AM

By Will Spargur

Over the last couple months events in Eastern Ukraine have captured worldwide attention.  To give context to these events we interviewed three recently returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in the Eastern Ukraine: Jing Li, Julia Lee and, Kyle Borley.  Just like in the US, interpretations of events and politics vary from region to region, among young and old, urban and rural populations.  This article focuses on volunteer experiences in Eastern Ukraine where Lenin Statues decorate town squares and Russian is the lingua franca.  Western Ukraine is a very different place which we’ll cover in next month’s newsletter.

Julia Lee, Far Right

How did the people in your area identify themselves?

Julia: Mine were Ukrainian but once the barriers broke down and they got to know you better they would say they were Russian.  There's a history with the USSR and part of the culture is that they don’t open up to strangers.  You have to know them a while.  In my town they were always on their tip toes because they are so close to Russian but still part of Ukraine.  A lot work in government so they can't say outright 'I want to go back to the USSR times'.  They still have to be pro-Ukraine. 

Jing: I think it depends on where you are.  In Kharkiv it's very Russian, people speak only Russian, signs are in Russian and there’s lots of soviet symbols around but when you go to smaller villages like mine, where people were originally Ukrainian, they still speak mainly Ukrainian but it’s very mixed with Russian.   

Kyle: Definitely a generation divide.  The older generation saw themselves as Soviet while the younger generation more towards Ukrainians. For the younger generation, all they know is Ukraine. My school celebrated Ukrainian festivals and holidays. The kids watched Ukrainian soccer teams and listened to Ukrainian pop music.


Did people discuss politics?

Julia:  They'd complain a lot, roads, government, and lack of opportunity. 

Jing: Some people would reflect back on the USSR when everyone was paid the same salary, everyone was guaranteed and apartment, everyone was guaranteed access to the same resources, schools, shoes, food.    This is a very eastern view.  

Kyle Borley, Center

Kyle: The middle and older aged people in my village constantly mentioned how life was so much better during the Soviet Union.  It gets a bit confusing when you try to associate Russia with the Soviet Union, since Russia was just one of the several countries involved in the Soviet Union. To be a part of Russia would not necessarily mean going back to the Soviet Union, since Russia had a separate culture from Ukraine, even during the Soviet Union. Some of the older generation seemed to understand this, while others just wanted to be part of a "powerful" country again.  My older friends always showed me pictures from the "good old days."  Hard not to see it as the "good old days," since it was much livelier.  My village had 10,000 people during the Soviet Union, and now has around 5,000.  In the pictures there were people on the streets, lively factories, and town festivals.  Now, there's hardly more than two people on a street at a time and all the factories are closed.

What do the people you know say about the Maidan protests and the annexation of Crimea? Do they want to be part of Russia?

Kyle:  Crimea, yes.  The Russian majority always said that Khrushchev made a mistake in giving Crimea to Ukraine in 1954.  Most of my friends from my village are very pro-Russia and looked down on Western Ukraine.  Over and over I would hear that everyone in Western Ukraine is a fascist.  The older generation in my village hardly ever traveled to Western Ukraine or even Kiev.    When I talk to the people in my village, they are genuinely scared of the Kiev government and look to Russia for help and protection.

 Julia:  I emailed some of my coworkers, and they said they were surprised it had gone this far.  They don’t know why people are protesting making things worse for everyone.  They want it quiet.  They want to live their lives. 

Jing Li, Right

Jing: They are too afraid of losing their jobs, losing access to schools.  They are afraid of retribution.
The younger generation is more open, more likely to be willing to listen to new ideas, to think about different ways of life. The older is very resistant to change.   But I think people are ambivalent, these things are so far away.   They think, ‘I still go to work every day, I still get paid, my child goes to schools, nothing really changes.’

Julia:  I think for the older generation loved being part of Russian during Soviet times but they are also proud of Ukrainian accomplishments and heroes like Taras Shevchenko and sports figures like boxer Vitali Klitschko.  But when it comes to, ‘do I enjoy being Ukrainian today versus the comforts of being part of Russia’, the comforts of life were better under Soviet rule.


What do you think the future holds?  Do you think more eastern areas will move to Russia?
Jing:  I don’t think the people in my town would.

 Julia:  Many towns in my region tore down their Lenin Statues and there were a couple demonstrations.  My region was put on the map as supporting the Maidan protests.  I think the people in the west would be glad to see the east leave.  They want to move much closer to the EU and west.  In the west they know exactly what they want but our region, in the east, it is much more conflicted.

What did you think of Peace Corps Pulling out of the Ukraine?
Jing:  I think it’s a lot safer.  It’s a time in the country when you don’t want to be walking home at night and be stopped by the police asking for your documents and having to explain who you are and what you’re doing.

Kyle: Smart decision.  Peace Corps volunteers are vulnerable and easy targets.  A lot of the violence is from outside instigators not the local villagers.    

Do you think you’ll ever go back?
Jing: I would like to go back within the next five years because that’s when my last class will graduate. But if the current situation doesn’t change I would not go back. Ukrainians are not nice to foreigners.  It takes time for them to warm up to you. 

Kyle: I would go back to my village if the region remains within Ukraine.  If it were to break away, I probably wouldn't go back.  First, the visa fee is crazy to go to Russia.  Second, I was a Peace Corps Ukraine volunteer, if my region were to become a part of Russia it would seem foreign.  As of now, the situation is too heated and emotional to go back.  There is no way I could visit my village and enjoy myself, without the topic of American interference or how awful the new Ukrainian government is.

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