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The struggle for national identity in wartime Ukraine

Like just about every building, street, town, and city in Ukraine, the prison on Lontskoho Street in Lviv has changed hands many times during the past century. It was successively claimed by the Hapsburgs, the Poles, the Russians, the Nazis, and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Under the auspices of an independent Ukraine, the building is now appropriately known as the National Memorial Museum Dedicated to Victims of Occupational Regimes.

When I set out to visit the museum on a foggy morning last winter, the structure was hard to find: it blends innocuously into its baroque surroundings. Inside, it was freezing, and my soft-spoken guide, with her angular bob and puffy overcoat, led me down a hallway of corroding red metal doors, which opened into cells the size of large closets. The Polish government, she explained, had completed the prison in 1923 to house “antistate elements.” The cells were soon crammed with members of the nascent Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (O.U.N.), which fought for independence from Polish control and specialized in political assassination.

A monument in Savur-Mogila, in eastern Ukraine, that commemorates a historic battle between German and Russian forces during World War II. The monument was heavily damaged during clashes between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army in the summer of 2014 © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos

A monument in Savur-Mogila, in eastern Ukraine, that commemorates a historic battle between German and Russian forces during World War II. The monument was heavily damaged during clashes between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army in the summer of 2014 © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos

The history that followed was, like all Ukrainian history, intensely confusing. Shortly before the Poles completed the prison, the eastern half of Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union, which led the O.U.N., in the name of national sovereignty, to add the Russians to their list of enemies. The group’s antagonism only increased in the wake of a Soviet-devised famine known as the Holodomor, which killed millions of Ukrainian peasants during the early 1930s.1 In 1939, when Germany and the U.S.S.R. divided Poland between them, the two nations fought for control of Lviv, which was still being defended by remnants of the Polish army. Eventually the Nazis fell back and ceded the city to the Red Army.

On June 23, 1941, with the Nazis on their doorstep again, Soviet prison officials received an order to execute all the inmates, who might well fight for the Germans should they be liberated. One at a time, the prisoners were brought into special cells with sloping floors and shot at close range. A bucket of water washed the blood down the drain, and then the next victim was marched in. Their first names, patronymics, last names, and birthdays were methodically ticked off in red pencil. Over five days, at least 1,680 prisoners were slaughtered, and when the Soviets retreated, on June 29, they left the bodies in the basement for the Germans to find.

After the Nazis discovered the bodies, they ordered local Jews to carry the corpses outside the prison for identification, while spreading the word that the Jews themselves had committed the slaughter. A pogrom erupted on Lontskoho Street and spread throughout the city, leaving thousands of Jews dead.

My guide led me to an exhibit that showed photographs of people carrying the corpses. She made no mention of the Jews. “Who took the bodies outside?” I asked her.

“We are not sure, because of different sources, so I don’t know,” she said. “Perhaps the director will answer this question.”

Ruslan Zabily, the museum’s director, proved no less evasive. Zabily, a small bespectacled man in a bulky woolen sweater, took me to a restaurant around the corner. At first he dodged the issue, noting that there was plenty of competition for the most horrific slaughter in modern Ukrainian history. How could a five-year-old museum cover all the candidates? Then he suggested that the pogrom may not have taken place in front of the prison, that it might be traced to apartment buildings in the city center. And perhaps there was no organized pogrom at all, perhaps the Jews had simply been attacked by marginal elements of society: criminals, Germans, Poles, maybe some Ukrainians. Maybe even other Jews.

“We don’t have a scientific basis for this,” he said. “When we have all the documents, there won’t be questions and there won’t be speculation.”

Later, in Kiev, I asked Josef Zissels, the chairman of the General Council of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, about the tour. His initial response was dismissive. “That museum? Who goes there? We create our own museums!” he said. “We have one hundred Jewish projects. Education, social support, science, all nearby here. That’s where Jewish history is being created.”

But I was less concerned with the specific specter of anti-Semitism than with what this omission suggested about Ukraine’s approach to its fractured past. I asked Zissels the same question I asked nearly everybody I encountered in Ukraine. Why can’t there be one museum, one place of memory, where the nation considers its entire history — victims and perpetrators alike, with all the corresponding shades of gray?

“Give us three hundred years,” he said.

I had not really come to Ukraine to seek out historical truths. What interested me was the way in which Ukrainians interpreted their own history and identity following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. — especially in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, which fanned separatist flames throughout the eastern part of the country. Within months, war broke out between the Ukrainian army and two self-proclaimed secessionist republics in Donetsk and Lugansk. In September came the first of many truces, which both parties have been quick to violate. When I was there last winter, the shelling and the skirmishes continued, while the West upbraided Russia for its (unofficial) connivance in the conflict.

Moscow would have people believe that the war was instigated by a fascist junta in Kiev, bent on oppressing ethnic Russians. Meanwhile, the new government in Kiev maintains that local criminals and terrorists have locked arms with Putin’s jackbooted invaders. My question wasn’t which side fired the first shot but how the status quo unraveled with such astonishing speed. How can a nation lose two of its major cities to separatists overnight? If every group in Ukraine builds its own museums and publishes its own history books, why would anyone feel loyalty to the center?

Map by Dolly Holmes

Map by Dolly Holmes

Ukraine did not exist autonomously within its current borders until 1991. When the U.S.S.R. disintegrated, the newly independent nation needed patriotic myths to teach its schoolchildren — a complicated matter even in a less frangible society. At first, many of these stories defined the country in opposition to Russia. Historians quickly dredged up forgotten nationalistic episodes: for example, the Cossacks of central Ukraine who had refused to join the Russian Empire during the eighteenth century. In 2003, Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma, published a book whose title neatly summarized the national conversation. It was called Ukraina — ne Rossiia: Ukraine Is Not Russia.

After the Orange Revolution of 2005 — a two-month-long pro-democracy demonstration that brought Viktor Yushchenko to power — this national mythologizing went into overdrive. Yushchenko bet heavily on Ukrainian identity. In 2006, he established the National Institute of Memory in Kiev, and directed historians to pore over Soviet archives (the ones the Russians hadn’t destroyed or carted back to Moscow) in order to document the Holodomor. Scholars diligently classified the mass starvation as an act of genocide, on the grounds that it targeted the bread-producing class, which meant Ukrainians. Though most reputable historians estimate that 3.5 million people died, some put the death toll at 10 million — by counting the millions of Ukrainians who would have been born if the Soviets had not caused the artificial famine.

To balance the victim narrative, Ukraine also needed heroes. The government focused its adulation on the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (U.P.A.), the militant wing of the O.U.N. The U.P.A. collaborated with the Nazis to fight the Soviets, but turned against the Germans after realizing that they had no intention of making good on the promise of independent statehood. Yushchenko also propagated a cult of personality around Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian political activist and O.U.N. leader who was imprisoned by both the Poles and the Germans before being assassinated by the KGB in 1959.

The problem with using anti-Russian sentiment as nation-building glue was that many in eastern Ukraine had strong ties to Russia. Even during the 1990s, before the rise of Yushchenko, this regional division was clear. During the so-called War of the Monuments, people in the west toppled statues of Lenin and erected busts of U.P.A. fighters and Taras Shevchenko, the national poet. In the east, Soviet monuments remained intact and celebrations of Soviet holidays drew large, noisy crowds.

The elevation of the U.P.A., which had pretty much ceased to exist by the mid-Fifties, was also problematic. After all, most Ukrainians had family who had served in the Red Army, which taught them that Bandera and the U.P.A. were murderers. Then there was the inconvenient fact that the U.P.A. had started as a fascist organization devoted to ethnic purity. Its members had killed their share of Poles and Jews, though they would soften their stance against minorities over time.

Not surprisingly, Yushchenko’s nation-building strategy never completely panned out. It struck many as contrived and divisive. Ethnic Ukrainians as well as ethnic Russians complained to me that Yushchenko’s efforts, for all their claims of inclusiveness, had rigorously excluded Soviet heroism and Soviet mythology — deeply personal matters to much of the population, especially in the east. “Yushchenko just said, ‘I’m Ukrainian, and I should be proud that I’m Ukrainian and you should be proud that you’re Ukrainian,’ ” the parliamentarian Mustafa Nayyem told me. “And that Ukrainian means this. A lot of people didn’t agree with him.”

The president and the Orange Revolution floundered, and Viktor Yanukovych, a strongman from the east whose candidacy Russia had approved, replaced him in 2010. At once Yanukovych began to roll back his predecessor’s narrative. He downgraded the National Institute of Memory to a toothless government think tank and handed it over to a retrograde Communist. In public speeches, he referred to the Holodomor as a crime, a tragedy, an Armageddon — but not, pointedly, as a genocide. The courts stripped Bandera of his posthumous Hero of Ukraine medal on the grounds that he had never been a citizen. Nationalist museums like the one in Lviv were targeted by security services, and Zabily was brought in for interrogation.

But national myths die hard — or not at all. For decades, identity, history, and language cleavages were used by Ukrainian politicians to divide the population and pander for votes. “It was much easier to say, ‘Our opponents, they don’t like the Russian language, so vote for me,’ than to say, ‘I want to make reforms,’ ” Nayyem explained.

In 2013 and 2014, protests broke out in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) when Yanukovych bowed to Russian pressure and halted plans for Ukraine to align economically with the European Union. During what came to be known as the Euromaidan protests, the red-and-black banner of the U.P.A. began to make frequent appearances. It was usually associated with the Right Sector, a nationalist organization whose adherents shouted U.P.A. slogans: “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” Meanwhile, in the east, pro-Russian protesters donned the Ribbon of St. George, a black-and-orange military decoration awarded to those who had fought in World War II, which the Russians call the Great Patriotic War. Some waved Russian flags, others pulled out their Soviet banners, which were looking less defunct by the day.

Lviv, about fifty miles from the Polish border, is considered the bastion of Ukrainian nationalism. It was a natural setting, then, for Kryivka, a U.P.A.-themed restaurant in the city’s central square, where guests rap on a heavy unmarked door to get inside. When I knocked, a man in a paramilitary uniform peered through the slit and said: “Are you Russian?”

I shook my head. He swung open the door and offered me a shot of something amber-hued and vaguely sugary from a flask, his gun at the ready.

Photographs from the Euromaidan protests in Kiev by Sergiy Lebedynskyy and Vladyslav Krasnoshchok, whose work is on view this month at Les Rencontres de la Photographie, in Arles, France © Shilo Group

Photographs from the Euromaidan protests in Kiev by Sergiy Lebedynskyy and Vladyslav Krasnoshchok, whose work is on view this month at Les Rencontres de la Photographie, in Arles, France © Shilo Group

“It’s to prove you’re not Russian,” Yuro Nazaruk, the co-owner and creative director of the restaurant, explained to me inside. (Supposedly, this magic potion will cause a red star to appear on a Russian’s forehead.) Dressed in an orange fleece and cargo pants, with long ginger hair and a pencil-thin goatee, Nazaruk looked more like a snowboarder than a successful businessman. Along with his partners, he runs twenty themed restaurants across the city, with outposts devoted to Freemasonry and to the S&M pioneer (and native son) Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

The restaurant was huge, with rooms built like bunkers, vaulted ceilings bathed in red light, and roving actors dressed to resemble U.P.A. militants. Over a plate of traditional Ukrainian appetizers — pig snouts and pig ears soaked in oil — Nazaruk told me that he wanted to create a living museum, not the boring kind where people are constantly shushed.

“The main idea is to make the first step toward people who have a negative attitude to this symbol of the U.P.A.,” he explained, which put me right in his target audience. Diners indifferent to the U.P.A. were free to ignore the posters and props and nationalist regalia. “You can just sit, drink beer, and eat Ukrainian food. But still, all these things, they are near you, and all these eyes of people in the photos — you cannot be against it.”

Nazaruk wanted to clarify what he regarded as an important distinction: the Soviets were invaders during World War II, while members of the U.P.A. were just fighting for their homeland. He added that Russian tourists were his second biggest clientele, after visitors from central and eastern Ukraine.

Suddenly, an air-raid siren howled and the lights went out.

“Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” someone shouted. We heard recorded gunshots, and a group of U.P.A. partisans ran into our room. “A cursed enemy has crawled into our bunker!” They pointed to a man at a nearby table.

“Get up here!” The partisans dragged the man against the wall, illuminating his body with flashlights and prodding his pockets.

“Do you love Ukraine?”

“Yes!” the patron said, happy to follow the script.

“Where do you come from? Did you come here to support us? Did you bring us guns?”

“Yes!” he answered. The partisans let him go and made their way to the next room.

When the lights came back on, I asked Nazaruk whether it was okay to commodify history while ignoring its more unpleasant moments — there was no mention of the slaughter of Poles or Jews or civilians. “Yes, they were fighting and they were killing and I cannot say that it’s normal,” he told me. “But it’s the definition of world war. They were not kissing one another.”

If Kryivka made me uncomfortable, I was in for an even tougher time at Zhidivska Knaypa — another Nazaruk creation, whose name means “Jewish Tavern” or “Kike Tavern,” depending on whom you ask.2 The gimmick there is a menu without prices, presumably because Jews bargain for everything anyway. The restaurant was lit by menorahs. There was matzo instead of leavened bread, and the décor included bobbleheads with big noses.

I told myself to lighten up. Perhaps the place really did educate people about Lviv’s Galician Jews, most of whom had been murdered or deported during the war. I smiled with my waitress while she recited her memorized speech about bargaining for the meal. Did I have anything in my bag I might use for barter? Could I sing her a Jewish song? (At a nearby table, diners offered their waitress a banana and then broke into a lusty rendition of “Hava Nagila,” congratulating one another on knowing the lyrics.) I was getting the hang of it. This could be fun. Then my waitress offered me an additional discount if I told her a Jewish joke.

This brought me up short. Curious to see how closely the restaurant stuck to its pedagogical mission, I asked if I could tell an offensive joke — and she agreed to hear me out. That ruined it for me. I could just about see the Jewish gimmickry as an educational tool, but trotting out negative stereotypes to get a cheaper meal struck me as counterproductive. When I put it to Nazaruk, at first he seemed to agree. The invitation to tell a Jewish joke was, he said, “not normal.” But when I asked Nazaruk how it had gotten into the script, he changed the subject.

This was a common occurrence during my time in Ukraine: every time I touched on a sensitive topic, people would either shut down or change the conversation. Language itself was a contentious issue, one that caused impassioned outbursts and eloquent silences. At a lunch with historians and writers in Drohobych, outside of Lviv, I asked why Russian couldn’t be a second national language. My tablemate shouted that such a move would lead to the “genocide of Ukrainian!” After that, the other guests simply stopped speaking to me. I focused on the food; it was delicious.

Of course, language has long been a political football in Ukraine. Under the Russian Empire and during the Soviet era, Ukrainian was suppressed. After independence, it became the national language. Under Yanukovych, the parliament passed a law allowing regions to designate Russian as a second language — but once he fled, in 2014, the law was repealed, then resurrected by the interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov. In this fashion, he hoped to appease the restive population in the east. Nevertheless, the damage was done: the attempted repeal was seen as a nefarious provocation of Russian speakers, and was often cited by Putin’s propaganda machine as evidence of Kiev’s anti-Russian slant.

A resident of Donetsk cleans up the debris of a home partially destroyed by Ukrainian army shelling © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos

A resident of Donetsk cleans up the debris of a home partially destroyed by Ukrainian army shelling © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos

Many Ukrainians maintain that the country’s conflict does not split along linguistic lines. They point to the presence of Russian speakers among the Euromaidan protesters and in the military and volunteer battalions fighting in the east, and argue for a new inclusive national narrative based on the martyrs of the Euromaidan, known as the Heavenly Hundred. To this pantheon they add current combatants, POWs, and the civilians who are donating time, goods, and money to the war effort.

“What’s happening right now is a sped-up process of forming a Ukrainian political nation,” Volodymir Viatrovych, the new director of the National Institute of Memory, told me in Kiev. “Those participating in this war have ancestors who fought for the independence of Ukraine in the 1940s and 1950s — and ancestors who fought against them. The inheritors of the U.P.A. and the inheritors of the Soviet army and the N.K.V.D. are now all fighting for Ukraine.”

To codify the new narrative, Viatrovych is planning yet another museum to focus on periods of Ukrainian independence, as well as the 1990s, the Orange Revolution, the Euromaidan protests, and the current conflict. The working title is: Museum of the Euromaidan, Museum of Freedom. Yet even Viatrovych, an apparent apostle of inclusivity, has his limits. This spring, he championed a successful parliamentary bill to ban all Communist propaganda, including monuments and place-names with any ties to the Soviet regime.

It should be noted that my mother and grandmother were both born within the borders of today’s Ukraine. Although I grew up in New York City, my first language was Russian. My mother speaks English with the thick accent of a villain in a Cold War–era film — but Russian was the language she used during my childhood to berate me for becoming “too American.” What were the alternatives? The moment the U.S.S.R. collapsed, forever changing the outlines on my elementary-school maps, I could no longer technically tell people that I was Russian-American. Since my grandmother and mother were born in Kiev, wasn’t I Ukrainian-American?

That seemed ridiculous. How could I be from a country whose language I didn’t speak? One that didn’t exist when I was born? The people I met in Ukraine never warmed to the idea that I was one of them, either, no matter how many times I told them that my mother was born in Kiev. And yet my sense of displacement, of linguistic and ethnic confusion, was surely a distant echo of their own.

After Lviv, I traveled east to Dnipropetrovsk, which had been expected to fall to the separatists after Donetsk. Primarily Russian-speaking, with historic ties to Moscow, Dnipro (as the locals call it) had been home to a secret ballistic-missile plant that employed engineers from across the U.S.S.R. The city remained closed to foreigners until 1987. Its first pro-Russian demonstration, in March 2014, brought several thousand people into the streets. Protesters brandished clubs and weapons, clashes ensued, the police melted away, and a Russian flag was planted on top of the city-council building.

But last winter, when I visited, the streets were festooned with yellow-and-blue banners, all written in Russian, that proclaimed, i’m proud to be ukrainian. i was born in dnipropetrovsk. In the city center, a marble plaque read, the victory of communism is inevitable, but someone had covered the first two letters of victory with a spray-painted Ukrainian flag, turning the word into tragedy. At the height of the city’s own Euromaidan-style protests, a crowd spent nearly six hours toppling the monumental statue of Lenin in the central square, after which it was broken into pieces and carried away by history-minded souvenir hunters. But Dnipro’s main thoroughfare is still called Karl Marx Avenue, and apparently a couple of smaller statues of Lenin have been left as they were.3

I found the pragmatic attitude of Dnipro a relief from the defensive nationalism I had felt in Lviv and Kiev. Yet so many of the Soviet historical myths and linguistic cleavages were present here: how did the city remain within territorial Ukraine, while its neighbor, Donetsk, had revolted? When I sat down with Borys Filatov, who was then the deputy governor of Dnipro, he told me the answer was simple: They worked for it.

Filatov made his fortune on shopping malls. With his boxy frame, buzz cut, and black T-shirt, he looks like a gangster, an impression encouraged by a recent Facebook post, which offered his recipe for quelling civic unrest: “Give the scum promises [and] guarantees and then hang them.” And yet he describes himself as a humble civil servant who was called upon to defend the integrity of his homeland.4

In Donetsk, he told me, the local elites had purposely inflamed separatist sentiment because they were afraid they would be punished for crimes committed under the previous regime. In Dnipro, meanwhile, the oligarchs and elites took a pro-Ukrainian position. As soon as they came to power, Filatov and the other leaders of the new administration signed a statement promising that there would be no lustration, no ideological vendettas. In exchange, pro-Russian activists officially acknowledged Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

“We were working for twenty hours a day,” Filatov recalled. “We held negotiations with all the forces: the leftists, the rightists, the Right Sector, Communists, separatists — that is to say, with all the idiots. We managed to separate the separatist forces. I mean, we managed to agree with some of them, bribe some of them, and even threaten some of them.”

A second memorandum was signed on March 20. According to Filatov, the pro-Russian parties to the agreement and the pro-Ukrainian parties didn’t want to share a single piece of paper, which led them to sign separate versions in their preferred languages. Yet they did agree to postpone all discussions of federalization and language, and to oppose violence, the desecration of monuments, and all protests except those supporting unity. Pro-Russian rallies in the city immediately started shrinking; by June 22, only thirty-six people came out to wave placards and denounce Kiev. Meanwhile, in Donetsk, the separatist protests raged out of control.

Unlike many other self-described patriots, Filatov acknowledged that civilians had been caught in the middle of the conflict. When I was in Dnipro, the Ukrainian army shelled its own citizens in Donetsk — a practice that continues now, despite another truce that was declared in February. Filatov blamed the separatists. “The situation is horrible,” he said, “but we have nothing to apologize for, since we didn’t start it.” On the bright side, he said, the Ukrainian artillery that was firing into Donetsk hadn’t turned the place into rubble, which is what the Russians did to the rebellious Chechen city of Grozny twenty years earlier. “So I can say that the Ukrainian side demonstrates a certain humanism in this conflict.”

In Filatov’s view, one of the greatest dangers to Dnipro is its proximity to the separatists. The city is the first stop for many refugees heading out of Donetsk, and these internally displaced people (I.D.P.’s) tend to get a mixed reception. The government in Kiev had marched into what it was calling the Anti-Terrorist Operation zone (A.T.O.) without establishing any real evacuation plan for residents of the area. The task of moving and resettling them was left to NGOs and civilian volunteers. There was sympathy for the refugees in Dnipro, but there was also a lot of suspicion, scorn, and even vitriol.

Of course, contempt for I.D.P.’s was also common in western Ukraine, where the old stereotypes of the east as Soviet and bad still prevailed. In Kiev, I had met Katrusya, a young woman who carried a baseball bat in her car because a family of I.D.P.’s had settled on her block. Her car had a red-and-black Right Sector flag on it, and she worried that her new neighbors might beat her for her political beliefs. Or just because they were violent criminals. Either way, she wasn’t happy they had moved in, though the situation has since improved.

Her friend Rodion, a volunteer fighter in the Ukrainian army who also delivered donated supplies to units on the eastern front, took it a step further. “These people are not Ukrainians,” he told me. He insisted that after the Holodomor killed everybody in Donbas (a traditional name for the eastern part of the country), the Soviets had simply repopulated the area with the dregs of their own society. It was, he said, where “all former criminals from the whole territory of the U.S.S.R. were moved to live. That is why Donbas is a criminal enclave within Ukraine.”

Still, Dnipro was next door to this criminal enclave, and was presumed to be the next city in line should the Russian-backed separatists advance deeper into the heart of Ukraine. Shouldn’t there be an extra modicum of sympathy for people driven from their homes? Not necessarily.

Dnipro Assistance, an NGO dedicated to refugees, is housed on the third floor of an old building in the city center. When I visisted, I.D.P.’s waited on benches in a drafty hallway to be registered. Some had come for humanitarian aid: an office distributed clothing, shoes, and toys. Others were looking for housing, or attempting to collect pension and welfare payments. Kiev had recently cut off all such services to people living in the A.T.O.

Irina Bulyshova, a psychologist at the organization, told me that as many as a hundred refugees pass through the office each day. Bulyshova resembled a harried gym teacher, her long blond hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, multiple sets of keys jingling in one hand and a phone, which never stopped ringing, in the other. An elderly couple who had arrived in Dnipro that morning wanted to know whether they could list the NGO as their residence in order to get their pension checks.

“No,” Bulyshova said.

The old woman, wearing a fur coat and hat, said that she and her husband had no money and nowhere to go. They hadn’t received their pension in weeks. The journey through the rebel and government checkpoints to get to Dnipro had been stressful, and the couple seemed to be in shock, unsure about what to do next.

“Whatever address you list, we’ll check it,” Bulyshova told them.

“Stop frightening me, young woman,” came the reply. “I understand.”

“I’m not scaring you, I’m just warning you.”

“Please,” the woman said. She stood over her husband, a weathered man in a puffy jacket. “We understood everything.”

“People who come here for pensions, we’re not even obligated to help you,” Bulyshova added. “This is a government matter.” She left the pair with another worker to complete their registration. As we walked out, they were silent, shuffling their papers. The old man hadn’t said a word, just held on tightly to his satchel.

Later, Bulyshova insisted that the woman was gaming the system, hoping to collect her pension before returning home to Donetsk. “That woman is old,” she said, “but her head works. She came with a plan.” Bulyshova said she could pick out the liars and cheats by asking just a few questions.

My heart sank. The elderly couple had worked their whole lives for their pension, only to be treated like scam artists when they tried to collect it. Weren’t they still citizens of Ukraine, even if the Russians had invaded their city? And if they wanted to return home after collecting their checks, could you really blame them?

For Bulyshova, these were sentimental questions that weighed little in her calculations. After all, 610,000 people had by then fled the fighting in the east, and 66,100 of those refugees had registered in Dnipro. There was an acute housing shortage, and every I.D.P. who registered in the city for the sake of convenience and then sneaked back to Donetsk was taking a spot away from a truly deserving (i.e., pro-Ukrainian) refugee.

Ultimately, Bulyshova was taking a page from her government’s playbook. President Poroshenko has persistently used us-versus-them rhetoric, even when it comes to social services. As he told an audience in October:

We will have pensions, they won’t! We will have care for our children and pensioners and they won’t! Our children will go to school and kindergartens, and theirs will sit in basements!

Gesticulating from the podium, he seemed to forget that these outcasts — the penniless pensioners and the children in bomb shelters — were his citizens, too.

What Bulyshova really needed, she told me, was a policeman on the premises. Then the dubious I.D.P.’s could be ushered straight into their arms, and the center’s workers would feel safer. “There are lots of marginals and agitators,” she told me. “We’re not going to be patient with them.”

The road into the Donetsk People’s Republic (D.N.R.) passed snow-covered fields lined by poplar trees, the dew frozen on their branches. On the day I entered, last winter, there was no shelling along my route — just craters from recent attacks.

Yet the war, and the other wars that preceded it, were everywhere. During the early 1940s, hundreds of thousands died around Donetsk as the Red Army tried to wrest the city away from the Germans. In 1963, the Soviets built a massive complex, called the Savur-Mogila Memorial, to commemorate the battle for a strategic hill east of the city. But last summer, artillery attacks finally toppled the site’s soaring stone obelisk and damaged most of the surrounding structures.

When I stopped at the complex, the hill was covered in fog and snow. Spent bullet casings from the current conflict were everywhere, and the names of Red Army soldiers who had perished during the Second World War were engraved on a monolith at the bottom of the memorial grounds. Across the way were twenty-three fresh graves, topped with wooden crosses and wreaths, in which separatist fighters were buried.

The scene on the snowy hillside, where thousands of Ukrainians and Russians had come to rest together, suggested a shared history. At Donetsk National University, meanwhile, Sergei Baryshnikov was energetically erasing any such idea. When we met, the squat professor and university director had a St. George ribbon pinned to his vest and a D.N.R. flag on his desk. He greeted me by saluting the framed portrait of Vladimir Putin that was hanging on his office wall.

Baryshnikov explained that he had taught at the university for twenty years before being run out, in 2012, because of his pro-Russian views. Now, however, he was back — with a vengeance. He is one of the main promoters of Novorossiya, or New Russia, a Moscow-friendly ideology that takes its name from the eighteenth-century term for eastern Ukraine. All education would now be conducted in Russian, he told me gleefully. As we spoke, he puttered around the office and removed Ukrainian-language books from his shelves.

“I’m not fighting on the front,” Baryshnikov said, “but I have another battle.”

His recent victories included rewriting the standard university curriculum. Instead of taking classes on Ukrainian history, college students would now study Patriotic and Regional History, with much less emphasis on the Holodomor (which, Baryshnikov said, the central government used to “make a few points in its collection of lies”). He added that Ukrainian wasn’t a real ethnicity and that the language was merely a Russian dialect, a “fake, primitive, folklore language.” The biggest problem, he said, was that the university had no internationally recognizable diplomas to bestow on its graduates. Baryshnikov was working on it.

I met Cid and his family at a café in central Donetsk. Cid (a nom de guerre, borrowed from the legendary Spanish insurgent) was a genial, soft-spoken forty-year-old with bright blue eyes and a graying crew cut. He had worked as a middle manager in a construction firm, earning decent money; his wife, whom I will call Isida, was an administrator at a local college; and their twenty-year-old son, whom I will call Ares, was a policeman. The family had worked hard, planted a huge garden behind their house, and voted for Yanukovych in both elections.

They had watched the Euromaidan protests in Kiev with trepidation. Cid told me that he hadn’t understood why the demonstrators couldn’t wait for the following year’s elections to choose a new president. Then, on May 2, 2014, a fire in Odessa killed almost forty pro-Russian protesters. It’s not clear what really happened that day: pro-Ukrainians, avenging a prior attack on their own ranks, had chased a group of pro-Russians into a building, which then caught fire. Whether arson or an accident caused the fire is still not known. But the Russian media quickly suggested that Ukrainian nationalists were taking the first step toward a slaughter.

Cid watched the events unfold on television. “I went insane,” he told me. He was convinced that his family would be next, and four weeks later, he crossed over from Yasynuvata — a village still under Ukrainian control — to join the separatist militia in the “liberated territory” of Donetsk.

Isida joined him at the beginning of August. Both parents urged their son to stay behind, but by the end of the month he had crossed over as well. The entire family enlisted in the Oplot Battalion of the Donbas People’s Militia. Cid was a unit commander. Ares worked in explosives, digging up and dismantling land mines. Isida was a cook.

The family told me that there was no turning back. As long as Yasynuvata belonged to Ukraine, they would never go home. “They’ll shoot me there,” Cid explained. “They’ll shoot all of us, and before that, they’ll torture us. That’s how it is.” Like their counterparts in the west, who assume that everybody in Donbas is a Soviet idiot and a criminal, the family has a jaundiced view of the Euromaidan protesters (paid agitators on drugs) and the Ukrainian army (rapists, psychopaths, criminals). And they don’t appreciate being viewed as idiots.

“In 2004, we stepped back and waved our hands, fine, let your Yushchenko be,” Cid told me. “Then Yushchenko gave the Hero of Ukraine to someone the Nuremberg trials found to have committed crimes against humanity: Stepan Bandera.”

Bandera was never actually brought before the Nuremberg trials. Still, the whole family seemed aggrieved at Yushchenko’s rewriting of history. Isida recalled that over time her son’s textbooks made less and less sense. “There was such garbage written in there,” she said. “I couldn’t understand if it was even about Ukraine. The real heroes weren’t there. It was like the Great Patriotic War never happened.”

Of course, Cid and his family hadn’t gone to war over the high-school curriculum, and although they displayed some nostalgia for the U.S.S.R., they weren’t pensioners reminiscing about the good old days. In their minds, they had suffered too many insults; the revised textbooks were one more drop in the bucket. Isida was still fuming over what she viewed as the politicization of the 2005 Eurovision Song Contest, when Ukraine’s vice prime minister backed a band called GreenJolly to represent the nation. The band was best known for its performance of “Together We Are Many,” the unofficial anthem of the Orange Revolution. But when it came time for the international competition, GreenJolly tanked, placing nineteenth out of twenty-four entrants. To add insult to injury, 2005 was the year that Ukraine hosted the contest. “We have such talented singers,” Isida told me mournfully.

“Why do they hate us?” Ares said. “What did we do?”

“We’re not fighting against Ukrainians, we’re fighting against fascism,” Cid said. “Because intolerance to another perspective is fascism.” Only when the nation had its own version of the Nuremberg trials, he insisted, could there be “talk about a united Ukraine.”

“I don’t want a united Ukraine,” Isida said. “Maybe a united Ukraine but without the western part. They don’t want to be with us.”

“The oligarchs set them this way,” Cid countered.

“But they were fed this with their mothers’ milk. They don’t want to be with us ever.”

“The next generation, if we do it right,” Cid told her.

This was the vexing thing about Ukraine: the demand for justice came from both sides. Everybody was tired of the nation’s oligarchs, its corruption, its daily assault on the dignity of every citizen. The Euromaidan protesters looked toward Europe, the east looked toward Russia. When I told people that I didn’t think either geopolitical ally would be much help, they agreed. Still, Ukrainians remained divided, looking for heroes from the past and seeking help from across the border, any border.

After five weeks in Ukraine, I was anxious to leave its psychological and physical fragmentation behind. As someone had told me during an earlier trip, there wasn’t a park in the entire country that held statues of both Lenin and Bandera, and no one seemed interested in building one. Of course the threat (and then the reality) of Russian interference had boosted nationalistic and patriotic sentiments, but I feared that these were merely manifestations of more durable and dangerous social problems.

Even if you took the Western narrative at face value — that Putin was the big bad wolf who blew Ukraine’s house down — why was it so easy? The foundations must have been rotten, cobbled together after decades of woozy, cynical, agitated speculation about Ukrainian identity.

It was hard to be optimistic about the new national narrative when it intentionally excluded large segments of the population and played on the same stereotypes that fueled the conflict to begin with. Stodgy museums and nation-building projects aside, the friction owed much to the way people perceived one another today. The civilians in the east viewed the west as their enemy — and it was, of course, their own military that was shelling them while they slept. Those in the west viewed the east as their enemy — and not only for their secessionist treachery. There was no real campaign for hearts and minds from either side. When the war ended, if it ever did, how would the nation find enough common ground to heal itself?

After I left, I found myself thinking a lot about a woman I had met in Donetsk. Marina Tkachenko’s family tree looked like the result of a complicated scavenger hunt. Her mother is ethnic Russian and her great-grandmother was Jewish. Her father is Ukrainian, though his mother was Russian and his father, a veteran of the Soviet army, was a Jew who reinvented himself as Ukrainian.

“Everyone is confused, Ukrainians are confused, we are confused,” she told me. “Who am I now? Russian? Ukrainian? My nationality is the D.N.R.? What is that? It’s a real question. Am I no one?”

Tkachenko told me that she hoped the east would return to Ukraine but that she wasn’t sure it was possible after so much blood had been spilled. Her brother had tried to join the Ukrainian National Guard and her father had tried to join a separatist militia. Both men had announced their intentions on the same night in November. Tkachenko’s mother called her, wailing and weeping. When Tkachenko got to their apartment, she gathered them in the living room. “God, I’m so sick of you!” she exclaimed. “What’s wrong with your heads? Calm down, we’ll survive!”

“What will be okay when bombs are flying at us?” her father shouted.

“Good thing they are flying!” her brother shouted back. “I’ll go! I’ll bomb everything!”

Father and son lunged at each other like rabid dogs. Tkachenko recalled that they were blue from hate. The women pulled them apart and into separate rooms, made tea, and then tried to reason with them in the kitchen. While her mother talked, Tkachenko rooted around in the family’s files. She quietly pocketed her brother’s certificate of basic training, and then her father’s — documents they would require in order to serve in their respective military groups. She hasn’t returned them since.

’s most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Guns and Poses,” appeared in the December 2014 issue. Her work on this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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October 2012

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