Letter from Ukraine — From the July 2015 issue

Fugue State

The struggle for national identity in wartime Ukraine

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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

3 Dnipro’s name, too, has become a bone of contention. Until 1926, it was called Yekaterinoslav, after the Russian empress Catherine II, who laid the cornerstone of the city’s cathedral in 1787. But as a local historian explained to me, the second half of “Dnipropetrovsk” refers to Grigory Petrovsky — a Soviet politician who was one of the organizers of the Holodomor. If President Poroshenko signs the recent desovietization law, the city will have to change its name.

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

4 Shortly after we spoke, Filatov resigned from his position in order to enter the Ukrainian Parliament.

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.”

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’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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