A pro-Russian activist holds an icon in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, 9 April. Photo: Getty
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In eastern Ukraine, the protesters wait for Russia to take charge

Standing in front of the barricades, two pensioners held up a banner with “For ever with Russia” emblazoned across it. The sentiment was uniform and unambiguous.

To set out from the ancient city of Odessa to travel to Donetsk in eastern Ukraine is to cross both time and space. Having attended some low-key demonstrations in Odessa, I wanted to go into Ukraine’s pro-Russia heartlands, and managed to hitch a lift to make the 500-mile journey.

The drive on potholed roads was tough but instructive. As we travelled east, Russian – or more correctly Soviet – influence seeped into the landscape. Road signs just outside Odessa championing a “united Ukraine” gave way to Stalinist statues of heroes from the Great Patriotic War. Huge, grey industrial buildings dotted a flat countryside of sunflower crops and deserted fields. In Mykolaiv, a former Soviet shipbuilding town that we passed along the way, a Soviet tank stood out on a plinth near the city centre.

As we approached Donetsk, we were flagged down by several policemen wielding machine-guns. They wanted to know why we were going to the city and, more urgently, if we were journalists. They didn’t seem particularly satisfied by our answers but our documents were in order and the bureaucratic impulse common to all officials in Ukraine took over and they waved us on our way.

Donetsk is an industrial town about 80 miles from the border with Russia. It is predominantly Russian-speaking and home to a significant pro-Russia population. Since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea in late February, supportive demonstrations have erupted in cities across Ukraine, particularly near the border.

On 6 April, pro-Kremlin activists seized Donetsk’s city hall just off Lenin Square and proclaimed the creation of a “people’s republic”. They called on Putin to send a “peacekeeping contingent of the Russian army” to support them and demanded that a referendum on secession from Ukraine be held by 11 May.

“Referendum” was the cry I heard everywhere on the morning of 7 April as I stood outside the seized building with as many as a thousand pro-Russia activists. The main square was a field of Russian and Soviet flags. The hammer and sickle was ubiquitous.

Standing just in front of the newly erected barricades that surrounded the building, two pensioners held up a banner with “For ever with Russia” emblazoned across it. The sentiment was uniform and unambiguous.

The scene was calm but the mood was hostile and suspicious. Several people demanded to know where I was from and some expressed contempt for the western media. Masked men with bats and sticks patrolled the crowds, mingling with old ladies who didn’t share their reticence. Indeed, they were eager to talk of their disgust with the “criminal government in Kyiv” and to argue that the presidential election scheduled for 25 May is illegitimate.

Language is perhaps the most important issue for the people here. On 23 February, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a bill repealing the law on minority languages, which gave Russian and other tongues “regional language” status. This allowed for their use in courts, schools and other government institutions, if certain criteria were fulfilled. The new bill in effect made Ukrainian the sole state language. People in Donetsk were desperate to tell me that the government in Kyiv was trying to eradicate their language from Ukraine. The bill was vetoed by Ukraine’s president – but the people here believe the sentiment behind it lives on in Kyiv.

Kyiv has accused Moscow of encouraging demonstrations in the east and of fomenting civil unrest in order to destabilise Ukraine further. Moscow has accused the new Ukrainian government of incompetence and illegitimacy. The feeling in Kyiv and in the nationalistic heartlands of western Ukraine is that Moscow wants to take control of more parts of the country. Significant numbers of the people I spoke to were convinced that the Russians will invade in the coming weeks.

Many of the protesters in Donetsk would welcome that invasion. They believe they are under siege and are looking to Russia to save them. Fuelled by a sense of superiority made worse by a persecution complex, they are unpredictable and quick to anger, as I discovered when I was mingling with the crowds.

Thousands of pro-Russia activists also seized state buildings in Kharkiv, as well as the security service headquarters in the eastern region of Lugansk. The Ukrainian government claims that most of the activists are paid-up Moscow stooges bussed in to the cities. Both sides are in a heightened state of readiness for what they think may be coming. Neither is going to back down and it is clear that Ukraine’s problems are just beginning.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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The joy of only winning once: why England should be proud of 1966

We feel the glory of that triumphant moment, 50 years ago, all the more because of all the other occasions when we have failed to win.

There’s a phrase in football that I really hate. It used to be “Thirty years of hurt”. Each time the England team crashes out of a major tournament it gets regurgitated with extra years added. Rather predictably, when England lost to Iceland in Euro 2016, it became “Fifty years of hurt”. We’ve never won the European Championship and in 17 attempts to win the World Cup we have only won once. I’m going to tell you why that’s a record to cherish.

I was seven in 1966. Our telly was broken so I had to watch the World Cup final with a neighbour. I sat squeezed on my friend Colin’s settee as his dad cheered on England with phrases like “Sock it to them Bobby”, as old fashioned now as a football rattle. When England took the lead for the second time I remember thinking, what will it feel like, when we English are actually Champions of the World. Not long after I knew. It felt good.

Wembley Stadium, 30 July 1966, was our only ever World Cup win. But let’s imagine what it would be like if, as with our rivals, we’d won it many times? Brazil have been World Champions on five occasions, Germany four, and Italy four. Most England fans would be “over the moon” if they could boast a similarly glorious record. They’re wrong. I believe it’s wonderful that we’ve only triumphed once. We all share that one single powerful memory. Sometimes in life less is definitely more.

Something extraordinary has happened. Few of us are even old enough to remember, but somehow, we all know everything that happened that day. Even if you care little about the beautiful game, I’m going to bet that you can recall as many as five iconic moments from 50 years ago. You will have clearly in your mind the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme’s famous lines, as Geoff Hurst tore down the pitch to score his hat-trick: “Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now”. And it was. 4 - 2 to England against West Germany. Thirty minutes earlier the Germans had equalised in the dying moments of the second half to take the game to extra time.

More drama we all share: Geoff Hurst’s second goal. Or the goal that wasn’t, as technology has since, I think, conclusively proved. The shot that crashed off the cross bar and did or didn’t cross the line. Of course, even if you weren’t alive at the time, you will know that the linesman, one Tofiq Bakhramov, from Azerbaijan (often incorrectly referred to as “Russian”) could speak not a word of English, signalled it as a goal.

Then there’s the England Captain, the oh-so-young and handsome Bobby Moore. The very embodiment of the era. You can picture him now wiping his muddy hands on his white shorts before he shakes hands with a youthful Queen Elizabeth. Later you see him lifted aloft by his team mates holding the small golden Jules Rimet trophy.

How incredible, how simply marvellous that as a nation we share such golden memories. How sad for the Brazilians and Germans. Their more numerous triumphs are dissipated through the generations. In those countries each generation will remember each victory but not with the intensity with which we English still celebrate 1966. It’s as if sex was best the first time. The first cut is the deepest.

On Colin’s dad’s TV the pictures were black and white and so were the flags. Recently I looked at the full colour Pathe newsreel of the game. It’s the red, white and blue of the Union Jack that dominates. The red cross of Saint George didn’t really come into prominence until the Nineties. The left don’t like flags much, unless they’re “deepest red”. Certainly not the Union Flag. It smacks of imperialism perhaps. In 1966 we didn’t seem to know if we were English or British. Maybe there was, and still is, something admirable and casual about not knowing who we are or what is our proper flag. 

Twelve years later I’m in Cuba at the “World Festival of Youth” – the only occasion I’ve represented my country. It was my chance to march into a stadium under my nation’s flag. Sadly, it never happened as my fellow delegates argued for hours over what, if any, flag we British should walk behind. The delegation leaders – you will have heard of them now, but they were young and unknown then – Peter Mandelson, Trevor Phillips and Charles Clarke, had to find a way out of this impasse. In the end, each delegation walked into the stadium behind their flag, except the British. Poor Mandelson stood alone for hours holding Union Jack, sweltering in the tropical sun. No other country seemed to have a problem with their flag. I guess theirs speak of revolution; ours of colonialism.

On Saturday 30 July BBC Radio 2 will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final, live from Wembley Arena. Such a celebration is only possible because on 16 occasions we failed to win that trophy. Let’s banish this idea of “Fifty years of hurt” once and for all and embrace the joy of only winning once.

Phil Jones edits the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2. On Saturday 30 July the station celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1966 World Cup Final live from Wembley Arena, telling the story of football’s most famous match, minute by minuteTickets are available from: www.wc66.org