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9 July 2015

This is what it’s like to be a Russian in Kiev

The growing feud between the two nations is traumatising: nearly everyone in Russia has relatives in Ukraine.

By Jana Bakunina

As a Russian, I felt apprehensive, stepping off the plane in Kiev. Since the so-called Euromaidan revolution, which led to the ousting of the incumbent president Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014, the Ukrainians have plenty of reasons to dislike the Russians. Yanukovich, whose corrupt regime caused the public to begin a peaceful protest on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in the capital of Ukraine in November 2013, is now reportedly hiding near Moscow, having fled from Kiev after the riot police had opened fire against the protesters. The Crimea, a peninsula in southern Ukraine (transferred from the Russian to the Ukrainian republic within the USSR in 1954), was annexed by Russia in March 2014, following the referendum, which had breached the constitution of Ukraine. The civil war in eastern Ukraine between the Donbas (the area of the river Donets) separatists and the government forces has been fuelled by Kremlin from the outset. Since the beginning of the conflict, at least 6,500 people have been documented as killed and another 16,287 as wounded, according to the UN

It was a relief to enter Kiev’s metro, so uncannily similar to Moscow’s, step out to Khreschatyk, Kiev’s main street, as grand and leafy as any Moscow boulevard, and to hear Russian being spoken as commonly as Ukrainian. An imposing building between Khreschatyk metro station and Maidan was unmistakably a smaller cousin of Stalinskie vysotki, a product of Stalin’s urban architecture of 1950s. The golden domes of St. Michael’s Cathedral in the prevalent Baroque style favoured by the Orthodox Church in the 18th century, looked familiar too. 

Russia and Ukraine’s shared history dates back to the end of the 9th century when Oleg, son of Varangian chieftain Ryurik, who had first united and settled nomadic Eastern Slavs, took Kiev and established Kievan Rus’, the precursor to the Russian Empire. Throughout the centuries the countries were united in fighting the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Ottoman Empire and Napoleon. Both Russians and Ukrainians suffered through the famine of the early 1930s, Stalinist repressions and the World War Two. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the relations between the two states and especially their people remained amicable. 

The Kievan Lavra complex. Photo: Jana Bakunina

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This is what I was hoping for, when I came to Kiev. In stark contrast to the animosity cultivated by the mass media in the last eighteen months, I found genuine hospitality. People I spoke to were happy to talk to me in Russian and discussed current events openly. Resentment of Putin is pervasive, but the hardest thing for the Ukrainians to accept is that their Russian relatives and friends believe no Russian troops are fighting in Donbas. “Putin has brainwashed them all,” complained a soft drinks vendor by the People’s Friendship Arch (built in 1980s to commemorate friendship between Ukrainian and Russian republics of the Soviet Union.) “I no longer talk to my family in Russia because we end up fighting.” The growing feud between the two nations is traumatising: nearly everyone in Russia has relatives in Ukraine. 

Amidst challenging times in both countries, I could not help but notice that Kiev’s vibe had felt dramatically different from Moscow’s. Despite skyrocketing prices and social problems with over a million of internally displaced people due to the ongoing conflict, Kiev’s streets were buzzing. Young and hip artists rocked the streets; in city’s many parks entrepreneurs sold iced lattes and homemade lemonade from the back of their cars. “People think and say what they want. It was not possible under Yanukovich,” explained a 37-year old IT consultant. Even a club of chess enthusiasts in their sixties, playing in Kiev’s Shevchenko Park, talked to me about the new sense of freedom. “We have become more aware and independent after decades of being told what to do.”

Just over a month ago I was in Moscow for the Victory Day celebrations (pictured above). People there seemed less willing to talk and generally suspicious. Was that because I asked them whether we need a grand military parade to commemorate peace or because of my slight western accent? Even my cousin was cautious not to talk in public about the sanctions against Russia or his fears about his son being drafted to join the army. Only in the privacy of his own kitchen did we talk about people being laid off without compensation, media propaganda focussing on foreign affairs and steering attention away from the country’s economic problems. “It’s just like in Zvyagintsev’s film Leviathan: if you keep quiet and accept things as they are, you’ll stay out of harm’s way,” said my cousin with a sigh. 

When Crimeans voted to join Russia in early 2014, I thought result (however exaggerated) reflected common sense. I too would have preferred the promise of stability in a larger economy to the chaos of post-Euromaidan Ukraine. Besides, for a Russian, it’s not uncommon to think of Ukraine as a “little brother”, a follower, not the leader. I have now changed my mind. The optimistic, liberal spirit of Kiev would get my vote. Anna Sankina, mother of two I had met in Kiev, put it bluntly: “People in Ukraine realise how shitty their lives are. Russians don’t.”

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