In Ukraine crisis, the family feud that is divided Donetsk

One country or two? The Eastern Ukraine region of Donetsk is having its Quebec moment where families and friends either disagree furiously over separation, or learn to bite their tongues.

In Eastern Ukraine, emotions can run high on both sides of the barricades

A pro-Russia protester shout slogans and waves a Russian flag outside the regional government building in Donetsk, barricaded by anti-Kyiv protesters, in Eastern Ukraine. (Marko Djurica / Reuters)

When university student Alexander Gnezdelov joined the masked men taking over the state government building in Donetsk earlier this month, he believed it was for a good cause.

The building has since become a second home for Gnezdelov, and a last stand for dozens of others who dream of a self-determining Donetsk.

"To control this building, it's like symbolic," he said in an interview within view of the building, now surrounded by piles of tires, gleaming razor wire, sandbags and a constant crowd.

"This building is not private property, it belongs to the people. To all people…it's our property."

For those now inside it is also a giant, concrete bargaining chip.

Under a deal last week between Russia and Ukraine, the interim government in Kyiv offered amnesty to anyone involved in the armed occupation of some 10 buildings in Eastern Ukraine, most of them in the administrative region of Donetsk.

So far, there have been no reports of anyone taking up the offer. Even after the brief clash earlier today (Thursday) between Ukraine's military and a similar group of pro-Russia separatists in Slavyansk, about 100 kilometres away.

"If we take the amnesty, that means we will just give up," says Gnezdelov, who in regular life, studies Russian literature in Donetsk.

And for him that would simply make a mockery of what the protest has been all about.

Alexander Gnezdelov: "We didn't have democracy here in Ukraine. The politics is just about criminal oligarchs fighting each other for power." (Pascal Leblond / CBC)

"We didn't have democracy here in Ukraine," he says. "The politics is just about some criminal oligarchs, fighting each other for power.

"We cannot tolerate Kiev anymore. We cannot tolerate all the corruption."

Gnezdelov, who says he is the only English speaker in the building, has become the de facto foreign press spokesman for the group.

He defies the menacing images of the pro-Russian masked men wielding guns or baseball bats who have come to represent his side of Donetsk's divide, and he makes the point that it is not imperative that Donetsk join Russia, as long as it becomes independent of Ukraine.

For anyone looking to reduce events here on the ground to a simple black and white, Cold War narrative, Gnezdelov and his fellow Eastern Ukrainians — on all sides — can make you think again.

'I want to live in Ukraine'

Take Olesya Bobrus, a bright multilingual woman who has just returned to Donetsk from intensive language training in London to look for a job.

She is proudly Ukrainian (recently, she says, much more so) and literally wears it on her sleeve. Both she and her mother put on traditional embroidered Ukrainian shirts for church on Easter Sunday.

"Now I want to learn my history more," she says. "I want my children to speak Ukrainian.

"I don't want to live in another country," meaning Russia, she says. "I want to live in Ukraine, because I was born here."

Olesya Bobrus with her mother, Elena: "I want to live in Ukraine" where I was born, Olesya says. (Nahlah Ayed / CBC)

And yet as a product of a region where most people speak Russian — and as the granddaughter of an ethnic Russian who is still very proud of his roots — Bobrus is keenly aware that she lives with the kind of nuances that the rest of the world often fails to understand.

"I speak Russian," she says. "A lot of people say 'I don't want my children to watch movies in Ukrainian language.' But in my opinion, we have to know our native language, but we also have a right to speak, think and write in Russian if we want."

Bobrus also believes that Vladimir Putin's Russia is trying to destabilize Ukraine, which is what has led to the family feud among the people of this region.

"Many of my friends think they want to be separate" from Ukraine, she explains. "We are trying just not to speak about it when we spend time together."

Still, she decided to wear her Ukrainian shirt, and walk down to the state administration building, the one that Gnezdelov helped take over, to try to talk to people with the opposing view.

"It was a little bit dangerous for me," she admits. "But if you are strong in your mind, if you don't provoke each other — you're from the same city, you can feel each other. It doesn't matter which views we have."

One country or two?

It is, in fact, a debate that is happening daily, within families, at workplaces and schools, in a place still buzzing with the regular rhythm of life despite the obvious tension of the larger standoff.

Even without Bobrus' visit to the state building, her world intersects with Gnezdelov's almost daily.

If not at the breakfast table with her Russian grandfather — a fan of Putin's — then in the streets, in the markets, at the cafes she frequents with her separatist-minded friends.

Their worlds also intersect along some fundamental beliefs, like that the status quo is no longer working.

And that it's the politicians and outside interests who have exacerbated what was, until recently, a familiar, if not always comfortable, divide.

"It's a very dangerous moment in my country now," Bobrus says, "because some politicians, they're playing a game.

"I speak not just about Ukrainian politicians, but about Russian also. I think they are trying to divide our country."

Both she and Gnezdelov believe it should be Ukrainians alone who decide how to manage their differences, to get out of this crisis.

A monk blesses a pro-Russian activist outside a regional government building in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, as Ukraine's military tried to take down a similar occupation in Slavyansk, about 100 km away. (Baz Ratner / Reuters)

Gnezdelov, too, says that all international players should simply "leave us alone and let us solve our own problem. We don't really need any influence, either from Russia or the U.S. or Europe."

Where they differ though, is over whether Ukraine should be divided.

Unlike Bobrus, Gnezdelov says that given the history of Ukraine's origins as a country, this conflict was inevitable.

"Ukraine is a Frankenstein monster," he says. "Ukraine was just a region of one big country and nobody could predict that someday Ukraine would be independent."

For him, the western and eastern portions of Ukraine are just too different — culturally, ethnically and economically — to remain as one.

So he remains in the building, hoping the powers in Kyiv will agree to his group's demand to hold a referendum on the future of the country.

"Inside of the building, I feel like I have nothing to be afraid of. What I'm afraid of is that Kyiv will send forces here and I will be arrested."

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Foreign Correspondent

Nahlah Ayed is a CBC News correspondent based in London. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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