The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

March 1, 2014

At heart of Ukraine drama, a tale of two countries

DONETSK, Ukraine — In the afternoon, when the shift ends at the coal mine and the miners walk out into the cold and past the old concrete statue of Lenin, they often head to a tiny corner store a block away. There they'll stand in the parking lot for a while, drinking little bottles of the vodka called "Truthful."

They know what is happening in Kiev, the capital city that can seem so far away. They've seen pictures of the democracy protesters shot dead in Kiev's streets, and the TV reports on the mansions of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, the one-time thug and pro-Russia politician who grew up in this far-eastern city. They watched from afar this week as protesters, many from western Ukraine, helped form the country's new government.

They don't like it at all.

"I have always felt that we are so different," said a miner who gave his name only as Nikolai, a thickset 35-year-old who went from high school directly into the mines. People speak Russian across most of Ukraine's east, and worship in onion-domed Orthodox churches. They were shaped by 70 years of Soviet rule and its celebration of socialist industrialization, and by the Russian empire before that. To them, the government is now being run by outsiders who care little for this side of the country. "If they try to pressure us, our region will revolt."

His words are echoed — except for a few key words — in a conversation 800 miles (1,250 kilometers) to the west, in a medieval cobblestoned city, Ukrainian-speaking residents and houses displaying the EU flag and its yellow stars.

"We are simply different people from those living in the East," said Ludmila Petrova, a university student in Lviv, a hotbed of support for Ukraine's pro-democracy forces and opposition to Yanukovych. "They don't know what the West is. We have a different history. Maybe it is better that we separate once and for all."

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