The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

March 1, 2014

At heart of Ukraine drama, a tale of two countries

(Continued)

If Ukraine looks neatly delineated on maps, its often-bloody history is a tangle of invasions and occupations, peoples and beliefs. It is a place that has been struggling for centuries to define itself. And now it finds itself so sharply divided — between support for Russia on one side of the country and loyalty to the West on the other — that it often seems more like two countries than one.

On opposite sides of Ukraine, two cities, each of about 1 million people, illustrate that divide.

The eastern city of Donetsk can seem like a cliche of post-Soviet grimness, a place of Stalinist-era apartment blocks, tin-roofed shacks and loyalty to Russia. In the west, Lviv has emerged as a center for Ukrainian artists and writers, a huge draw for European tourists and a city desperate for closer ties to the West.

To the fiercest pessimists, as well as to extremists on both sides, the cities are already in different nations.

"The country is already separated," said Ivan Reyko, a 30-year-old factory worker from Donetsk who joined a recent demonstration of about 100 people in the city's main plaza, Lenin Square, where a 30-foot-tall statue of the Soviet hero gazes proudly toward the horizon. "There is no way back to a united Ukraine."

A recent series of ominous signs has diplomats warning the region could easily stumble into widespread violence. Among them: military drills just across the border by 150,000 Russian soldiers, and the seizure of the parliament building in the Russian-speaking region of Crimea by unidentified gunmen, who flew the Russian flag and chanted "Crimea is Russia."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been long dreaming of pulling Ukraine, a sprawling country of 46 million seen as the ancient cradle of Slavic civilization, closer to Moscow.

In Lviv, though, a bookish, soft-spoken mayor is dreaming of something else.

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