Old resentments among ethnic Russians spark unrest in Ukraine

September 01, 1991|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

DONETSK, U.S.S.R. -- They haven't gotten around to tearing down the Lenin monument yet, but the father of Soviet communism has always been overshadowed here anyway -- by a huge black statue of a muscular coal miner, striding forward with a lump of anthracite in his outstretched hand, determined, energetic, uncomplicated.

Donetsk is the capital of coal, and it looks it and smells it.

It is also the capital of trouble for the Ukrainian politicians in distant Kiev eagerly pushing their republic toward independence, because most of the people of Donetsk and the surrounding Donbass coalfields are Russians, through and through.

Their hero is Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. Their language is Russian. Their contempt for the Ukrainian political leaders in Kiev, who saw the light of anti-communism only after the collapse of the August putsch, is palpable.

The unhappiness in Donetsk is just part of a much bigger picture: The failure of the coup has let loose immense forces of change and disruption that are sweeping the Soviet Union, carrying with them the promise of democracy but also the threat of disintegration and violence.

"I don't know what independence means," said a disgusted Vadim Zemlanko, a retired miner. "We weren't taught independence. The nationalists are looking for power, but they have no program."

The Ukraine -- with its 52 million people, its 25 percent share of the Soviet Union's agriculture, and its reserves of coal and iron ore and the industries that go with them -- is now becoming the wild card of Soviet politics.

It is the second most important of the 15 Soviet republics, and with the abject failure of the coup, its leaders suddenly became hell-bent for independence.

But there is a dangerous undertow of old resentments and new mistrust.

Once, the 11.3 million Russians living here seemed to embody the iron control of Moscow, and liberal Ukrainian democrats promoted Ukrainian culture and formed an independence movement.

Leonid Kravchuk, the Communist parliamentary chairman, resisted them at first and then began moving in their direction, but he never favored a real break -- until the end of the coup.

Now things are turning backwards. Russia has a democratic government, and it is Mr. Kravchuk who suddenly wants to keep it at arm's length, whipping up nationalist feeling and standing four-square for an independent Ukraine.

In Kiev last week, he warned other republics -- namely Russia -- against trying to "drive for a czarist empire."

Here in Donetsk, though, Mr. Kravchuk's thrust for independence is seen in a different light. The Rev. Sergei Kirienko, pastor of St. Nicholas Church, thinks the Ukrainian leader is trying to seal off the republic from Russia's democratic influence and make the Ukraine a safe haven for unrepentant Communists and dangerous nationalists.

"The Communist Party is still strong in the Ukraine," even though the party was suspended after the coup, said Ilya Likhachev, a 25-year-old graduate student. "And independence will only make stronger. It is much easier to manipulate people when they are divided."

Mr. Yeltsin's Russian government played into the nationalists' hands last week with a suggestion that Russia assume control of the Donbass region and the Crimea, where ethnic Russians also predominate.

The Ukrainians, not surprisingly, were loudly upset with the idea, and in a hastily convened late-night bargaining session the Russian and Ukrainian governments agreed not to tinker with borders for the time being.

"This could become a serious source of conflicts. There are dangers for everyone," warned Mr. Kravchuk.

Some people in Donetsk, like Valeri Doynikov, think it would be better to go ahead and join Russia.

"The Russian government is more democratic," he said, and he worried about discrimination against ethnic Russians by an independent Ukrainian government.

But others were unhappy that the issue had to come up at all. Politicians from the western Ukraine, where national feeling is strongest, talk about 300 years of slavery under the Russian heel, but here in the east most people have simply considered themselves Russians down through the years.

"This region is absolutely different from the rest of the republic," said Father Kirienko. "Disunity is very unnatural. It won't benefit anyone.

"From the point of view of the church, there shouldn't be any borders between people. The church is for unity, not for division."

St. Nicholas is nestled among low, whitewashed factory workers' houses that predate the revolution. Most of the rest of Donetsk was systematically demolished by the Nazis as they retreated before the Soviet Army's offensive in 1943, with the exception of one old hotel, which was Gestapo headquarters.

The city was quickly rebuilt following the war in a burst of Soviet energy and coordination that seems unfathomable today. In the center are wide boulevards lined with four-story apartment houses that look out over well-tended flower beds, lawns and trees in the broad medians.

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