By Samuel Greenfield – In Donetsk
(A special thanks to Sophy for invaluable help with translation, interviews and input)
A Russian flag flies on a pole across the street from Lenin Square on Monday morning in Donetsk, a regional capital in eastern Ukraine’s industrial heartland and a recent flash point in the country’s ongoing tensions.
Under an imposing statue of Vladimir Lenin a cluster of tent stands shelter communist party supporters from the chilly wind that flutters the hammer and sickle flag flying above the tent.
Police officers stand watch nearby to keep an eye on the square – at least a couple of them are carrying riot helmets – just in case. But it would seem no one is interested in making them take the flag down. Alongside the Russian flag across the street was another communist flag and a flag bearing the words “Republic of Donetsk”.
“Who will forbid us from doing that?” says one of the men in the tents. To another side of the square a fresh-looking Ukrainian flag flies from a commercial building.
A van with smashed windows is parked by the edge of a nearby street beside the square. Alexei Korpus claims that approximately 30 “ultras” (fanatical football fans, in this case with a political agenda) came in two groups – one smashing the van’s windows and another vandalizing their tents.
Across the square a police officer (called “militisia” in Ukraine, not “police”) in the square says he wasn’t there but confirms that there was an attack the previous night.
A man called Sergey, produces a large folding knife from his pocket and opens it up for display. He claims to be a former Berkut (special riot police) unit leader and says he needs the knife to defend himself from “fascists” and “ultras”.
The Berkut were riot police deployed by the Yanakovych government against the Euromaidan protesters but were disbanded after the government was overthrown.
When the red star affixed to the top of the Verkhovna Rada (parliament building) in Kiev was taken down, Sergey says it was a “slap in the face” of his father who was veteran of world war two.
A couple men are wearing the black and orange St. George ribbons which indicate solidarity with Russia.
Another man tries a more philosophical approach. “Ukraine is ‘little’ Russia…Belarus is ‘white’ Russia,” says Vitali, who declined to give his last name. “We are one single nation and should be together as one single state.”
He explains that he is not a communist but desires a monarchy with a Czar but he ironically came out to support the group in the square. “Slava Rossee” (Glory to Russia) he blurts out, pumping his arm up into the air.
A small group of older residents gather near the tents and begin to engage in a seemingly heated discussion – except there was no disagreement – they were all of the same opinion, as they fed off each other’s anger shouting phrases about “fascists”, “banderovtsy” (followers of a historical Ukrainian nationalist), and the supposed suppression of their right to speak Russian (though on the trolley that morning all the stops were announced in Russian).
A bit later a larger crowd gathers, someone has brought another Russian flag but in the background the rest of Donetsk goes about its regular business – including the stylish McDonald’s restaurant within sight of the Lenin monument.
Meanwhile at the nearby Donetsk regional administration building a Ukrainian flag flies on the top of tall mass of gloomy Soviet-era architecture. The entrance is blocked off by a line of riot police holdings shields.
For extra measure a couple of vehicles are parked at the top of the steps and a long coil of razor wire is draped over them. Extra police mill around on the sidelines including some with dogs and a couple with horses.
The building was stormed last week by pro-Russian activists who planted a Russian flag on the top in place of the Ukrainian flag before the building was eventually retaken in what became an adult version of capture the flag.
A police officer nearby said the parliament could not meet over the past few days because everything inside was destroyed by the pro-Russian activists who took control of the building but that sessions would commence again on Tuesday.
In a building opposite the square in front of the administrative building is another structure that once housed offices for the Party of Regions – the party of deposed president Viktor Yanukovych. A Russian flag is erected outside its door, presumably by its new inhabitants: the self-proclaimed “Patriotic Forces of Donbas” – a group formed in opposition to the new administration in Kiev.
A spokesman for the group, Alexander Timokhin, says they receive no official support from Russia – he does say they accept support from wherever it comes – and that they were not involved in storming the building.
Timokhin says they want a referendum, to be autonomous and to create their own laws. The classic east versus west rivalry is reminiscent of Alberta’s frustration’s with eastern Canada over its oil revenues, Timokhin argues that the east sends away more to Kiev than it gets back in return.
Russia less than a 100 kilometer’s drive away and Kiev more than 700 kilometers by car. For now, things are relatively calm here – couples linger in new-looking park filled with fascinating iron art work and a popular pizza restaurant is busy with local young people.
But all eyes will surely be on the referendum planned for this Sunday in Crimea. This one’s not over yet.
UPDATE: The ultras for the local football team FC Shakhtar Donetsk have denied responsibility for the Lenin Square on a social media site.
Here is a translation as rendered by Google Translate: “We ultras Shakhtar officially declare that we have no relationship to the destruction of tents on Lenin Square. All that happened there – it’s provocative actions, it is unclear who perpetrated! Someone wants to again defile our name!
Yesterday the internet was reported that on Lenin Square “ultras Shakhtar” smashed tents, which are under the monument of Lenin.
Glory to Ukraine!”