In small-town Ukraine, prospect of break with Russia viewed with dismay

03/10/2014 5:58 PM

03/12/2014 4:24 PM

On the hill just beyond the border gate, where the road turns from Ukrainian asphalt into Russian dirt, the border patrol is too busy flirting to pay much attention to the crisis dividing these longtime neighbors.

The Russian guards, who work out of two white Lada compacts for lack of an actual post, have just greeted the only person interested in crossing from the Ukrainian village this afternoon, and it’s clear that the pretty young villager has no intention of going any farther into Russia than where she is standing.

On the Ukrainian side, the camouflaged guards note, disapprovingly or perhaps with envy, that the black-clad Russians “have automatic weapons in their cars.” It’s an unfair advantage, they say, as a shriek of laughter erupts from Russia. If there’s tension at this border crossing, it isn’t about international affairs.

While Russians and Ukrainians stare through gun sights at each other in Crimea, where Russian troops have taken control, the border between the countries here remains decidedly un-militarized.

Before the recent crisis, the border divided a single community, not two nations that might go to war.

Aleksandra Mavlov, who was 2 years old when the Nazis arrived in 1941, has children and grandchildren in villages on both sides of the divide. She grew up with tales of how the Germans rolled in and burned the village to the ground; she remembers the look of the flames. She also remembers that it was the Russians who came to their aid.

“They saved us,” she says, speaking on a sunny afternoon. Children who’ve come over earlier from Russia to share a Sunday relax in the family’s side yard while her husband tears a newspaper into small rectangles and uses one to roll a cigarette. “We don’t want war. We want to go on living the way we have lived.”

Whether that’s possible relies on events much farther south. A referendum on whether Crimea should join Russia is scheduled for Sunday. Russian Parliament members reportedly have said that depending on results of the referendum, Crimea might officially be a part of Russia before the end of March.

Much of the world would question the legality of such an annexation, and many expect it would devastate the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, which has been very close since they became separate nations after the Soviet Union collapsed.

If that happens, the reaction in this piece of these nations will be heartbreak, as well as family and economic hardship.

In nearby Shchors, the largest town in the area, with about 11,000 people, Mayor Roman Zub explains that since protests began in Kiev in November, and certainly since the Russian troops movements in Crimea, his town has changed.

It’s common on a Sunday afternoon to see Russian license plates filling the parking spaces in front of local grocery stores.

“Food is cheaper here in Ukraine, so Russians come here to shop in normal times,” he said. “And gas is cheaper in Russia, so we go there. Right now, we stay on our own sides.”

That isn’t to say that Shchors remains neutral. A mammoth Lenin statue stands in the center of town, for decades reminding some of the good old days of the Soviet Union. But now that statue has become controversial. Residents are talking about tearing it down.

In the past couple of months, a volunteer civil defense force has formed to watch out for Russian provocateurs and stop them before they can make mischief. It now has 35 members. They wear camouflage fatigues and patrol on foot and in cars, unarmed except for cellphones.

Mayor Zub notes that they haven’t stopped, or seen, any problems yet. And he admits he hopes that if such things do happen, they happen in Kiev, about 125 miles west. His town, he says, has enough trouble dealing with trash collection and illegal burning issues. In fact, while leading a visit to the border, he can’t help but point out illegal trash dumping.

“War, this is a matter for powerful men and national capitals,” he says. “But we will remain on watch, just in case.”

And while there’s an element of something exciting coming to a usually sleepy small town in their actions, members insist they take their task very seriously.

Ilya Gryaznov is one, though just 15. He says that six months ago, he never would have considered himself a patriot. The Ukrainian leaders _ from the president who fled the country and asked for Russian help, Viktor Yanukovych, on down through the ranks _ he assumed were corrupt and only out for themselves. He thinks many in town shared his views.

But he also thinks his transition is common among his neighbors. Seeing the Ukrainian people stand up to a corrupt government and demand more from their leaders changed him. A week ago, when Russian troops conducted military exercises just across the border _ a move that many in his town are certain was an attempt to intimidate _ he became convinced Ukraine is worth fighting for.

“The Russians, I believe they do intend bad things for us,” he said. “I never would have thought this before, but now I am ready to take a bullet for my country.”

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