Kiev is quite literally at the center of Ukraine. It is both the geographic and political focal point of the nation, marking a harsh divide between an Eastern and Western mentality at the heart of the current EuroMaidan uprising.
Western Ukraine is primarily pro-Maidan. Historically, this region had much less Russian influence than the rest of the country, remaining part of the Austrian House of Habsburg until 1918. Even in the Soviet era, school and university classes were taught in Ukrainian, cultivating a deeper sense of nationalism.
On the Eastern end, the sentiment is anti-Maidan. Eastern Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire for much of its history and the culture there still reflects this long standing relationship. It shares a religion with Russia, primarily Eastern Orthodox Christian. Beyond sharing a border with their former aggressors, Eastern Ukraine teaches its children in Russian, a legacy of the "Russification" policies of the 19th and 20th century. Higher education is only available in Russian, creating an educated class of Russian speakers in the area. Much of the industry that drives the region — steel mills, factories, coal mines — is left over from Soviet times. They would have a lot to lose if they suddenly found themselves members of the modern European Union.
The civil war brewing in Ukraine now has hundreds of years of history behind it; the current brutality only the tip of the iceberg. While the capital is not the only city feeling the unrest, the two sides — the Western, pro-Europe Ukraine, and the Eastern, Russian-influenced Ukraine — collide the hardest in Kiev. Many of those you've seen battling on television and in photos came from outside the city, to join the fight on their chosen side.
To get a better understanding of the situation on the ground in this divided nation, The Wire spoke by phone with two native residents of Lviv, a large Western city near the Polish border, who are currently protesting actively in Kiev. For their own protection, the Ukrainians wish to remain anonymous, and their answers have been condensed for clarity.
The Wire: How is Lviv compared to Kiev? Are the protests as active?
Ukrainians: Comparatively, Lviv is calm. Many of the protesters left Lviv, they went to Kiev to support Maidan. There were some demonstrations in Lviv, but nothing as big as the camp in Kiev. The police aren’t as harsh there, but the fires, the rioting, it’s the same passion on a smaller level.
The Wire: How are people getting into Kiev from around the country?
Ukrainians: From Lviv, my friends mostly take the train. Usually, it’s very fast. My friend wanted to drive from Lviv, she got stopped right away. She had sleeping bags with her, lots of food and mobilki (burn phones). No weapons. It’s just easier to take the train because your license, your car, aren’t attached to it.
I had many friends from Lviv coming to stay with me [in Kiev] who were on the train. They had small bats with them, no serious weapons, and regular backpacks. The train was stopped, searched, they took everything. I think officially they said there was a technical issue.
But from the East [to Kiev], there are giant buses coming, all the time. Full with people, weapons, people that are paid to be anti-Maidan. No one stops them. I haven’t heard of Eastern stops at all, not on highways, villages, anywhere. Just get in and drive from the East.
The Wire: Where are your weapons coming from? Are most of the Maidan protesters armed?
Ukrainians: People are creative. They’re making a lot of their weapons. The old Cossacks used to carry morningstars [maces] and flails, I think people feel a little sentimental defending themselves with them. Many of the protesters just want shields, not weapons at all. That is the most popular weapon, the defense against one.
Of course people have guns, but not nearly as many as the police. Every officer has a gun. We are outnumbered by weapons, but the officers are outnumbered by people. Our biggest weapon is the crowd.
The Wire: You mentioned that it's completely different traveling from the East than from the West. Can you speak about the Easterners more? Who are they? Why are they coming?
Ukrainians: They’re paid, about 200 hryvni a day. That’s about twenty bucks in U.S. dollars. Where they live in the East, that’s enough for groceries for their family. So they come. And they fight against Maidan. They scream at us in Russian. Police don’t stop them, but they don’t officially fight together either.
The Wire: So they are like mercenaries. Do you know who is paying them? How do they get recruited?
Ukrainians: I don’t think anyone knows completely. I’ve heard rumors it's Russian based, others say it’s the local politicians there. I think it must be like a militia, they need the money, there aren’t many jobs there earning a lot. They don’t show up with fancy weapons or armor.
The Wire: How is the lodging? Has it been easy to get home, to get around Kiev in general?
Ukrainians: As long as the train is running, it’s easy. I have an apartment a few stops away on the train. When the train went down, everyone panicked a little. The trolleys weren’t going, the train isn’t going. Normalcy had stopped.
In my apartment, I am housing anyone who needs it. If I know them, or a friend vouches for them, they can stay. I have Easterners, Westerners, natives from Kiev. Anyone, as long as they are pro-Maidan has been welcome. My floor has just turned into sleeping bags and Maidan supporters. I think most people with flats have the same mentality.
The Wire: How are the citizens, people who don’t protest? Are they supportive for the most part? Do they stay away?
Ukrainians: I think a lot of people are supportive. Before it got so violent, a lot more people visited, dropped food. Still, we feel support from our fellow Ukrainians.
The Wire: In America, we have been seeing a lot of violent images coming from Kiev. Can you speak about the violence, how have you been protecting yourselves?
Ukrainians: I wish it weren’t as bad as it looks in pictures. People have all kinds of protections, helmets, buckets, just walking with sticks. Still, the bullets fly. They are aiming for our necks. Difficult way to die, lots of blood. I have seen the most neck injuries.
The Wire: What do you want to tell Americans that you think they haven't already heard?
Ukrainians: The death tolls. Think of the missing as dead. It is much more than 100.