Debunking the myth of vulnerable Russians in eastern Ukraine | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 15.09.2016
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Debunking the myth of vulnerable Russians in eastern Ukraine

The renewed ceasefire in eastern Ukraine is fragile. Moscow could reassert the claim that ethnic Russians living there are in danger. Is it true? DW's Roman Goncharenko spoke with Russians in Kharkiv.

Ukraine Gagarin-Wandmalerei in Charkiw

This mural of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was present in Kharkiv before the Maidan protests

Freedom Square is decorated with blue and yellow Ukrainian flags. Up front, where the statue of Lenin once loomed majestically over the vast area, an excavator is digging holes for new flowers and trees. From the speakers of a hotel, you can hear Russian advertising for the "Radio Chanson" station. This is Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city.

Accusations from Moscow

Two-and-a-half years ago, Kharkiv was almost divided, like the separatist strongholds in eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk. The city is only 40 kilometers (25 miles) away from the border with Russia and is heavily Russian-influenced. Most of its 1.5 million inhabitants speak Russian in everyday life. After the uprising in Kyiv, many of them came to distrust the new leaders. In the spring of 2014, pro-Russian demonstrations were held in Kharkiv. Strong young men occupied a regional administration building and hoisted the Russian flag on the rooftop. The police, however, liberated the building.

Ukraine Zeitungskiosk in Charkiw

In Ukrainian Kharkiv, Russian-language newspapers and magazines are available

Back in 2014, Russian politicians and media claimed that Russian-speaking Ukrainians were in danger; these claims still exist today. "Russians and Russian culture have become the object of oppression and persecution," said Valentina Matviyenko, who chairs the Federation Council, in June. She maintained that this included culture and education in several countries that belonged to the Soviet Union in the past, Ukraine being one of them.

Gentle 'Ukrainization'

From Russian politicians' point of view, Alexander Kisilov is someone who needs protection. The sociology professor at Karazin Kharkiv National University sits in his office and looks at the construction site where the Lenin monument once stood. Pro-Ukrainian activists demolished it in 2014. "I have documented different phases of dismantling with my camera," says Kisilov. His voice does not convey any nostalgic feelings, but instead, the inquisitiveness of a researcher who was able to observe historic events from his office window.

Kisilov is an ethnic Russian who was born in the neighboring Russian region of Belgorod. Like hundreds of thousands of Russian students, he came here to study at the university. In Soviet times, Kharkiv was a center of education and industry. "Today, no there is no persecution - neither of Russians nor their culture," says Kisilov. "No one forces anyone to speak Ukrainian."

Ukrainian is the country's only official language and Ukrainian must be spoken in institutions of higher learning. That's how it works officially. But students and teaching staff often find "a common language that suits them," says Kisilov smiling, making it clear he means Russian.

Less Russian in schools

Most schools in Kharkiv teach classes in Ukrainian - and the numbers are growing. There are also Russian-language schools, but contact with the media is apparently avoided. Some of these schools did not respond to DW's queries. A Russian teacher canceled an interview appointment after consulting with the principal of the school. Another teacher agreed to an anonymous talk.

Ukraine Olexandr Kisilow aus Charkiw

Ethnic Russian Alexander Kisilov does not feel disadvantaged

The teacher who chose to remain unnamed said classes are taught in Russian at her school but actually, there is only one Russian class and two classes on Russian literature per week - half of what was on the schedule in the Soviet era. The curriculum for Russian literature has been cut. "They have taken out works by Pasternak and Brodsky; Bulgakov was dropped," says the teacher. She feels this has led to fewer opportunities for learning the language formally for students who speak Russian at home. "Yes, as a teacher, I have the feeling that Russian culture is in danger because you cannot deepen your knowledge in class."

In the last two years, work has become more difficult for her for political reasons. "Before I comment on anything at school, I think twice about it," says the woman. A colleague called her a separatist, even though she speaks Russian and Ukrainian, and has no problem with it.

Older Russians have problems

The best examples of life in bilingual Kharkiv are newsstands or the Opera House, whose outer walls are used to announce premieres. All in all, Russian dominates in Kharkiv, but Ukrainian has rapidly gained ground. Sometimes posters are printed in Ukrainian and sometimes in Russian, but packaged goods are in Ukrainian. More Ukrainian can be heard on local television stations compared to 10 or 15 years ago. "A great part of the Ukrainian population has in fact adapted to Ukrainian reality," says the sociologist Kisilov.

Usually, the elderly who moved to Kharkiv in Soviet times have problems. This small group of people "does not feel at ease in the new Ukraine." But the economic decline in the country is also a reason for this. "These people feel closer to Russia," says Kisilov. Around 10 percent of the people in Kharkiv are "Soviet nostalgics."

Speak in Russian, write in Ukrainian

While Russian is mostly spoken on the streets, Ukrainian has established itself as the language of authorities and administrative offices. One notices this immediately in a municipal citizens' office. All the printed material here is in Ukrainian: forms, information flyers and announcements.

The head of the office, Irina Synyzka, assures me that it is not a problem if someone only speaks Russian and no Ukrainian. Whether a new passport or registration certificate is needed, applicants do not have to fill out the forms themselves - office staff take care of it all in Ukrainian. She has never been criticized for speaking Ukrainian; actually the opposite is true: once, a young man complained that a staff member had only spoken Russian to him.