In war's shadow
The war is more than 200 kilometers away, but you sense it as soon as you leave the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkhiv. The potholed M-03 highway has become a military road. You come across military trucks carrying cannon, or convoys of tanker vehicles rolling eastwards. Billboards by the side of the road advertize the Ukrainian army one minute and cheap bus rides to Moscow the next. By the time you reach the town of Sloviansk, if not before, the consequences of war become visible: The remains of a blown-up bridge loom up like a memorial to the fighting, which is still going on here.
Exactly two years ago, on September 5, 2014, Ukraine signed the first ceasefire agreement with pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk (Minsk I). It only lasted a few weeks, but the frontier that emerged then has mostly remained the same. The borderline runs through areas with a particularly large population of ethnic Russians – more than a third. So what's life like today for people living on the Kyiv side of the line?
Mistrust of Kyiv
In order to find out we travel to Sievierodonetsk, an industrial town with around 130,000 inhabitants that in September 2014 became the provisional capital of the Kyiv-controlled region of Luhansk. The town was founded in the 1950s when the Soviet Union decided to make this a stronghold of the chemical industry. The skyline is dominated by the chimneys of the "AZOT" (nitrogen) chemicals factory. It's the biggest company in Sievierodonetsk. Before the war it mainly produced agricultural fertilizer. Now it stands idle.
In recent Ukrainian history Sievierodonetsk has made a name for itself as a separatist stronghold. During the pro-Western "Orange Revolution" at the end of 2004, pro-Russian politicians from the east and south of the country met here for a congress, and threatened to secede from Kyiv. Ten years later the town is part of the so-called "Luhansk People's Republic," but the separatists fled the Ukrainian army. There were no major battles.
Ever since the town has been flying blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, but the mood among the people is not so clear. Many of them seem to mistrust the new government, or feel they are being ignored by Kyiv. This becomes apparent in private conversations, off the record. An elderly woman who came to Sievierodonetsk from Siberia in Soviet times tells us, with anger in her voice, how Ukrainian soldiers pointed guns at her in 2014. In her view, it's Kyiv, not Moscow, that's to blame for the conflict.
A local politician supposes that many people in the region feel the same. More than half of the inhabitants are pro-Russian, he says. The "Opposition Block" has come out on top in various elections. This political force came into being after the disintegration of the pro-Russian Party of Regions.
Almost half the schools are Russian
Are Russians in eastern Ukraine being threatened, as we keep hearing from Moscow? Are they being forcibly ukrainified? The opposite seems to be the case. Rather, it is the Ukrainian language that needs protecting. On the streets in Sievierodonetsk you hear almost nothing apart from Russian. Out of 21 schools, eight teach entirely in Russian. One of these is School Number 18. "There were suggestions that we should start having Ukrainian classes in our school," says the school's principal, Natalia Fomenko. But the initiative didn't get off the ground, as there wasn't enough interest from parents. "We only got between three and five applications." During our conversation she keeps switching to Ukrainian; she seems to feel at home speaking the language.
Then, however, the principal tells us of an incident that seems to be typical of today's Ukraine. A pro-Ukrainian non-governmental organization wanted to conduct informal checks at her school, she says: "Someone had told them that I was a separatist." Two women came to speak to 11th-grade pupils. "I was quite nervous, as there were young people among them who had fled from Donetsk and Luhansk, and I knew how they felt about things," Fomenko says. But she didn't need to worry. The women thanked her for her "excellent educational work."
Music school a haven from war
You can get a particularly intense experience of the Russian language and culture at Sievierodonetsk's renowned music school, which bears the name of the famous Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev.
Most of the teachers work in Russian, particularly when it comes to music subjects. "The only instrument that's taught in Ukrainian is the bandura," says the vice-principal, Natalia Yurchenko. The bandura is a Ukrainian stringed instrument. Out of some 160 students, only one girl habitually speaks Ukrainian in her daily life. "It's hard to say which culture is closer to us," says Olha Bulekova, who teaches history and philosophy at the school – in Ukrainian.
When the conversation turns to Russia and the war in eastern Ukraine, the two teachers become thoughtful. Is Russia an aggressor? "It's hard to grasp that," says Yurchenko. Bulekova adds that the vocational music school is "an apolitical island" that has defied the war. "You can come here, take a deep breath and switch off. You could hear the cannons thundering outside, and we were holding state examinations," the teacher recalls, and laughs.
There are also benefits for this town that lives in the shadow of war. Sievierodonetsk's vocational music school has never given as many concerts for local people as it has in the past two years, Bulekova says. And they are always sold out.