At heart of Ukraine drama, a tale of two countries with historic grudges

The Associated Press

In this photo taken Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, the Russian and Ukrainians flags decorate windshield of a bus, in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. If Ukraine looks neatly delineated on maps, its history is a tangle of invasions and occupations and peoples and religions, a place of ill-defined borders that for centuries has been struggling to define itself. The modern nation is so sharply divided by culture and loyalty, split between allegiance to Moscow and allegiance to Western Europe, that it often can appear ready to simply snap in two. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

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By TIM SULLIVAN and DUSAN STOJANOVIC, Associated Press

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — In the afternoon, when the shift ends at the coal mine and the miners walk out into the cold and past the old concrete statue of Lenin, they often head to a tiny corner store a block away. There they'll stand in the parking lot for a while, drinking little bottles of the vodka called "Truthful."

They know what is happening in Kiev, the capital city that can seem so far away. They've seen pictures of the democracy protesters shot dead in Kiev's streets, and the TV reports on the mansions of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, the one-time thug and pro-Russia politician who grew up in this far-eastern city. They watched from afar this week as protesters, many from western Ukraine, helped form the country's new government.

They don't like it at all.

"I have always felt that we are so different," said a miner who gave his name only as Nikolai, a thickset 35-year-old who went from high school directly into the mines. People speak Russian across most of Ukraine's east, and worship in onion-domed Orthodox churches. They were shaped by 70 years of Soviet rule and its celebration of socialist industrialization, and by the Russian empire before that. To them, the government is now being run by outsiders who care little for this side of the country. "If they try to pressure us, our region will revolt."

His words are echoed — except for a few key words — in a conversation 800 miles (1,250 kilometers) to the west, in a medieval cobblestoned city, Ukrainian-speaking residents and houses displaying the EU flag and its yellow stars.

"We are simply different people from those living in the East," said Ludmila Petrova, a university student in Lviv, a hotbed of support for Ukraine's pro-democracy forces and opposition to Yanukovych. "They don't know what the West is. We have a different history. Maybe it is better that we separate once and for all."

If Ukraine looks neatly delineated on maps, its often-bloody history is a tangle of invasions and occupations, peoples and beliefs. It is a place that has been struggling for centuries to define itself. And now it finds itself so sharply divided — between support for Russia on one side of the country and loyalty to the West on the other — that it often seems more like two countries than one.

On opposite sides of Ukraine, two cities, each of about 1 million people, illustrate that divide.

The eastern city of Donetsk can seem like a cliche of post-Soviet grimness, a place of Stalinist-era apartment blocks, tin-roofed shacks and loyalty to Russia. In the west, Lviv has emerged as a center for Ukrainian artists and writers, a huge draw for European tourists and a city desperate for closer ties to the West.

To the fiercest pessimists, as well as to extremists on both sides, the cities are already in different nations.

"The country is already separated," said Ivan Reyko, a 30-year-old factory worker from Donetsk who joined a recent demonstration of about 100 people in the city's main plaza, Lenin Square, where a 30-foot-tall statue of the Soviet hero gazes proudly toward the horizon. "There is no way back to a united Ukraine."

A recent series of ominous signs has diplomats warning the region could easily stumble into widespread violence. Among them: military drills just across the border by 150,000 Russian soldiers, and the seizure of the parliament building in the Russian-speaking region of Crimea by unidentified gunmen, who flew the Russian flag and chanted "Crimea is Russia."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been long dreaming of pulling Ukraine, a sprawling country of 46 million seen as the ancient cradle of Slavic civilization, closer to Moscow.

In Lviv, though, a bookish, soft-spoken mayor is dreaming of something else.