Justyna Mielnikiewicz

A Ukraine Runs Through It


by Justyna Mielnikiewicz



After the Orange Revolution in 2004, pro-western politicians came to power with the promise of establishing democracy in Ukraine. This course, however, was not unanimously supported by all Ukrainians, particularly those in the industrial southeast, who were Russian speaking with strong bonds to Russia. 


In 2010, Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian eastern Ukrainian, was elected president. His refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union in late 2013 sparked mass protests in Kiev, which turned violent when police opened fire, killing some 100 protesters. Yanukovych fled to Russia, which annexed Crimea in March and pro-Russian separatists began a campaign to seize portions of eastern Ukraine. 


Much of the upheaval we are witnessing can be attributed to the geography and recent history of Ukraine. In my story, the Dnieper River is a symbolic line of reference that serves as a metaphor of  the east-west division of the country. It is Europe’s third largest river and in many senses is Ukraine’s geographic and political dividing line. At the same time, the river is also a major symbol of Ukrainian statehood that unites extensive areas on both its banks. 


The Dnieper was first established as a political dividing line in the 17th century when Ukraine was split between the Russian (eastern part of modern Ukraine) and Polish (Austro-Hungarian) zones of influence. The right bank lands (west) have commonly been considered the heartland of ethnic Ukrainian territory while the left bank (eastern) was under Russia. Today’s eastern and western Ukraine have different respective versions of recent Soviet history. As I worked in various parts of the country, from Kiev to Donetsk, I asked people what it means to be Ukrainian, if they believe an east-west split exists and if the Dnieper River is a border of some kind, or the main artery of the country.


Today, Ukraine’s left and right bank roughly translates into a general orientation towards Moscow on one side and Europe on the other. Central Ukraine and Kiev are generally pro Western. The lingua franca of eastern Ukraine is Russian while in the western part of the country it is Ukrainian, however, in public space, including TV political talk-shows, people mix both languages while speaking to each other as there was no division at all. 


Amid the war, which started in the spring, a new sense of national identity is forming. People have taken matters into their hands. Hundreds of volunteers are helping internally displaced persons (IDPs) and soldiers. Ukraine’s weak army is supported by about 40 volunteer battalions that were formed in the past few months. Thousands of IDPs from the war-torn east have found shelter in houses in other parts of Ukraine. At least 3000 people have died in the conflict, a few thousand have been wounded and an estimated 260,000 people have been displaced.


For most Ukrainians war with Russia was unthinkable half a year ago. Now that it has happened, they have become united and are acting together against it.  Some people even told me that in the end, Putin will deserve a monument in Ukraine for restoring a national identity and a sense of patriotism in all Ukrainians.