This interview was inspired by the overarching neglect of media on the repercussions of the civil war in Eastern Ukraine on its citizens. Whereas the debate virtually always revolves around the “interests of Russia”, the “enlargement of EU/NATO”, the “Minsk II Agreement”, how many people were killed in the latest round of hostilities, etc., there is very small account directly from those who are affected most, namely Ukrainian citizens who live(d) in Eastern Ukraine. Hence, in this interview a friend of mine tells her story about the time after the Maidan Revolution started. She lived in Luhansk and has therefore experienced much of what we normally only know from the media. Due to confidentiality, her name will not be disclosed. I hope for those who read it, it will provide a perspective on the reality of civil wars.
Hello N. – let us begin our conversation with you. In particular, it would be interesting to hear what is your relationship to Luhansk?
Yes sure, so I was born in the area of Luhansk and shortly afterwards we moved to the city. There, I basically spent the largest part of my life and lived there for 17 years. I went to the high school and only after finishing I went studying law at the university in Kharkiv until summer 2014. My parents lived in Luhansk and worked as notaries.
How would you describe Luhansk?
Luhansk is one of the most Eastern cities of Ukraine. It is very industrial, so we have many mines especially in the coal sector. The majority of people is employed in the industrial sector and speaks both Ukrainian and Russian, but Russian is the most important language for daily use. Unfortunately, we also had a high degree on corruption. It is a bit harsh to say but for me it was a bit of a depressive city with little recreational possibilities. A typical post-Soviet town.
Looking at 2014, from your perspective what happened in Luhansk in the crucial months during the Maidan Revolution?
The revolution itself was a big surprise to us all. After what was going on in Kiev, people began to protest against the Maidan Revolution. People here really thought that the revolution was inspired by the United States and they were afraid being captured by nationalist and oppressed, especially with regards to the Russian language. There were no pro-Maidan protests, only anti-Maidan protests as far as I saw it. The protesters wore as a symbol the Georgian ribbon in order to identify themselves.
The protesters were local people?
Yes, those were mostly older people, less young people but it was still popular also among them. I am sure that the local authorities supported the protests. The Eastern regions always favored Russian, there is a long-term tradition, especially in Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk. But some of the protestors were also paid. I know from my own experience that some received 300 Hrywnia to wear the Georgian ribbons and hold flags.
Which consequences did the protests have?
In February/March 2014 the revolution ended. We didn’t expect these developments like that the president flew. And then we saw in television what happened in Crimea that it became subject to the Russian federation. Then suddenly we saw small groups of people and those grew and started to occupy government buildings. But I don’t know why the local authorities were not able to stop them, they had the capacities. I personally didn’t see foreign elements at that time. There was a growing anti-nationalist mood among the people. Even my mum said that some of their former classmates participated in the capturing of the buildings.
I went to Kharkiv in the end of March in order to graduate and since then never came back to Luhansk. I was phoning with my mom and heard in the background Ukrainian jets flying over the city. The sentiment against the government in Kiev grew, the more it attacked the occupiers.
So, you stayed in Kharkiv after March 2014?
I thought I would go back to Luhansk because after my studies I should work there. This is law in the Ukrainian educational system that if you receive financial support from the state due to your results you are expected to work for some time in your professional field. However, regarding the events on the ground this was not possible and after graduation in summer 2014, I went to abroad to teach English.
What happened to your family?
They stayed during the occupation until summer 2015 but my father had to finish his work earlier as a notary. They chose to go to Kharkiv because it is the closest big city and we knew the city also through my studies. In summer 2015 when I came back from abroad, they had fully relocated in Kharkiv. My father had problems to find a new job and my mum had to start her business as a private notary from scratch. Finding new clients, registration, organizing the archives, in general it was very troublesome. Furthermore, many lawyers fled to Kharkiv and the competition grew there which made it even harder to integrate.
Why was the decision made?
It was impossible to stay in Luhansk because notaries, both private and state affiliated, could either choose to work for the state or leave. However, working for the LNR as private notary became punishable by national law. Also, the state registry was shut down by the Ukrainian state which is needed for statements like transfer of properties. It stopped existing for the Luhansk region in order to freeze the information on property rights before the occupation. But I honestly don’t know how to come back to the status quo. In fact, if you decided to stay as a private notary, then you made a lot of money because people travelling between both LNR (Luhansk People’s Republic) and non-occupied territory needed a lot of documents which they organized and signed for them. Furthermore, the competition in Luhansk was much lower.
Have you considered different options?
We thought a bit if go to Kiev but we decided against it because it was more expensive, more chaotic and we knew more people in Kharkiv.
How did the relocation process took place?
My family went to Kharkiv several times but they had problems at the separatist customs control to transfer possessions like electronics over the “border”. They were required to show bills that those possessions belonged to them what of course you do not have for everything. Furthermore, you need a special pass from the Ukrainian state now if you want to go to Luhansk. You also have to explain your motives to the authorities. But it is kind of easy to make the pass. They stayed longer than others because they hoped for some political resolution, but then eventually decided to leave in summer 2015.
Coming back to the events in Luhansk, it is often said that foreigners played an important role in the protests – is this true from what you experienced?
In summer 2014 we saw first soldiers coming from Russia, we saw Russian supplies, and you saw for the first time these shaky mobile phone videos with Russian tanks crossing the borders. Personally, I only saw in 2014 the outburst of the occupation by local separatist before I went to Kharkiv. However, as my parents stayed longer, they even communicated with some Russians on the street. Many Russian-speakers from non-European descent were there, you could say that from their appearance and dialect. They said they came there to protect Luhansk people from the nationalist government in Kiev. They were largely paid mercenaries. However, also many young locals joined the militias. They saw an opportunity for personal enrichment and did not make a secret out of it. One told my mum directly that “now it’s their turn to rule”.
Did you experience the armed hostilities personally?
Once I came with my parents to D. [an Ukrainian village] in the end of the summer 2015 where we had one apartment. It was very close to the border between LNR and the non-occupied territory but still on the Ukrainian side. There, I experienced the first time the mutual bombardments between the Ukrainian army and militias from the LNR. This was the first and last time.
So, you arrived in Kharkiv – how was life there?
We already had an apartment in Kharkiv due to my studies. From this point of view we were better situated than many other IDPs [Internally Displaced People] who also arrived in the city. However, IDPs received social housing, some humanitarian aid like basic medicaments, hygienic materials and other utilities for six months. In order to be eligible for this support, you have to apply every six months to remain in the status as an IDP, if you cannot prove that your housing in the occupied territory was not destroyed. But the support was not much.
Were people helpful?
We have a close mentality with Kharkiv because it is also a Russian speaking region. But there were also downsides sometimes. For example, my mother’s friend went one time to a market where she wanted to buy fruits. She was undecided what to choose and the local vendor told her that she should be only that picky if she buys a coffin. Then he continued and complained that they [IDPs] are taking their local jobs. Furthermore some locals sometimes said that people from the occupied territories were source of the current problems. They were the ones who wanted Russia’s help.
Before the outbreak of the whole conflict there was a negative image of my region. We are workers, doing mostly manual labor, work in mines, are dirty, uneducated, and so on. While these stereotypes were harmless, after everything happened they evolved to be more dangerous. But let me say that what I observe in the past years is that the non-occupied territory of Ukraine becomes more Ukrainian patriotic and accepts IDPs much more.
How did the conflict affect institutions in which you paid taxes, for instance pension funds?
Actually, not much. In Ukraine we have fixed pensions based on the years of work, the position you occupied and more. From this point of view we are not affected. But people who stayed in the occupied territory are not paid by the Ukrainian government anymore and now receive pensions in Russian Rubles from the local authorities but at a much smaller rate. The exchange rate is lower, before we got 2 Hrywnia for 1 Ruble and they made 3 Hrywnia for 1 Ruble.
Are you content with the reactions of the Ukrainian government towards IDPs?
Mostly there were some small steps to help IDPs but it was not much and it is a huge bureaucratic hassle if you wanted to relocate. I cannot see particular steps of the Ukrainian government to help us directly but as I said before some people receive social housing and other support.
My last question to you, do you or your family plan to go back to Luhansk at some point in future?
My parents miss Luhansk but in the current situation we do not perceive a return as a real possibility unfortunately.
Thank you very much for the short interview
It was a pleasure.