So Close Yet So Far: Two Sisters’ Remarkably Different Experiences in Eastern Ukraine

Anya and Dina Nosenko are both twenty-five year old natives of Dnipropetrovsk, a Russian-speaking industrial city in the steppes of southern Ukraine. They are both successful athletes. Dina currently works in Dnipropetrovsk, while Anya lives and trains in the Donbas region (only 250 kilometers east of Dnipropetrovsk). However close, their lives over the past few months could not have been more different.

Anya started training at a camp in Luhansk oblast, in the Donbas, in March. “I never thought I’d hear the sound of tanks, military helicopters, and fighter jets above me,” she says. Every day, her team would run through a Ukrainian military check point outside of town, sometimes stopping to chat with the soldiers on duty. Most of the soldiers were either young men, barely eighteen, or middle aged. One young man  in particular caught Anya’s attention. Like Anya, he was a young political science graduate from Dnipropetrovsk. He had volunteered for the military before the conflict. It was refreshing to meet someone so similar in such a surreal environment.

In May, the Ukrainian army chased separatist fighters through the woods, and Anya’s team’s position in the camp became ever more precarious. Jets fired flares to protect themselves from ground-launched missiles, and bombs shook the windows in their dormitory throughout the night. Anya and her teammates slept on the floor away from the windows in order to shield themselves from possible broken glass or debris. By May 29, she decided it had become too dangerous to stay. “I organized an escape with some of the other girls on the team. We hid our money and cell phones to prevent the terrorists from taking it and hired a driver to take us to Kharkiv oblast. The driver owned a new Hyundai, but decided to take us to Kharkiv in an old Soviet car because he was afraid that the separatists might take it.”

Meanwhile, in Dnipropetrovsk, Dina continued to live a relatively normal life. In the city, Ukrainian flags hang from porches and billboards proclaim Ukrainian unity. Young people wearing vyshyvankas, the traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts, stroll in the central square past the stoop where Lenin’s statue once stood. A Ukrainian flag juts out from his empty boots, which surprisingly remained intact after the statue was toppled in February.

On May 23, Dina joined hundreds of other demonstrators as they released yellow and blue balloons, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, to show the city’s support for a united Ukraine.  On June 14, a Ukrainian military transport plane carrying paratroopers from Dnipropetrovsk was shot down by separatists while landing in Luhansk. Both sisters attended a memorial service for the soldiers killed. Later, Anya learned that the young former university student at the checkpoint, Pavel Levchuk, was one of the men killed in the attack. He had returned home for a short break before returning to the front on the doomed flight.

So, why is the situation in two Russian-speaking regions of the country – Dnipropetrovsk and the close-by Donbas, site to deadly armed hostilities – so drastically different?

The media and foreign sources have often credited the efforts of controversial Ukrainian oligarch turned Dnipropetrovsk governor, Ihor Kolomoyskyi, for keeping the peace in the region. Kolomoyskyi has offered USD 10,000 for each Russian agent captured in the country. Billboards declaring a “united country,” in both Russian and Ukrainian, appear throughout the region. Kolomoyskyi has stressed inclusiveness, striking agreements with various interest groups in the city, including with the Communists and Party of Regions. Rather than silence opposition voices, his administration has pledged to listen to their interests and debate matters openly and transparently, a marked break from local governance in the past.

The most important factor, however, is likely the attitude of the city’s residents themselves.  Unlike in the Donbas, many of the people of Dnipropetrovsk feel that they were an integral part of the protests on Maidan which eventually toppled the government of Viktor Yanukovych. Serhiy Nihoyan, the son of Armenian immigrants and a native of a village close to Dnipropetrovsk, was the first protester killed in Kyiv.  When masked pro-Yanukovych men first attacked peaceful demonstrators with baseball bats and other weapons in Dnipropetrovsk in January, Anya believed that the residents “felt like they were part of the country, Ukrainians.”

In contrast, Anya thinks that many residents of the Donbas simply haven’t accepted themselves as Ukrainians equal with the rest of the country. Many Donbas natives felt personally attacked when Yanukovych, who was previously the Donetsk governor, was toppled in February. As the center of the country’s heavy industry “the people of Donbas felt that they have to approve what happens in Kyiv,” she said.

The people of Donbas, isolated from the events in Kyiv, did not feel they had a stake in the new government. Unfortunately, this sentiment allowed the infiltration of separatists and foreign fighters. Dnipropetrovsk “sees what happened to Donbas and no one wants terrorists and bandits in our city,” says Dina.


By Chris Dunnett for Ukraine Crisis Media Center