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Will Ukrainians still agree to disagree?

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A woman passes by a graffiti that reads


A woman passes by a graffiti that reads "The Russians are coming - Resistance" in Simferopol, Ukraine, Friday. Ukraine lurched toward breakup Thursday as lawmakers in Crimea unanimously declared they wanted to join Russia and would put the decision to voters in 10 days.

Special To The Washington Post

Ukrainians like to argue with each other. And after not being able to agree, we like to sit down together for shots of vodka.

That may sound like something out of a novel, but it happens all the time. It’s what happened when Ukrainian writer Vasyl Shklyar declared that I had no right to be considered part of modern Ukrainian literature.

Yes, I was born in Leningrad, a descendant of Don Cossacks and Orthodox priests from the northwestern part of the country. Russian was my first language, and I have preferred to write my novels in my native tongue.

But half of Ukraine is Russian-speaking. I have lived in Kyiv for 50 years. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., I never considered taking Russian citizenship. Rather, I welcomed Ukrainian independence and at once got a Ukrainian passport. I write about Ukraine, and I am concerned about its future. So I consider myself a Ukrainian writer.

Shklyar and I debated this in the pages of the Ukrainian intellectual newspaper Mirror Weekly. Ultimately, we met face to face in a bar called Last Barricade. After a brief argument about identity, witnessed by about two dozen curious onlookers, we poured the vodka and decided that each of us had a right to his own opinion. For the past decade, he and I have had a good, almost friendly, relationship.

That is Ukraine. Those are Ukrainian problems. If you try, you can escalate those problems to an absurd level. Even to war.

Russian President Vladmir Putin is succeeding in such an effort. His political maneuvering — pressuring Ukraine to reject an agreement with the European Union, promoting greater dependence on Moscow through a $15-billion loan and a deal on natural gas prices, and finally authorizing Russian troops to enter Ukraine’s Crimea region — has raised the number of nationalist patriots among the citizens of Ukraine by a hundred times. But he has also increased the number of Russia-supporting Ukrainian citizens and made them more active. The divisions are most stark in Crimea, where Russian and Ukrainian forces remain in a standoff and regional lawmakers have called for a referendum to decide whether the peninsula should become part of Russia. But the rifts have widened and deepened elsewhere, too.

In downtown Kyiv, many of the police officers who went into hiding when President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country last month have reemerged, with small Ukrainian flags attached to their uniform jackets to demonstrate their patriotism.

One day this past week I was in line at a street kiosk to buy a bottle of mineral water. A young couple in front of me were speaking Ukrainian, and it was clear from their conversation that they were active participants in the pro-European movement. Another couple, behind me, were speaking Russian, and at some point the guy behind rather loudly and defiantly announced, "I will be the last one who is going to protect Ukraine from Putin with a machine gun!" Everyone turned around to stare at this man who was ready to relinquish Ukrainian independence. I wondered how many people like that live around me here, in Kyiv, in Ukraine.

Similar divisions have been fueled in many Ukrainian villages and towns. My family’s country house is an hour’s drive west of Kyiv. Beginning in December, a bus would arrive at our village each morning to transport people to rallies in the capital supporting Yanukovych and his government. A coordinator from the local government would put together a list of participants, and then, according to the same list, the participants were paid each evening.

When one woman, Valentina, came to the bus with her 9-year-old son to receive money for two, the coordinator refused to let the boy board. So Valentina made a scene and said she wouldn’t go, either. Now she proudly describes this incident to show that she expressed her civil opinion, while simultaneously bragging that she made a lot of money attending the protests.

About 30 people from the village regularly "worked" at Kyiv’s protests until Yanukovych’s secret escape brought an end to those rallies.

But as protests have continued in Kharkiv (Ukraine’s second-largest city) and in Odessa (the third), Russia has taken on a more direct role as antagonizer. News reports have identified that some of the political tourists are from the other side of the Russian-Ukrainian border. It was a 25-year-old from Moscow who raised a Russian flag over a regional government headquarters in Karkiv. He set the flag, took a picture and immediately posted the photo on Odnoklassniki, a Russian equivalent of Facebook.

Meanwhile, Kremlin-controlled television stations broadcasting in Crimea and eastern Ukraine have stepped up their anti-Ukrainian campaign, labeling as "fascist" all Ukrainians who are in favour of the rule of law, against corruption and against Yanukovych’s regime.

In the past I’ve thought of Ukraine’s revolutions as seasonal phenomena, tending to start after the harvest in the fall and end before potato planting in the spring. And in some ways it did feel as if spring arrived Tuesday morning. Russia had given Ukrainian troops in Crimea an ultimatum: Surrender by 5 a.m., or the Russian army will initiate an armed assault. I stayed awake all night, checking the news online every two hours. And when the Ukrainian military did not surrender and Russia did not attack, I felt a sense of relief that war had been averted.

Yet this spring may be very different from previous ones. Even if tensions subside in Crimea, Ukraine will be left with its newly deepened divisions.

My fear is that Putin, looking in the mirror, sees Stalin on May 9, 1945, preparing to greet the victory parade in Moscow’s Red Square.


Kurkov is a Ukrainian novelist whose books include Death and the Penguin and The Gardner From Ochakov. This essay was translated from Russian by Natallia Maroz.

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