The bustling streets of Lviv, the most monumental of Ukrainian cities, emptied on Saturday afternoon. A missile strike hit the city’s outskirts, raising a black cloud over the horizon. “Stay in the shelters. Don’t walk down the street. Don’t take photos of anything. Do not read information from anonymous Telegram channels and do not spread it from there,” the city governor asked in alarm. The first information indicated that the salvo was directed against an industrial area where fuel is stored. The anti-aircraft alarms, largely ignored until then in Leópiolis, took on a new dimension. It was the first attack against this architectural diamond in the west of the country, one of the cradles of Ukrainian nationalism, located just 90 kilometers from the Polish border.
It may be that the attack – which left at least five injured – was just a poisoned message of welcome to the president of the United States, Joe Biden, who at that same time was visiting Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw. Or maybe it was a twist in the strategy of Vladimir Putin, who is seeing how his brutal offensive stalls to make way for a war of attrition. Because until now, with few exceptions, all his military efforts have been focused on the eastern, southern, and northern regions of the country. The closest to its borders, but also the most Russophile in the country. It is one of the paradoxes of this contest. Putin is sweeping the cities where most Russian is spoken and closer are the cultural ties with the homeland of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
The Ukrainian identity was until recently a project under construction. Not because it didn’t exist, but because this old nation was absorbed piecemeal by numerous empires and never independent until 1991, he has always lived between two worlds, the European West and the Russian East. Two highly visible souls until recently on his electoral maps. The east and south of the country voted overwhelmingly for the pro-Russian candidates; the west and the north, by their pro-Western peers. “Until the 2014 elections, the country was almost exactly divided along the Dnieper River. But everything began to change that same year with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, which helped forge a Ukrainian national identity,” says the researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute, Mira Milosevich-Juaristi.
History helps explain these two sensitivities that vied politically for control of the country until Putin began to bite into it in 2014. “The western part, from the Dnieper River to Poland, belonged to the Astro-Hungarian empire. And, later, the Lviv region was Polish until Stalin annexed it during World War II”, affirms the specialist in the post-Soviet world. “In the east, on the other hand, a part belonged to the tsarist empire and another part was awarded to Ukraine by the Bolsheviks.”
Today Ukraine is an ethnic salad, where Ukrainians make up about 70% of the population. Russians are the main minority, about 17% of its inhabitants, but there are others such as Poles, Belarusians, Tatars, Romanians, Gypsies, or Hungarians. And even if Putin launched this war under the declared pretext of protecting the Russian and Russian-speaking population of Donbas, neither language nor ethnicity has been a major concern for Ukrainians since independence.
Sociologist Alona Liasheva is one of the millions of bilingual Ukrainians. “I went to a Russian school and then to a Ukrainian school. Part of my family speaks one language and another part the other”, she says in a café in Lviv. “Indeed, linguistic and cultural differences have sometimes been instrumentalized by some politicians to win votes, but for a long time no one has cared what language you speak,” Liasheva explains that the predicament in the east and south of the pro-Russian candidates was not only based on cultural affinities, but also for a speech that affected the region’s concerns. “They were talking about pensions or labor rights, important issues in those very industrial regions.”
The director of the National Library of Lviv, Vasyl Kmet, believes that the pro-Russian inclination in the east of the country did not reside so much in the sympathies that Russia generated, but in nostalgia for the Soviet Union. “Many people there do not remember the terror and cruelty of those years and have ended up idealizing the Soviet era,” he says from his office. In the basement of the hall, camouflage nets are woven for the Ukrainian resistance in this war. “To this, we must add that, starting in the 1940s, after Stalin’s famine, a large Russian population was transferred to the industrial zones in the east of the country.”
But the invisible line between the two Ukraines has been erasing at a forced march since 2014 with the great events that have shaken the country. Starting with the Maidan revolution and continuing with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the separatist uprising in Donbas, backed from Moscow. In the first elections held since then, Volodymyr Zelinsky won in 2019 with more than 70% of the vote, support that none of his predecessors had obtained, who won by narrow majorities and almost always marked by the East-West divide. , Russia-West.
Now, this war has finished destroying the pro-Russian sensibilities of part of the Ukrainian population. And it is that Putin is martyring the great bastions of him. From Mariupol to Kherson, from Kharkiv to Melitopol. “Putin captured Crimea without any resistance. He has been led to believe ever since that he could take the east with such ease. He thought people would welcome him with open arms”, says Kmet, the director of the National Library.
Still, it is hard to understand why he is treating the regions closest to Russian culture so cruelly. “When he saw the fierce resistance of the Ukrainians from the east, he began to behave with the rage of a wounded animal,” says Kmet. “All this has served to definitively destroy the Russian myth, but it is being done at the cost of rivers of Ukrainian blood.”