Ukraine in a Struggle Between East and West

ODESSA, Ukraine -- This country, Europe's largest apart from Russia, seems about midway between the industrial West and the Third World. Odessa's town center, with its panoply of 19th century architecture, delights the eye with its pastel colors and its liveliness.

Yet there are the beggars who have been left behind by the new capitalist economy, usually older people with their outstretched hands, mumbling blessings for those who put a few coins into their plastic cups.

Odessa Port

In this month, with its Soviet anniversaries of May Day and the end of World War II, there is much debate between those who favor closer relations with the West and others who prefer to follow Moscow's lead. This comes after the April visit of President Victor Yushchenko to the United States, where his "Orange Revolution" was widely applauded. But it is worth remembering that about 40 percent of Ukrainians are not Yushchenko supporters.

Indeed, in this port, the "Pearl of the Black Sea," most people speak Russian, not Ukrainian, as their first language, and the place is redolent with the memories of everyone from Catherine the Great (who founded the city) to the great writer Alexander Pushkin, to Catherine's lover Potemkin, for whom Odessa's majestic stairway to the port is named.

Like many countries of the ex-Soviet bloc, Ukraine does not have a monolithic identity. In the west, where some of its territory was once Poland, it feels Western and is mostly Catholic.

Here in the east, where the nearby Crimea was given to Ukraine as a capricious gift of Nikita Khrushchev, people look mostly to Moscow for cultural and political identity. One frequently hears the phrase, "Never mind what the Western press says. We are really Russian."

At one of Odessa's many Orthodox churches, I cheerfully greet a female caretaker, asking if there is an admission charge, as I would like to see the church's icons.

"No, there is no charge," she snaps in almost comically Soviet style, "But you can buy some candles. For people like you, the cost amounts to nothing." Complimenting her on the precision of her English, I buy a raft of mostly defective candles. My profuse thanks elicit only the slightest glimmer of a smile.

At the very Soviet-style monument to the unknown sailor, the atmosphere is paradoxically more cheerful, perhaps because it is manned by teenagers from the local naval academies. There is also the zany touch of Hare Krishna devotees chanting away in the distance. Two boys with guns stand next to the red granite obelisk, while two unarmed girls periodically do a very competent goose-step around the square, swinging their arms theatrically. People leave red flowers at black marble slabs with the names of the scenes of World War II carnage: Kiev, Kursk, Smolensk, Minsk, Sebastopol.

A few hundred yards away in this park by the sea is a monument to the 200-odd sons of Odessa who lost their lives in a less glorious cause, the Afghanistan war. This sculpture seems particularly fitting: An exhausted-looking soldier seated - and the dates 1979-1989, with the seven tumbling against the nine, its neglect suggesting that this is a war everyone would prefer to forget.

Ambiguity in relations with Russia is everywhere in the eastern Ukraine. One item of local gossip is the story of a Russian bank having bought a Ukrainian coastal dacha once frequented by Leonid Brezhnev for the use of Vladimir Putin. Like so many acquisitions in today's Russia and the Ukraine, the conditions of sale were decidedly shady, and Yushchenko's government says it is investigating.

As one Odessa resident told me, "Of course, they will find fraud. ... The new government here is just trying to embarrass Russia, so as to separate our two countries."

Yet 100 miles north of Odessa, in the seemingly interminable steppes of fertile black soil, the attitude toward Russia is different. Here the popular memory still is haunted by the terrible collectivization campaigns of the 1930s, in which some 5 million people are said to have died.

"They're always talking about the Holocaust of World War II against the Jews. Even the Armenians get their share of attention. But who remembers the millions of Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin?" one farmer asks, and then recites a roll call of his relatives who died.

So where does Ukraine belong? Many in Washington apparently believe that it belongs in NATO, though that is not a popular idea here. One man comments, "We Ukrainians are complicated and divided, so we should avoid new controversies while we find a common way forward."

Source: The Register-Guard