Ukraine crisis: Bicentenary celebration of great poet Taras Shevchenko swamped by anger over Russian nationalism in Crimea

 

The rallies were to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Taras Shevchenko, the poet and polymath regarded as the founder of Ukrainian language and literature. But it was the swirling bitterness and anger over the rebirth of Crimea as a part of Russia which came violently to the fore on the day.

Unesco has named 2014 as the 'Year of Shevchenko', however it was politics and nationalism, rather than culture, which became the dominant theme at this highly charged time. Russian nationalists, including a contingent of Cossacks, attacked those opposed to secession from Ukraine at a public meeting in Sevastopol, with the police either unable, or unwilling, to effectively intervene.

Terrified protestors, including many women, ran in panic. Some were chased into a car park where a number of men were targeted and attacked, some of them by  Cossacks wielding nagykas, the whips carried with traditional and military wears.

Afterwards, stepping through blue and yellow Ukrainian lying strewn on the ground, members of Russian speaking  Soma Borona, or 'Self Defence Groups', accused their opponents of 'provocations', a charge used by both sides against each other in the  hostile confrontations.

"They used this march to insult Crimea and Russia, they were going to start a fight like the criminals in the Maidan [the centre of protests in Kiev] and try to make this place unstable. Sevastopol is a Russian city, people were not going to allow that", declared Oleg Bogomazov, wearing the orange and black ribbon of the Russian military order of St George on his arm. "Anyway, it was not anything much at the end."

 

Their victims had a different view of their experience. "They had sent the Soma Borona here to start the violence, they want to terrify everyone who don't agree with them", said  Mikhail Yedokymenko, a 25 year old student of Ukrainian extraction. "This was a meeting called by the Writers' Union, not the type of people who are after trouble. I got  punched by two men, but I  managed to get away, I would have been in bad trouble if I had gone down on the ground."

A commemoration  at the Crimean capital, Simferopol, took place with comparatively little trouble. The police, with a larger presence, kept the two sides apart, and attempts at intimidation involved little more than cars, many with Sevastopol number plates, driving around with horns blaring and Russian flags flying from windows.

At the rally, Tatar flags flew alongside those of Ukraine among the 500 present around a bust of Shevchenko. The vehemently anti-Russian community, had been largely been absent from the streets on the advice its representative body, the Mejlis, which had also advised a boycott of the referendum on Crimea's future due to be held next Sunday. Adem Ibrahimov, a 46 year old engineer, said "When I look at all these people here, Ukrainians, Tatars and so many Russians, I wonder whether we should be actually voting. I know that there will be fraud and they will make up the numbers, but if the international media show people going to vote in large numbers then it may be more difficult for them to do fraud in a really big away."

Nataliya Voroninova, a teacher, stressed how fitting it was that people were standing up for a free and united Ukraine on this day. Shevchenko, who was born a serf, was repeatedly arrested by the authorities for his efforts to promote national consciousness in his homeland, then a part of Tsarist Russia: "As well as being such a great writer he was a great patriot", she stressed. "They could not stifle his love for Ukraine then and Putin, the current Tsar, would not be able to stifle our determination to remain with Ukraine,  however many thousands of troops he sends."

Across the city, in Lenin Square, around 4,000 turned up to hear Vladimir Konstantinov, the speaker of the Crimean parliament, say in a speech "The Russians are our brothers. How will you vote in the referendum?" The answer roared back was "Russia! Russia!"

A naval band played songs from the Great Patriotic War; elderly people, some with memories of the terrible hardship suffered in the struggle to beat Hitler, sang along. Marina Vasilyiova held the medals of her father who had died fighting in the Donbas in 1943. "Are there no people left in England, in France who remember what happened then? Why are the governments there supporting the fascists who have taken over Kiev? Well, it does not matter, we are Russians, we will look after ourselves against the fascists again."

In Kiev's Shevchenko celebrations the acting prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, vowed: "This is our land. Our fathers and grandfathers have spilled their blood for this land., and we won't budge a single centimeter from Ukrainian land. Let Russia and its president know this." The reality on the ground, however, is that Crimea has slipped out of Ukraine's control and every day it seems increasingly unlikely that this lost land will ever be regained.

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