ON THE UKRAINE-RUSSIA BORDER — Many Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine yearn for the motherland, but Andrei Mikhailev has one of the shortest paths to reunification.
Mikhailev, a burly pig farmer with a ready laugh, only needs to step outside his front gate.
There, a narrow strip of sludge bisected by a barbed wire fence marks the frontier where Ukrainian mud slides into Russian mire. For generations, farmers roamed this border as freely as the terrain allowed. Now, with Ukraine and Russia bogged down in a Cold War-style standoff, wary border guards in waders patrol both sides.
Call it the DMZ of muck.
But when Mikhailev, 32, fishtails his muddied SUV over the black quagmire that leads to his ramshackle farm, all he sees is his dream come true: his cozy house, his 27-year-old wife, Natasha, his cinderblock barn, and pigs to raise in it.
And in this, Mikhailev reflects the tension between the Ukraine of the West, which aligns itself with Western Europe, and Ukraine of the East, which leans toward Russia. The way he looks at it, Western Europe does not have anything to offer that will make his life any better.
“What do I want with the European Union?” Mikhailev said repeatedly Monday as his wife chopped and salted yellow peppers and pickles to go with a shot of vodka to celebrate their American guests. “Why do I want to live by rules someone makes in Germany? I like where I am here.”
But where is here? That’s the question at the heart of the conflict over Ukraine, increasingly divided after the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea voted Sunday to secede in a referendum backed by thousands of Russian troops, and as pro-Russian protesters in eastern Ukraine called to hold their own secessionist votes.
Some of them tried to seize control Monday of a government building in Donetsk, about 60 miles west of Mikhailev’s farm, but were held back by some 200 Ukrainian police in riot gear.
In his pig pen, Mikhailev explained why he wishes that the Russian line in the mud outside his gate extended a few more feet in his direction.
For one thing, “I speak Russian, we all speak Russian, I don’t want to speak someone else’s language.”
His conclusion: No one in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, is looking out for the interests of Russian-speaking people.
Also, like many in eastern Ukraine, he uses the Kremlin’s word for all Ukrainian nationalists: Banderovtsy, a reference to Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian partisan who sometimes collaborated with the Nazis in World War II. Bandera is a hero to some of the forces that came to power in Kiev last month, but Russia’s state-controlled media have tarred the whole new government as a fascist mob, and that’s more or less how Mikhailev sees it, too.
“I worry about skinheads coming here,” he said, spreading his arm out of the barn to indicate a spot in his muddy fields where in the spring strawberries will grow.
And then there was this: “We live badly, but we live the way we live,” he said. “Like Americans. You wouldn’t want to live in the European Union just because someone said you had to, would you?”
To better understand his stance, it helps to realize that many of the people who make up the pro-Russia protesters — pensioners, unemployed, coal-miners, factory workers — think of “Western Europe” as a foreign place that looks down on Russians.
Mikhailev descends from a line of farmers, but he only decided to become one four years ago, when the cement factory where he was pulling down $300 a month let him go as part of general cutbacks.
He bought the farm with money he’d saved up — “the interest rate on loans is 40 percent, I’d be out of my mind to borrow” — and purchased four pigs, three of which are now pregnant.
The business plan is simple: The pigs have more pigs, he sells the pigs.
Only two things, he said, can get in the way of success. One, he said, the US government is trying to destroy the Ukrainian economy by deliberately devaluing the national currency, the hryvnia.
And two, “the European Union is trying to . . . ” He let loose his jolly laugh. “Well, it’s trying to ruin everything.”
At the end of the day, Mikhailev couldn’t put his finger on what about the EU bothered him, other than the idea that someone in Europe would be making rules.
“Those people in the streets in Donetsk, they aren’t just for Russia,” he said. “They are against the European Union. They want to be free.”
“Russians who want to be free,” he said. “That may sound strange to you.”