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In A Divided Donetsk, Russians And Ukrainians Vie For Support

Activists rally for a united Ukraine in Donetsk on March 5. They were attacked by pro-Russia supporters, but Russian media reported that pro-Russian demonstrators were attacked by soccer hooligans.
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Activists rally for a united Ukraine in Donetsk on March 5. They were attacked by pro-Russia supporters, but Russian media reported that pro-Russian demonstrators were attacked by soccer hooligans.

Two rallies took place recently on Lenin Square in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine.

At the first, a pro-Ukranian rally on March 5, thousands marched with Ukranian flags, shouting, "Down With Putin! Donetsk is Ukraine!" They were attacked by pro-Russia supporters.

A football fan club called the Ultras defended the demonstrators, but the next day, Russian media reported that a pro-Russian demonstration was attacked by soccer hooligans.

"It was the opposite!" says demonstrator Enrique Menendez, an internet marketer. (Despite his name, Enrique was born in Donetsk. His grandfather fled Spain after the Spanish Civil War.) "It was such big example of propaganda."

At the second rally, a pro-Russia demonstration that took place last weekend, thousands marched with Russian flags, calling for a referendum for autonomy for eastern Ukraine. As happened with Crimea, it would be the first step to join Russia.

Russian TV channels, of course, covered it, as did Western media. But Ukranian channels?

"In Ukrainian channels, we didn't see this," says Cyril Cherkashyn, a junior professor of political science at Donetsk National University. "Only that a few separatists and tourists from Russia came to Donetsk to have a demonstration and have some meeting!"

"But now our mass media television channels give only only very specific information," he says. "Not real facts. Propaganada."

With its linguistic and cultural ties to Russia, most people in eastern Ukraine prefer Russian channels. But that doesn't mean they all believe all what they see on them.

Cherkashyn happily admits that Russia is not democratic and its media lies. "We know about propanganda on Russian channels," he says.

But, he counters, the Ukranian channels are worse: They pretend to be fair and balanced.

"The biggest problem for Ukraine," says Enrique Menendez, "is we have pro-Russian politics, pro-Western politics, but we don't have pro-Ukranian politics."

Pro-Ukrainian, he says would mean dealing frankly with the real debate in Ukraine, instead of each side accusing the other of being Hitler. Instead, he says, Ukranian TV channels are mostly owned by oligarchs who push their own political agenda.

These information wars are especially perplexing for people in Donetsk, who have, because of geography and culture, historically played both sides — their links to Russia and their presence in Ukraine. Menendez's marketing company has contracts with both Google and the Russian search engine, Yandex. There's an expression here: The smart calf drinks from two cows.

Alex, a police officer who only gave his first name because his supervisor hadn't given him permission to speak, said that until recently he wasn't very political, but what he sees as the blame-all-on-Russia rhetoric from Kiev is pushing him the opposite way.

"My family lives in Russia," he says. "I have brother in Russia. My wife, from Russia. Why we must fight with Russia?"

It's a question that millions of people in Eastern Ukraine are feeling forced by their televisions to answer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.
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