By Marc Champion (Bloomberg) – Olga Saminina is the kind of person in the kind of city Russian President Vladimir Putin might have expected to welcome his mission to rid Ukraine of what he describes as its “fascist” regime.
The 46-year-old director of the Berdyansk Commercial Sea Port in southeastern Ukraine is a Russian speaker. She was even born in Russia. Yet Saminina joined hundreds of others to stand in front of the regional administration building — guarded by occupying Russian troops but still flying the Ukrainian flag — and chant “Go home! Go home!”
“Russian soldiers have occupied our town. They thought people are going to be happy to see them, smile and welcome, but we are not,” Saminina said on Tuesday. “We don’t need Putin’s ‘help’.”
The reception in Berdyansk and in neighboring Mariupol, two predominantly Russophone cities that have benefited from Russian trade and tourists, captures how the invasion of Ukraine appears to have galvanized the nation of 41 million people rather than divide it further.
Also Read: American Pilot Refuses To Board Russian Ships
The port cities on the Azov Sea voted overwhelmingly for President Viktor Yanukovych before he was driven from office by pro-Western protesters in 2014. Mariupol was even briefly held by pro-Russia forces that year, when it was among cities targeted across the south and east of the country.
In local elections in 2020, they again voted for pro-Russia parties. Opinion polls — at least up until last week — still showed that people in the Ukrainian-held east remained least likely to support the country joining NATO or the European Union.
Those who do welcome the Russian forces may still be unwilling to show it, given the continuing conflict and heated passions. Yet so far there has been little, if any, sign of support in the towns Russian forces have taken, which carries long-term implications for Putin’s plan to install a friendly government to run Ukraine as a quiescent satellite.
Saminina spent most of her adult life in Kherson, another mainly Russian speaking port a 350 kilometer (210 mile) drive west of Berdyansk. Russian troops entered the city on Tuesday, according to its mayor, Ihor Kolykhayev. He said on television that officials are negotiating “green corridors” to deliver medicine and food.
Mariupol, a city of over 500,000 people, meanwhile was under heavy artillery fire and aerial bombardment. Its Russian-speaking mayor, Vadym Boychenko, was looked on with suspicion by pro-Ukrainian activists before last week. On Tuesday, he was on Ukrainian television describing the attacking force as “Russian Nazis,” accusing them of deliberately targeting infrastructure and shelling residential areas. Russia has said it does not target civilians.
The soldiers filmed in front of Berdyansk’s town hall didn’t react to the people chanting at them on Monday and, Saminina stressed, have not been shooting at civilians. “They don’t even change the flags because they now realize that everything they heard before was a lie,” Saminina said. “They were told we need them to save us to help us.”
Saminina said Ukrainians differ from Russians, regardless of what their first language may be, because they won’t be silent and don’t like to be controlled. She compared that to the reluctance of most — though by no means all — Russians to speak out against their government.
She’s now cut off her friends and relatives in Russia, saying they refused to believe anything that didn’t fit what they saw on Russian TV. “We are not going to talk ever again,” she said.
Saminina recounted conversations and her attempts at persuasion. “It’s like: ‘We are being bombed here! They are bombing civilians, even kindergartens, children are dying, people are dying!’” she said.
The response she got was “Nonsense, Putin is trying to help you.” Saminina gave up: “Are you stupid?”
–With assistance from Daryna Krasnolutska.© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.
Sign up for our newsletter