Demostrators carry a giant Ukrainian flag during an anti-war rally in northeastern Kharkiv.
Credit: Sergey Bobok

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine — With Russian troops massing across the border ahead of a Sunday referendum in southern Crimea on joining Russia, eastern Ukraine is divided and on edge.

In one city, Donetsk, pro-Russia protesters killed at least one Ukrainian demonstrator and many more were injured when police failed to keep the two sides apart on Thursday. With reports alleging Russia is helping whip up separatist sentiment in this country, Moscow has warned that it reserves the right to intervene in order to protect the Russian-speaking population.

But not everywhere in eastern Ukraine is tense. Surprisingly, this industrial city of one million is an island of calm in the center of political turmoil.

Many people here criticize Russia’s actions and back Ukraine's European course, which is complicating the narrative that the country is evenly split between its pro-Russia east and European-looking west.

The difference between Dnipropetrovsk and other cities is partly explained by the new local authorities, especially the governor, billionaire Ihor Kolomoyskiy, who's taken a firm stand against separatism, but is also said to negotiate with pro-Russia politicians.

There are certainly plenty of Russians here. You can spend a day in Dnipropetrovsk and never hear Ukrainian once. Although street signs and official documents are all in Ukrainian, residents speak Russian full time.

Born in Russia, 46-year-old construction worker Vadym Stepanov has lived in Dnipropetrovsk since he was four.

"I still don't know Ukrainian language well, but I'm totally comfortable living here,” he said standing among a crowd of some 3,000 people protesting Russia's military actions last weekend. “I watch movies and TV in Ukrainian and understand them. If I have difficulty completing documents in Ukrainian, I have only myself to blame."

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Whether Russian should become Ukraine’s second official language has been one of the country’s main debates ever since it gained independence after the Soviet collapse in 1991. Some 17 percent of the country’s 45.5 million people are Russian. Up to 30 percent named Russian their native language, according to the most recent census in 2001.

Politicians often use language as an issue in their campaigns. The recently ousted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych promised to make Russian an official language during his campaign, but never did.

During last weekend’s protest here, some 1,000 opponents held a rival pro-Russian demonstration just two blocks away. Unlike in Donetsk, however, the two sides ignored each other.

Among the pro-Russia crowd, opinions weren’t unequivocal. Although most demonstrators applauded calls to separate their region from Ukraine and "restore Soviet authority,” many had less radical demands.

Natalia Romanova, 47, came out to show her disapproval of the new government in Kyiv.

"They’re leading us to Europe, to the EU, but Ukraine isn’t ready to enter it,” she said. “If we do, we will suffer so much. I don't think our city must quit Ukraine and join Russia, but we must have more authority to rule the city ourselves, not just take orders from Kyiv."

Those who do want Dnipropetrovsk to seek Russia's patronage said they’re motivated by fear.

The anti-Yanukovych protest that started in November created groups of armed radicals, many from western Ukraine. Russian media has waged a propaganda blitz claiming those nationalists are neo-Nazis who have taken over the government and are waging a violent campaign against Russian-speakers.

"Why is no one in the government trying to disarm them?" said Liudmila Simonova, a Russian-speaking protester.

Although she doesn't support separatism, she says she would if the government in Kyiv doesn't restore control over the streets.

This multinational city boasts other groups, including Armenians and Belorussians. The first victim of the clashes between police and protesters in Kyiv last winter was an Armenian native from a village near Dnipropetrovsk.

It also hosts Ukraine's second biggest Jewish community, which numbers around 70,000 and includes screenwriter Yevheniy Gendin, who supported the anti-Yanukovych protests.

In the Jewish comminity, he says, “no one is scared by nationalist protesters."

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