In Ukraine’s coal-fired industrial east, some see a better past, and future, as part of Russia – by John-Thor Bahlburg (Associated Press/Montreal Gazette – March 12, 2014)

LUHANSK, Ukraine – Lidia Gany had some tea and bread, all she can afford these days for most meals, put on her duffel coat with the fake purple fur collar, and came down to the main square of this down-at-the-heels industrial city at Ukraine’s eastern edge to join fellow ethnic Russians in urging Moscow to send troops across the border and protect them.

“Only Russia can save us,” said the 74-year-old pensioner, crossing herself.

Since Russian troops rolled into Crimea, and lawmakers there scheduled a referendum for Sunday on whether to join Russia, the world’s attention has focused on the fate of the lush peninsula that juts into the Black Sea. But here in Ukraine’s coal-fired industrial east, where huge numbers of Russians have lived for more than two centuries, a potent mix of economic depression, ethnic solidarity and nostalgia for the certainties of the Soviet past have many demanding the right to become part of Russia as well.

“I’m for living in one country, with no borders, like we used to. Like the fingers on one hand,” said 60-year-old Lyudmila Zhuravlyova, who signed a petition asking for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military invention to stop “political persecution and physical annihilation of the Russian-speaking and Orthodox population.”

In Luhansk and other eastern Ukraine cities, some men have formed militia groups such as “Luhansk Guard,” the “People’s Auxiliary” as Russian news broadcasts swarm with alleged atrocity stories about attacks on ethnic Russians and Jews in Ukraine — helping to spur the secession drive and the anxieties that underlie it. The Associated Press and other international media have found no evidence of victimization.

On Sunday, in a possible portent of more trouble to come, pro-Russian demonstrators overran the regional government headquarters just off Soviet Street and forced Gov. Mikhail Bolotskih to sign a resignation letter.

“Among them were young aggressive people in an intoxicated condition, inappropriate condition, with bats, sticks, and it was obvious they were armed with some other kinds of weapons,” the governor, who is appointed by Ukraine’s central authorities, said Tuesday.

Bolotskih said he put his signature to the letter only to protect the terrified women, children and others who had taken refuge in the building out of fear of pro-Russian mobs. After negotiations that dragged on through the night, the occupiers left, and the governor was able to return to his second-floor office. Three burly Ukrainian policeman stood guard by the main staircase Tuesday.

Ukraine’s easternmost city was founded in the late 18th Century by Catherine the Great as a foundry to make cannon and cannonballs for the Imperial Russian Army. In Soviet times, it was home to one of the country’s blue-ribbon factories that turned out steam locomotives good enough to be designated “IS”— for the Russian-language initials of dictator Josef Stalin.

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