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In Ukraine's Rust Belt, A Mix Of Nostalgia And Nationalism

In the rundown Ukrainian town of Perewalsk, near the Russian border, 80-year-old Lida Vasilivna has just planted a garden. "Business just went belly up," she says about her town's hard times, after asking, "Are you gonna put this granny on TV?" (Ari Shapiro/NPR)

To say that the town of Perewalsk in eastern Ukraine has fallen on hard times would be an enormous understatement. The small industrial town near the Russian border is a collection of concrete buildings with no windows, falling-down houses and empty, abandoned factories; there's a chemical smell in the air.

In the middle of this dystopian landscape, there's an even more unexpected sight: an 80-year-old woman in a bright purple coat and headscarf, happily digging with a shovel in the dirt.

She introduces herself as Lida Vasilivna.

"This is basically my garden. I'm in a great mood today, because I planted onions and tomatoes," she says. "Are you going to put this granny on TV or print me in the newspaper?"

I ask her what happened in this town: Where did everybody go?

"What happened here in our Ukraine is what happened in the whole world," she says. "Industry, coal mines, everywhere you look, it's all in decline. Business just went belly up."

People in Perewalsk point to a specific year when everything started to fall apart: 1991, when the USSR broke in pieces.

And it's those memories, in part, that have led demonstrators in eastern Ukraine to occupy government buildings all week. They want to join Russia for a host of reasons: The region has deep ties to Russia through history, language and culture. And there are economic incentives, as are apparent in Perewalsk.

As I wander through town, I come across a building that would be a good place to make a zombie apocalypse movie: a dormitory from an old school where they used to teach people how to work in mines and metal factories. It's been abandoned since that fateful year, 1991.

Many people left for Russia when the USSR collapsed and the schools closed, recalls Alexander Tyshenko, an electrician who lives nearby.

He says there's only one working factory left in town, and it gives everyone lung disease.

If this area were part of Russia, Tyshenko says, maybe people's lives would improve.

"Our current government is just zero. They do nothing to make things better here," he says. "That's why locals go to Russia for work."

The border with Russia is just 20 miles away. That means Atlas — a combination restaurant, hotel and car mechanic — is in a perfect location, even though it's in the middle of this economic desolation.

Christina Bidylu manages the restaurant.

"When Russians cross the border, our hotel is the first one they see," she says.

Bidylu knows the area is bleak and polluted. Even today, she says, she was standing on the street and noticed her boots were covered in white factory dust.

But she doesn't think joining Russia will fix the problem.

"There are some plants that have been closed. But I can't say that they'll reopen right away," Bidylu says. "It takes some time, for factories to start up their production again."

Of course, there are plenty of noneconomic reasons that people in the area want to rejoin Russia.

In the nearby city of Luhansk, restaurant owner Alex Spivak sits outside of a building that's occupied by armed pro-Russian demonstrators.

Spivak says this is not about money, it's about returning home to Russia.

"I just want to live and work in peace on my own land. I don't want Europe or America telling me what to do. We are Russian people; we know by ourselves what to do."

There's one last thing I want to ask Spivak about: He's against capitalism, and against America. But he is wearing a Nike hat — and Nike is capitalistic, and Nike is American.

"And I will answer you," Spivak replies. "It is made ... in Russia!"

The crowd that has gathered behind him applauds.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In eastern Ukraine, pro-Russia demonstrators are still occupying government buildings in two cities not far from the Russian border. Ukraine's acting president said if they leave peacefully and give up their weapons, they will not be charged with any crimes. These demonstrators, like many people in the region, long to be part of Russia. And let's try to get a better understanding of why that is. Ukraine's east is closely linked to its larger neighbor by language, history and culture and also economics, as NPR's Ari Shapiro found out while visiting a small industrial town.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: To say that this town of Perewalsk has fallen on hard times would be an enormous understatement. There are concrete buildings with no windows, houses falling down, empty, abandoned factories and a chemical smell in the air. In the middle of this dystopian landscape, there is an even more unexpected sight: an 80-year-old woman in a bright purple coat and headscarf, happily digging with a shovel in the dirt. She introduces herself as Lida Vasilivna.

LIDA VASILIVNA: (Through translator) This is basically my garden. I'm in a great mood today, because I planted onions and tomatoes. Are you going to put this granny on TV or print me in the newspaper?

SHAPIRO: I ask her what happened in this town: Where did everybody go?

VASILIVNA: (Through translator) What happened here in our Ukraine is what happened in the whole world. Industry, coal mines, everywhere you look, it's all in decline. Business just went belly up.

SHAPIRO: People here in Perewalsk point to a specific year that everything started to fall apart. They say this town's economy began crumbling the moment the USSR broke in pieces.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANKING)

SHAPIRO: If you were going to make a zombie apocalypse movie, this would not be a bad place to do it. This is a dormitory from an old school where they used to teach people how to work in mines and metal factories. This has been abandoned since 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANKING)

ALEXANDER TYSHENKO: (Through translator) Many people left for Russia when the USSR collapsed, the schools closed.

SHAPIRO: Alexander Tyshenko is an electrician who lives nearby. He says there's only one working factory left in town, and it gives everyone lung disease. If this area were part of Russia, he says, maybe people's lives would improve.

TYSHENKO: (Through translator) Our current government is just zero. They do nothing to make things better here. That's why locals go to Russia for work.

SHAPIRO: The border with Russia is just 20 miles away. That means Atlas Restaurant, Hotel and Car Mechanic is in a perfect location, even though it's in the middle of this economic desolation. Christina Bidylu manages the restaurant.

CHRISTINA BIDYLU: (Through translator) When Russians cross the border, our hotel is the first one they see.

SHAPIRO: She knows this area is bleak and polluted. Even today, she says, she was standing on the street and noticed her boots were covered in white factory dust. But she doesn't think joining Russia will fix the problem.

BIDYLU: (Through translator) There are some plants that have been closed. But I can't say that they'll reopen right away. You know, it takes some time, for factories to start up their production again.

SHAPIRO: Of course, there are plenty of non-economic reasons that people around here want to rejoin Russia. In the nearby city of Luhansk, restaurant owner Alex Spivak sits outside of a building that's occupied by armed pro-Russian demonstrators. Spivak says this is not about money, it's about returning home to Russia.

ALEX SPIVAK: (Through translator) I just want to live and work in peace on my own land. I don't want Europe or America telling me what to do. We are Russian people, we know by ourselves what to do.

SHAPIRO: There's one last thing I want to ask about, and forgive me if his sounds like a rude question: you are against capitalism, against America, but you wear a Nike hat - and Nike is capitalistic and Nike is American.

SPIVAK: (Through translator) And I will answer you. It is made in Russia.

SHAPIRO: The crowd that has gathered behind him applauds. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Luhansk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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