KHARKIV, Ukraine -- Communists and Russian sympathizers paraded through the streets here as they always do every May 1, in unison, dressed in Soviet red and carrying flags adorned with the hammer and sickle and busts of former rulers Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin. Veterans marched in shiny shoes and pressed blue-and-green uniforms, decorated with a myriad of medals, as grinning women clung to their arms.
A brass band played Soviet labor songs and classic ditties from World War II, to which the group sang out of tune.
In all, there were less than 1,000 of them marching this year in central Kharkiv – a smaller gathering than in years past – to Freedom Square, where leaders preached from a stage at the feet of the Lenin monument in Ukraine’s second-largest city with more than one million residents.
But this year, the messages from the stage and adorning the signs carried by participants focused less on workers’ rights and more on the crisis in Ukraine.
“Kharkiv must stand up and fight! We won’t be ruled by the junta government in Kyiv!” a man shouted from the stage, referring to the country’s new authorities, which came to power after the three-month EuroMaidan Revolution that ousted the former President Viktor Yanukovych. The crowd roared in reply: “Kharkiv – stand up!”
One after the other, like a skipping record, each speaker spouted off the same pre-packaged lines repeated in recent weeks by the Kremlin and the militants it has backed in eastern Ukraine who have stormed key government buildings and installed so-called “people’s governments” in Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk and nearby Sloviansk.
“The putsch Kyiv government is illegitimate!”
“Fascists and neo-Nazis are controlling the country!”
“The Russian language is being attacked!”
There was also a plethora of anti-American and anti-European rhetoric.
“The USA and EU hands off from Ukraine! US and EU take back your army!” read the sign of one woman, who refused to give her name. Asked about where she had heard that the armies of the U.S. and EU were in Ukraine, and if she could tell a Kyiv Post journalist their location, she promptly spat in the journalist’s face.
“American provocateur!” she shouted.
“You’re a Right Sector spy,” another called out, referring to the far-right nationalist group that played a notable role in the EuroMaidan Revolution.
One woman in the crowd, upon hearing two journalists speaking English, whipped out a camcorder and followed them, all the while yelling that they were Right Sector spies and should be nabbed for being traitors.
Lyudmila Ianova, a Kharkiv teacher, was at the rally with her friend Tanya. The two waved small flags of the self-declared “Kharkiv People’s Republic.” They said they were there to protest the anti-terror operation that has been carried out over the past week in Donetsk Oblast by Ukrainian security services and the military, and to voice their support for a referendum on May 11.
Asked what the referendum should be on, the two women had differing opinions.
“This is a referendum to become independent from the fascist Kyiv government,” Ianova told the Kyiv Post.
Tanya said she hopes the planned referendum will include the option of seceding from Ukraine, because “Russia is generally more stable. People have more money, and Kharkiv is a Russian city.”
Standing beside them two other women held a sign reading, “Sloviansk Heroes City,” referring to the embattled city of some 130,000 people in Donetsk Oblast that has been overtaken by armed pro-Russian militants. Over the past weeks, it has made headlines due to several instances of kidnappings and gun battles. Several journalists have been taken and remain held as hostages inside the city’s seized security services building. At least three people died of gunshot wounds.
As the Kharkiv rally went on, tensions escalated. By 2 p.m., several hundred rowdy protesters had moved from one end of Freedom Square to the other, where about 100 police in riot gear stood guard around the Regional State Administration building. In April, a group of pro-Russian separatists stormed the building, shattering several windows and breaking through its doors. On May 1, the windows still had not been swapped out; wooden boards hung in their place.
Several people from the increasingly unruly crowd ridiculed the police officers, some of which appeared to still be in their teens.
“Traitors!” one man shouted out.
“Who are you defending this for? Why are you protecting fascists? Your fathers fought in the Second World War to defeat them!” a woman cried out.
And then, nearly as quickly as it had begun, the tension subsided. By 4 p.m., most of those who gathered near the building had left. A few young men in Adidas track suits who had been at the front of the group and closest to the police still lingered nearby, but the threat of another storm had passed.
Kyiv Post editor Christopher J. Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter at @ChristopherJM.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.