University of Rhode Island Professor of Political Science Nicolai Petro was on sabbatical leave in Odessa, Ukraine as a Fulbright Research Scholar during the start of the revolution in Kiev, Ukraine this winter. Unacknowledged by many media sources who turned to Petro for comment on the conflict was the fact that Petro’s wife and son were with him in Ukraine and witnessing the events of the revolution first hand.
Petro’s wife, Allison Petro, and son, Andrei Petro, a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, offered a firsthand account of their time in Ukraine. Street protesters in Kiev were protesting that the leadership of Ukraine did not seek the association agreement with the European Union. The country is divided between pro-European Union or anti-European Union activists. Odessa, according to Allison, tended to be anti-European Union, partly because it is a mostly Russian-speaking area.
“The east and the south tend to view the way things developed in one way, and the west and the center tend to view it another way and that’s what the division is all about,” Allison said.
According to Andrei, the west and the east essentially make up two groups.
“The south sympathizes more with the east, but the center, which is where Kiev is, sympathizes more with the west,” Andrei said. “There were a lot of easterners who were never a part of the Ukraine, who have been Russian speaking forever, and don’t speak Ukrainian… Most of these easterners don’t want to be Russian, they just want to be Russian-speaking Ukrainians, but the west views that as being un-Ukrainian… At this point it’s non-negotiable for both sides.”
Odessa was a calm city in comparison to other parts of the country. There was only one day of violence here.
“It was very limited but it was very tragic, so that reminded everyone that it could be happening at any time,” Allison said. An anti-Russian group of protesters Â Â began throwing Molotov cocktails at a building, which caught fire, resulting in the death of numerous people.
“An out of control riot, you would expect it would be destroying everything but it was very, very limited,” Allison said. “The businesses on the street didn’t lose windows, it was really kind of a shock to see that it was so limited.”
According to Allison, there were multiple news sources that people could turn to before the start of the revolution. Â There were Russian channels on Ukrainian television, Russian language Ukrainian channels and Ukrainian language Ukrainian channels, among others. After the change of government, many journalists were arrested or fired.
“The editorial bias changed literally overnight,” Allison said. “The same [journalists], if they were staying, were not reading the same kind of news analysis that they had been the week before… The truth is somewhere… but you have to watch at least both Ukrainian channels and the Russian channels to get anywhere close to what’s really going on and they just blocked it.”
Allison also said that even though the Russian channels had a more pro-Russian “slant” on things, they were not significantly biased.
“If people are saying there’s Russian propaganda and then there’s Ukrainian truth, that’s nonsense because the Ukrainian channels are owned by the oligarchs of the Ukraine,” Allison said. “They’re using those channels politically, they’re using them to get a certain message out that they want, and so there’s propaganda on both sides.”
The economy in Ukraine has suffered significantly since the initial conflict in Kiev.
“They’re wasting all of the benefits that they had and wasting time with all of this political infighting,” Allison said. “They’re not moving the country forward and it’s such a shame because the country has such potential and it’s such a beautiful place with such wonderful people.”
The eastern part of Ukraine has had a difficult time getting the basic resources they need. Allison talks about the importance of the recent Russian humanitarian mission to Ukraine, stating that people didn’t have access to their medications or to milk and dairy for their young ones.
“I would say there’s a lot of depression,” Allison said.
The people of Odessa are hoping that they can send the youth overseas for work and school. “It’s very frustrating to people,” Allison said. “They love the place but they don’t feel like they can really commit to it long-term because of the way it’s so unstable now.”
Andrei and Allison talk about the lack of understanding that the United States has about what is going on in Ukraine. “The U.S. policy right now is to see Ukraine as a battleground over U.S.-Russian relations and that’s very dangerous,” Allison said. “It really is a bad idea to hang our U.S.-Russian relations on whether Ukraine is a viable state because Ukraine has some serious internal problems and Ukraine is going to have to [determine its own destiny].”
Allison doesn’t think we should be so quick to blame Russia. She doesn’t think that Putin or the central government in Moscow is deciding what to do. Rather, she thinks they’re reacting to the unrest in Ukraine.
“I think that there is a true civil war going on, there are truly different interests in the country and they’re fighting over them,” Allison said. “There’s a lot of people in the country of Russia who sympathize with the Ukrainians who are fighting.”
Since the conflict in Ukraine has been going on for quite a while, it will be difficult to resolve according to Allison.
“The two sides don’t seem to be interested in learning more about each other,” Allison said. Â “[Though] there were some attempts while we were there and I thought that they were very worthy.”
“I think there will be peace probably in a few months,” Andrei said. “The government is in a very precarious position because militarily they’re very weak, financially they’re very weak, and so at some point they’re going to stop doing this because they can’t keep going.”
Allison says her family plans to go back to Odessa next summer.
“I like the city a lot,” Allison said. “You can’t imagine how cosmopolitan and how international it is, it’s just a lovely place… People there pride themselves on the fact that they’ve always gotten along. It was founded by a multicultural collection of mercenaries… There’s always been a large population of ethnic minorities… so they’ve always felt that it was important to have that as a cultural resource and they’re very positive about the mixing of cultures being a good thing… The problem now is that with everything getting more and more divided, Odessa’s role has really been sidelined.”