Sergey Vasiliev grew up idolizing his older brother. Alexander was the serious one, the better student, but fun-loving Sergey followed him everywhere, hanging out with his friends and treating his every word like the gospel truth.
The two also remained close as adults, even after Sergey left the Black Sea port of more than a million and moved 500 kilometres north to Kiev to start a construction business and be with his girlfriend. Then, four months ago, Ukraine’s political turbulence suddenly drove them apart. They reacted very differently to the pro-Western revolution in the capital’s Independence Square – the “Maidan.”
Sergey, furious at government corruption, charged to the front line in January, clashing with the infamous Berkut riot police. The solution to Ukraine’s problems, he had come to believe, lay in ripping up its Soviet foundation and lingering deference to Russia, and building something new, more European in their place.
This was anathema to all that Alexander, by then a prominent pro-Russian figure, held dear. When the uprising his brother had embraced succeeded, he began to agitate for a counter-revolution.
Three weeks ago, 46 people died here in a fiery partisan clash, but by then Alexander was gone. He had come under police scrutiny as a “separatist,” and in March moved with his young family to Crimea. When President Vladimir Putin announced that the peninsula had been annexed to the Russian Federation, he was delighted.
Now, the brothers live on different sides of Europe’s new Cold War – and a burgeoning conflict in Ukraine that Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a “civil war” on Friday.
The political divide is often portrayed as splitting the country along linguistic and cultural lines, pitting the Ukrainian-speaking and heavily Catholic centre and west against the Russian-speaking and Orthodox south and east.
That is how the Kremlin and its allies want the fight to be seen. But the real cause of Ukraine’s unrest is the one driving the Vasiliev family apart.
On Sunday, a much-anticipated presidential election will show just how sharply divided this country, which once had a population of 45 million, has become. Turnout is expected to be high in the centre and the west, where many are anxious to replace the interim government that has ruled since the uprising with a president who can stitch up the nation’s many wounds.
But voting will prove dangerous if not impossible in Donetsk and Lugansk, eastern provinces where government buildings are under the control of pro-Russian separatists. And this time the only Crimeans who will cast ballots are the ones who have fled to escape Russian rule.
Ukrainian-speakers know how they want the country to proceed, but there isn’t nearly as much unity among the country’s many Russian-speakers. In many ways, the violence in the south and east is less an inter-communal conflict than an intra-communal one, splitting the Russian-speaking population in two and turning families and friends against each other.
The tale of the Vasiliev brothers could have been torn from the pages of Taras Bulba, the famous Nikolai Gogol short story about two Ukrainian brothers who wind up on opposite sides of a 16th-century war against occupying Poland.
But if Taras Bulba told the tale of the early struggle for an independent Ukraine, the rift between the Vasilievs illustrates how split Russian-speakers are on whether, and how, they belong in an independent Ukraine.
“The main reason for our disagreement is that I think of myself as a proud Ukrainian. My brother thinks of himself as Russian because we are ethnically Russian, and Odessa has always been a Russian city,” says Sergey, 32, now married with an 11-year-old adopted daughter.
In an e-mail written from his new home in Sevastopol, the home port of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, Alexander, 35, insists that Ukraine is now in a “full-force” civil war. He despairs of ever again being able to visit his beloved Odessa, and worries that his brother and parents will find it difficult to come to Crimea as tensions in Ukraine turn more and more acrimonious.
The threat of violence is constant – two days ago, 13 Ukrainian soldiers were gunned down in a battle with pro-Russian militants near the Donetsk town of Volnovakha.